Three more satellite-tagged hen harriers ‘disappear’ in suspicious circumstances

RSPB press release, 22 May 2018:


Police and the RSPB are appealing for information following the disappearance of three protected, satellite-tagged hen harriers in Scotland and Cumbria.

After monitoring her progress since she fledged last June, a hen harrier named Saorsa suddenly ceased sending transmissions in February 2018 whilst located in the Angus Glens, Scotland. She has not been seen or heard of since.

A male bird, named Blue, then raised concerns in March this year when his tag, which had also been functioning perfectly, suddenly and inexplicably cut out near Longsleddale, Cumbria.

In the same month, a tagged bird named Finn – after young conservationist Findlay Wilde – vanished near Moffat, Scotland. Finn was tagged as a chick in 2016 from a nest in Northumberland, one of only three hen harrier nests to fledge young in the whole of England that year.

[RPUK map]:

RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search for all three birds, but no tags or bodies were found. Where tagged hen harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies have generally been recovered. Cumbria Police and Police Scotland are making local enquiries.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with just three successful nests recorded in England in 2017. There is a slightly larger population in Scotland. These slight, agile birds of prey nest on the ground, often on moorland. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that their declining population is largely associated with human persecution.

Several birds have been fitted with a lightweight satellite tag as part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project to help build a better understanding of hen harriers, their movements and the threats they face. Since the project began in 2014, a number of tagged hen harriers have disappeared in similarly inexplicable circumstances.

Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said “The UK population of hen harriers is really hanging in the balance and the disappearance of these three birds is extremely troubling. These tags are over 90% reliable and capable of transmitting long after a bird has died. If these birds had died of natural causes we would expect to recover both the tag and the body. But this has not been the case.

Findlay Wilde said “In the short time we followed Finn, 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.”

If you have any information relating to any of these incidents, call police on 101. Or to speak to RSPB investigations in confidence, call the Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.


Dr Cathleen Thomas of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project has written a blog which provides more details of each of the missing harriers – here.

Finn Wilde has also written a blog about the loss of ‘his’ hen harrier – here

The news of these three suspicious disappearances will come as absolutely no surprise to anybody. And neither will the responses of the game-shooting industry, as it trots out the usual, well-rehearsed denials and fake concerns. We’ve seen it time and time again, whether it be about vanishing hen harriers or vanishing golden eagles, and we’ll doubtless see it many more times again. That it’s allowed to continue without sanction is a bloody scandal.

The two young hen harriers that disappeared in Scotland are very interesting.

Saorsa hatched on the Balnagown Estate in Sutherland in 2017. She disappeared in the Angus Glens – a well-known blackspot for illegal raptor persecution and, ironically, in the consituency of Mairi Gougeon MSP, the Hen Harrier Species Champion.

[Photo of Saorsa in the nest, by Brian Etheridge]

We believe the Balnagown Estate was one of several participating in the controversial Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project, whereby estates agree to have cameras installed at hen harrier nest sites to identify the cause of nest failure and help understand the species’ on-going population decline. We’ve blogged about this greenwashing scam many times, and we’ll be doing so again in the very near future, but for now, the fate of Hen Harrier Saorsa is a good demonstration of how futile the project is. She was raised on an estate where there are absolutely no concerns about illegal raptor persecution whatsoever (there’s no driven grouse shooting on the Balnagown Estate) but once she dispersed from the relative safety of that estate, she was at risk. Heading for the Angus Glens, where successfully breeding hen harriers have been absent since 2006, was a seemingly fatal mistake.

Hen Harrier Finn, named after young conservationist Findlay Wilde, hatched on protected Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, 2016. Finn’s last tag transmission came from near Moffat, SW Scotland, which is the location of the controversial golden eagle translocation project, due to start this year.

[Photo of Finn by Martin Davison]

Now, let’s assume that DEFRA’s outrageous hen harrier brood meddling plan had been in place in 2016, and that the Forestry Commission had agreed to participate, then Finn and her three siblings would have been removed from the nest, reared in captivity and then released back to the wild in mid-August, close to their natal territory. This brood meddling plan is purported to ‘protect’ young hen harriers, and DEFRA / Natural England / the grouse-shooting industry all claim that this technique will help increase the population of hen harriers. It’s another greenwashing scam.

Would brood meddling have saved Finn? No, of course not, because Finn ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances (presumed to have been illegally killed) in March, several months after she would have been returned to the wild post-brood meddling. So as many of us have been arguing for years, brood meddling will not help hen harriers because it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of illegal raptor persecution, year-round, that has brought this species to its knees.

Brood meddling is due to begin in England this year, but there are two on-going legal challenges, via judicial review, from Mark Avery and the RSPB. We await further news on these cases.

Meanwhile, across the grouse moors of northern England and Scotland, it’s business as usual for the hen harrier killers.

[Cartoon by Mr Carbo]

UPDATE 24 May 2018: Laughable statement from SGA on missing satellite-tagged hen harriers (here)

UPDATE 25 January 2019: SGA fabricates ‘news’ on missing sat-tagged hen harrier Saorsa (here)

31 thoughts on “Three more satellite-tagged hen harriers ‘disappear’ in suspicious circumstances”

    1. As the estates have been talking about it, perhaps they intend to arrange the translocation through SNH. Shouldn’t take more than a few days to get it passed.
      SNH won’t let the legal issues hold it up, will they?

  1. Small point – in otherwise excellent post. Longsleddale as your map shows in Lake District, not South Lanarkshire.

    [Ed: thanks, we’ve amended the RSPB press release]

  2. Mr Carbo could make it as an interactive reverse ‘christmas’ calendar (but spring instead) so we can count off as they get killed one by one, including a facility in which we can type in the names of the new seasons birds so the whole wicked game goes on and on.
    Totally expected and totally unacceptable.

  3. A coincidence that Blue’s disappearance at Longsleddale was adjacent to Shap Fells SSSI (part of Lake District High Fells SAC), where the Lowther Estate manages heather moorland and blanket bog for driven grouse shooting? [Ed: rest of comment deleted as libellous]

    1. As I understand it that particular grouse moor is now leased by Newton Rigg College, an agricultural college (itself is part of Askham Bryan College). I shall be writing them a letter to enquire whether they will be launching an internal inquiry into the Blue’s disappearance.

    2. I thought that the Lake District was the one part of the northern uplands that didn’t have DGS. Well now I know better, it’s like Fred’s ‘disappearance’ awakened many people to the fact there’s DGS in the Pentland Hills a few miles from Edinburgh.

  4. This also makes a mockery of the lowland re-introduction scheme. The project appears to be based on the premise that birds, especially females, won’t range long distances. At least some bird will adapt to their circumstances and go where the food is plentiful, i.e. grouse moors, no matter the habits of their parents.
    On Mull farmers claim that when the White-tailed Eagles first started breeding all the conservationists were looking on cliff sites for nests, as cliffs were their preferred nest sites in Norway. The story goes that farmers tried to point out nests in trees and no body believed them. I am sure there is at least a grain of truth in this because all evidence points to the fact that birds adapt to different circumstances (as along as the changes they are adapting to aren’t too rapid).
    I would put money on at least one lowland bird getting shot over the uplands within the first two years.

    1. It’s important to stress that it is not necessarily grouse that attract hen harriers to grouse moors. To suggest or imply that provides some ammunition for the shooting community. In a commissioned study within the harrier SPA of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park (Renfrewshire/North Ayrshire), cameras at four nests (at different locations over four years) recorded prey items consisting almost exclusively of Meadow Pipits and Field Voles, and not a single grouse (full-grown or chick) despite the research being carried out during a peak in the Red Grouse population cycle. It was considered no coincidence that the timing of harrier clutches hatching occurred at the same time young pipits were fledging. Systematic censusing of meadow pipits recorded densities across the grouse moor of up to 100 pairs of pipit per square kilometre, indicating a healthy population of 9-10,000 breeding pairs within the harriers’ foraging range, sufficient to support a mean breeding population of twelve harrier pairs. Numbers of breeding harriers significantly declined following a drastic crash in vole numbers circa 2010, demonstrating the importance of that prey item in terms of female fecundity.

      1. They won’t acknowledge it, but predation is not why the gamekeepers don’t want harriers, it’s the effect a flying harrier (Or any other bird of prey) has on the grouse in terms of scattering them and making them hide rather than fly.

        1. So they say, Secret Squirrel, but as someone who has spent a substantial amount of my life observing and researching both Ravens and Hen Harriers, I don’t believe a word of it. Grouse moor managers and gamekeepers have clearly invented this as a back-up reason to justify declaring the harriers to be a nuisance or ‘pest’ species. I have observed many grouse drives over a good number of years, and paid particular attention to the effect a passing or hunting harrier has on the grouse. It is virtually negligible. We should not fall into the trap of believing the shooters’ claims and submitting comments that suggest we have special insight to the alleged ‘harrier problem.’ Neither should we be enticed, like SNH, to believe the nonsense perpetuated by vested interests into the alleged feeding behaviour of Ravens. My years of research into the question revealed that these large crows do not cause “serious damage to livestock, or food for livestock.” That simply does not fit my intensive familiarity with these remarkable birds.

  5. I note that the hen harrier Saorsa went missing in the constituency of Hen Harrier Species Champion Mairi Gougeon MSP. Thgis is the same politician I wrote too a some time ago asking if she was going to support Alison Johnstone’s (Scottish Greens, Lothian) Motion S5M-11986 in regard to the Raven cull. As yet I have had no reply to, or acknowledgement of, my email. I hope she is more attentative to her hen harrier commitments as she represents a constuency where breeding hen harriers were the norm until 2006 where there has been no successful fledgings since 2006, and is the center of concerns in regards to illegal persecution.

  6. Dreadful and the numbwits in the game lobby want us to believe in brood meddling as a tool to increase harrier numbers. The only way that will happen is to ban driven shooting.

    1. And they won’t do that Paul will they because the powers that be have a finger in the pie.
      The whole sordid Victorian dinosaur stinks of corruption from the bottom to the top

  7. Finn, one of the class of 2016, 17 birds were tagged in 2016 as far as we are aware.

    DeeCee, Wendy,Harriet and the HoT tagged bird Sorrel are all that are left

    2 have been recovered shot (1 was a historic shot wound)
    1 recovered dead natural causes

    10 Missing in suspicious circumstances, presumed dead, birds or tags never recovered.

    I wonder what happened to them……. Answers on a postcard to Hawk and Fools Trust. CC to The Moron Association and Game and Wildlife Cxxxxxxxxx Trust

  8. Just goes to show what a waste of time it is including the grouse bothers in any recovery plan for Harriers

  9. I have been receiving these blogs for nigh on a month now being almost oblivious as to what is going on in this wonderful countryside of ours. It is the most depressing blog that I subscribe to and yet it is informative and extremely well run – my heartfelt thanks.

    Seldom a day goes by when news of yet another magnificent raptor being illegally murdered by some foul means or other pings up on my phone. What can we do to prevent this? The legislation is in place, but seems so incredibly weak. It’s as though governments whether UK or Scottish try to ignore what is going on. These birds (and associated animals) are magnificent and yet the slaughter continues. We should all be proud of what they are and yet a few idiots are seen to be getting away with it. I cannot believe that this activity continues in this day and age over grouse moors and other locations. I appreciate that there are many important issues have to be dealt with by governments and yet there seems to be little progress with this.

    And then we have the great idea to release more Raptors for poisoning, shooting or trapping.

    It’s depressing. But we have to work through what else can be done to improve the situation. I appreciate that this does not help the debate, but it is an expression of my frustration.

    1. The depressing thing for me is that, whenever I refer to this continual slaughter to ordinary folk I meet, most people seem blissfully ignorant of the issue despite all the media coverage.

      1. It’s bad enough “ordinary folk” being unaware, but I despair even more at local SOC and RSPB members, many of whom have never heard of the controversy. When I raise the subject I sometimes find myself being accused of exaggerating or holding a vendetta against shooters and gamekeepers. Some naively suggest that “surely the RSPB wouldn’t allow that to happen.” The ones I find most difficult to understand are the few Raptor Study Group members who seem indifferent to the debate or are even completely unaware of the controversy. Is this just a local phenomenon within my own area? If we can’t convince all of our own people of the increasing threats to Ravens and raptors, how can we hope to arouse an interest among the general public? Thank heaven for RPUK.

        1. You’re not alone in your experience, Iain. Wherever I go in Galloway, it’s the same. You would hope they’d be bird lovers, but they sadly seem to be list-tickers.

          1. Thank goodness I’m not alone, Alan. I was beginning to wonder, as previous comments I had made to this effect seemed to have fallen upon deaf ears. One other aspect that I fail to understand is why no-one seems to make any great effort to raise wider awareness of the ongoing problem by targeting the media with press releases. I have no criticism of RPUK, who seem to work tirelessly to investigate the facts, interpret the science (or highlight the lack of), and provide a sound basis for concern and debate, but to some extent they are preaching mainly to the converted. Do we have to wait for some really dramatic event to take place before the media in general pays attention? It is interesting that the Perthshire Raven cull, sanctioned by SNH, managed to arouse a greater reaction from “ordinary folk” than even the relentless killing of Golden Eagles or Hen Harriers. However although RPUK was inundated with expressions of anger, and the petitions and crowdfunding appeal have been highly successful so far, the Raven story seems to merit virtually no response in the media generally. The BBC in particular have failed to cover the issue seriously, either as a news item or the subject of a debate or public discussion programme. Springwatch even managed to do a feature on Ravens without mentioning the ongoing controversy, and Chris Packham was obviously under instructions to stick to the script. As far as I could see, countryside magazine programmes on TV, like Countryfile and Landward, have more or less ignored possibly the most alarming and controversial twist in recent nature conservation history in Scotland. Scottish parliamentary motions were poorly supported by MSPs, perhaps because of a simple lack of understanding, but probably mainly due to low priority being attached to what some will see as a minority interest. The general apathy shown by “ordinary” birdwatchers however, is perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire scenario. The SOC, Scotland’s Bird Club whose website slogan is “Watching Over Our Birds,” seems to fail to comment or update its members about the Raven controversy, despite one of the Club’s main aims being “to support the conservation of wild birds and their habitats throughout Scotland.” Even the RSPB seems to keep the issue relatively low profile, though I can’t say this with authority as I’m not a member and don’t see their magazine. However the real villains in my opinion are the fake wader conservation group granted the licence, and SNH who in this instance appear to be supping with the devil.

  10. I had the privilege during 2017, courtesy of the RSPB Hen Harrier monitoring pages, to go up into the hills near Girvan and then on a second occasion north of Newton Stewart and actually see Finn in her temporary territories. A memory I will always cherish. RIP Finn.

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