The 'disappearing' hen harriers reflect a broken monitoring system
Hen harrier populations have been increasing rapidly in range and numbers in recent years, largely due to the success of the brood management scheme. The law surrounding hen harriers is so strict that even a hiker or, perhaps as is more likely, a fell runner, inadvertently stepping too close to a nest will land the individual in hot water and probably the dock of the local magistrate’s court.
If you are a gamekeeper and want to feed the parent harrier to make sure you don't get blamed if the chicks die you must obtain a battery of consents from Natural England. If there is any deviation from these consents, then the heavens tend to come crashing down on your head.
This approach seems fair enough: hen harriers are still rare and do require protection from persecution and disturbance. Those that work around hen harriers, such as gamekeepers, farmers, and shepherds, follow strict guidelines set to them.
You would expect Natural England to apply the same level of control and scrutiny to everyone whose business or hobbies may interact with nesting hen harriers. Yet, oddly if not surprisingly, that appears not to be the case.
The powers that enable people to approach, and interfere with, the nest of a Schedule 1 bird, which is the highest category of protection are hedged in with consents and the extreme application of the precautionary principle by NE, where estates, farmers, and gamekeepers are concerned.
The power to decide who can approach a hen harrier nest for the purpose of monitoring them, ringing the chicks, catching them in nets, fitting them with tracker harness, weighing the eggs and chicks, and, perhaps strangest of all, taking the eggs home when they decide that they won't hatch, has apparently been delegated in its entirety to the BTO.
So unlike the rest of humanity, if BTO delegates its powers to you, you are apparently free of the application of the precautionary principle, or scrutiny, or any duty to report anything you don't want to. And because BTO is not a government agency, no one can get any information you don't want to make public, because they are excluded from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Even more surprising these powers and freedoms can then be dished out to friends, who are then free to do what they want, without any duty to tell anyone anything. You don't even need to inform NE what you are doing, let alone ask permission or go to the trouble of getting a consent. Does anyone find this surprising?
Well, of course you can trust raptor workers not to make mistakes or take liberties. They would never do anything to compromise the safety of a hen harrier chick. Would they?
If something went wrong, they would be the first to tell the world. Wouldn't they? In all the years that this system has been working apparently not a single thing has ever gone wrong. That may indicate two things: one, that these wonderful people are uniquely competent, unlike the rest of us, or two, that they don't tell the world when things go wrong.
But we can never know, and bizarrely, neither can NE, because they don't have to tell anyone anything. They don't have to tell the people whose land they find a nest on that the nest is there, or the shooting tenant, or the gamekeeper, or the farming tenant or the shepherd, or NE or anyone.
When they find a nest it is up to them how often they visit, how close they get, when they go into put standard rings on, when they go in again to put colour rings on, when they go with their landing nets to chase the chicks about and put trackers on them, who to take with them, which friends and which TV crew and when to report what, if anything.
That brings us to the next extraordinary thing. All this is possible because NE delegates its powers to the BTO and the BTO delegates its powers to individuals, who can then delegate again to anyone they like.
But when NE delegated these powers it forgot, or didn't bother, to require this extraordinary chain to tell them what they find as a result. So the raptor workers can decide what they tell the world and what they don't, and NE can, apparently, do nothing about it.
Let us give a recent example. A moor has two hen harriers nesting on it. The raptor workers know about them. They decide not to tell the grazier, or the shooting tenant, or Natural England. One of these raptor workers even has a previous conviction of damaging private property after being found cutting legal snares.
Those two nests, the ones that no one other than the raptor workers know about, fail because they were apparently abandoned. No one actually knows why they were abandoned. But obviously there is a storm of outrage and grouse moor interests are blamed.
The identity of the shooting tenant can predictably, and perhaps intentionally, be inferred from the information in the press release, and, as is now traditional, he gets hell on social media and elsewhere.
It is perfectly possible that the two cock hen harriers were shot. (If there were two, cock harriers are often polygamous). It is possible that they were attacked or killed by a peregrine or a goshawk, both regularly present in the area.
It is possible that the nest monitoring frightened the birds and they abandoned the nests before the eggs hatched, something we know they are prone to do. That is why diversionary feeding normally only starts after the eggs have hatched when the parents are less likely to abandon ship.
We only know the eggs hadn't hatched because the raptor workers said so and photographed all ten of them in situ at the nests. Obviously, no one else can verify any of this because the raptor workers have all the information, and no one else knew anything about any of it until they told the world their tragic story.
Perhaps strangest of all is what happened to the eggs. It would have been impressive and praiseworthy if, believing the nests had been abandoned, the raptor workers had rushed the eggs into an incubator. In such circumstances, depending how long the eggs had been left, and if incubation had started, several of the eggs might have hatched and the resulting chicks reared and released. But for whatever reason that didn't happen. What did happen was that the raptor worker took them home.
This is, we are told, perfectly OK under the delegated powers so long as the eggs are eventually sent to a university for examination. Who knew that? Who monitors it?
So we have a remarkable situation in relation to a rare and controversial bird, its nests, eggs and chicks. A group of people, profoundly interested in the nests, the eggs, and the chicks, and in many cases keen to see an end to traditional moorland management, can do more or less what they like.
Once they have the delegated authority, they are apparently in complete personal control. If things go wrong, they know first, they control the narrative and have all the information. If it all goes really badly, they can take the eggs home. All of that without even having to tell NE what they are doing or what happened.
But the shocking thing is that there is absolutely no way to find out what is really going on. No way to find out where and when the chicks were ringed, or by whom. No means to discover how many subsequently died in or around the nest, or when and where their last signal was sent, or how many were found under a wind turbine or a grouse moor. You can find nothing. All you get is what they want to give you. Why? Because BTO, RSPB and all the raptor groups and workers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
By delegating all their powers and not requiring any formal reporting on the key outcomes, NE completely avoids the Act's provisions. When you ask what happened to a hen harrier that RSPB infers has been killed by gamekeepers, NE just say, 'We don't know.' Bizarrely they are telling the truth. NE know that hen harriers have become the most weaponised topics in bird conservation, yet they create a system that permits no independent scrutiny. Why?
Are we the only people who think this is an entirely unacceptable set of circumstances? When challenged at the Game Fair, RSPB's Duncan Orr-Ewing said that they did give the information, every year in their Bird Crime Report, one of the most opaque and partial documents in Western Literature.
Surely even NE must be embarrassed when they listen to such arrogant nonsense. Surely even NE must think that this extraordinary system, seemingly designed to facilitate secrecy and message management has to change.