RSPB Investigations Officer David Hunt reports on the death of Carroll, another satellite-tagged hen harrier
Being tasked with monitoring the whereabouts of the RSPB’s English satellite-tagged hen harriers, you never know what drama might be lurking around the corner. Only in December, I had remarked to a colleague about how settled the English class of 2016 seemed to be in their respective wintering grounds. I clearly spoke too soon. Shortly after came the cessation of data in the North Pennines from Bonny, the RSPB Geltsdale bird now presumed to have died. And now unfortunately, Carroll, one of our young Northumberland females from 2016 has also died. The world of hen harrier conservation does certainly involve some low moments.
Carroll was a Northumberland hen harrier through and through. One of two to fledge the nest on land managed by the Forestry Commission, she was named in July 2016 after the much-loved and dearly missed hen harrier champion, Mick Carroll, whom the dedicated raptor community sadly lost in 2015. Aside from a single night jaunt across the border to Scotland in the Cheviots and once down to Hadrian’s Wall country in September, Carroll was firmly at home in the uplands of north Northumberland.
Much to everyone’s delight, she was often sighted by raptor workers at a regular roost location in the county, whilst her tag data also unlocked details on previously unknown upland roost spots that she frequented. Having personally witnessed her as a day-old chick in the nest, I followed her journey into the wider world and despite not seeing her, myself and a colleague made the considerable hike to one of her favoured upland roost locations in the Cheviots in September. A wild and at times, inhospitable environment, but one that she was clearly happy to call home temporarily.
Carroll in the nest, Northumberland 2016 (Credit: Forestry Commission)
Carroll was found dead in a farmer’s field near Alnwick, Northumberland in late January, by a member of an organised pheasant shoot. Encouragingly, the estate contacted the Northumbria Police. Simultaneously, having studied Carroll’s recent satellite tag data, I became increasingly concerned that there may be problem with her and began to make a few frantic phone calls to colleagues. We then received the news that she had indeed been found dead a short while later prompting some even more frantic phone calls. Thankfully, Wildlife Crime Officer PC Paul Sykes swiftly attended on 26th January to retrieve the body of Carroll with the full assistance and cooperation of the estate.
She was then sent to the renowned Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for a post-mortem examination, expertly conducted within 24 hours of the retrieval in the field. This found that Carroll was in very poor condition and was suffering an infectious disease. More tests are being undertaken. However the story does not end there. The post-mortem examination also detected the presence of two shotgun pellets lodged in Carroll’s body, one in the leg and one in the neck. The pellets were not attributed to any visible injury, indicating that her wounds had healed and against the odds, Carroll had remarkably survived being shot.
Radiograph of Carroll showing two pieces of shot (Credit: Zoological Society of London)
When and where she was shot at we will never know, but given how well the wounds had healed, it is likely to have been sometime in 2016. The shot in her body makes it clear that within just a few months from leaving her natal area in Northumberland in August 2016, she had been a victim at the hand of man.
This sad news follows that of the satellite tagged harrier Rowan, whose body was recovered in October last year by Natural England in Cumbria. A ZSL post mortem examination confirmed she had been shot, the radiograph showing the fractured left leg. Carroll and Rowan graphically illustrate why the state of hen harriers in our English uplands remains so fragile.
Radiograph of Rowan, showing fractured left leg (Credit: Zoological Society of London)
In addition to Carroll, we have recently had the potential re-appearance of Highlander and the presumed death of the famed RSPB Geltsdale male, Bonny. So Carroll’s death is yet another twist in the rollercoaster that is England’s hen harriers. Based on the events of recent years, it is impossible to predict how the 2017 breeding season will unfold, but hopefully Northumberland will host more of this regrettably rare, bird of prey.
Special thanks must go to Northumbria Police and ZSL for their critical work in the investigation and to the estate and the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership in reporting the discovery of Carroll and aiding the recovery of her body.
If you're lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please help us keep track by submit your sightings (description of the bird, time, date, location with grid reference if possible) to our Hen Harrier Hotline on 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting:www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer on Twitter.
I'd like to add my thanks the estate which reported the bird. Clearly there are estates which are prepared to act responsibly. If their voices could be heard in the organisations who represent estates, then perhaps we could start to get somewhere.
It is so sad that the 2016 English reared harriers are having such a torrid time, but it makes it harder to conceal the truth.