by Countryside Alliance

An investigation by the Countryside Alliance has revealed that the RSPB has been responsible for thwarting efforts to bring back hen harriers to the South of England. 

Correspondence obtained by the Alliance under the Freedom of Information Act show how the RSPB prevented the reintroduction of the species in 2019. This is one of the six component parts to Defra’s 2016 Joint Action Plan, each of which has a vital part to play in understanding and reversing the decline of hen harriers in England, and one that had already received a considerable sum of public funding. 

The extensive dossier of correspondence provided both by Defra and Natural England reveals that although the original plan had been to source chicks from France and Spain, it became apparent in 2018 that doing so from France would not be possible due to opposition from the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux; the French equivalent of the RSPB. Although the French volunteer groups were keen to support the Southern Reintroduction, they would “not release chicks to the UK on principle because of the Brood Management Scheme”; another of the components of Defra’s Action Plan, which crucially, the RSPB had refused to support.

The disappearance in early 2019 of the hen harrier Vulcan in Wiltshire also played into the hands of the RSPB. It’s press release issued at that time stated: ‘Vulcan’s suspicious disappearance may prove a hurdle for the proposed southern reintroduction of hen harriers’. Although the body of the bird has never been found, and the circumstances of its disappearance remain unknown, Natural England (NE) commented that ‘recent press activity linking the disappearance of a satellite tagged hen harrier (possibly in Wiltshire) to illegal persecution demonstrated that the RSPB may make further attempts to undermine the project’.

In March 2019, a representative from the Junta (regional government) of Castillo y Léon contacted NE proposing a meeting in Spain to discuss the southern re-introduction programme. The evening before that meeting, a senior official in the SEO (Spanish Birdlife Partner) informed NE’s Project Manager that they were not supportive of the project, and those on the ground had been asked not to cooperate. According to NE: “From both communications we know the RSPB orchestrated this late intervention (the SEO simply cites the RSPB position). So the interference continues”.  Although the RSPB’s official position was that it did not support the project, it had said that it would not take steps to oppose or brief against it. When challenged by NE, it replied that: “There may have been some misunderstanding of miscommunication”.

This intervention by the RSPB was confirmed in a further email from NE’s Project Manager: “‘I should have added further context from the Salamanca group, which Alan and I heard from (Redacted) over lunch after the Junta meeting. These being: in the telephone conversation on Tuesday, SEO stated they were acting on behalf of their friends the RSPB. The 11th hour intervention from the SEO had been prompted and in part worded by RSPB – for example, the SEO refer to concerns over persecution levels in the UK and birds flying north to be shot. Clear lines from RSPB and not something SEO alone have a clue about’.

Despite NE having had the necessary infrastructure and personnel in place in Wiltshire to receive the first hen harriers from Spain in 2019, and some £300,000 of public money having been allocated to the project in 2017/18 and 2018/19, no reintroduction of the birds took place because the already short window for the necessary permissions and logistics had been lost.  As a handover note provided by Defra stated: ‘Due to contact by RSPB with conservation groups in France and Spain NE has been unable to source chicks for the re-introduction. Without chicks the re-introduction cannot go ahead and we cannot stop RSPB’.

Adrian Blackmore, Director of Shooting for the Countryside Alliance said: “Given that The RSPB undertake bird reintroductions themselves, and are supportive of the current Osprey reintroduction project in Poole Harbour, the proposed white-tailed sea eagle reintroduction to the Isle of Wight, and are directly involved with the golden eagle reinforcement programme in the south of Scotland where ongoing persecution is still problematic, their opposition to the reintroduction of hen harrier into Southern England is quite extraordinary."

He went on to say: "Blocking this government led project, which would have seen these magnificent birds nesting and hunting across Southern counties, raises enormous questions about the RSPB’s priorities. Having been caught undermining Natural England’s reintroduction programme, the RSPB now needs to come clean. Either it must restate that it is not opposed to hen harriers being introduced either from France and Spain, and make that very clear to its sister organisations in those countries, or be totally open about its opposition and explain why it doesn’t want to see the conservation status of hen harriers in England improved.”

Coverage of this investigation has been published in The Times (27/07/2020).

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