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…
… 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.