The week after next may see a flurry of activity on the future of driven grouse shooting and Hen Harrier conservation. On Monday 25 January we may see a Westminster Hall debate on driven grouse shooting (following one on trespass) and then on Tuesday and Wednesday 26 and 27 January the much delayed appeal of the judicial review judgment on brood meddling will be heard.
I say ‘may’ because Westminster Hall debates are under consideration under the current COVID crisis as these debates only take place through MPs attending in person and would you travel from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or Yorkshire to London to take place in such a debate when non-essential travel should not take place (different rules apply in all four UK nations)? I’m keen to see this debate take place but one has to say that an e-petition that qualified for debate in September 2019 (stet) is not urgent in January 2021. However, if it does go ahead, then the DEFRA minister, presumably Rebecca Pow, will have questions to face.
When Ms Pow was last answering questions about grouse moor management in Westminster Hall (18 November debate on moorland burning) she cheerily said that government was committed to publishing a peatland restoration strategy which would commit to restore 35,000ha of peatland by 2025, and she quipped that was not very far away – well it’s another two months closer now and we still haven’t seen this strategy that was promised for 2020. I’m sure that she will be asked whether the government really has a strategy for peatland or whether its strategy is to avoid having a strategy.
And since Ms Pow was last talking about grouse moors Scotland has decided to bring in controls on grouse shooting and moorland burning. Ms Pow may well be asked why there has been so little activity south of the border compared with so much north of Hadrian’s Wall. The honest answer might be ‘Because the Scottish government really cares whereas we are only pretending’.
Ms Pow also said back in November that moorlands are a haven for wildlife but she can’t have been thinking of that moorland inhabitant the Hen Harrier which is fully protected by law but which is ten times as likely to disappear (presumed or known to be dead) on grouse moors than on other habitats.
It is only because of Raptor Persecution UK’s dogged determination to flush out what Natural England (we pay their salaries) have known for months, that we now know that three tagged Hen Harriers from the 2020 English cohort disappeared in northern England way back in September (a brood-meddled male next to a grouse moor in North Yorkshire on 20 September 2020, another male (with one of the dodgy tags) on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire on 19 September 2020, and a female at an undisclosed roost site (which may or may not have been a grouse moor) in Northumberland on 16 September 2020). Some haven!
Why Natural England has kept these facts hidden for so long only they can answer. It might simply be shame.
When my appeal on the legality of brood-meddling of Hen Harriers is heard at the Court of Appeal (alongside the RSPB’s related appeal) the three judges will not be deciding whether brood meddling is a good idea, nor whether it is working, but whether Natural England were behaving lawfully to licence it without considering alternatives back in January 2018 (stet). Boxing up broods of Hen Harrier and shipping them down the road to a cage, later to release them into dangerous territory is an illegal act unless licensed. Our case is that Natural England should have considered all alternatives to brood meddling before issuing this licence – alternatives such as increased guarding of nests, increased fines, vicarious liability, licensing of grouse shooting and many other ways forward before licensing brood meddling. Both the RSPB and I lost our original challenges because the judge said that brood meddling was a bit of science. My appeal hinges on the fact that this so-called experiment would be of no scientific interest at all except as a precursor of conservation action and so alternatives must be considered.
No chickens will be counted ahead of the court case. First, this appeal was launched straight after the initial judgment in March 2019 and we went to court in March 2020 but that hearing was abandoned at lunch on the first day (a few days before lockdown belatedly began) as one of the judges was taken ill. And second, the result is uncertain – we have a very good chance of winning (but probably a very good chance of losing too). There is everything to play for and I am grateful to all those who have donated to two crowdfunders which got us this far (here and here) and also to my legal team who have been simply brilliant throughout.
Saturday (16 January) will mark the third anniversay of Natural England issuing a brood-meddling licence – these things take quite a time to be resolved.