The Honey-buzzard Review of 2003-2005
Part 4: A Lack of Natural Justice
A well publicised review of Honey-buzzard records was made by the Northumberland County Records Committee (NCRC) in 2003-2005 (see Birds in Northumbria 2004, pages 223, 224-225). This is the fourth part of a review of the review.
Previous (Part 3)
One of the objectives of the review was to assess NR's breeding records. To assist in this task NR submitted to the NCRC (Northumberland County Records Committee) a lengthy document on his survey techniques, including descriptions of how a typical Honey-buzzard season progresses in Northumberland with timing details; the strategy adopted for finding breeding birds; the relevant criteria for evidence for breeding as possible, probable and confirmed; and the survey effort. The original document has been extended in 2004 to include how the disturbance permit is used in the field and in 2006 to compare criteria adopted with those used elsewhere in Britain, particularly Scotland.
I was therefore somewhat bemused by this message sent to Ian Fisher (NCRC chair, copy to NR) from David Jardine, a raptor specialist from Scotland with previous experience in Northumberland, including the statement:
I would suggest that it is sensible to consider the terminology of the First Atlas in respect of HBs in Northumberland - are they confirmed breeding, probable breeding, possible breeding or not breeding at all (Sharrock, 1976, p17)?
The official report of the Honey-buzzard review (above, p.224) says:
With regard to the breeding records; [sic] it was felt that it would be prudent to seek outside advice regarding breeding behaviour etc. Honey Buzzard workers in Wales [Steve Roberts] and Scotland [David Jardine] were contacted and asked if they could review the submissions (from a breeding perspective) that had been provided to the CRC. Another Honey Buzzard worker from Kent [Rob Clements] kindly provided information on Honey Buzzard behaviour throughout the breeding season.
Since my submission to the CRC had included the survey techniques, David Jardine's suggestion indicated that he had not received this information. So when I asked the following question (q8) to the NCRC on the review:
Has my very detailed report on methods adopted in the Honey Buzzard survey and results for 2002 (sent you July 2003 at your request) been circulated to CRC members and Steve Roberts and David Jardine?
the response was not a surprise:
Yes, but only to the CRC. This document was labelled ‘confidential’ so it would have been inappropriate to show it to anyone outside the CRC.
So NR's breeding records were reviewed by other raptor workers who had no knowledge of how he worked and who, as per tone of David Jardine's message, assumed that his approach was naïve. This is a denial of natural justice – the right to be heard. It would have been a very simple matter for the NCRC to ask NR for permission to circulate the document to the reviewers. But perhaps the document would have made the reviewers more favourable to NR's results which just possibly was not the desired outcome. Further to declare that “it would have been inappropriate to show it to anyone else outside the CRC” is an incredible statement. It was entirely appropriate, for fair treatment, that the reviewers be given the full picture.
I have no quarrel with David Jardine's message. I believe that he was genuinely trying to resolve the mater in a constructive manner, when he did not realise the toxic aim of some of the participants. However, I would make the following comments:
It is good that David backed off the Heslop-Harrison analogy. Heslop-Harrison was widely regarded as a fraud and raising such issues escalates the situation considerably.
The supposed contributions of international commentators through Birdforum have had their authenticity challenged.
The publications of papers on Honey Buzzards by the British reviewers in independently refereed journals did not extend to identification issues; indeed the reviewers appeared to have little knowledge of the different appearance of juveniles.
Breeding, as per standard criteria, can be confirmed by a number of other methods than simply finding a nest. For instance a family group of adults and recently fledged juveniles is considered as confirmed breeding. There is an element of 'moving the goalposts' in varying the criteria from those normally accepted.
The suggestions for taking the matter forward were much appreciated but difficulties arose as will be described later.
The comment on the lack of involvement of the NCRC with raptors was also appreciated.
The approach taken by the NCRC goes against that most fundamental aspect of justice – the right to be heard. Asking for opinions from expert witnesses while withholding vital evidence supplied by NR is a denial of natural justice. The statement made in the report on the review (above):
Honey Buzzard workers in Wales [Steve Roberts] and Scotland [David Jardine] were contacted and asked if they could review the submissions (from a breeding perspective) that had been provided to the CRC. Another Honey Buzzard worker from Kent [Rob Clements] kindly provided information on Honey Buzzard behaviour throughout the breeding season.
is just plain wrong. My submissions from a breeding perspective were not reviewed.
In the official report there is also an acknowledgement to Brian Etheridge. Brian did helpfully visit the study area in Northumberland after the review; the nature of his involvement is unclear at the time the review was published.
Next (Part 5)