Brood meddling of Hen Harriers – where next?

Hen Harrier eggs. Phot: Ian Newton

The daft government brood-meddling scheme, one of the most controversial so-called conservation actions of my time in nature conservation has always been controversial but following the recent news on Hen Harriers it is in even greater trouble.

Brood -meddling (called brood management by its supporters) consists of removing young Hen Harriers from their nests, rearing them in captivity and then releasing them several weeks later in the general vicinity of where they were originally found.

It’s a scheme dreamt up by the grouse shooting industry, opposed by nature conservationists, implemented by this government, and licensed by Natural England. Grouse moor managers benefit because instead of risking being caught illegally bumping off Hen Harriers (the main threat to the species) somebody comes along and takes them away during the nesting season – so their parents aren’t feeding them a range of prey including Red Grouse and so there are more Red Grouse for people to shoot for fun after the Inglorious 12th August. Conservationists dislike the scheme because it gives the community from which wildlife crime emanates what they want and because it doesn’t solve the main problem – that Hen Harriers are gunned down on grouse moors all through the year, totally illegally, and in numbers that severely limit the UK and English populations. This government seems to have implemented it to appease its supporters who own and manage grouse moors.

The legality of brood meddling is under challenge. Natural England have licensed brood meddling and I, as an individual, and the RSPB have challenged the legality of the licensing. We lost our judicial review back in spring 2019 but have appealed, and our appeals were to be heard in the Appeal Court, in front of three judges in March this year but one of the judges was taken ill at lunchtime on the first day and we are still waiting for a rescheduled date.

The justification for brood meddling which Natural England have put forward is that it is an experiment – although Natural England can’t even get its story straight on that. It’s an experiment to see whether it is possible to raise Hen Harriers in captivity and, at the same time, it’s an experiment to see whether criminal behaviour changes when the criminals are given some of what they want anyway. Yes, it is very odd.

If you were a Hen Harrier, like one of this pair…

Hen Harrier food pass in mid air. Photo: Gordon Yates

… you’d just want to be left alone to gobble up Meadow Pipits, voles and Red Grouse as is your nature. Hen Harriers would not opt for brood meddling. A Hen Harrier would say ‘Stop mucking about! Stop the wiildlife crime!’ but that is not the government in England’s position. The Scottish government has not even thought about introducing brood meddling and are expected to clamp down further on wildlife crime by introducing licensing of grouse shooting this autumn.

But if this were an experiment, how is it going? Not too well.

  • the Hen Harriers are supposed to be removed from nests as eggs but in all three brood-meddled nests in 2019 and 2020 chicks have been taken. So the protocol recommended by the scientific advisory committee is not being adhered to. One reason for stipulating eggs and not chicks is that, by definition, chicks are later in the season and so with what does one compare the success of the broodmeddled nests? You can’t compare the success of nests with chicks in early June with failed nests with eggs in late May – the latter failed before the intervention took place. Also, the parents have already done more of the work so you aren’t giving the test of the technique much of a test are you?
  • the news that an armed man with a live owl decoy was reported in the vicinity of a broodmeddled nest and two other Hen Harrier nests in the Whernside area of the border between Yorkshire and Cumbria is not the type of intervention one wants in one’s experiment. We don’t know all the details yet, like the date, and whether a nest had been broodmeddled or not at the time of the incident. And we don’t know what would have happened if the Natural England fieldworker had not intervened and the man had departed. But it doesn’t sound as though the ‘changing the behaviour of the criminals’ was working in this case if the man was indeed attempting to attract a Hen Harrier to the live owl so that he could shoot the harrier. But the outcome of the nest was that no harm came to the birds. Should that be counted as a successful nest (which it was, post intervention) or a failed nest (as seems likely if the intervention had not happened)? And since we only had two brood meddled nests that question is very pertinent to the whole of this year’s results. As an experiment, it’s a mess.
  • further, the disappearance of a single male Hen Harrier which was provisioning two nests at the RSPB nature reserve at Geltsdale is problematic. Far be it from me to suggest that grouse moor managers across the north of England might possibly be trying to influence the results of this ‘experiment’ but I just wonder whether they are. If so, then reducing the success of Hen Harriers nesting off grouse moors may make brood meddling look better than it really is. Increased wildlife crime during the nesting season away from grouse moors makes the brood meddled nests look as though they are doing well. That couldn’t possibly be happening could it?
  • we’ve only got three brood-meddled nests in the last three years and this year one of them was the problematic ‘would it have been successful without intervention from a Natural England fieldworker’ nest.

Brood-meddling is ineffective because it takes attention away from the key issue of wildlife crime. This experiment is doomed as we are three years into it and already it is clear that nothing much can be learned from it. And I still contend that the licensing of this ridiculous so-called experiment is illegal in any case.

It’s time for the Scientific Advisory Group to advise that the experiment is doomed, and it’s time for Natural England to stop licensing it, and it’s time for DEFRA to address the real problem of wildlife crime being rife on England’s grouse moors.


16 Replies to “Brood meddling of Hen Harriers – where next?”

  1. As we all know brood meddling is a total farce. Its a bit like letting robbers carrying on robbing a house but removing some of the contents before hand and all the time this Government is standing by doing absolutely nothing to prevent the criminality and to catch the criminals. If it was robbers breaking into Tory MP’s houses the whole police force in the country would be mobilised.
    Natural England must know that brood meddling is totally wrong (what about the poor parent birds who loose their chicks?). It is high time NE stepped in and stopped this farce and its high time the Government passed draconian laws on grouse moor owners to prevent criminals operating on their land.
    However I am sorry to say that this is very unlikely to happen. This Government in Westminster and Natural England, their puppets, will still standby and do absolutely nothing.

  2. The idea that NE is in anyway independent on such a politically sensitive issue is simply wrong. Ministers make the decisions and pull back authority when it suits them – as with Defra directly taking over the general license. There is little NE can do – other than cock it up, which they are doing very effectively although I suspect through incompetent organistion rather than intent.

    1. If I am in a charitable frame of mind, I agree with you, Roderick. Surely not even a government body can be intending to cause harm?

      In so many spheres of action, they seem deluded. And having proven that, they then have the complacency and brass neck to calmly answer questions, either in Parliament or from journalists, repeating their daft delusional drivel.
      Ban brood kidnapping (as you say, Alan, poor parent birds) ban DGS tout court – and I don’t see why people should be killing any creature for pleasure, either.

    2. What ever anyone does to increase hen harrier numbers you can be certain Avery Packham and Tingay will opose it. None are genuinely interested in saving hen harriers they are just using these birds to further their left wing socialist political agenda.

      1. Mike – you said that before, but you seem rather light on evidence. Just explain to us all how opposing brood meddling advances a left wing socialist agenda please – and if you never respond to questions like this one then you may find it difficult to post your own rude comments here.

      2. Remember how Tim Boner and the tweed disease (good name for a band!) threw an almighty tantrum when “lefty, sandal-wearing tree hugger” Tony Juniper was appointed chair of NE. We don’t hear them whining about his “left wing socialist political agenda” lately, do we?

  3. Brood meddling is just plain wrong. There was a time when some conservationists thought it might work under specific circumstances, when there was a healthy harrier population genuinely impinging on grouse stocks in specific areas. However it soon became very clear that the grousers wanted it from day 1, even if there were just 2 pairs in the whole of England but they were on the same moor. Thus proving all the discussions pointless. After that the current protocol was incorporated into the current plan, the discussions for which, had no raptor worker input.
    Its a joke we are rewarding criminality with this scheme, originally it was said that if persecution continued the scheme would stop yet in the last couple of years we have “lost” 43+ harriers almost certainly all to persecution. It cannot be as the Grousers want as with population growth of harriers there will soon come a time when capacity is reached as it is very likely no more than 5 or 6 broods can be thus managed. What then?
    Because killing continues the scheme has already failed and it is worse than we think. We have the criminal incident this year man + gun and live decoy owl. Last year in North Yorkshire a nest was brood meddled with the paired nest allegedly fed. Why was it fed? it didn’t need to be and there were two, possibly three other nests in the near vicinity which all failed with the classic hall marks of persecution, so the scheme didn’t make any difference to those nests the criminals still did them! Indeed I have it on good authority that most estates in that area (Nidderdale AONB/ south eastern YDNP )are totally opposed to BM and would rather the estates involved just did what used to happen to these nests— get rid. So the scheme is not changing attitudes. At the moment we are in a cleft stick, if the scheme folds as it should, all these nests may need constant surveillance to succeed. There is no doubt the scheme is wrong headed and is failing to tackle the scourge that is persecution and we need government to kill it and place the onus on protection of nests, the detection of crime and prosecution. My own view has long been DGS should be banned and in the meantime penalties must increase, I think moors where nests are provenly lost or nearly lost to crime should be confiscated from their criminal owners.

  4. It’s a class thing , country folk hate townies telling them what to do , from the Royal parasites down to lords and conservatives to masons and chiefs of police who all get a free invite to the shoot , unless the class is issue in the Uk is addressed ( broken down ) all wildlife is Fucked

    1. Got to say I do agree that there is a class component to this. Whilst large areas of land are the exclusive domain of self entitled rich people who have power, with their full purses and connections, over the politicians, things will continue as they are. With this situation why would they change, yes maybe some token dosh might be thrown at the PR problem, maybe a few more police in the wildlife crime units, maybe some ‘kick the can down the road’ actions such as the brood meddling plan. Without land reform or something such as a land value tax it is going to be a long slow process. Having said that there is every reason to support WIld Justice, fight for a ban on DGS and expose NE and DEFRA as the tools they unfortunately have become, maybe always been in the case of DEFRA.

  5. Well, the title of the blog asked “where next?”, in my mind the whole Harrier meddling thing is such load of perverse Orwellian / Kafka-esque bullshit…that I wouldn’t be surprised if they hailed it as a glorious success just to allow it to be rolled it out for other species. Mark, you are dead right that keepers and Estates are more nervy these days about bumping off Harriers, purely because of tags. And surely it is the grim tag data-maps that has shamed the industry’s high-level Establishment supporters into forcing this “solution” onto NE. If the same high percentage of Peregrines, Ravens and SEO’s were tagged as currently are Harriers, their respective persecution maps would show the same undeniable story – and I bet the same Establishment sponsors would press for brood-meddling for those species too.

    1. I think you are right about all other predatory birds in our uplands, if the BM thing is deemed a success after its 5 year trial period will the grouse cabal push for quotas of other species that are protected but they think of as “vermin,” quite possibly so and we must at all costs resist it.

  6. p.s. to my above comment. Has anyone ever considered fitting “dummy” tags to Buzzards? And maybe one in fifty could be real tags? Just to make them think twice when raising the gun and spotting the antenna on a soaring Buzzard? Or to make them curse and sweat a bit when they bend down to pick up the corpse and see the tag, not knowing if it is real or a dummy. I say this because quite rightly the focus is on Harriers as they face (English) extinction, but the effect of sat tag data-shaming would be relatively greater from using Buzzards, where I bet nationally a bare minimum of a hundred are killed illegally per day.

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