Dave Slater, Natural England's Director for Wildlife Licensing & Enforcement Cases, clarifying Natural England’s position on raptor persecution and recent media coverage.
I have previously blogged on this page about the renewal of the licence for the Hen Harrier brood management trial as part of the Government’s Hen Harrier Recovery Action Plan. Natural England undertake a range of activities as part of our work to deliver the Action Plan. Since I published said blog we have received a lot of feedback. Many respected colleagues in the environmental sector have raised concerns around the trial and Natural England’s willingness to work with land managers which they perceive as being implicated in illegal persecution.
I wanted to use this blog to explain our approach more clearly, our stance on persecution and also to correct some inaccuracies which have appeared recently in the media and social media.
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.
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.
Tackling persecution is vital for Hen Harrier recovery, but the action plan identifies a range of action that is needed to secure lasting success. As we recently announced we were pleased to see the best breeding season in recent history this year but also aware that the reality is that most birds do not survive to adulthood, primarily due to persecution.
Natural England carries out extensive monitoring of populations and individual birds though our satellite tracking programme. Any bird which is thought to or has stopped transmitting is reported to the police and Natural England staff assist the police in undertaking searches
We carry out nest and winter roost protection, make available diversionary feeding licences and provide advice to those looking to make use of it. We are exploring a hen harrier reintroduction programme for southern England.
Despite all this work, lasting success will only be achieved through close partnership and coordination, including between NE, the Police, National Parks, land managers and the RSPB. It is true that these partners will disagree on some elements of the programme, and we welcome that debate. However, where inaccurate information is published we do feel it’s important to correct these.
Firstly I want to correct a recent accusation that has been made that Natural England had mislead the Minster in our response to a question about access to hen harrier nests. 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.
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.
In conclusion, we know that many will not change their minds on some elements of the Action Plan. We at Natural England do feel that working with responsible land managers is part of the solution for lasting recovery. I hope all the partners can agree that we must work together positively and step up our collective efforts to tackle the scourge of Hen Harrier persecution.