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  • C4PMC

How harriers have become weaponised

The fate of satellite tagged birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, is one of the most politicised issues in conservation.

Despite almost 120 hen harriers fledging in England this year, it is the weapon of choice for those who want to destroy moorland management and, in their grand plan, take control, and even ownership, of our uplands.

It is therefore clear that the information about the location of the final signal of a bird of prey or, even more critically, the place its body was found, is very significant indeed.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that the regulatory authority NE (Natural England) in the case of England, will take a keen interest in this data, and who collects and controls it, and how the people collecting it interact with the birds being tagged.

Harriers are 'Schedule One' species and you can be prosecuted for looking at a nest, or for simply walking past one, so obviously NE will want to keep a firm hand on what is going on, won't they?

There are, after all, some questions that are nothing to do with grouse moors, that anyone interested in conserving hen harriers or other tagged birds of prey would want answered. For example, why do harriers, kites, eagles and buzzards get killed in large numbers by wind turbines in other countries, very similar to ours, yet in the UK exactly the same kit doesn't seem to cause raptors even minor inconvenience.

So for these reasons, and there are others, any reasonable person would think that NE would have a firm grip on who is doing what at bird of prey nests, and what and where the marked birds meet their end. That would be a reasonable expectation. Wouldn't it? But it would be completely wrong.

In fact, NE have not the least idea. They don't know who is going to nests, disturbing parent birds and handling eggs and chicks. They don't know if the eggs hatch or not, or if the chicks die or survive and prosper. When the survivors disperse and eventually die, complete with satellite tag, NE don't know where they died or why. They don't know if raptor eggs are taken home, and if they are, why.

This because NE issues licences to two organisations, with bizarrely no requirement to provide any of this vital information. The organisations are the RSPB and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). In the case of RSPB the licence is a virtual carte Blanche, they are empowered to disturb any Schedule 1 bird, to take and possess live or dead Schedule 1 birds, or parts or derivatives of birds, their eggs or nests. If a gamekeeper wants to feed a bird of prey, they need to go through an exhaustive licence application procedure and finish up with a long and complicated licence, hedged about with conditions and caveats. By contrast the RSPB just do it. They don't have to tell anyone, or heaven forbid, ask permission, or report anything to anyone.

With BTO the powers can be delegated to any number of authorised persons, who, to be fair, do have to be trained and can't have been convicted of a wildlife crime. Hundreds of people are involved and they necessarily disturb large numbers of nests and handle much larger numbers of eggs, and chicks, attaching rings, clipping feathers, attaching data loggers and harnesses.

But when you ask NE who these people are, who they take with them to harrier nests, how many harrier chicks die as result of the disturbance and handling stress, how many fledge and what happens to the tagged birds? The answer is they don't know and, perhaps worse, they don't seem to be interested.

When asked what happened to specific tagged birds, having been provided with their names, date of tagging, name of the tagger and tag numbers, both NE, and their Scottish sister organisation,NatureScot, said they had no idea. When asked what the codes meant that were attached to the birds, (i.e. U, M and A, which look like they might be Unknown, Missing and Alive) they both said that they had no idea and they gave the impression that they had no interest in finding out. Asked what identification documents the people, who were authorised to interfere with harrier nests, were supposed to carry, so that landowners, concerned with the sight of people doing what would otherwise be a criminal offence, on their land might use to check they were authorised, NE had not the faintest idea and appeared surprised to be asked.

Most shocking of all, they made it clear that they had no interest in the fate of tagged birds, stating that the data coming from the tags, remains the property of the taggers, as though this was some legal requirement. Which it most certainly is not.

Unless NE and NatureScot personnel have been kidnapped by the Little People and kept for the last 20 years in Faerieland, they must be aware that the fate of hen harriers is one of the hottest and most politicised in UK conservation.

They must know that it is possible, some might reasonably say predictable and obvious, that some of the people tagging hen harriers have a deep seated prejudice against a minority interest group consisting of moor owners and gamekeepers, and will use the data over which they have sole control with devastating effect to attack that community.

RSPB has publicly campaigned for changes in the law and is threatening to seek to ban grouse shooting on the basis of data that cannot be challenged or even examined, yet NE and NatureScot are apparently completely content to remain in ignorance of the fate of the harriers.

Nor is this simply about getting a clear run at grouse shooters. No one in the conservation industry or NE or NatureScot is interested in the glaring difference between the UK's raptors apparent ability to avoid wind turbines, whilst in the rest of the world they are killed in large numbers.

There can be no reason why NE and NatureScot do not make it a condition of licence to report the disappearance and fatality of every tagged hen harrier to them. That would enable everyone to have the opportunity to understand what is going on and allow collaborative working to sort out the problems. But they don't take that simple step. Why not?

In the absence of any other explanation, and it is difficult to think of one, it would seem that they are happy to see the hen harrier used as a weapon.


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