Permission was given in July for a judicial review of Natural England’s decision to grant a licence to allow brood management of the birds. The case is being brought by leading conservationist Mark Avery, represented by law firm Leigh Day.

In January 2018 Natural England granted a two year licence to trial the brood management of hen harriers - one of the rarest birds in England that has the highest possible conservation status for a wild bird and is a protected species under the EU Birds Directive. Brood management involves authorising what is otherwise a criminal offence, the removal of the eggs or chicks of hen harriers from their nests. Under the proposed licences the young birds are reared in captivity before they are reintroduced into the wild.

Campaigners argue that the plan places the precarious English population of hen harriers at further significant risk and fails to address what all agree is the root cause of the hen harrier’s decline, illegal persecution on grouse moors where the bird of prey is known to kill red grouse. Critics are concerned that the plan will do nothing to boost the hen harrier population and only serves to placate grouse moor owners and the grouse shooting industry.

Natural England’s stated rationale for the trial is to see whether brood management “could reduce the perceived conflict between hen harriers and grouse management” and thereby lead to fewer attempts to kill hen harriers illegally.

In his legal case Dr Avery argues that Natural England’s decision to grant the licence was unlawful as there were alternative satisfactory solutions available which under the EU Birds Directive had to be considered before Natural England could decide to authorise the taking of eggs and the disturbing of a hen harrier’s nest which is ordinarily a criminal offence. He will argue that the alternative solutions that Natural England should have considered include: licensing grouse shooting; increasing criminal enforcement, introducing vicarious liability for wildlife crime (as recently adopted in Scotland) and considering banning grouse shooting altogether.

The case has been funded through a CrowdJustice campaign that raised over £25,000 in less than four days with donations received from more than 900 people.

Mark Avery said:

“I am very much looking forward to our day in court to present our evidence in this case. I believe that the decision to grant this licence by Natural England is not only harmful to the magnificent hen harrier but is also unlawful. The support we have receive in this case so far is overwhelming and demonstrates the strength of feeling there is to protect this endangered species.”

Tessa Gregory, partner at law firm Leigh Day, added:

“We hope that the court will accept our client’s arguments and quash Natural England’s original decision so that alternative actions can be considered that are compatible with EU law and ensure the protection and growth of the fragile hen harrier population in its natural habitat.”