The excellent Raptor Persecution UK revealed yesterday that all five of the brood-meddled Hen Harriers from last year are missing. Maybe one or two will spring back to life but it isn’t looking good. What a mess!
Brood meddling is an idea cooked up by the grouse shooting industry and licensed by Natural England, but opposed by the RSPB and most others closely involved with raptor conservation in the UK. It was agreed by DEFRA in 2016 when Rory Stewart was the relevant minister as part of the government Hen Harrier plan. Because Hen Harriers eat adult Red Grouse and their chicks, and because grouse shooting is a prized hobby for a small group of people where every Red Grouse shot by a gun is worth c£75, this wonderful bird of prey is regarded as a pest. The Hen Harrier is fully protected by law but is routinely killed on grouse moors across northern England and Scotland. The scale of the criminal activity is high and means that the number of Hen Harriers that nest in the UK is way, way below the expected number; it’s around 500 pairs instead of around 2,500 pairs. With most criminal activity, society decides to catch the criminals and bang them up but in this case government let the criminals have their own way and dressed it up as a conservation plan.
The flawed brood meddling plan goes as follows; grouse shooters kill Hen Harriers because they eat Red Grouse but if we could get rid of the Hen Harriers legally we wouldn’t have to kill them so let’s remove them from grouse moors, rear them in captivity and slip them back into the uplands later in the season. You can see how grouse shooters benefit from this; they get rid of a ‘pest’ nesting on their grouse moor without having to break the law. It’s rather difficult to see how Hen Harriers benefit from this as when they are released from captivity they are subject to the same perils of illegal killing as ever. Satellite tagging by Natural England shows that fledged Hen Harriers are subject to massive levels of illegal killing, on grouse moors in northern England and brood meddling doesn’t address this problem.
So instead of being killed at the nest, brood meddling allows Hen Harriers to be kidnapped and then they are released back into peril a few weeks later if they survive the meddling process.
The prize we are all told will come from brood meddling is that an industry that is steeped in illegal activity will put illegality behind it. Well it could work like that, but many of us said that it probably wouldn’t, and so far the evidence is on our side.
Since the government signed up to the grouse shooting industry’s plan the main step forward for Hen Harriers has been the establishment of a small regular breeding population in Northumberland and just over the border in Scotland where massive efforts are made to protect the birds and the birds are wise enough to nest on Forestry Commission land. This is a success for old-fashioned nest protection and nothing to do with brood meddling. Also, last year on those parts of the Forest of Bowland that are not grouse moors, similar protection efforts seem to have protected another small enclave of Hen Harriers. This is nothing to do with brood meddling.
We have not seen a significant rise in Hen Harriers nesting on grouse moors as the industry promised government, and as government says will happen.
Only one Hen Harrier nest has been brood-meddled to date – well, there aren’t many on grouse moors because the birds aren’t allowed to survive still. And now we learn, not through a Natural England report on the project, or a DEFRA press release but from constant probing by Raptor Persecution UK, that all five of the brood-meddled Hen Harriers from last year are missing, presumed dead (but since dodgy tags are being used (another big fail for the project) nobody can be completely sure).
I am personally completely against this brood meddling plan. Indeed, I am so against it that I have taken legal action to try to stop it and that action continues (at a snail’s pace, I’m afraid). But there would be a version of brood meddling that would have got my support and which was suggested when government signed up to the grouse shooting industry’s plan. And that would be to make brood meddling conditional on there being a certain number of Hen Harriers nesting in England, let’s say 50 pairs, but not before. That way there is an incentive for the criminals to be less criminal, and they are all in it together as any rogue estates queer the pitch for everyone else. In this scheme, brood meddling is a concession dependent on good behaviour. And in that case we would be sitting back now, drumming our fingers and saying, ‘No chance, still way under 50 pairs. Clean up your act and we’ll see.’.
Natural England has dug themselves into a hole by licensing this dft idea and by trusting the untrustworthy grouse shooting industry, and I expect they will keep on digging. It will be interesting to see whether they now say anything public about brood meddling. So far, Tony Juniper has supported this daft idea but now the fate of the first brood meddled birds is revealed he needs to rethink.
In a letter dated long after the fate of these Hen Harriers was known to Natural England and presumably DEFRA too, the Secretary of State, George Eustice, ploughed on regardless with his support for his predecessors’ Hen Harrier plan of which brood meddling is the most contentious and useless part;
The long term plan was published in January 2016 and we believe that it remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in Englandletter from George Eustice date 2 June 2020
Here are a couple of quotes from a senior police officer working in this area;
I am absolutely shocked and disgusted at the level of raptor persecution that I am coming across
All the shooting investigations we have ongoing at the moment involve gamekeepers on grouse moorsChannel4 News 29 May 2020, Inspector Matt Hagen of North Yorkshire Police