Muddle of brood meddling – round 2

Precious Hen Harriers. Photo: Ian Newton

Last year, Natural England licensed the daft idea of brood meddling of Hen Harriers. I mounted a legal challenge, and so did RSPB, but we lost in court. The judge decided that because this was a trial it was science and because of that it’s OK (that’s my layman’s take on it).

Both the RSPB and I are seeking leave to appeal this judgment because we think it is flawed, but that process takes an age and so Natural England is free to go ahead with their daft idea. A daft idea promoted by grouse moor owners, shooting organisations and Natural England and opposed by the RSPB, many birdwatchers and raptor enthusiasts.

We heard yesterday, and the same time as everybody else in the world (or maybe even later than some), that Natural England regards what they describe as the ‘stringent’ conditions for this trial to go ahead as having been met.

Quite why Natural England has not mounted a 24-hour guard at the nests in question (there would be plenty of volunteers, I’m sure) and informed all neighbouring land owners to behave themselves, is unclear.

I don’t know how many Hen Harrier nests there are in total in England this year, but it could be (and I really don’t know) that these two nests (because there must be at least two!) are the only ones on driven grouse moors. The scientific value of this trial is very dubious to my way of thinking and the conservation value is pretty much zero given that we all know that Hen Harriers fledged in England suffer massive mortality in the first few months of life because they are illegally killed on driven grouse moors. Brood meddling does nothing to reduce that risk – nothing.

So it is disappointing to see the new Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, whom I regard as a mate, talking up Natural England’s daft decision.

Here’s what Tony said:

Conservation and protection of the hen harrier is at the heart of what we are doing in licensing this trial of brood management. This decision takes forward but one element in a far broader recovery strategy for the species.

I say:

Come off it, Tony! How is it that this daft idea is opposed by the RSPB and the vast majority of raptor workers then? It’s the grouse moor managers, in whose midst lie the criminals who are responsible for illegal persecution of this bird, that support it.

And it’s stretching things a lot to say that this is but one element of a wider strategy. Remind us – what are the steps that NE is taking on the enforcement front? What are the steps that Defra is taking on the legislative front? Why has Defra not even responded to the crushing findings of the recently published paper showing that Hen Harriers face a 10-fold higher risk of death when flying over a driven grouse moor than anywhere else? How will brood meddling solve this problem? The real problem? The problem at the very heart of Hen Harrier conservation?

Tony says:

Natural England is ready to take the next careful step, aware that the licensed activity and the research will rightly come under close scrutiny from the scientists on the advisory group, from ourselves as the licensing authority and by those both supportive of and opposed to this trial.

I say:

I wonder who these scientitists are.

Tony says:

We, as an organisation, must pursue all options for an important bird such as the hen harrier, so that our children may enjoy this majestic species in the wild.

I say:

All options? Even daft ones?


13 Replies to “Muddle of brood meddling – round 2”

  1. I wonder if NE will be so brave as to fit satellite tags to the harriers when they release them?

    1. They are allegedly committed under the scheme to satellite tag all those young harriers thus treated. The Moorland Association have offered to pay for some of the tags. Who will own the data?
      It also worth remembering how long it took to get the other sat tag data from NE( blood out of a stone comes to mind) how long will they sit on this, forever if they can ?

  2. The most interesting aspect of brood management is that it (unwittingly) demonstrates the limits of Natural England’s ambition for Hen Harrier recovery. We know from the science that the English uplands should support around 300 pairs of Hen Harrier. Yet imagine how unworkable brood management would be if the population were left alone to recover to this level. It would involve the collection and rearing in captivity of many hundreds of young harriers, year after year after year, at unimaginable expense. And once the uplands support 300 pairs, where on earth would you release all these young birds?

    More realistically, for brood management to work, the aspiration must be to allow a small increase in the population to, say, 30-40 pairs and then prevent any further increase through continued illegal persecution. Then brood management could continue year on year without becoming unworkable. Those involved would try to portray this as a success because it is an increase on what we have now, even though it is still only 10% of what should be present.

    So, the concession of brood management has been hard won by persistent, organised crime over many years. And, even more importantly, it will need to rely of the continuation of organised crime in order to form a useful and workable approach in future. If anyone doubts this then they need to explain how brood management would work when harriers make a full recovery to the levels that the best scientific models predict. If Hen Harrier were truly left alone, as proponents of this approach argue will now happen, then it wouldn’t take very long for a population of 300 pairs to be reached. Asking how brood management could possibly work at this population level is not an unreasonable question at the start of this trial. It would be interesting to get an answer.

    1. Given the density they are using, One unmanaged pair per 3i4 sq km of suitable habitat this would result in a maximum population of 70-80 pairs in England. This is the figure promoted by the game shooting cabal. After that is reached they will argue for LETHAL CONTROL.
      What sort of precedent does this set for other protected” problem” species– Goshawks, Peregrines, Marsh Harriers, both Eagles, Goosander, Cormorant, Otter, Pine Marten. The whole thing is an unworkable bucket of ordure without any merit at all.

    2. You have pointed out some of the more obvious logical flaws with this scheme to which you will get no answer. I have been asking very similar questions since the madcap scheme was revealed.
      Perhaps someone needs to sit down face to face with the makers of these decisions and get to ask them these elementary questions. Surely the public have a right to know.
      There are many others. One is, why is the ONLY scheme being aimed at raptors only about HHs, what about all the other raptors being killed on grouse moors. What is addressing all the other problems associated with DGS. Why are they being totally ignored. It is a sop not just to the DGS but also the government. It makes them look busy.
      I think the answer to the question about what would happen if the scheme worked is answered by the always excellent comments by Paul Irving. The DGS lobby will apply for licences to kill any over a certain national threshold (c40). if they can do it with Buzzards..
      Of course it won’t get that far because they will be killed when they are set free but it is a massive logical fail to which no answer has been given. It is very much like the Raven cull ‘to see what happens’. It is full of flaws.
      Another one of the most obvious is that the whole scheme is based on a slight reduction on persecution. It starts with crime continues with crime and the goal is continuing, albeit a minute reduction, in crime.
      This is basic:
      1. If the scheme ‘fails’ it is because the fledged HH chicks have been killed.
      2. If it succeeds in the conservationists sense of the word, in that all the chicks and parents survive until next year and every year afterwards, there will be an explosion of Hen Harrier numbers in the uplands. The 300+ pairs would be reached within decades. Brood persecution couldn’t keep up. Everyone in their right mind knows that isn’t going to happen because the killing will continue, no other reason
      3. Somewhere in between. A couple of nests on DGM will be claimed as a huge success by the DGS lobby.
      So the reality is that 1 and 3 are the only options and both involve the acceptance of HH crime. The possibility of an end to HH crime is not even being seriously considered because the grouse lobby would never allow it. It would mean the end of intensive grouse shooting.
      It is obvious that the DGS lobby have thought this through. They will call any pairs being removed a success it doesn’t matter to them if they are killed afterwards, they will use the same ‘few bad apples’ and ‘faulty transmitter’ excuses as now. They have a huge publicity stunt under their belt and can go on killing behind the spin.
      What is not so obvious is, how has NE not thought this through. What is their rational plan. How do they see this being played out. They really need to sit down and publicly answer the questions. Not in a shouting match but they need to be forced to give rational answers. Can’t raptor conservationists sit down and get sensible answers from Tony Juniper. It is astounding that there has been no chance to get proper answers to the long term plan. If this is a trial (ha, ha) then what is the long term plan that the trial is leading up to. You don’t have a trial with no goal except where culling things is concerned.

      No one has answered what happens to the parents of these chicks? Obviously they will be killed.

      1. Anand, I think you have nailed it, how has this scheme got past the ” that won’t work in the medium to long term” thoughts we are all having, never mind the complete lack of science, true understanding of Hen Harrier ecology or simple straight forward morality.
        The whole thing does not stand up to scrutiny at all. Even if we read the protocol carefully which says that if a territory is subjected to BM, better to call it BR brood removal, this year it cannot be thus treated next year or in the rare event of the female recycling a second clutch this year.
        Do un-Natural England really think that 1. Any long heather or rushes in the vicinity of the nest where young have been removed will still be there next year, because they will be priority burnt/mown at the earliest opportunity.
        2 That the adults will still be alive to recycle or return next year because experience says they won’t be (especially in the area concerned.) Even if they were are we really expected to believe that if the scheme has any success at all that an increasing number of Harriers will we allowed to breed naturally on grouse moors because they were BR’d last year. I for one cannot see that happening.
        Another thing is we are told that when these birds are returned they will be kept in secure large pens before release to acclimatise to the site. How many places can supply such secure places without a 24 hour guard, I suspect very, very few. this puts costs way up.
        Remember, as no doubt licensing will remind the perpetrators of this travesty, this is NOT translocation licence so birds have to go back to the areas they came from.
        Much as we dislike, nay detest the whole idea and logic of the scheme, if they really were using it to really boost harrier numbers they would remove fresh clutches such that most females recycled and laid again. Then again which estates would tolerate this second nesting very few I suspect.
        The more we examine this appalling fudge the less workable it appears and the more clearly we see it cannot in all practicability deliver a remotely properly restored population. We keep being told it will work but only by the criminal apologists, one suspects that even the lame brains involved must surely see the weaknesses and failings we do, if not now very soon.

        1. Indeed, it won’t work. Those of us who have followed the history and background of this project know that it’s a smokescreen devised by vested interests and career conservationists wanting to be seen to be ‘doing something’, something that won’t upset the status quo! There is an inherent dishonesty in the way it is being reported on official channels, in any other context we would call it ‘spin’.

  3. I suspect that with this announcement, inevitable though it probably was what little credibility NE had left with raptor workers and Hen Harrier enthusiasts has now rapidly reduced to zero.
    It also seems almost in contempt of the law, the RSPB/ Avery appeals have yet to be agreed or heard, making this even more scandalous, if possible.

    The deed, as it were, has probably already have been done.

    To me as a harrier enthusiast and raptor worker of many years this feels as if I had a personal stake in this/these nest(s) and to my own surprise I am not only incandescent with rage but feel as bad as if the nests had been lost to persecution, bereft, powerless and exceedingly angry. How does that leave the relationship NE has with any of the organisations or individuals ( the majority) in conservation who are against this ludicrous scheme?
    There is no scientific or moral justification for this however NE choose to frame it and all those so called career conservationists and volunteers involved should feel suitably wretched. Even at this late stage, if possible, they should do the decent thing and opt out of this scandalous pandering to organised criminality on grouse moors.

    1. Your impotent rage, Paul, is entirely justified and is shared by many. We have been betrayed by the very organisation charged with protecting our wildlife and confidence in their future actions has been destroyed. As you rightly say it sets a precedent for many future manipulations of other raptor populations and I’m sure vested interests will not be slow to apply the pressure.

  4. In the past I used to be a member of a Medical Research ethical committee. I know this is not the same, but even so the basic rule of:-
    “First do no harm”
    is being ignored here.

    This trial aims to put chicks into cages and separate them from their parents at a time when the parents would normally be teaching them to become adult hunters. Before this trial is carried out how are the researchers going to show that the trial will otherwise cause no harm? They need to show that this trauma allows the birds to grow up as ready for the wild as wild raised chicks would.

    Ethically inexcusable.

  5. Reputational damage for all those involved in delivering this farce because in essence it would appear to legalise the illegal?

    Such endorsement of law breaking will only serve to widen the divisions and harden resolve.

  6. As you say Mark I too am disappointed with NE support for this crazy brood meddling. The root of the issue is the illegal killing of birds of prey by the shooting industry. It is those grouse moor owners who perpetrate these illegal acts and those that burn and destroy our upland moorlands and wildlife for their own profits that this government should crack down on.
    What a bizarre and dreadful mess it is, all to try to maintain this Governments vested interests.

  7. The grouse moor criminals are supported by our government.
    The only way to turn the tide on illegal persecution and all the other wildlife disasters we have in this country is to get ourselves a government that will turn things around.
    The Conservatives are no good for Conservation! We have to vote them out at every opportunity.

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