The secretive Hen Harrier study – the story drags on

For ages, and ages, and ages our big brother of a blog, RaptorPersecutionUK and this blog have been asking NE when they are going to publish the results of their long-lasting Hen Harrier study.  One of my first blogs on the subject was back in May 2012 when I was barely out of short trousers.

Through persistence, we’ve learned a little since then – but not very much. Here are some other significant steps in the story.

Lancashire’s Bowland Betty bites the Yorkshire dust, 12 December 2012.

Natural England – are you still there? 29 September 2014

When will Natural England come clean on the results of their (ie our) Hen Harrier study, 31 August 2015

Our Hen Harrier study, 24 September 2015

Review of English sat tag data narrowed to zero species, 31 August 2016

NE use at all?, 13 October 2016

RSPB ask for the NE data, 3 February 2017

All those tagged raptors, Moll, 7 September 2017

After all this pressure, NE actually released a few data – see Those NE Hen Harrier data, 27 September 2017

NE don’t know much about their study, 24 November 2017

Dear Mr Gove! Wake up to this mess! 14 February 2018

Open letter to Andrew Sells, 14 May 2018

Now that last blog was treated as an FOI request by NE and they responded to the question about when we would all hear the results of the Hen Harrier work that we had funded as follows:

1. Please tell me when that analysis [of the Hen Harrier tracking data] will be available to the public?
The Hen Harrier tracking data is currently being analysed by leading raptor experts and will be presented at the International Ornithological Congress in August. Following this we intend to make the Hen Harrier data available to the public through a suitable format.

NE response to an FoI request received by me (whilst abroad) on 11 June and posted here on 13 June from Oregon, USA

Now I took that to mean, and you tell me whether you would have thought the same, that the results would be revealed to an expectant world, tomorrow, in Vancouver and the raw data would be made available shortly after. Vancouver is 4,666 miles from my home by the great circle route and I checked my Premium Bonds but they hadn’t come up in August so I wrote (jointly with RPUK) to the authors of the paper and asked them when they’d be able to tell us (and we could tell you) about their exciting findings. To cut a long story short, the answer was ‘not for months’ which didn’t seem to fit with what NE had told me in repsonse to an FoI. I was told that even if I were sitting in the audience in Vancouver I wouldn’t be allowed to tell the world about whatever the findings were…

However, before I got in touch with the authors I had taken the precaution of asking NE:

What plans does NE have to publicise the results of the analysis of its Hen Harrier data that will be presented to an ornithological conference in Vancouver, Canada on 25 August 2018?

An information request to NE from me on 5 August

…and got this reply…

Thank you for your email dated 5 August 2018.
It is Natural England’s intention to make increased resolution data for the last known good fix, as used in the analysis available shortly after the presentation through the GOV.UK website.

NE response on 16 August

That doesn’t really answer a perfectly reasonable question, does it? The question asks about the results of the analysis, and the answer only mentions the data.  So, it seems that the findings of the 14+ year study that you and I funded are going to be presented in Vancouver tomorrow but under an embargo of silence and there is no date set for you to know about the analysis that has been done. And that far from the data being made available, it is now only the last fix that will be disclosed some time in the future.

So, unless you have a mole, a talking mole, in the room in Vancouver when the talk is given, you won’t know any more tomorrow than you do today.

It doesn’t feel to me that NE has been straight with us all – but that hardly comes as a surprise these days.

I have very recently been told by a someone close to NE that they expect rather more to come out tomorrow so we’ll have to wait and see.  If it does, then it is possible that the pressure, over the years, and months, and weeks and last few days, exerted by RPUK and this blog have paid off.  If it doesn’t, we did try!


18 Replies to “The secretive Hen Harrier study – the story drags on”

  1. We’ve come a very long way since NE published “A future for the Hen Harrier in England” in 2008, which currently sits on my desk beside me ( and yes Mark I now have almost ALL that data). In some ways the data in any study belongs to those who gather it, well no not really, that is true of data gathered in our own time. The NE data is paid for through taxation out of the DEFRA budget so I suppose belongs to DEFRA/ NE but paid for with “our” money. So surely they have gathered it on “our ” behalf. One would have thought so yes, its not as if it effects national security or is commercially sensitive, its about birds, rare birds, made rare we believe by illegal persecution. This work is supposed to elucidate the biology of the species and show where, when and how the problem both arises and hence how it can be solved, so far so good. However and its a very very big HOWEVER, the people who do the presumed persecution are very probably working on the grouse moors of the rich and famous, some of them very rich and some very famous or is that infamous. The current government is supported by these people and probably not just with votes, so despite this whole study being originally set up under a Labour gov’t the current Tory gov’t doesn’t really want us to know the results because it might be embarrassing for their friends and hence themselves as “We” the public may and indeed do expect them to do something effective about it.
    The very lack of transparency here and unwillingness to allow the data and conclusions of this study into the public domain can only mean we are right about all the things we believe about Hen Harriers and grouse moor management. Yet we are relatively powerless to influence outcomes without the knowledge contained in this work and they bloody know it. In other walks of life or in other countries we call this a national disgrace and vested interest corruption, note that word CORRUPTION.

  2. Are they really allowed to embargo results presented at the conference? Sounds utterly ridiculous.

    1. Yes, I am struggling with that concept too. Surely if anyone is proposing to present something at the Congress that will be under an embargo of silence then the organisers should tell them to piss off?

  3. Maybe the result show conclusively that the Hen Harriers have been abducted by extraterrestrial lifeforms intent on conquering the world and the data is now protected under the official secrets act, to prevent widespread panic.

    Lets face it this is only slightly more far fetched than other reasons provided for disappearing Hen Harriers.

    1. Mike – I love it!

      I am hopeful that the paper will put an end to a lot of the nonsense spouted by grouse moor interests. It’s a pity that it seems as though it will be, or might be, or maybe won’t be a secret for a while longer.

  4. The relevant presentation is presumably the one published on the conference website titled: ‘The dead tell no tales – but perhaps their data tracking can – Exploring associations between disappearing hen harriers and grouse moor management’ by Amar et al. The abstract published on the Conference programme says:

    “In the UK, the hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) is the focus of a controversial conflict between raptor conservationists and grouse moor managers. Large areas of the uplands are managed for the recreational shooting of red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus). Managers of grouse moors sometimes illegally kill hen harriers because of the threat they pose to their grouse stocks, and the scale of this persecution is such that it may limit this species’ numbers and distribution. The issue is particularly severe in England, where the species has almost disappeared as a breeding species. One problem, however, is that it is very challenging to quantify the level of illegal killing because it occurs in very remote areas. In an attempt to quantify this behaviour, 59 young hen harriers were fitted with satellite transmitters over 10 years. Around 60% of these birds disappeared without trace within the first 6 months of life, possibly as a result of human interference. In this talk we will present an analysis of these data, explore where and when the failures occurred and examine whether the probability of a tagged bird disappearing without trace was associated with land managed for grouse shooting.”

    1. Michael – that’s the one. I’m looking forward to discovering the answer to that last question.

  5. Surely someone who reads this blog and is concerned, knows someone who will be attending that conference? They could ask them to record the presentation on their ‘phone and pass it back? This wouldn’t be illegal or impractical would it?

  6. Looking forward to reading the paper by Amar et al when it’s published, but in the interim let’s not forget that ‘Status of the Hen Harrier Circus cynaeus in the Uk and Isle of Man in 2016’ published in this issue (volume 65, Part 2, May 2018) of Bird Study is worth a (re-) read as well. It pulls no punches about ‘alleged’ reasons for status decline.

    1. Absolutely, James – it dropped through my letter box just this morning. Among lots of good things, the bit that stood out for me was:
      ‘Hen Harrier numbers on grouse moors in Scotland declined significantly by 57% between 2010 and 2016, meaning a noteworthy fall in the proportion of the Scottish population using this habitat in this period from 30% to 14%.’
      So only 14% of Scottish HH breed on grouse moors – so much for the claim that if it weren’t for grouse moors there would be no HH in Scotland.
      I really don’t know why anyone pays the slightest attention to all the stuff spouted by shooters – it’s nearly all total nonsense.

  7. In a word, no! A conference presentation is exactly that, a public *presentation* of research. The authors can (and often do) ask people to refrain from sharing photographs of slides, but anybody in the room would be perfectly within their rights to describe the contents of the talk verbally or in writing. If it’s not ready for public sharing you don’t present it at a conference – simple.

  8. I sometimes wonder if I am really living in the UK. It feels more and more like a duplicate North Korea, with the state controlling everything I might possibly wish to know, no matter how innocent.

  9. Mark

    Thank you so much for your persistent, tremendous, thorough investigative work. It’s an outrage the way that Defra is conducting itself.

  10. Mark, just so you know, “likes” appear not to be working again (not working for me anyway).

    1. jbc – hmmmm – thanks – I’ll add it to the list of things that seem not to be working very well at the moment.

      I assume that is ‘likes’ for comments as ‘likes’ for posts seem OK?

  11. Likes for posts result in a (..) notation that never refreshes – maybe it eventually counts, maybe not, can’t tell. Strong disincentive to bothering to like or dislike a post, anyway!

    Dis/likes for comments – clicking on dis/like for a comment simply has no effect at all as far as I can see.

  12. As someone who was at the talk, all I can say is that the science is rigorous and the results very important. I don’t think the tone of this blog is helpful though. Let the science speak for itself.

    1. IOC – it is because I expect the science to be rigorous and the results very important that I’m interested. If I thought they were complete rubbish then why would I be interested? And even the raw data of last fixes (now released for the first time after the talk ) tell a very interesting story.

      Natural England have covered up these data for years. They then provided a misleading response to my question about them. As we now know.

      You haven’t supplied a valid email address so I could ignore your comment but I’ll post it anyway (this time).

      Your IP address does indeed appear to come from the Vancouver area. You’ve chosen to remain anonymous. Should I take it that you don’t have a high personal regard for openness and transparency?

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