Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, reports on the sudden disappearance of three tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances
With the arrival of spring, we look forward to the warmer weather kickstarting the growth of new flowers as buds burst into life. Animals start to appear again, some rousing sleepily from their hibernation. We dust ourselves off after the long winter, ready for a summer of activity.
Our hen harriers become more active too as they begin to move away from their winter roosts, making longer flights towards upland areas to scope out potential nesting sites, ready to pair up and raise a brood of their own. Here at the Hen Harrier LIFE project, we already have reports of skydancing males, pair bonding and nest building. We watch with anticipation to see if our tagged birds will settle and try to raise a family.
Sadly, the more active and visible they are, the more vulnerable they are to illegal persecution. Whilst 95% of their diet comprises small mammals, hen harriers also eat a small proportion of other birds, including grouse, which brings them into direct conflict with moorland that is being managed for grouse shooting, and particularly those with intensive grouse rearing for driven shooting. I’m devastated to report the sudden disappearances of three birds in suspicious circumstances, two in Scotland and one in England, reminding us of the perils they face every day.
Saorsa was one of four chicks to fledge from a nest on a private estate in Ross-shire in June 2017. After fledging, she headed north towards Lairg then on to Wick, and stayed in this area until the end of October before heading south and visiting our RSPB reserve at Insh Marshes. By November she had headed further south to the Angus Glens and stayed there for the rest of the winter, until her tag suddenly and inexplicably ceased transmissions in this area on 16 February 2018, with no indications of any technical problems with the tag. A search was conducted by Police Scotland, assisted by RSPB Investigations staff, but no tag or body was found.
A map of Saorsa's final journey
Balnagown Estate, near Tain in Sutherland, expressed their sadness at losing this special bird. They told us: “Saorsa hatched and fledged from Balnagown Estate and it was fascinating following her progress online since she was fitted with a satellite tag in June 2017. The Estate strives hard to assist with conservation and protection of our wonderful wildlife.”
Saorsa's last known location
Finn and her three brothers fledged from a nest on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland in 2016, one of only three successful nests in the whole of England for that year, and we fitted her satellite tag in early July. After fledging, she travelled west into southern Scotland and spent her first winter in Ayrshire. She successfully raised and fledged one chick in the summer of 2017. She then remained in southern Scotland, making a couple of brief trips over the border with England, and her tag was giving us good data. Then on 25 March 2018, transmissions suddenly and unexpectedly stopped near Moffat. RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search, but again no tag or body was found, and her disappearance was reported to Police Scotland.
A map of Finn's final journey
Finn was named after young conservationist Findlay Wilde who told us “I always knew following Finn's journey would be a rollercoaster of emotions and felt she was probably living on borrowed time, but she seemed to soar through all the challenges that came her way. In the short time we followed her, we went through every emotion possible; from the excitement of knowing she had safely fledged to the nagging worries that she was settling in high risk areas; and then of course to the worst news of all. Finn isn't just another statistic in growing listing of missing hen harriers. Her life mattered, and she mattered to me."
Having survived her first year and even raised a chick, we had high hopes for Finn going into 2018. We had only three nests in England in 2017, and we were waiting with anticipation to see if she might pair up and settle with a male there to raise her own brood, but those hopes are now sadly dashed.
Finn's last known location
Blue and his two siblings fledged from a nest in South Lanarkshire in 2017 and his satellite tag was fitted in early July. After fledging, Blue remained in south west Scotland until October, before settling in Cumbria. In January, Blue headed north again, back to Dumfries and Galloway where he remained until March and his final journey saw him head back down to Cumbria. His tag was functioning perfectly, until 31 March 2018, when transmissions suddenly and unexpectedly stopped near Longsleddale in Cumbria. RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search, but no tag or body was found, and his disappearance was reported to Cumbria Police as suspicious, due to the sudden stop of transmissions.
A map of Blue's final journey
After the sudden disappearances of satellite tagged brothers Marc and Manu in similarly unsettling circumstances just a few months earlier, parts of the north of England are a dangerous place for our hen harriers to visit.
Blue’s last known location
Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said: “As we followed our tagged birds, we were overjoyed to see they had survived the winter, showcasing their adept hunting skills to find prey even in deep snow, so it’s difficult to put into words just how devastating it is to lose so many in such rapid succession across the country and with no explanation – it seems our hen harriers are not safe in many parts of the country due to illegal persecution, and taking action to protect them is more important than ever”.
If you want to help hen harriers, there are lots of things you can do: you can support our work by sharing your sightings, purchasing hen harrier pin badges, volunteering with the RSPB, your local raptor group or conservation organisation, contacting your local MP or MSP to raise your concerns, talking to your friends and family, finding out more about the LIFE project on our website, and joining the conversation on twitter to help raise awareness.
Tackling raptor crime is a priority for the RSPB. Through the Hen Harrier LIFE project, we are tracking hen harriers, and protecting and monitoring them at roost and nest sites, as well as documenting and reporting incidences of wildlife crime. We are working with communities to raise awareness of hen harriers. We work alongside Police Wildlife Crime Officers to follow up reported incidences of wild bird crime and develop new strategies for tackling this conservation problem. We work with UK Governments to develop policies for sustainable moorland management. The RSPB is completely opposed to brood management of hen harriers in England and has applied to the High Court for permission for a judicial review of Natural England’s grant of consent for a hen harrier brood management trial.
If you have any information relating to any of the incidents described above, please call the Police on 101. Alternatively, you can call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline confidentially on 0300 999 0101. All calls are anonymous. If you find a wild bird that you suspect was illegally killed in England and Wales, contact RSPB Investigations on 01767 680551 or in Scotland call 0131 317 4100. Alternatively, you could fill in the online form: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/wildbirdslaw/reportform.aspx
The plight of our hen harriers is a national disgrace. The relentless persecution will not end until driven grouse shooting is consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Then we can start to rebuild the shattered ecology of our uplands, and our national Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty can become what they were intended to be.
This is so sad. There can be little doubt as to the fate of these birds. As there is no risk of being caught and punished, the perpetrators do not seem to care that people who do care about these birds know what is happening.