Guest blog – Natural England and Hen Harriers by ‘One who knows’

A lot is written about Hen Harriers and upland issues. It is nice to talk about the positives, but the article that Patrick Barkham wrote for the Guardian on the 4 December 2021 was a strange piece indeed. I would have been less surprised had the article been written by the cheerleaders for grouse shooting, the Moorland Association.

If an independent journalist is to write about these issues, particularly if they are to focus on an area like Nidderdale which has a list of recent unsolved raptor crimes longer than my arm, one might expect the journalist to speak to a range of sources. However, Patrick’s article reads like a puff piece for grouse shooting, and more worryingly takes at face value some rather strange assertions by Natural England employees.

I feel that I need to write this as I do not think that it is right that Natural England get a free pass to re-write history, and to ignore the issues that continue to suppress England’s Hen Harrier population and that blight England’s uplands where Red Grouse are shot for fun.

Let’s start with Betty. Betty was a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that was found dead in 2012 on the Swinton estate. Tests showed that she had been shot, but that the shot had not immediately killed her. She could have been shot anywhere (likely near to where she was found) before succumbing to her wounds. Patrick wrote “Murphy said Betty had been shot away from the estate before flying on to it”. Did Patrick ask what evidence Stephen Murphy has to back up this claim?

The only way Stephen can claim this is if he has been told where Betty was shot. Is that the case?

In the article that National Geographic published on Hen Harriers in October 2021 (see here – it’s a very good read), Matt Hagan, the Yorkshire Police Inspector, the chair of the Raptor Priority Persecution Delivery Group, stated that he did not know of a single member of the shooting community having provided information to the police about a single raptor crime.

Bearing this in mind I suspect that it is highly unlikely that Stephen Murphy has been told where Betty was shot and by whom (and if he had been told, wouldn’t he have passed this information on to the police?), so why does he make this claim? And why does Patrick not question this claim?

Stephen Murphy is then quoted as saying that “What’s here is almost optimum conditions for hen harriers to breed well,” followed by “evidence that illegal persecution is lessening on grouse moors is not breeding success (which can be due to a good year for voles, a favourite prey) but the survival of long-lived satellite-tagged birds”.

This statement would appear to contradict Natural England’s official position. In a statement by Dave Slater, posted on 13 August 2021 he said “Illegal persecution on land managed for grouse shooting remains the main threat to the recovery of Hen Harriers. Natural England is clear that successful breeding seasons, like this one, cannot lead to a sustained population recovery if survival continues to be impacted by illegal persecution and deliberate disturbance (see here).

I agree that better over-winter survival could be evidence that illegal persecution is lessening (and I will come back to this point below), but surely if the breeding conditions are optimal then the numbers of successful breeding attempts will increase year on year? Did Patrick ask Stephen Murphy whether the number of Hen Harriers breeding in the Nidderdale area had increased over the past few years? Doesn’t Stephen Murphy have any comment about this?

The reason is that those numbers have not increased. They are stuck at two nests, mysteriously and coincidentally at the number at which brood meddling can be triggered. Alarm bells should be flashing for anyone involved with Hen Harriers and I cannot understand quite why Stephen Murphy would ignore this.

And back to the survival of satellite-tagged birds. One could claim that with some satellite tagged birds surviving longer, illegal persecution is lessening. But that claim becomes a little less impressive when one knows that NE are informing estates where their satellite-tagged birds are. Whilst we should welcome these birds surviving longer, all it really tells us is that Natural England’s satellite-tagged birds, which are a small subset of the population, are surviving longer when estates are told where they are.

That is hardly a ringing endorsement of a change in attitudes, hardly a long-term solution for Hen Harrier survival, and not exactly cutting-edge conservation science.

And what about untagged birds? Does England’s breeding population contain lots of untagged birds that have been born in England and have survived the winter? The answer to that is not really.

Change is desperately needed in the uplands, but this article demonstrates that any change that Natural England might effect is hamstrung by its attempts to butter up grouse shooters. It is clear that some of Natural England’s staff continue to ignore the reason why the Hen Harrier population is so low and still being supressed (crime committed to support people shooting grouse). They continue to cherry-pick data to suit their agenda. Within the last eighteen months they have suppressed information about crimes (see here), and have been inept when it comes to investigating potential crimes against Hen Harriers (see here) and upholding the law (see here). One might almost go so far as to ask whether we are looking at a case of regulatory capture.

Our Hen Harriers and the English uplands deserve better, and until someone gets a grip of Natural England’s Hen Harrier work Natural England can only be seen as part of the problem, rather than as an agent of positive change.

And for Patrick Barkham, a writer who I admire, and the Guardian to publish an article that ignores all of these problems is disappointing to put it mildly.

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16 Replies to “Guest blog – Natural England and Hen Harriers by ‘One who knows’”

  1. What an excellent blog by “One who knows”.
    Unfortunately there seem to be few, if any, people in Natural England who are prepared to speak up and report unbiasedly on
    the very many facets associated with the illegalities of Driven Grouse Shooting. They would probably be sacked if they did.
    The basic problem is that most (but not all) of the Tory party and especially those politicians in the Westminster Government are those who like to kill our wildlife for fun or support those who do so.
    It is interesting that the sleaze associated with driven grouse shooting is also prevalent as an attitude, across most of this Westminster Government.

  2. I’m convinced illegal persecution of Hen Harriers is the main reason for their lack of numbers, but can you tell us how you come to be ‘one who knows’? In what way are you involved with Hen Harriers?

  3. Thank you for an excellent blog. I agree that Patrick Barkham is normally an environmental journalist who is well worth reading but in this case he seems to have been unduly naïve in accepting of what he was being told by the people he interviewed.

    The quote in the article from Katie-Jo Luxton gets it right when she points out that the logic of brood management is ever greater levels of intervention if hen harrier numbers take off and perceived conflict with grouse shooting increases. One has to ask how sustainable that level of intervention and the associated costs would be and how quickly the gamekeepers would revert to lethal means of eliminating nests from their moors. In any case, reaching this scenario depends on a cessation of the killing of hen harriers post-fledging and for all the assurances given by Stephen Murphy in Barkham’s article, we know that tagged hen harriers have continued to go missing in suspicious circumstances in 2021. There may or may not be a new breed of hen harrier friendly gamekeeper but even if there is, it is premature to suggest that the traditional harrier-killing kind have gone away.

  4. As ‘one who knows’ I think ‘one who knows’ has been incredibly generous in his/her comments on who knows what – or maybe just worried about libel. Be in no doubt, people know. Townies think the countryside is a huge blank full of straw chewing yokels. In reality, the exchange of information is intense and anyone well connected can find out almost anything – those rural roads may look deserted but the flip side is it’s far easier to see whose doing what than in a crowded city. Where Hen Harrier breed successfully it is not by accident- in the past more were allowed to breed and the reduction to virtually zero has been a potentially fatal mistake by grouse shooters. The idea that the problem is off site is laughable with the numbers known to be killed, remembering that only a minority, obviously not a known minority, are ever found. If you think about it, it’s amazing so many are found when clearly its in the perpetrators interests to conceal their crime. I thought the police inspector’s comment said it all – and should be borne in mind the next time you read a protest of innocence from the grouse lobby.

  5. Some nameless ministerial SPAD is telling Tony Juniper what “the science” has to show…and bury everything that might be “off message”.

    The bottom line is that Hen harriers will die and moorland will be burned until we get rid of the FPTP voting system that enshrines the tory minority in power.

  6. An excellent blog and yes it was an incredibly poor article from Patrick Barkham. I was really shocked when I read it. He helped make a fantastic video about the need for more red deer culling in the Highlands, and has written about badger persecution in the excellent ‘Badgerlands’. In the latter he mentioned the incredibly brave and determined efforts of Jean Thorpe to combat badger baiting, who also happens to take in and help rehabilitate injured birds of prey very often from near shooting estates. I struggle to think that on top of everything else he met and interviewed her and then even years later still managed to write that. I hope to god that this isn’t the first step in Patrick changing track, sadly that’s not without precedent.

    In the mid nineties an environmental journalist called Auslan Cramb wrote the rather classic ‘Who Owns Scotland Now’, which didn’t just delve into land ownership issues, but also looked at the scale and range of ecological mismanagement principally the gross over population of red deer and the horrors of grouse moors including rampant raptor persecution. It’s the sort of book that if everyone in the country had to sit down and read at the same time there’d have to be change because it cut through the crap so well. Unfortunately his next book on general environmentalism was a bit of a mess. The last time I saw any of his work he was writing for the Telegraph about how many lambs are supposedly being snaffled up by sea eagles. You certainly wouldn’t have believed from it that here’s a journalist who once demolished the case for traditional Scottish sporting estates just be by being comprehensive and objective in outlook.

    I really hope Patrick was just having a really bad day when he wrote something that could have came straight from the GWCT. When I worked at the Hay Festival I got to see him talk about his book ‘The Butterfly Isles’, loved it, and until now I have been incredibly impressed by the range of natural history topics he covers (he wrote a fantastic piece about people carrying out unofficial reintroductions https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/13/maverick-rewilders-endangered-species-extinction-conservation-uk-wildlife) and how deep he is prepared to go. Maybe if he’s confronted about this retreat from his usual standards he’ll write another piece to compensate as best he can for what was well presented tripe, but still tripe.

  7. Oh Patrick why did you write such a poorly researched article?

    My personal experience of Nidderdale keepers is that they are threatening and hostile.

    Well written Mark. Sadly we need to keep these issues to be kept in the forefront of our minds until grouse moor management is changed

  8. Since 2019, at least, more Hen Harriers have overwintered successfully and been given permission to breed, for whatever reason, take your pick.
    If there IS a grudging acceptance of Harriers , rippling through the grouse world, these instances will become more commonplace , and widespread, within a very few years.
    If however, it is a case of taking one for the team, permitting successful nesting to take the heat off, this will only run so far.
    I would be more convinced, if participating estates would welcome the juveniles back home later that summer, credit
    due to the landowners who accept these birds.
    It is an untypical article by Patrick Barkham, Steven Murphy probably has various fish to fry.

  9. An interesting blog that doesn’t give the full story perhaps for a reason? there is a very good reason to suppose Betty was not going to go that far from where she was found.
    As to more harriers nesting in Nidderdale or at least attempting to: In 2019 the first year that there was brood meddling in the area FIVE pairs attempted to nest THREE failed in circumstances strongly suggesting persecution, the requisite two for brood meddling succeeded. NE told RBBP there were only two attempts which they KNEW TO BE UNTRUE. In 2020 we have only NE’s figures due to Covid restrictions and they said there were just the two attempts, I for one find this suspicious. In 2021 there were FIVE females selecting nest sites but yet again only two nests that were ” successful.” I don’t believe we can take NE’s word for anything any more. I am also “one who knows.”

  10. If NE are informing estates when one of their satellite tags harriers is present then these harriers are no longer acting as a sample for the what happens to the widerharrier population on those estates because they are potentially being treated differently. So if and when NE claim persecution is reduced using the fate or otherwise of these sat tagged birds it will be completely scientifically invalid.

  11. An excellent guest blog, Ruth. Or, if it wasn’t you, I’m sure you won’t be offended by my suspecting your authorship. Regulatory capture really explains the nonsense that is going on within the ranks of Natural England and it is a disaster for the effective protection of some of our dwindling wildlife and threatened habitats.

      1. It was a long shot, forgive my presumption, that’s the problem with anonymity but thank you for clarifying and keep up your good work. I was fortunate to see a handsome adult male hen harrier today and hope to see ringtail tomorrow at a local harrier roost. Lovely birds.

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