Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, reports on the sudden disappearances of three more tagged hen harriers in England and Wales in suspicious circumstances.
Just weeks after celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK this summer, the sobering reality of the continued illegal killing of our birds of prey was brought firmly into light with the suspicious disappearance of three satellite tagged birds in England and Wales.
All of the birds were fitted with satellite tags this summer as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we were regularly tracking their movements as they left their nests and started to make their way into the world. We’d hoped against hope that they’d at least manage to survive for a year or two, but we’re very sad to see that these three birds only lasted a couple of months.
Young female harrier Hilma was tagged in June 2018 at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders. After she left her nest, she moved across into Northumberland. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 8 August showed she was near Wooler, Northumberland over land managed for driven grouse shooting.
Hilma is the second tagged bird to disappear in Northumberland in the past year, after we reported on the disappearance of Manu in October 2017, closely followed by his brother Marc in Cumbria in February 2018.
Hilma. Photo - Steve Downing
A few weeks later another female bird, Octavia, vanished without trace. She hatched from a nest on National Trust’s High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park in June. This was the first time the species had bred in this area for four years. Again, we had high hopes that the tables may have turned in favour of our hen harriers and we watched anxiously as she began to spread her wings.
Octavia stayed faithfully close to her nest, until the 22 August when she moved onto privately-owned driven grouse moors near Sheffield. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 26 August showed she was over an area of land managed for driven grouse shooting at Broomhead.
Octavia. Photo - Steve Downing
Just three days later, a bird in north Wales also disappeared. Heulwen was born on a nest in Gwynedd, North Wales, her name was chosen as it is Welsh for ‘sunny’. After she left her nest, Heulwen travelled through north Wales, across Snowdonia and eastwards towards Wrexham. Her satellite was transmitting regularly until it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 29 August show she was within the vicinity of Ruabon Mountain. Heulwen was not far from where Aalin, one of our 2016 cohort, went missing on 9 February 2018.
Heulwen. Photo - Guy Anderson
Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds and tags continue to transmit regularly, even if the bird dies. The tags were all providing regular updates on the birds’ locations, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmissions from three birds all near grouse moors is suspicious, which is why the police are involved in all three cases.
For each of the birds, we have data on the location of their last transmission, which are shown in the maps below. We don’t know anything further about the movements of any of these birds after their last fixes. All three birds were searched for but were not recovered. It is expected that a bird that dies from natural causes the tag will continue to transmit data and provide the opportunity to be found on a follow up search.
Last known fix of Hilma
Last known fix of Octavia
Last known fix of Heulwen
Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite sufficient habitat for over 300 pairs. It is widely understood that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors.
Just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK, but already these young chicks are disappearing in suspicious circumstances when they are just a few months old. It’s devastating for those of us involved in watching and protecting these chicks and terrible news for a birds of prey species that has shown a 24% decline in numbers between 2004 and 2016.
While we don’t yet know what has happened to these three birds, we do know that the main factor reducing the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing of birds associated with the intensive management of grouse moors.
If anyone has any information about the disappearance of any of these birds, please call the police on 101 – or if you have sensitive information which you want to discuss in confidence with the RSPB, you can use the Raptor Crime Hotline 0300 999 0101.
Following on from a successful breeding season, we speak to Jack Ashton-Booth and Tom Grose, our newest Assistant Investigations Officers, investigating hen harrier persecution in England and Wales. Here we get to know them and their work a bit better…
You’re both keen birders. What’s been your best ever birding moment?
Jack: My highlight was in October 2013 witnessing 299 rough-legged buzzards migrating out to sea in southern Demark!
Tom: So many to choose from! Watching a pair of shoebills in Uganda’s Murchison Falls NP as a teenager was like something from a dream… the birds and the setting along the north bank of the Nile were very special.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Jack: Self-confessed raptor geek – read, write, illustrate and watch raptors. If I’m not birding or ringing then I love to climb and keep fit.
Tell us something else we might not know about you…
Tom: By the time you read this, I will have become a father.
How do you describe your job to friends and family?
Tom: I say that we are trying to help one of England’s most threatened birds of prey and explain the persecution these birds face (which generally elicits a shocked response). When I talk about investigations work I usually get called a bird detective.
Jack I try to steer clear of the details and essentially say I have the best job in the world, get to study hen harriers on a near daily basis. Non- birders don’t have a clue what I’m talking about but birders are somewhat mesmerised!
(Jack Ashton-Booth with a young hen harrier)
Without giving away too many secrets, what does your work involve?
Tom: Lots of driving and walking the moors! We aim to find and monitor nesting attempts and, if these are successful, satellite tag the chicks. This results in some spectacular encounters with hen harriers. We can then track these birds’ movements, and if they don’t survive hopefully find out where and why this has happened. We also proactively attempt to stop persecution and ensure that those responsible are held to account.
The EU funded Hen Harrier LIFE project itself focuses on monitoring harriers both on the ground and via satellite tagging. It also includes protecting nests and investigations work pertaining to persecution incidents alongside community engagement and raising awareness of the issues that threaten hen harriers.
Why did you apply for the role?
Jack: I was driven by my passion for raptors and the opportunity to directly make a difference to hen harrier conservation in the UK. I’m hoping to further my understanding of this captivating species.
Tom: I live on the edge of the Peak District, a black spot for raptor persecution, and I’ve witnessed first-hand the effects this has had on individual birds and their populations. This role presented one of the best opportunities to make a difference to that, locally and nationally.
You’ve been in the role several months now. Is it living up to expectations?
Jack: Above and beyond – don’t be fooled, it’s not for the faint hearted and it’s not simply sitting on a hill watching harriers sky dancing (although some days are). It involves LONG hours in the field and can at times feel like you’re swimming against the tide. It’s most definitely a job with the greatest highs and the greatest lows.
Tom: It has exceeded them. I feel incredibly privileged to be part of the team. There have been some real highs and lows but I’ve never been happier in my work. Successfully fitting satellite tags to several broods of chicks was very satisfying after lots of hard work and lots of nervous moments along the way.
Can you tell us more about the help you receive from local raptor workers?
Tom: Quite simply we couldn’t do our job without them. They are the real unsung heroes of raptor conservation. Their years of experience and time spent in the field are vital, especially as we are only a small team. I’d like to extend a huge thankyou to those I’ve worked with this year, particularly the members of the Northern England Raptor Forum. You know who you are!
Jack: The people I liaise with are incredible and know their raptors inside out. What I would love to see however is the old school cliques in the raptor working circles start to open up and allow new blood up the ranks. I know so many amazing young birders keen to learn about raptors and they should be encouraged by their elders. These areas are too big to simply work it alone, more eyes mean more raptors are found.
How do you liaise with the police and CPS?
Tom: As we have no statutory powers ourselves our relationship with these two bodies is vital. We are in regular contact with Wildlife Crime Officers, providing information to them and assisting where we can which helps with enforcement. When a case come to trial, our role is to provide evidence for the CPS to build a case and act as an expert witness.
Who else do you get help from?
Tom: We work in partnership with many organisations such as the Forestry Commission, National Trust, National Parks, Local Wildlife Trusts and raptor groups.
Jack: The forestry commission raptor workers have been amazing and monumental in teaching us tricks of the trade when finding hen harrier territories and nests.
What can the public do to help birds of prey?
Tom: Reporting possible crimes to police and hen harrier sightings to our hotline are both incredibly valuable – you are our eyes and ears. Local communities must make it clear that raptor persecution has no place in their countryside. In order for real change to happen the public as a whole needs to tell those in power that this barbaric practice must stop.
Jack: Question everything when in the countryside. If you see anything on a grouse moor that looks odd, like a spring trap or a cage, then take a photo and send it in to us. Also, report dead or injured birds of prey. The quicker you get info to us the quicker we can respond, and ultimately get a conviction if a crime has taken place.
(Tom Grose recovering a dead bird)
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Tom: The knowledge that many of the chicks we have watched grow won’t make it, not just through natural causes but by being shot or trapped by a selfish few.
Jack: For me the quantity of cases that get dropped by our legal system. If our legal system dictates that a crime has been committed, then it should be treated the same as any other crime and not brushed under the carpet because it is not perceived as a priority case.
You haven’t had your first winter out on the moors yet, are you prepared?!
Tom: In previous roles I’ve spent many winters out on the hills carrying out surveys and habitat restoration. But this time I’ll be doing it to protect hen harriers!
Jack: I can’t think of anything better than a flask of tea and a winter hen harrier roost! Bring it on!
Earlier this month, Les Wallace launched a Government petition calling for an independent review of the economics of driven grouse moors. Our Head of Nature Policy Gareth Cunningham explains why we are calling for a full independent inquiry that not only looks at the economics of grouse moor management but also the role of regulation in the industry.
Les Wallace’s petition raises interesting questions. It requests that benefits such as ecotourism and flood alleviation are fully considered against the economic benefits provided by driven grouse moor management practices. We agree that most previous studies of grouse moor economics have generally only measured economic benefits, whilst the costs or public contribution through Single Farm Payments and agri-environment support are usually disregarded.
It would be helpful if these wider issues could now be considered to allow a properly informed debate. Like other forms of land use, grouse moor management, should be held to account for the way in which it operates, and from our perspective we will challenge any unsustainable and environmentally damaging management practices.
The petition comes at a time when there is increased scrutiny around the way we manage our land, and, in particular, the way that driven grouse moors are managed. Scottish Government has recently set up its own independent inquiry into grouse moor management to look at how this particular land use can be managed both more sustainably and within the law, including options for regulation. The inquiry should report its findings in spring 2019.
The RSPB supports the regulation of “driven” grouse moors to ensure that public interests are safeguarded, including the protection of birds of prey and peatland habitats. The Scottish Government has also commissioned independent research on the impact of large shooting estates on Scotland’s economy and biodiversity. More recently, the Westminster Labour shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman has called for an end for rotational heather burning and an independent review into the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse moors.
These calls for action are, in theory at least, underpinned by the direction and mood of Government. For example, the UK Government’s recently published 25 year plan for the environment provides some clear and bold plans to improve England’s environment. This includes using and managing our land sustainably, with a recognition that a new environmental land management system is needed.
The Environment secretary, Michael Gove MP, has begun to outline the economics of delivering this ambition, calling for public money to deliver public goods. Clearly indicating that those who receive Government subsidies to manage land are expected to deliver clear and tangible benefits to the wider public.
But while most agree we should be using our natural environment sustainably, and ensuring there are benefits for wildlife, there is not always agreement around the need for regulation. In contrast, most other forms of land use involving natural resources management, apart from gamebird hunting, are generally regulated in some form. Wild deer and fish, water management, and forestry are all covered by regulations which define clear public standards required for sustainable management.
Despite this, the UK still lags behind nations in Europe and North America in having no system of regulation for hunting, instead relying heavily on voluntary and self-regulatory codes of practice to encourage compliance with legislation. In the face of increasing intensification of driven grouse shooting management, this approach is failing to deliver both sustainable management of natural resources and the UK’s commitments to halt biodiversity loss. Despite repeated warnings by environmental NGOs, and now the Scottish Government, for the need to stop bad practices, we maintain that grouse moor owners have failed to deliver, and therefore self- regulation has failed. In these circumstances it is now time for the Government to intervene.
We recommend that the UK Government should now follow Scottish Government’s example and launch a full independent inquiry that considers not only the economic benefits of grouse moor management, but also takes account of the use of public funding to supporting existing management practices and the public costs. It is our view that any inquiry should also look into the role of regulation as part of its remit. In so doing the UK Government can take a meaningful step towards delivering the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan, particularly in relation to delivering biodiversity conservation in our internationally important upland landscapes. On this basis, we support this petition and hope this study comes to fruition as part of a wider debate as to how our uplands can be better managed for conservation and in the public interest.