By Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, Scotland
Lad was a male hen harrier who was fitted with a LIFE+ Project satellite tag by licensed RSPB staff on 16th July 2015, a few days before he fledged from a nest on an estate owned by Wildland Ltd in the Cairngorms National Park, in southern Inverness-shire.
After fledging in late July, Lad stayed close to the nest area until the last week of August, when he then moved a short distance away from the estate where he was tagged.
Photo credit: Dave Pullan
Only a few days later, on 3rd September, RSPB staff monitoring the transmissions from Lad’s tag became concerned that he had stopped moving in an area of moorland, still within the National Park, near Newtonmore. On the 10th, with further transmissions confirming he was dead, RSPB Scotland Investigations staff visited the area after informing the police, and found Lad’s body lying face down in the heather.
The carcass was recovered, the police were informed, and Lad’s remains were delivered to the SRUC Veterinary laboratory near Penicuik the following day.
Photo credit: RSPB Investigations
We received the preliminary post mortem report from the laboratory a few days later. It stated: “The skin was split open on the left side of the neck parallel with the jugular groove. There was haemorrhage in the subcutaneous tissues in this area and a horizontal split in the trachea. There was damage to three feathers of the right wing consisting of a single groove mark perpendicular to the shaft of each feather.”
The body was then X-rayed. The subsequent follow-up SRUC post mortem report from 29th September stated: “Despite the failure to identify metallic fragments within the carcase the appearance of the damage to the wing feathers is consistent with damage caused by shooting. The injury to the neck could be explained by a shot gun pellet passing straight through the soft tissue of the neck. Both injuries could have brought the bird down and proved fatal.”
Copies of the preliminary and follow-up post mortem reports were immediately passed to Police Scotland. RSPB Scotland understands that the police have subsequently had meetings with representatives of several estates located in the vicinity of where Lad’s body was recovered.
We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Wildland Ltd who gave permission and access to fit the satellite tag on Lad, staff at the SRUC Veterinary laboratory for undertaking the post mortem work and to Police Scotland for their follow-up to this case. We are of course saddened that the sudden death of Lad has deprived us of the opportunity to follow his travels through Scotland and beyond, and maybe go on to raise chicks of his own.
We wish to appeal to anyone who can provide any information about Lad’s untimely and early death to contact Police Scotland on 101.
Last summer, we fitted a satellite tag to a male hen harrier chick at a nest in Northumberland. He was named Nile by our Investigations team. We were able to track his movements south to Salisbury Plain over the autumn, and along with records from the Wiltshire Ornithological Society, his tag revealed new winter roosting and foraging areas for hen harriers in the area.
Nile with his satellite tag fitted (photo credit: RSPB Investigations)
The MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) - responsible for managing and maintaining the MoD’s land and properties - has been working with its tenants for many years to implement management measures at known roost sites to improve conditions for hen harriers. The new information from Nile’s tag will allow the DIO to implement further measures in these new areas to make their land even better for these spectacular birds.
Sadly, not long after migrating across the channel to northern France, data for Nile’s tag showed that he had died. We organised a search for his body, but unfortunately it could not be found so we will never know his cause of death.
Although we are gutted that we were not able to follow Nile’s progress further, it’s heartening to know that information from his satellite tag will help protect roosting harriers in future.
Guest blog by Simon Wotton, RSPB Conservation Science
There will be a full survey of breeding hen harriers in the UK and Isle of Man in 2016. The last national survey of this UK red-listed species of conservation concern was in 2010, when the population was estimated at 662 territorial pairs (95% confidence interval, 576–770), an 18% decline in the population between 2004 and 2010. The population decreased in parts of Scotland and the Isle of Man, and remains at very low levels in England. The survey will provide updated estimates of population size and national and regional trends since 2010. As a high profile species of great conservation concern, current information on status across the UK range is vital.
In Scotland, the survey is being organised by RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Raptor Study Group. Survey coverage will be organised in coordination with the Scottish Raptor Study Group. Non-random ‘census’ coverage of core areas will be carried out by volunteers, and randomly selected 10km squares will be surveyed in the rest of the range, by RSPB fieldworkers. The survey area (the species’ known range) has been defined using results of the last survey and the Bird Atlas 2007-11, consultation within the RSPB and with the statutory conservation agencies, and by approaching Raptor Study Groups for their knowledge and details of the “core areas” for hen harrier that they usually monitor.
Planned survey coverage in Scotland, by volunteers and RSPB fieldworkers.
Elsewhere, it is expected that complete coverage will be achieved of all suitable 10km squares within the Hen Harrier range in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The other survey partners are Natural England, Northern England Raptor Forum, Natural Resources Wales, Manx BirdLife and the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group.
Field surveys will follow the well-established two to three visit method between late March and the end of July, giving the advantage of good comparability with previous surveys. If no birds have been seen, or breeding has not been confirmed, during the first two visits, a third visit may be made between late June and the end of July.