3 of the 5 Peak District hen harrier chicks already dead

Older female hen harrier credit T Birch Derbyshire Wildlife TrustFollowing on from the news story nine days ago of a successful hen harrier breeding attempt in the Derbyshire Peak District (see here), it has been announced that three of the five chicks are already dead.

The following press statement has been released by The National Trust:

Newsflash 12 September 2014: We are very saddened by the deaths of three of the hen harrier chicks. All indications are that two of the birds were killed by a natural predator. The body of the third has been recovered and, along with the remains of the other two, has been sent for post-mortem (as is usual practice), but there is no evidence of suspicious activity at this stage. Two chicks are still doing well. This news reinforces the need to have a strong and healthy population of hen harriers in the Peak District and England: one nest is not enough as there will always be natural losses. We will continue to work with our partners to protect the remaining chicks and create an environment where hen harriers can thrive in the future.

Predation, if that’s what this is, is a natural phenomenon; most species are particularly vulnerable during their first year. Raptor populations in general are especially sensitive to high mortality as many bird of prey species take several years to reach breeding maturity and then only produce a few offspring in any given year. This is why the additional illegal killing of raptors can have such a devastating impact at the population level – once the population level has dropped it can take a long time for it to recover.

This year’s Peak District hen harrier chicks were also at a disadvantage having fledged relatively late in the breeding season. It’s a well established ecological concept that the offspring of early breeders generally have a much better survival rate than those of late breeders.

Having said that, there are many examples of fake ‘natural’ deaths, set up in an attempt to hide a crime. The most prominent one that springs to mind is the case of the Deeside eagle, believed to have been caught in an illegal trap on an Angus grouse moor and then taken by vehicle, overnight, to be dumped at a roadside location 15 km away from the moor to make it look like the bird had had an ‘accident’ (see here and here).

Given the notoriety of the Peak District as a hotspot for crimes against raptors, we hope that the post mortem results of the three dead birds will be published, along with their locations, to allay any suspicions that they were the victims of illegal persecution.

Photo of one of this year’s hen harrier chicks by Tim Birch (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust).

UPDATE: The Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group (PDRMG) has put out a statement that includes this:

“Early post-mortem results indicate that disease is most likely cause of death for all three birds”.

PDRMG statement here

24 thoughts on “3 of the 5 Peak District hen harrier chicks already dead”

  1. Such sad news, let’s hope that it was by ‘natural’ causes and not criminal.
    On a positive note, I’m sure if we all continue to get the message out there of the importance of the survival of these birds, we will win in the end. Look at the amazing results we had with the Red Kite.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Me being me find it difficult to believe that three young Hen Harriers have ALL died as a result of predation. The boot of a car and a 15km drive….Mmmm!

    I just wish I could stop being so negative/pessimistic.

    1. Pete, I can assure you that there are more positive news stories out there which never get reported. This season on an Angus shooting estate for the second time in recent years have again successfully fledged triplet Golden Eagles. How amazing and wonderful is that?

    2. Its a reality, things don’t live on fresh air and need to kill to survive, they may have been taken over a few nights or days. I saw a buzzard eating large chicks last year, none were left, once the predator has found a meal source it will come back again, I disturbed it, and it had killed two when I saw it, the mother bird was going demented. If its been human killing then the pm may reveal some cause of death, ie gun or toxin, try catching a harrier ,I think it would be impossible, without some sort of weapon. Certainly hope the two remaining chicks survive.

      1. The bird I saw was a hen pheasant with just 2 chicks, it was jumping up and down and making a distressed noise, I knew something was being attacked, I ran to it and a buzzard got up and flew away, leaving the 2 chicks dead, they were just feathered up , more may have been swallowed before I got there, it did drive home to me how deadly buzzards can be .

  3. It will highly likely be a fox, a harrier nest is an easy find for a fox or a badger, and a nice change from vole or rabbit,, if theres lots of foxes then the harriers will have their chicks eaten, no doubt about it, .

    1. According to the official press release put out nine days ago, these five chicks had already fledged from the nest. As they were all sat tagged, their final locations will be known. Whether that information ever gets into the public domain is another matter entirely.

  4. Reblogged this on Dragon Mother and commented:
    Sad news. Persecution isn’t enough… Not sure on survival rates of Hen Harrier chicks, but if it’s not great there’s even more reason to protect them and stop landowners/gamekeepers blasting and poisoning them to protect their non-native, profit-earning game birds.

    1. Where do u think harriers roost at night!? It’s highly likely that they can succumb to fox predation especially young ones that aren’t totally savy yet!!

  5. Disappointing but not hugely surprising.

    Would this be the first time the adults had bred?

    And how degraded is the habitat at the breeding site?

    Anyone know?

    1. I don’t know the area at all, and thought the harriers had been taken from their nest, I did think it was rather late for them. I think once they have left the nest they may still roost on the ground as most moors have very few trees to perch in, thus they would still be easy prey to foxes, any sizeable bird is a sitting target, sat asleep . A post mortem would see shot wounds or pellets, but if they’ve been predated then there ought to be very little left of them.

  6. Alright, I didn’t know they were on the wing. Possible buzzard or goshawk victims, or if they were roosting in the heather, then could be fox.

  7. It would be interest of all parties for the last location these youngsters to be made public to stop all speculation, a few points to remember, the last pair of Hen Harriers in this region failed, their nest was predated, at the time there was much discussion as to whether it was predated by a fox or a terrier like dog, one thing you should ask yourself on this, how many foxes do you think would be roaming on a grouse moor in the height of the breeding season? This is why it is important for the final locations of these young to be revealed. Another point, I don’t think we should really be celebrating the fact that a shooting tenant didn’t break the law, Geoff Eyre found an active Harrier nest, he had choices, two years ago we would not have heard about this nest, as he stood over this nest what do you think he thought, am I under surveillance or oh how wonderful a nest full of young Hen Harriers, a Goshawk was found in the peaks back in April with its legs broken, the National trust has threatened to oust the Shooting fraternity off its land if it doesn’t clean its act up in this area ( this is why we need vicarious liability in England ) Mr Eyre had no option but to reveal this nest, as to the fate of the youngsters though we need to know were abouts they died to know whether they have been tracked down to their roost

  8. Speculate, fantasize, as much has you want, unless full details, including the birds last whereabouts are revealed then it is only natural that sinister & criminal activity in the deaths of these young harriers will be suspected, such is the relentless illegal persecution levelled at them.

  9. A bit late coming back to this, I assume it has become of interest again due to Mark Avery’s recent guest blog. There was an updated NT Statement (last few lines http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dark-peak/wildlife/article-1355874626227/ ).

    Everyone will have an opinion so I will share mine, from the data provided by the nest watchers we know that the last time all the young were observed together was the 31st of August and that 2 were found dead on the 4th Sept and the 3rd one (the sat tagged one) was reported missing to us on the 5th Sept, looking at the data it appears that she hadn’t moved on the 3rd which means she died between the 1st and the 3rd Sept. (48 hour recharge on the tag) so we know that 3 of the young died in that 3-4 day period. (2 of the young were found within a couple of metres of the nest and the 3rd more complete corpse was found within a few hundred metres)

    The facts for don’t really support avian predation as the cause of death, but we shouldn’t rule out that it could have had an effect on the birds (the stress of attacks can lower the immune systems), but once again we don’t actually know whether or not this weakening of the immune system took place.

    There wasn’t enough left of the 1st two dead birds to get anything useful from, chances are that they were scavenged after dying or killed whilst dying and this is most likely to have happen during the night (or again it should really have been recorded by a watch). The 3rd bird was recovered complete and in reasonable condition, it had a high worm load and signs of disease as per the ‘draft’ Postmortem.

    It’s not 100% but it seems highly likely that since these 3 birds died in a such a short period of time, that they did died of disease.

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