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Rare birds of prey tagged in landmark project

Last modified: 16 October 2015

Female hen harrier in flight

Image: Steve Round

Scottish hen harriers, one of our rarest and most threatened birds of prey, are being tracked via satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, to better understand the threats they face and identify the places they are most at risk.

The satellite tags1 transmit the locations of the harriers on a regular basis, and members of the public will be able to follow the movements of two individuals on a new website launched today2. For security reasons the information available online will be displayed with a two week delay.

Hen harriers used to be widespread in the British uplands but were pushed to the brink of extinction come 19003. Since then, numbers have slowly increased but there are still only around 505 breeding pairs in Scotland4.

“Holly”, the first female harrier, had her satellite tag fitted in June this year by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, assisted by the MOD Police, and was one of three chicks from a nest located on high security MOD land at Coulport. She was named after a member of the production crew from BBC Scotland’s Landward programme, after appearing in a special feature about hen harriers and the threats these birds face from illegal killing. Holly fledged in August and has since left her nest area, moving east into the uplands of Central Scotland.

“Chance” is the second female hen harrier, named by RSPB Scotland, who was tagged in June last year by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group. Chance has provided a wonderful example of how young birds spend their first year. She travelled south from her nest in south west Scotland to the RSPB Wallasea reserve in Essex at the end of October (2014), before crossing the Channel to spend the winter months in the Pays de la Loire region of western France. Chance came back to the UK in spring this year, but has since returned to France via Wales.

Bea Ayling, manager of the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, said: “Hen harriers suffered 20 per cent declines across Scotland between 2004 and 2010 and urgent action is needed to help conserve this species. Illegal killing by humans remains the main problem for these birds despite them having full legal protection for many years. This is because their usual diet of small birds and voles may also include red grouse, thus bringing them into conflict with gamekeepers. Several hen harriers have disappeared in recent months in northern England and one bird, named “Annie”, was found shot dead on moorland in south-west Scotland earlier this year.

“By fitting satellite tags to harriers we can track them accurately to see where they go and find out which areas they’re getting into trouble. We can also gain valuable information on breeding sites, nest locations and, should the worst happen, be able to locate and recover the bodies of dead harriers far more easily. The timely recovery of dead birds may also assist the police and prosecutors in bringing the perpetrators of crimes to justice.”

The European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project was launched by the RSPB in July last year, and is unique in being the first truly cross-border, joint Scottish-English initiative aiming to achieve a secure and sustainable future for this species.

Scotland currently holds the bulk of the UK breeding population of hen harriers with most found in Orkney, the Hebrides and parts of the western mainland.

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