Ian Thomson is RSPB Scotland's Head of Investigations, whose team help to monitor the data from our satellite tagged hen harriers. Here he shares some upsetting news.
We knew it would happen sooner or later, I just hoped that for once it might be later... It’s very disappointing to have to break the news that one of our satellite-tagged youngsters has already “gone missing”, on a grouse moor in the Monadhliath Mountains, south-east of Inverness. We’ve barely even had the chance to properly introduce you to our new group of hen harriers which fledged from nests in England and Scotland this year before we have to announce this terrible news.
Our male bird, nicknamed Elwood by RSPB staff, after the Blues Brothers, was the only chick to fledge from a nest in Banffshire. With a tough start to life due to apparently limited food, this nest was carefully monitored under the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland) “Heads-up for Harriers” scheme.
Recently tagged Elwood, back in his nest. Photo credit: Adam Fraser
Elwood was tagged on 27 June when he was about four weeks old and was our first bird to be fitted with a transmitter this year. He fledged from his nest in the hills above the River Spey in Banffshire in the first week of July, but stayed close to the site and home as hen harriers often do in the early days, getting used to their wings and practicing their hunting skills over familiar ground. Eventually on 20 July, he began to travel more widely and seven days later, Elwood had moved 20 miles to the south west, and had settled in the hills around Tomatin.
He stayed in this area for a while, with the transmitter providing detailed information about his daily travels until suddenly, transmissions ceased abruptly on 3 August. His last recorded position was in an area of managed moorland a few miles from the Slochd summit on the A9.
It’s been a tough few years for birds of prey in this region, with news emerging last week that eight satellite-tagged golden eagles had also disappeared in the same area as Elwood; the northern Monadhliaths. In the last five years, three of these golden eagles, whose transmitters were functioning normally, suddenly and abruptly went “off the radar” this spring.
Elwood showing off his satellite tag. Photo credit: Adam Fraser
This latest disappearance of a satellite-tagged bird is deeply concerning, and joins the long list of protected birds of prey that have been confirmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly in this area. The transmitters being fitted to these birds are exceedingly reliable. If there’s a problem with the battery for instance, it is immediately obvious from the data received and we would expect to see a slow and gradual decline in transmissions over time. In Elwood’s case, as in so many others, the signal was coming through loud and clear and there was absolutely no indication of any technical fault. For the transmissions to stop so suddenly and without warning, something catastrophic must have happened to that tag.
Illegal killing is therefore the most likely explanation of the disappearance of these birds of prey. The absence of typical breeding raptor species from areas of suitable habitat, or at traditional nesting sites, in large parts of the Monadhliaths is further supporting evidence of a major problem with wildlife crime in this area.
The denials and obfuscation from representatives of the land management sector, and their consistent failure to acknowledge and address this problem, is one of the main reasons why our bird of prey populations are struggling in the central and eastern Highlands. We repeat our call to the Scottish Government to introduce a robust system of licensing of game bird hunting, where the right to shoot is dependent on legal and sustainable management of the land, in line with approaches adopted in most other European countries.
It’s increasingly depressing to note that despite there being a good number of enlightened estates who are happy to host and protect nesting birds of prey, as soon as they move away from these protected and safe areas they are being illegally pursued and killed. The nest that Elwood successfully fledged from was monitored through one of those positive joint partnerships between PAW Scotland and the local landowner.
It proves, yet again, that there is a desire by many to see the success of a breeding Hen Harrier population but due to a few pernicious bad apples, we are unable to follow and learn from Elwood, instead we are mourning the loss of achieving a simple goal; of keeping a Hen Harrier alive for more than a few months.
From next week, follow the fortunes of our remaining tagged birds by visiting the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer.
With the notable exception of Henry, few living hen harriers manage to achieve national celebrity status. But at barely six weeks old, our young male, Bonny, is already well used to the public eye, after the fitting of his satellite tag by trained and licensed RSPB staff was filmed and featured on the national BBC Six News last week, as well as a radio edit on BBC R4's PM programme (available here until 17th Sept).
Bonny with his newly fitted satellite tag being held by RSPB's Guy Anderson. Photo: Mark Thomas
Bonny was the only chick to hatch from a clutch of five eggs on RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve this year, marking the first successful nest on the reserve in since 2006, and only the second successful nest in the whole of the North Pennines in the last 10 years. He is one of a number of hen harriers to be satellite tagged as part of RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project across England, Scotland and the Isle of Man this year.
Bonny in his nest at one week old. Photo: Steve Garnett
His name was selected by Chris Packham from over 2,300 entries into the #nameandsave competition, run by LUSH cosmetics, to celebrate the incredible £122,000 raised by their skydancer bathbombs to support hen harrier conservation. Watch Chris announcing the winner here:
Right from the beginning, Bonny's life has been a rollercoaster journey. His mother, a mature female, arrived on the reserve back in May and it quickly became apparent that she was eager for a mate, skydancing (a trait normally reserved for males but used by females in times of desperation) and building dummy nests, but all to no avail. There were no males to be seen.
Several weeks later, when a male finally did appear, it's safe to say she appeared to be deeply unimpressed - he was young and immature, still very brown and yet to earn his adult grey plumage. Normally in a healthy population of hen harriers, a young male like this wouldn't get a look in. But with so few birds in England this year, the female had little option but to accept his advances or leave breeding to another year.
Bonny's mother - a beautiful mature female hen harrier. Photo: Mark Thomas
As soon as the nesting attempt was confirmed, dedicated RSPB staff and volunteers mounted a 24/7 watch, special remote monitoring cameras were placed near the nest, and supplementary food was provided under licence, to ensure that this family of hen harriers had the best possible chance of survival and success. As it turned out, had the supplementary food not been provided, our immature male's inexperience could have proved disastrous. Though a reasonably effective hunter, he was hopelessly inattentive of his now-dependent female, frequently heading off for days at a time before reappearing with another small food offering. The extra food provided by RSPB thankfully ensured that the female never had to go far from the nest to feed herself or her chick.
RSPB Moorland Warden, Steve Garnett, placing day-old chicks and white rats on the supplementary feeding post. All supplementary feeding is carried out under appropriate licence from Natural England. Photo: Mark Thomas
Having received his satellite tag on the 15th August, Bonny is now busily testing his wings and practicing his hunting skills around the reserve, under the continued close watch of our staff and volunteers. It won't be long before he starts venturing further afield and when he does, you'll be able to follow his movements online at rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer.
Good luck, Bonny, and stay safe!
With only a few days to go until the third annual Hen Harrier Day, my thoughts are inevitably with this year’s newly fledged chicks and the challenges facing them as they stretch their wings and take to the air for the first time over the previous and coming weeks.
Despite RSPB’s recent departure from the Defra-led Hen Harrier Action Plan, we remain fully committed to securing a sustainable future for these birds and our European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project has been, and will continue to deliver on-the-ground conservation through nest protection and winter roost monitoring (in partnership with NERF and SRSG), investigations work, and importantly, satellite tagging.
Skydancer bath bombs from LUSH have funded additional satellite tags
This year, thanks to cosmetics company LUSH, and sales of their fabulous Skydancer Bath Bomb, we’ve be able to double the number of satellite tags the project can fit. So far this year, we have fitted satellite tags on birds as far north as Banffshire in Scotland, and soon hope to tag a chick on our Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria, the first hen harrier to hatch at that location in ten long years. Tags have also gone on birds at National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire, amongst other locations. From the end of the summer, you’ll be able to follow the fortunes of 11 of these birds on the LIFE Project website here.
Hen harrier chicks in the nest at Mar Lodge estate, Aberdeenshire, 2016. (c) Shalia Rao
I sincerely hope they fare better than our previous satellite-tagged birds.
Bowland Betty – fledged in 2011, found shot dead on a grouse moor in Yorkshire Dales in June 2012.
Sky – fledged in July 2014, disappeared in Forest of Bowland in September 2014 when tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting
Hope – fledged in July 2014, disappeared in Forest of Bowland in September 2014 when tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting
Burt – sibling to Hope, fledged in July 2014, disappeared after tag showed signs of battery failure with transmissions slowly fading and eventually stopping in December 2014, near Exmoor
Highlander – sibling to Sky, fledged in July 2014, disappeared in April 2016 when tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting
Chance – fledged in 2014, disappeared in South Lanarkshire in May 2016 when tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting
Lad – fledged in July 2015, found dead with injuries “consistent with shooting” in September 2015, in the Cairngorms National Park
Nile – fledged in July 2015, died of unknown causes in Northern France in November 2015, body not recovered
Hetty – fledged from Isle of Man in July 2015, found dead of natural causes in August 2015
Holly – fledged in West Scotland July 2015, disappeared in Central Scotland in October 2015
"Bowland Betty" - female hen harrier having her satellite tag fitted, 2011 (c) RSPB
I look forward to sharing the stories of our new birds with you on our website and @RSPB_Skydancer. In the meantime, I'll be speaking at Hen Harrier Day Northeast this Sunday, hosted at RSPB Saltholme, which is one of many events being held across the country this weekend.
See you there?