Eggs in one basket? The decision to grant a licence to take eggs from hen harrier's nests has certainly ruffled some feathers- and campaigners are challenging its legality. Environment Editor TONY HENDERSON reports.
In January, Natural England issued a licence permitting the trial of a brood management scheme for hen harriers, which involves rearing chicks in captivity and releasing them back into the wild, with the long-term aim of increasing numbers.
Northumberland is at the centre of hen harrier survival hopes, with the county the location of all-but-one of the handful of successful nests in the last two years.
Conservationists claim efforts should be directed instead at halting the illegal persecution of the birds, especially in upland areas managed for grouse shooting.
The licence move was dismissed by the RSPB, which said: "The idea that brood management is about helping hen harriers is nonsense.
"It is about facilitating unsustainable intensive land management which is destroying our uplands."
Now law firm Leigh Day, which represents conservation expert Dr Mark Avery, has sent a pre-action protocol letter to Natural England legal services arguing its decision to grant a licence is unlawful as there are alternative sensible and effective actions available.
The firm also claims it flies in the face of the EU Birds Directive, which aims to protect all of the 500 wild bird species naturally occurring in the European Union.
Leigh Day says the decision to grant the licence was procedurally unfair because it involved no public consultation and interested stakeholders were unable to explain the alternatives available and or test the scientific basis for the trial.
Tessa Gregory, from Leigh Day, said: "Our client believes the decision to grant this licence is unlawful as it is in breach of EU law - it takes criminal activity as its starting point and looks to ease the path for those who break the law, often for profit, for the purpose of shooting red grouse."
A CrowdJustice campaign to raise PS25,000 to mount a judicial review against Natural England reached its target in four-and-a-half days.
Dr Avery said: "The Department for Environment must get a grip of the ecological damage caused by grouse shooting, and should start by enforcing the law that should protect these marvellous birds.
"We have now met our fundraising target and the response shows how strongly wildlife lovers feel about this issue."
More than 123,000 people signed an online petition by former RSPB conservation director Dr Avery to ban driven grouse shooting, which ran for six months. In 2016, the only Turn to Page 30 From Page 29 successful hen harrier nests were in Northumberland, where two pairs fledged six young and just over the border in Cumbria at the RSPB Geltsdale reserve where a single chick was raised.
Last year the only three successful nests recorded in England were all in Northumberland despite ecologists calculating that moorland habitat nationally could naturally support at least 300 pairs.
In January, the Moorland Association said it welcomed the decision by Natural England to test if brood management will help improve the hen harrier population and range in upland northern England.
Amanda Anderson, association director, said: "This decision is an important step forward in the effort to improve hen harrier conservation.
"Brood management is a conservation tool that has been used successfully in other countries, with other species and has the potential to make real progress on this issue.
"There is a real desire across many countryside organisations to help unlock a predator-prey conflict to the benefit of both species.
"The Moorland Association is pleased to be part of the group that will be running the project which includes Natural England, Hawk and Owl Trust, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, International Centre for Birds of Prey and Aberdeen University.
"Moorland managed for red grouse contributes significantly to remote rural communities, businesses and treasured landscapes. "This new wildlife management licence will give land managers confidence that the impact of hen harriers breeding on their land can be managed, to the benefit of both the harriers and other upland ground nesting birds."
A spokesman for Natural England said: "We are committed to protecting the hen harrier for future generations and will continue to work with partners to secure the bird's future.
"We have received a pre-action letter and will respond in due course."
This decision is an important step forward in the effort to improve hen harrier conservation. Brood management is a conservation tool that has been used successfully in other countriesAmanda Anderson
Campaigners are challenging a decision to grant a licence to take eggs from harrier hen nests
An adult female Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus). Hen harriers are on the brink of extinction in England
Northumberland Hen Harrier fledglings