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.
How sad to hear this news. It's high time these 'black holes' for tagged raptors were permanently closed, in all senses of the word. Full marks to the terrific landowners who continue to prove that it is possible to run a shooting estate without killing our birds of prey.