Brood meddling – a mad muddle

Yesterday Natural England announced that it had issued licences for Defra’s highly controversial Hen Harrier brood management scheme (but this blog by Raptor Persecution UK is a much better description of what is going on).

Natural England was once a statutory nature conservation organisation of high repute but it is no longer fit for purpose.  All NE staff should hang their heads in shame today, either because of their actions, or their inaction or simply because their organisation has moved beyond the pale. Those paid Natural England board members who regard themselves as conservationists should consider their positions.

So, what’s all the fuss about?  Regular readers of this blog will know, but it’s probably worth a quick summary. The Hen Harrier is a rare bird which ought to be much commoner but its numbers are greatly suppressed by illegal persecution by grouse shooting interests.  Hen Harriers eat mostly voles and small birds but they can reduce the numbers of Red Grouse which are shot for fun on upland heather moorland. Killing of Hen Harriers to protect grouse shooting incomes is systematic, ruthless and entirely illegal – it has been illegal for more than 60 years.

That is the situation and that’s not under dispute. Under such circumstances one would expect a government department responsible for nature conservation to be tackling the wildlife crime which has driven down Hen Harrier numbers but instead this government has colluded with the criminals and come up with a bizarre scheme called brood management.

Grouse shooting interests don’t like Hen Harriers and break the law to kill them but the government reaction is not to enforce the law, it is to give the criminals what they usually get through crime by a government-funded scheme which takes nestling Hen Harriers away from the grouse moors  and keeps them in cages during the summer months so that they are not fed grouse by their parents.  They’ll then be released back on the grouse moors later in the season (where they will be persecuted as normal). This is a taxpayer-funded scheme that gives the criminals what they want without them running the risk of getting prosecuted.

Defra is soft on crime, and not so much soft on the causes of crime but more like completely in bed with the criminals.  Natural England’s job is to plump up the pillows, smooth the sheets and supply hot water bottles.

This annoucement has stung the RSPB into using strong words to condemn it. The RSPB official Twitter account, @natures_voice, with 282,000 followers (that’s around 3-4 times the membership of the Conservative Party these days) said this late last night:

If you feel the same then please act today to send a strong signal to Michael Gove and Defra, and the strongest signal that you can send is to sign Gavin Gamble’s e-petition which calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

What will be the responses of the Labour Party? Liberal Democrats? Greens? SNP?



50 Replies to “Brood meddling – a mad muddle”

  1. ”Defra is soft on crime, and not so much soft on the causes of crime but more like completely in bed with the criminals. Natural England’s job is to plump up the pillows, smooth the sheets and supply hot water bottles.” Nice one, Mark.

    (It’s almost a brood menage a trois).
    Excellent summary AND, well done the RSPB at

    1. Murray – in Mark’s autobiography he said that he would support brood management if diversionary feeding failed. DF trials failed to resolve the conflict on Langholm Moor – yet Mark is now opposed to brood management. Priceless. Here to help. Andrew

      1. Andrew – you do talk rubbish. First, I haven’t written an autobiography yet but I guess you are talking about the excellent book Fighting for Birds. And I don’t say what you say I say – and anyone can check in pages 193-196.

      2. Well done Andrew, killing the truth again.

        The Langholm project showed that diversionary feeding reduced the number of grouse chicks that were taken into harrier nests to way below a figure that could have any effect on grouse shooting.

        The only failure is the fact that estates don’t want to do it because they claim it takes too much time of their keepers’ time. Or it could just be that the grouse shooters don’t want hen harriers (or any other protected raptor) on “their” moors.

        I wonder which scenario is more likely given today’s news?!

      3. True to form I see Andrew! We no longer have any faith that what you or GWCT says is remotely close to the truth. You have probably all eaten to much lead tainted meat to know the difference these days between the truth and anything else, or is just that you have fallen into the trap of believing your own spin.

      4. Andrew – if you are here to help, please give a referenced verbatim quote as to what Mark is alleged to have said re brood management of HH. I’ve checked pp 193-6 in Fighting for Birds and cannot find your assertion. Is there another book you are thinking of? Here to learn. Murray.

      5. Hope you can help me out here Andrew, but why is it that all the reps from the shooting n ‘conservation’ orgs manage to sound like twelve year olds when they are clearly middle aged?

  2. In a nutshell that’s a really good summary, Mark, of a really dire product of this government.

  3. There are people who are passionate about Hen Harrier conservation and see this as a good way forward. Firstly, if it works, we might have more Hen Harriers breeding in the English uplands than we do currently, so in pure population terms it could have conservation benefits that seem to be otherwise unobtainable in the current climate.

    Secondly, and probably more pertinently, it could be seen as an absolute last chance for grouse moor managers to get their act together. If this managed ‘solution’ is in place to provide reassurances about impacts on grouse numbers and yet persecution still continues then Defra will surely have nowhere else to go but to regulate. Moor owners will have blown their last possible chance of a voluntary approach, a point that the Raptor Persecution UK blog makes very well. This does rather back them into a corner and it will be interesting to see what happens next. Perhaps the Moorland Association will realise this and seek to ‘play the game’ but I’m not sure they have it in them and, even if they do, I don’t think they will be able to influence the behaviour of those directly involved in persecution.

    While I can appreciate the potential benefits, brood management will set a precedent that it is acceptable to artificially constrain the population of a rare species in order to benefit landowners. For me, that is too important a principle to concede, even given the potential payoffs of an increasing population or a higher likelihood of better regulation in the longer term. Yes, wildlife is sometimes managed to benefit other interest groups (including corvids, foxes, even buzzards), but all those species are common and widespread and under no conservation threat. This is very different.

    The one positive thing I take from this proposal is the contrast it offers with the proposed reintroduction. Brood management is about artificially constraining the population of a species that is already rare and threatened, for the supposed benefit of a very small number of individuals. Reintroduction is about trying to return to a more natural situation by restoring the hen harrier to places that it would already be present now if it wasn’t for human intervention in the past.

    1. Ian – the Moorland Association have been playing games for years, but not the game you are hoping for.

      Just one example on a long list would be Amanda Anderson at the parliamentary enquiry saying that she could see loads of birds of prey from her kitchen window in Bowland.

      And as you should well know, the HH Action Plan does absolutely nothing to address the rampant criminality on driven grouse shooting – what are NE doing about peregrines, short-eared owls, kites etc that the estates have all but wiped out from land that they control? F*** all.

      The only good things about this proposal is that it will make more and more people disgusted with grouse shooting and those that do it, and make more and more people realise how rotten NE has become, and make them more determined to work for a better solution for our uplands.

    2. Sadly yours and others view that MA have been backed into a corner may be true but is of little relevance here. MA are probably quite comfortable to sit in the corner for years.
      The scheme will last for a minimum of 5 years assuming that they can find nests to meddle with every year. The data will probably take a minimum of 18 months to analyse, longer if it goes into peer reviewed publications, even longer if it becomes the subject of another PhD. In the meantime MA can say look we’re working on this ground-breaking scheme with a load of other partners and we are so committed that we are paying for it. If, as in all likelihood, not enough data emerges to provide statistically significant data then they will argue for another 5 years and offer to pay for it.
      In the meantime they will mount a massive campaign to try change the political landscape back in their favour. Looks like quite a sustainable strategy to me and quite a comfortable corner.

    3. Ian in the first paragraph you state
      ‘Firstly, if it works, we might have more Hen Harriers breeding in the English uplands than we do currently’
      and later
      ‘brood management will set a precedent that it is acceptable to artificially constrain the population of a rare species’.

      That seems contradictory or at least at odds with your defence of the lowland introduction; that any increase at all is worth the effort and risk. But that aside:

      ‘If it works’ i.e. the MA get the criminals to obey the law, we would have dozens of Hen Harriers within 5 years and hundreds soon after. If the scheme ‘worked’ there would be no artificial restraint as the chicks would be released back into the uplands.
      Everyone knows this is about as likely to happen as Merricks sticking to his immoveable conditions.

      The whole scheme is a sham. As Chris Packam said it is a sop to the criminals.
      And as Pete wrote below, it is almost as though they are artificially breeding Hen Harriers for the guns. Maybe they charge extra?

      1. Prasad – Yes I take your point about the apparent contradiction. Perhaps ‘manipulate’ would have been a better word than ‘constrain’. I have a problem with such a rare species being artificially manipulated in the way suggested for the benefit of a small number of landowners. The trade-off is that if the scheme worked then we would have more breeding hen harriers than we do now. But for me the precedent established by allowing this kind of manipulation is too high a price to pay. And you make a good point about the longer term. If the scheme works and we have 100 pairs of Hen Harriers in the English uplands what happens next – an annual multi-million-pound egg/chick manipulation, rear and release programme that continues indefinitely? If it works it rapidly becomes unworkable!

        I see the lowland reintroduction differently because the releases would be undertaken with a primary aim of getting Hen Harriers back to places where they should be (and would be but for the past actions of humans) as quickly as possible. There would be manipulation but actually not that much. If it worked then after a few years there would be no more releases and the wild population established could be left to get on with it (advice to farmers not withstanding). A bit like with red kite and sea eagle etc, reintroducing these birds results in a more natural and less artificial situation because the birds that were lost through past human activities have been put back in place.

        1. There is no trade off however much you try to rationalise things. It is not about having a few more hen harriers in England. It is not really about hen harriers at all. It is about the rule of law applying to a section of society which has traditionally been exempt. Remove the fundamental problem and harriers from the productive areas of Scotland will rapidly repopulate England and the grouse moors of Scotland. Harrier productivity and dispersal guarantee that. It would be short sighted to be diverted by the promise in the medium term of a small increased harrier presence in England – entirely on landowner’s terms.

          1. Stevenson — agree.
            Apply the laws of the land (at some cost) and the laws of nature will apply (at no cost).

        2. ‘If the scheme works and we have 100 pairs of Hen Harriers in the English uplands what happens next – an annual multi-million-pound egg/chick manipulation, rear and release programme that continues indefinitely?’

          That is something that worries me most. I believe then they would have a licence to kill and that this is the aim of the MA. The whole premise is wrong.

  4. So will this prompt the RSPB to come out, no holds barred, for the e petition on licensing? Their favoured solution after all.

  5. Brood management has always been a total bloody nonsense in almost all circumstances. The proposals are such that even if the idea were more palatable the density proposed in this “Trial and who thinks it will ever change?” is 30 times yes 30 lower at one pair per 314 sq km than a density at which harrier behaviour would be normal and grouse numbers available to be shot would still be unaffected. The density chosen is based on the prejudices of the shooters themselves not even the pseudo science that is often claimed in these things. Harriers will only ever under it gravitate to “honey pots” sites. It sets a terrible precedent for the conservation of other species that may affect special interest groups. I accept that this may back grouse shooting into an even tighter corner as Ian says but hell they have been in that corner or the last chance saloon for bloody years and are sadly still breathing!!!
    I have always said that if push comes to shove and a nest I have an interest in is to be thus managed they will have to physically get me out of the way to do it and I will not be co-operative!
    This is officially sanctioned vandalism and criminality and should be resisted whatever the cost.

    1. I totally agree with you, Paul. As you rightly say it sets a terrible precedent for other persecuted species and on that ground alone it does not warrant any half-baked justification.

  6. I’m surprised that Michael Gove hasn’t stopped this – it flies in the face of what he is trying to do – pick the low and easy fruit (the ones that don’t cost money) to try and persuade floating voters that the Conservatives have something to offer on the environment. he has notably not pandered to the vested interests who will still vote Conservative whatever he does – so what is going on here with this sure fire vote loser ? Maybe he’d like to reconsider – or does he even know what his very traditional junior Minister is up to and how many potential votes are at stake (the 100,000 who signed mark’s petition actually matter in todays electoral arithmetic) ?

  7. Am I being too cynical in thinking that this is just a delaying tactic in the hope we’ll all have gone away in 5 years time?

    1. The trouble is that the 123,000 are already on board. It’s the remainder of the 1.2m RSPB members that are needed!

      1. Most of those 123,000 have already bailed on this to follow the next cause, Gavin Gamble has proved that. That is the problem. They have definitive proof that interest is waning. That is why it is easy for Gove to okay this, and why he might not have if the last data point was the 123,000; but it isn’t. The last data point is the anaemic Gamble petition not the successful Avery one. Thanks, Gavin. Hope your journalist career is worth it.

  8. This exercise will require funding? Where will that funding come from? Are the grouse shooting interests funding the exercise?

    If not then one assumes public funding, in which case then surely procurement procedures will apply? Who will independently assess and evaluate any applicants?

    There are so many procedural issues in here, if Defra are not compliant with these then there may be an opportunity for challenge?

    Step up Michael Gove ….

    1. Actually Moorland Association are funding it but exactly to what extent in terms of which elements and how many £££ is more or less opaque.

    2. RPUK writes that the MA is paying and from the documents the link to DEFRA estimated the 5 year trial costing £875,000.

      I find it very hard to believe they are going to do that without grants of some kind.

      1. Prasad, I don’t think that they are exactly short of a bob or two. Especially considering the amount of taxpayers money that they are in receipt of.

      2. So, can I invite the Moorland Association and or their allies at the GW[C]T, through this blog to confirm that they are fully funding the 5 years at the estimated £875,000?

        Are their backers really prepared to stomp up that kind of cash? Ok it’s only £175k a year and divide that between their membership small change, so there shouldn’t be a problem in them being open and transparent & taking the credit for such ‘generosity’ in the interests of HH conservation?

  9. While this whole affair is highly biased towards shooting interests and not the species in question we shouldn’t be surprised. NE and Defra have repeatedly shown they are nothing more than arms of the NFU and CA. From Hen Harriers to Badgers, protected species are nothing more than a nuisance to be done away with should their masters require the legislation to do so.

    Not fit for purpose and an utter disgrace.

  10. Sounds like a breeding programme to create more hen harriers for the gamekeeping fraternity to shoot, poison and trap. Where will these brood meddled birds end up? Presumably back in the same areas they’re persecuted

  11. Natural England’s proposal to officially collaborate with known criminals just makes my blood boil!

    Generations of Hen Harriers never to naturally rear their own offspring, and never to have been naturally reared.

    What might that do to a rare indigenous species just so that the filthy rich can continue to indulge in their unquenchable thirst for blood, provide meat poisoned by lead, cause severe water contamination and uncontrolled flooding of local settlements?

    Does Natural England propose to protect other raptors (or, indeed, other predators) also similarly criminally persecuted?


    1. I do agree, Keith – and your second paragraph is very sad.

      In fact, it seems unethical.

      Our Animal Interfaith Alliance will be writing to NE and we would like to use this sentence of yours, if you are agreeable.

  12. Whoa Mark, hang on a minute. “All NE staff should hang their heads in shame today.” What, you mean the staff who work in Cornwall? The invertebrate and plant specialists? Or the admin staff, on which any organisation relies to function?

    I get that your angry about this and I don’t blame you. But this kind of abuse of people is unfair – and don’t forget many will also be members of organisations like RSPB, and will be working hard for nature conservation in their own particular areas and specialisms.

    If I worked for NE, I’d be angry too, and possibly embarrassed. But that’s all I’d be.

    1. Andrew – no I meant it. You can’t completely distance yourself from the actions of the organisation for which one works. Just as everyone should feel corporate pride in success so should all share (not equally) in the shame.

      1. No, you can’t blame everyone who works at NE. I work there, and have only done so for 3 months. I don’t do anything related and I haven’t had anything to do with is. Why then should I hang my head in shame, when I do my very best and always have done for the natural environment?
        I agree on all of the article but for this point. This smacks of self-righteousness.

        1. You should feel ashamed to work for an organisation which rolls out such a clearly unethical and cowardly scheme. It’s a very simple concept to grasp.

    2. Andrew, this is not the first time that Natural England has betrayed our wildlife, when alternative, reasonable, working solutions were possible.

  13. The vandals in my local park keep wrecking the public toilets. I am going to fit gold taps and toilet seats to the loos to see if this stops the vandalism and if they get nicked, I am conducting a study on the sociology of the situation. If the vandals are happy about the fitting and theft of the gold, this will prove that the project is working.

  14. Yet another terrible action by this Government, Defra and Natural England. How ridiculous can you get to avoid taking action against those who kill Hen harriers and all the other wildlife on driven grouse moors. It is really a farce. It just confirms the comment I made the other day on May’s announcement on the Environment and wildlife, that the Tory party is incapable of protecting our threatened wildlife and environment because they have so many vested interests that work against this protection. Here is another excellent example of this where they will do anything to avoid pursuing the perpetrators of wildlife destruction on driven grouse moors.

  15. I would like to think that many of the Natural England staff are unhappy with this but from my own personal experience I think it is hard for people to change or influence those at the top of an organisation. And before you walk out in protest, many people would need to get another job. I share your anger, but would condemn those at the top really.

  16. Well it is obviously a delaying tactic that gives them five more years of illegal activity.
    Surely if Gove was such a do-gooder he would have stopped it.Maybe he has been given free Grouse filled with lead or else he is in the shooters pocket.

  17. Great blog again Mark.

    The HHAP is plainly bonkers and, given that I’m not especially prone to consiracy theories, I wonder why it’s still going. The evidence (from reams of FOI stuff) is that those mostly involved are genuinely committed to it, even if a visitor from Mars (or a Brexit bus) could quickly tell them that they are in a daft place. I suspect that what started as an idea in tune with a fashionably ‘sociological’ analysis of conflict in conservation hit the spot at the time. NE, possibly in desperation, bought the snake oil and have since got ever more caught up in the consequences both emotionally and practically. Unfortunately the snake oil salesmen are now also part of the governance of the project as well as potential beneficiaries of the ‘research’ expenditure.

    If this analysis is even slightly on the right lines, it might prompt different action than a belief that it’s all directed from above. In the end the sheer absurdity of the HHAP will bring about it’s end; but not quickly enough. That suggests ever-increasing scrutiny of the detail of the project via FOI. For example, how any research contracts are awarded and to whom they are awarded. Well done RPUK and others for pursuing this: it’s pretty grinding stuff. But I’m with Nimby on this. Transparency will surely destroy it before failure on the ground does.

    BY way of light relief, here’s possibly the first opera extract to be offered on Mark’s blog: Dr Dulcamara, offers his wares to the unsuspecting villagers in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore’:

  18. “Should any hen harriers be killed through illegal persecution during the trial, it will not be possible to know whether the bird was killed within or outside of areas managed by landowners supportive of brood management. This will constrain the ability to conclude that brood management will be effective at reducing illegal persecution”

    This rather surprising statement is included in the technical assessment of the licence application (page 16). Unless I am seriously misunderstanding this, the implication seems to be that if it COULD be demonstrated that any persecution took place on land owned/managed by owners not supportive of the project then the conclusion could still be that brood management was successful at reducing illegal persecution! Have we gone well and truly through the looking glass?

    It seems to me in any case that the trial is extremely unlikely to produce any rigorous, credible answers in relation to its stated aim “to assess if brood management could reduce the perceived conflict between hen harriers and grouse management and lead to a cessation in illegal persecution”. The decision to begin the trial whilst hen harrier numbers are still at very low levels will mean that sample sizes are very low. This and the fact that the grouse shooting community will presumably be bright enough to exercise a little more restraint than normal during the trial so that they can declare it a success, will surely mean that it will be extremely difficult to draw meaningful conclusions as to the likely effect on persecution levels when and if the trial is scaled up to full implementation of brood management. The technical assessment also refers to the very limited resources available to monitor the scheme (pages 15 – 16) which further undermines confidence that the trial will yield answers to the questions it is supposed to address.

    It is only necessary for one thing to happen for the hen harrier population to increase and that is for grouse moor managers to stop breaking the law. Brood management is a diversion and the wrong approach.

    1. Jonathan,

      I fully agree with you and draw your attention to Natural England’s ‘solution’ for overcoming protests about increasing trains speeds to 250% of known safe levels – through an important commuting and roosting tunnel and hibernaculum – which would exterpate a colony of thirteen species of UK bats.

      Bright illumination during the flight season to drive the bats away.

      Tests, however, showed up to 40% of any bats in the proximity were not so deterred.

      Nevertheless, Natural England duly provided a license.

      When asked – if monitoring showed the colony would not survive – would Natural England reimpose their previous speed limit, Natural England said NO.

      The license was unconditional and irrevokeable.

      When asked if the monitoring results would be made public, Natural England said NO.

      Such data was commercial and in confidence to Network Rail.

      By not having their previous speed limit reimposed, Network Rail ‘saved’ up to 46 seconds on the journey time from Oxford to London.

      The only reason I was able to get such categorical answers was because it was a Public Inquiry and I had the right to cross-examine the Natural England representative.

      Natural England did not look for any ‘solution’ to protect those bats: they carefully looked for a scheme which satisfied Network Rail’s economic activity at the expense of the colony of bats, but which could also be ‘sold’ to the unthinking and uncaring that they had protected the species (primarily, through the press, which they duly did).

      They decided upon their ‘solution’ following three weeks of meetings with Network Rail behind closed doors.

      I think that is analogous with what Natural England are now trying to do with Hen Harriers and driven Grouse shooting.

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