Hawk and Owl Trust lose Chris Packham and court controversy

The Hawk and Owl Trust are beginning to received much criticism for their stance on how to manage Hen Harrier. Andreas Trepte (commons.wikimedia.org).
The Hawk and Owl Trust are beginning to received much criticism for their stance on how to manage Hen Harrier. Andreas Trepte (commons.wikimedia.org).
A surprise tweet from Chris Packham saw him resign as Hawk and Owl Trust president, while the organisation seems determined to go ahead with a translocation scheme which few support.

A resignation tweet from (now former) Hawk and Owl Trust (HOT) president, broadcaster Chris Packham came as a surprise this week, but indicated that policies being pursued by the charity are proving unpopular with conservationists.

Here is what @chrispackham posted: "I this week resigned as President of the Hawk and Owl Trust. Very sad, I'd been a member since 1975." He later tweeted that the resignation had been for undisclosed "personal differences over ideas of policy". 

No precise statement has been forthcoming about what has caused this rift, but it suspected that the trust's support for a potentially misguided scheme to use the euphemistically termed 'brood management' technique to try to save the English Hen Harrier population may be at the root of it.

According to a posted comment on Birdwatch columnist Mark Avery's blog, by Chairman of HOT, Philip Merricks, the trust is planning to help conserve England's last few remaining breeding Hen Harriers by brood management. This means the removal of eggs or chicks from the nest and translocating them to sites where antagonistic landowners won't feel the need to illegally kill them. Merricks is himself a major farmer and landowner who benefits from government wildlife funding and has contributed to the discredited Songbird Survival magazine.

Merricks states that recently "the Board of Trustees agreed unanimously ... that a Hen Harrier brood-management scheme trial ... is the way forward for the recovery of Hen Harrier populations". He also says that the Hawk and Owl Trust is continuing with its stated remit of "working for wild birds and their habitats," and that this trial scheme fulfils that objective. However, the at present nebulous proposals have already earned the disapproval of the RSPB and approval of some shooting interests. See Mark Avery's blog for Merricks’s comment in full.

Many conservationists privately view this mooted plan as the equivalent of moving a shop to prevent theft, rather than catching and punishing the thieves themselves. The trial itself will run the risk of potentially damaging the very small English Hen Harrier population by causing desertion and depleting their numbers. The trial stops short of being explicit policy, but rumours and comments suggest that the eyebrow-raising idea of removing the chicks and then releasing them at the same site following fledging has also been discussed.

HOT claims to have the support of the wider conservationist community, but it is difficult to pin down exactly where this support has come from. Whatever the reasons for Packham's departure, HOT seems unwilling to address the fact that Hen Harriers and other birds of prey are illegally persecuted by some landowners and their employees, and that these criminals need to be caught and punished under the law to prevent it from continuing.

Actual details of the scheme that HOT is proposing have not been released, and all those interested in British wildlife and conservation will be keen to see what emerges from a meeting of the Board of Trustees to be held in March.