Natural England has been forced into some wise back-tracking which they call clarification and some unconvincing verbal contortions through the pressure put on them by blogs such as this and the social media storm into which they often blunder. They are, after all, No-Mates Natural England.
Their attempt to shore up their reputation came in the shape of a blog by their Director of Licensing & Enforcement Cases, Dave Slater. The fact that Natural England felt they should write such a blog is a testament to the mess they are in. Mr Slater’s previous blogs include one on Hen Harrier brood -meddling where, despite being in charge of licensing, he got the facts about Natural England’s excuses for brood meddling wrong (see here) and his famous blog about how great it is for Natural England to license the removal of Peregrine Falcon chicks from the wild. He is also heading up, I presume from his title, all the cases of controversy that Jason Endfield has highlighted in his blog, and of the 2019 licensing debacle (which one you ask?) of which I gave you a taster yesterday and about which you will hear more on Monday morning. That’s Mr Slater. If Mr Slater isn’t completely carrying the can for Natural England’s shambles over licensing then he must, at least, have his hand well and truly on the handle of the can along with some help from others above and below him in the Natural England hierarchy.
I have now passed the point where my default position with Natural England is ‘I expect they just cocked up this time. Everyone does it sometimes.’ to a position of distrust and suspicion fuelled by many many incidents and personal experience of the way that Natural England has responded to events, to Wild Justice and to me. Once trust is lost, then it is difficult to regain (and so it should be). With that background, let me examine Mr Slater’s blog in some detail.
Natural England’s position on illegal persecution of Hen Harrier
Mr Slater says;
Natural England is in no doubt that illegal persecution is the reason that Hen Harriers are such a rare breeding bird in England despite the apparent availability of suitable breeding habitat. Our research has proven the link between the disappearance of Hen Harriers and land managed for Grouse shooting.https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/17/clarifying-natural-englands-position-on-raptor-persecution-and-recent-media-coverage/
Perfect! And the clearest account of that position in my mind since that very work was published in 2019 and much stronger than the Natural England statement by Rob Cooke on the day. But the reason that Natural England has issued this clarification is that just over two weeks ago they used these words;
Although persecution is thought to be the main factor limiting hen harrier numbers in England, other factors including the suitability of local habitats and food availability are also significant in some areas.https://markavery.info/2020/09/03/natural-england-defra-press-release-hen-harriers-have-record-breaking-year-in-england/
…which are much weaker. And those original words, of course, remain on the ghastly GOV.UK website unchanged and were the basis for much media coverage at the time. With all respect to Mr Slater and his blog, his welcome clarification of Natural England’s position won’t have been quite as prominent as the original weak statement and press release. But it’s welcome all the same. Natural England, please stick to this version from now on.
Natural England working with grouse shooters
Mr Slater goes on:
It is though important to note that not everyone involved in the management of land for Grouse is implicated in this persecution. We work very closely with a number of upland estates and we gather a lot of our intelligence on nest and roost sites from gamekeepers. It is our firm belief that we should work positively with those estates who want to work with us, while at the same time take a hard line where there is strong evidence of persecution. I have recently expanded my enforcement team and will be looking to work with the police and the RSPB in any prosecution where the evidence supports action.https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/17/clarifying-natural-englands-position-on-raptor-persecution-and-recent-media-coverage/
This is a sensible summary of a general case of the need to work with the good guys and clamp down on the bad guys. But there are some difficulties in placing Natural England’s actions fully in this framework. First, it kind of suggests that Natural England knows who the good guys are and who are the bad guys. Do they? Which are the estates with a long history of hosting Hen Harrier nests in the last decade – they would obviously be good guys. In the public domain the only contenders are United Utilities, the RSPB and the Forestry Commission (none of whom were partners in the recent Natural England/DEFRA/Moorland Association/GWCT press release). And who are the bad guys according to ANtural England? Who are they not working with because they believe they are the bad guys? Second, Natural England did not reveal, despite being pressed to do so by RSPB, the fact that there was an incident reported by one of their own raptor workers at a Hen Harrier nesting area this very summer which at least suggests that the person involved, whoever he may be, was not fully committed to the good guy camp (see also more on this below). Third, the close, even cosy, relationship with the Moorland Association is a strong contraindication to Natural England’s alleged ‘work with the good guys’ approach. The Moorland Association does not represent the good elements of grouse shooting. It represents grouse shooting and its statements over the years have been those of wildlife crime deniers or at best apologists. No-Mates Natural England gave the Moorland Association space in what could have been simply a Natural England press release to continue to peddle the line that grouse moor owners are leading the charge to conserve Hen Harriers (not some of them but them all as a class of people) whereas the truth, as Natural England have clarified, is that deaths on grouse moors are the problem. Natural England should make it a condition of further cosiness with the Moorland Association that the Moorland Association publicly associates itself with the Mr Slater’s first clarifying quote near the top of this post, as a basis for future close collaboration on this subject at an organisational level.
Again, a bit of distancing in Mr Slater’s blog does not correct the appearance of great friendliness between Natural England and the criminal elements over several years. Let’s say it is a faltering start to correct things – but is it a start or is it just a spasm?
Did Natural England mislead DEFRA Minister Rebecca Pow?
Mr Slater then moves on to to ‘correct a recent accusation that has been made that Natural England had mislead (sic) the Minster (sic) in our response to a question about access to hen harrier nests‘. I take it that this is my accusation – see here which was based on a carefully worded RSPB statement.
Mr Slater writes:
Natural England provided an answer to a Parliamentary Question which asked:
“how many hen harrier nesting attempts in England in 2020 were located in areas where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had primary control over access; how many of those nests failed to have any chicks fledge; and what were the known causes of those nest failures”.
This question was about who had access to the nest for the purposes of monitoring or tagging chicks. Both the RSPB and Natural England undertake this work with the organisations covering different landholdings. Whilst the RSPB do not have management control on all the land where they undertake nest monitoring, that is not what the question was about. Of the twenty four nests in England this year, 10 were monitored by the RSPB and they had the sole access to them. Two of these were on the RSPB’s own reserve at Geltsdale and one on land owned by a private landowner and the remaining seven on United Utilities land in the Forest of Bowland.https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/17/clarifying-natural-englands-position-on-raptor-persecution-and-recent-media-coverage/
Well, nice try, Mr Slater but the question, demonstrably above, was not about ‘who had access to the nest for the purposes of monitoring or tagging chicks‘ but who had primary control over access not to the nest (for any particular purpose) but to the areas of the nest and as the RSPB has said and which was quoted in my allegation;
The RSPB also monitors hen harrier nests on United Utilities land in Bowland, Lancashire. We have no control of management or access at Bowland, which is managed for water and game interests. Here, three nests failed, two nests with eggs and one with chicks. With reduced monitoring due to COVID-19, we can’t be certain what happened to the nests that failed with eggs, but evidence close to the third nest points to the chicks being predated, despite private predator control in the area.https://markavery.info/2020/09/12/natural-england-misleads-minister-who-misleads-parliament/
If Natural England would like to supply the correspondence between themselves and DEFRA we would know better whether the misleading statement by the Minister was due to poor wording by Natural England (which they have not cleared up here) or by poor interpretation by DEFRA, but the statement made by minister Pow is still misleading (unless the RSPB is not telling the truth, and I believe the RSPB). Mr Slater, you haven’t corrected anything here and you haven’t cleared it up, what you have done is dug a deeper hole.
The Owl and the Natural England Pussy Cat
Mr Slater then goes on to discuss the case of the live owl and an armed man near a Hen Harrier nest site – known to be one of the cluster of three nests at Whernside one of which was brood-meddled.
Recently there has also been discussion online about an incident involving a person with a tethered bird of prey believed to be an Eagle owl and a gun near a Hen Harrier nest and inactivity on the part of Natural England associated with this case.
This incident happened five months ago and was reported by a Natural England field worker who was monitoring nests in the area. The field worker immediately reported what they witnessed to the police, who investigated, but chose not to pursue a prosecution. (we understand this was not related to anything our field worker had done)
It is true that RSPB colleagues did question why we didn’t make this information public and shine a light on these sorts of practices. I explained that Natural England, as a statutory body, cannot proceed to publicise an event like this following a police investigation where no case was pursued. This is where we have a different role to NGOs. We need to be scrupulous in our statutory role – as we have a duty to all parties as a responsible regulator.https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2020/09/17/clarifying-natural-englands-position-on-raptor-persecution-and-recent-media-coverage/
To get a full picture of the ins and outs of this readers should see the original RSPB statement about it and the recent blog on Raptor Persecution UK. There is a contradiction between Mr Slater’s line (we understand this was not related to anything our field worker had done)‘ (which incidentally looks a bit like a late addition to the blog from the position of the stop in that sentence) and the RPUK account. I’ll leave others to sort that out.
I’m sure that Natural England could publish the video of what happened with the landowner’s permission (and presumably enthusiastic agreement as a trusted partner and good guy in the work to save the Hen Harrier) so I think we should still ask for and expect its publication. Maybe the Moorland Association could lobby for its publication? Maybe all those good guys in the shooting community would get together and ask for its publication too. I’d love to see it.
But there is no denial that the event happened. And so my point on what this means for the validity of the brood meddling experimental analysis remains. I assume that Natural England has told, presumably many months ago, the Scientific Advisory Group that the data on nest success had been compromised by an intervention, a perfectly reasonable one, to save Hen Harriers from being harmed. I’ll just check with Natural England that they did.
I regard Mr Slater as one of Natural England’s star bloggers. I always read his words with great interest.