Natural England plans captive breeding for hen harriers

UPDATED: Natural England has signed a deal to operate a ‘conservation breeding programme’ with a Gloucestershire falconry centre.

It will “provide the core numbers of birds for release to expedite the hen harrier reintroduction” programme, says a memorandum describing the deal, signed with the International Centre for Birds of Prey in November. It was part of a package obtained via a freedom of information request by the Raptor Persecution UK blog. It is written by Ruth Tingay, one of the figures behind Wild Justice, “with help from several sources”.

Another one of the Natural England papers says that the “majority of the expected additional staff costs” of the breeding programme are being covered by a five-year funding agreement from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, a field sports lobby group that represents gamekeepers. However, a spokesperson for the regulator said that all funding for it comes from the department itself. UPDATE: further comments from the regulator can be viewed at the foot of this article.

Further birds for breeding could be supplied from abandoned nests in France, according to an email to the regulator’s senior management from reintroduction project manager Simon Lee, sent in September and obtained by Tingay. He added that an agreement has been reached to transfer seven junior hen harriers from a French rescue centre.

“Please do note the sensitivity of this information and not share beyond those listed in this email,” it concludes.

Natural England’s broader plan for hen harriers includes taking eggs from nests in areas where the species is particularly vulnerable to illegal killing and moving the birds to southern England, described as ‘brood meddling’. 

But it has been lambasted by conservationists, many of whom see it as a distraction from the real reason for the species’ absence from upland England: persecution linked to driven grouse shooting. The blog described it as a “conservation sham”.

A Natural England worker is said to have witnessed hen harrier persecution last year, at a brood management site. No prosecution followed. In a blog last September, Dave Slater, Natural England's director for wildlife licensing & enforcement cases, said that the 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)”.

Conservation ecologist Rob Williams claims the programme is in breach of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s reintroduction guidelines. It states that, “There should generally be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced” before translocation is considered.

He described the scheme as “Madness. Just stop the killing. Licence driven grouse shooting, GPS trackers with all armed gamekeepers, lifetime firearm and dog bans for offenders,” he tweeted.

An options appraisal notes that the programme had cost around £300,000 as of July last year and that the organisation had been looking for other sources of the birds. It states that the Sociedad Española de Ornitología – the Spanish equivalent of the RSPB – had been lobbying a regional authority not to support the reintroduction work, presumably due to persecution activity here. “The lack of engagement from Spanish authorities to date, latterly exacerbated by Covid19 restrictions on travel and fieldwork, have made it impossible to translocate birds in 2020,” it adds.

The options paper mentions that other donors – Finland, Belarus, Sweden and Norway – were being pursued. Simply abandoning or delaying the programme would create a “reputational risk” for both Natural England and DEFRA, it states, while there were “no partners willing to deliver” it,“due to negative associations”. An approach to NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) also appears to have been rebuffed, the paper citing “elevated political tensions”.

A breeding programme augmented with wild stock was left as the only seriously viable way to continue.

“Make no mistake, if there is an opportunity for a legal challenge against this insane plan, it will be taken,” said Tingay’s blog.

In reaction, Lee said: “We take the decline in Hen harriers extremely seriously and are committed to improving the conservation status of this iconic species through the Hen Harrier Action Plan.

“Captive breeding has become an increasingly successful tool in conservation management of many species. The southern reintroduction is one element of the action plan, and has considerable support from both conservation groups and landowners. We will continue to work with wildlife organisations about how we can help achieve our shared ambition to restore hen harriers.”

Natural England has requested that we update this article with the following information.

The regulator says it is incorrect to say that the breeding programme’s additional staffing costs are being largely covered by a five-year funding agreement from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. In fact, it says, BASC are covering the costs for two staff members to undertake winter roost protection and monitoring work in the north of England. This is a different part of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, the regulator says.

In addition, Natural England says that it is not correct to say that its plan for hen harriers includes taking eggs from nests in areas vulnerable to illegal killing and moving them to southern England. It says that as part of the partnership project, eggs removed from wild nests are hatched and reared in captivity through the brood management trial, and are then reintroduced under licence into the same areas from where they are taken, under strict and controlled circumstances.

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