Four more satellite-tagged hen harriers ‘disappear’ on Scottish grouse moors

Press release from RSPB Scotland (6 Nov 2018):

Four rare hen harriers disappear on Scottish grouse moors: RSPB Scotland appeals for information

RSPB Scotland is appealing for information following the suspicious disappearance of four satellite tagged hen harriers over the last 10 weeks.

All of the birds were tagged at various nest sites, three this summer and one in 2017, in Scotland and Northern England as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project. The last known locations of all four birds were over land managed for grouse shooting.

Satellite tagging technology is increasingly being used to follow the movements of birds of prey, allowing scientists to identify areas important for their feeding, roosting and nesting. The tags are fitted by licensed, trained fieldworkers and are designed to transmit regularly, even after a bird has died. In all four cases, the tags had been functioning without any issues before they suddenly and unexpectedly stopped transmitting, suggesting criminal interference has taken place.

[RPUK map showing the last known locations of the four hen harriers before their satellite tags suddenly and unexpectedly stopped working and the birds ‘disappeared’]

The first bird to disappear, Athena, was one of a small number of chicks to fledge from a nest in Northumberland. She travelled north into Scotland, with her last known position on a grouse moor a few miles north west of Grantown on Spey in Inverness-shire, on 16thAugust.

Two of the birds were tagged on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire this summer. Margot disappeared on 29th August, with her last known position on a grouse moor on the Aberdeenshire/Moray border, a few miles south west of the Lecht ski centre. Stelmaria was last recorded on grouse moor a few miles north west of Ballater, Aberdeenshire on 3rd September. Stelmaria’s mother was DeeCee, a hen harrier tagged by the project in Perthshire in 2016.

The fourth missing bird, Heather, was a year older than the others. She was tagged at a nest in Perthshire in 2017, and last recorded on a grouse moor to the north of Glenalmond on 24th September.

[Hen harrier Margot – photo from RSPB Scotland]

Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project said: “To have more hen harriers disappear, including three of this year’s youngsters, is devastating for all of us involved in monitoring these hen harrier chicks. These birds have vanished in similar suspicious circumstances to four other birds tagged by the project that disappeared this summer with last recorded locations on or near grouse moors in England and Wales. These eight suspicious disappearances in the past 10 weeks are a further blow for the conservation of a species whose UK population has declined by 24% since 2004.

The main factor limiting the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors. Young hen harrier chicks already face huge survival challenges in their first few years of life without the added threat of illegal persecution.

Each year a number of the chicks tagged by the project are lost through natural predation or starvation. So far in 2018 the remains of 12 young hen harriers have been recovered. Their tags continued to transmit after they died allowing their remains to be located and for post mortems to take place. These established that they all died of natural causes.

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations for RSPB Scotland said: “Given the tiny number of hen harrier chicks tagged each year, the regularity with which they disappear, again indicates that we are only ever aware of a tiny proportion of the true number of protected raptors that are being illegally killed.

In common with so many previous disappearances of satellite-tagged birds of prey, each of these missing birds was last known to be on a moor managed for driven grouse shooting before its transmitter suddenly stopped. The picture is becoming ever more clear – in almost all cases when a tagged birds dies naturally we are able to recover its remains; if it disappears over a Scottish grouse moor, it’s never seen or heard of again.”

Information about the birds’ disappearances were passed to Police Scotland, and while local enquiries have taken place in each case, no further information on what has happened to the birds has been found. Anyone who can provide information about any of these missing birds is asked to contact Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.


The criminals within the grouse shooting industry couldn’t give the Scottish Government, nor the public, a clearer message. Despite being under the closest scrutiny the industry has ever faced and with the very real threat of enforced regulation and legislation looming large, the message is still ‘screw you all, we’ll do what we like and we’ll continue to do it safe in the knowledge that we’ll never face any consequences’.

And they’d be right. They won’t face any consequences, at least not for a while. Sure, the Scottish Government is all over grouse moor management like a rash right now but we still have to sit and wait for the findings of the Werritty Review, which isn’t due to report until spring 2019. And if Professor Werritty’s review does recommend licensing grouse shooting estates to bring them under some sort of control (any control would be nice), there’ll then be more inevitable delays while consultations ensue and the dark side uses its mighty influence and power to weaken any proposals put forward.

Actual meaningful regulation, properly enforced, could still be years away. Meanwhile, the illegal killing will continue. Since the analysis was completed in January 2017 for the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review (which showed that over 40 golden eagles have vanished in recent years on or close to driven grouse moors) a further 14 satellite-tagged raptors have ‘disappeared’ in highly suspicious circumstances in Scotland, and most of them on or close to intensively managed driven grouse moors ( 4 x golden eagles, 8 x hen harriers, 2 x white-tailed eagles).

How many more will be killed before the Scottish Government brings the criminals to account?

Several of the grouse moors from where the latest four hen harriers ‘disappeared’ are of significant interest to us. We’ll be coming back to those in some more blogs later on.

But of course this isn’t just a Scottish issue. South of the border in England and Wales already this year we’ve seen reports of another five hen harriers all ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances on or close to driven grouse moors (Hilma, Octavia and Huelwen here; Thor here; Mabel here).

[RPUK map showing the last known locations of nine satellite-tagged hen harriers across the UK uplands in 2018 before their tags suddenly and unexpectedly cut out and the birds ‘vanished’]

NINE hen harriers, all gone on or close to grouse moors since August! There is no doubt that this is serious organised crime on a national scale, all exposed by the use of satellite tag technology.

Is anybody still wondering why the grouse shooting industry is so keen to corrode public and political confidence in the use of satellite tags?

They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“ (Dr Hugh Webster).

UPDATE 22 Nov 2018: Did hen harrier Margot ‘disappear’ on a royal grouse moor? (Here)

UPDATE 23 Nov 2018: From which grouse shooting estate did hen harrier Stelmaria ‘disappear’? (here)

33 thoughts on “Four more satellite-tagged hen harriers ‘disappear’ on Scottish grouse moors”

    1. Imagine the outcry if the boot was on the other foot and Grouse were to be ”illegally killed” just before a shoot. I’m sure the full force of the law would be demanded for the perpetrators of such an act, even though they are only bred to be shot for ”fun” in the first place, at the expense of much of the ‘natural’ wildlife.

  1. This is absolutely shocking.
    Why does virtually all the media trot out the PR drivel spouted by the organised criminal organisations behind this travesty? They know the truth but choose to conceal it.
    Why does the Scottish legal system act in such a way as to protect the few persons and their employers actually known to be seen to kill birds of prey (allegedly)? This is totally dishonourable, and many must be aware of it.
    It is well past time for all in United Kingdom to start telling the truth about what is happening on our uplands.
    We all know this to be true.

  2. I remember spotting & took photos of dead deer carcus in Glen Lochan on the 18th of April this year. Thought it looked suspicious at the time & not long afterwards heard about the missing sea eagle. Merely coincidence or something more sinister….makes you wonder?!

  3. Did I read it right that 12 harriers have also been recovered this year where their tags continued to transmit? Do you have any more information on these and their last locations? It would be interesting to transpose these onto a map showing the missing harriers.

    1. It would also be interesting to know the timing of of the other 12. The 8 that disappeared on or near grouse moors went missing during the grouse shooting season, what about the other 12?

    2. We now know from Mark Avery’s blog that none of the 12 were found on grouse moors! Given that one might imagine that in normal circumstances at least some would die of natural causes on grouse moors, we are led inescapably to the conclusion that HHs on grouse moors do not live long enough to die of natural causes. No surprises there then.

    1. Statistically we ought to be able to work that out – if not now then certainly after a few more years of tagging. Is anyone working on this?

      1. I have called on here before for the total number of tagged birds to be released, belated if that helps. This would make it possible to give a better near current analysis than is possible at present. Many people would like to see the percentage of birds lost no trace increase during the year, including those who are happy to see how effective their criminal campaign against the birds has been. Of course, it is unlikely that NE would let us know how many birds were tagged each year, knowing that there were 10 years without any data, and I’m not certain that all the real data is yet available for those years considered in the latest paper. It is a pity that they tag birds at all, considering the wish of their senior personnel to hide the data. We do know from above that 8 birds were vanished, no trace, and 12 were recovered but not considered suspicious from the latest cohort, I believe. Try as I might, I can devise no method to state a similar figure to that for the Golden Eagle review without the total numbers. I’m not to be trusted to do this in a robust scientific manner in any event.
        It is best we accept that the evidence of the birds vanished no trace, and the last known locations be sufficient for now. Even the SGA and SLE must know, and be aware that their excuses and condemnation of illegal acts is barely believable. The media does know, but yet chooses to refrain from acknowledging the truth or questioning why they feel the need to quote the likes of SGA and SLE. The BBC did not feel the need to quote the RSPB on the loss of eagle Blue T despite their press release before the article was printed until long after the first article, which lamented the loss and quoting how much effort had gone into a search, from the estate (more likely from a PR company) where the eagle was lost. They knew all right, and I and others made sure that they knew. I’m still angry, Mr BBC Scotland. Lord Reith will be turning, if not spinning, in his grave. You are a disgrace to honest journalism.
        Proper robust scientific papers will, I’m sure, appear at some stage, preferably as near annually as possible, despite the fact that it is close to rocket science. A QC could not be trusted to do it either, untrained in rocket or in fact any science. Still, I’m sure SGA supporters were happy to pay for one, but it is strange that such a poorly paid group of people can muster the funds. A scientist would be far cheaper, I’m sure.

        1. 47 of the 59 hen harriers satellite-tagged by NE between 2007-2017 are ‘missing, fate unknown’. That’s a whopping 79.6%!

  4. Appalling news, and the criminal destruction of wildlife continues in it’s long established and unashamedly blatant way.

    The perpetrators have become, in one respect, like drug dealers, i.e, not in the least afraid of being caught and prosecuted (the foot soldiers are, of course, expendable). That situation occurs when the rewards are so lucrative that they grossly outweigh any risk (not that there appears to be any risk to those that employ foot soldiers to do the killing).

    The occasional gamekeeper may get caught and even when, against all odds, a conviction is obtained the punishment will amount to little.
    The people who kill raptors are a problem , but not the main problem. The people who employ the killers are the underlying cause)
    No prizes for guessing where the underlying cause lies. No need to spend any time looking for that answer.

    However, what does require intense investigation is why this situation is being allowed to continue. Why are those in Holyrood (and Westminster) not acting effectively. They are so far from getting a grip of the problem that one has to wonder whether they are really trying.

  5. Just saying – there’s many folks would like to be at Revive launch tonight, but can’t for various reasons. It’s also sold out! I for one am very very heartened by it. Power to Revive.

  6. Absolutely incredible, this makes me so angry it is a wonder there are any Hen harriers left at all. The tags are allowing us to see just how widespread the killing is and making the claims of the SGA etc more and more stupid.

    BBC covering the story, as predictable and frustrating the comments from SGA etc are, they can not fool all of the people all of the time.

    You’d have thought if they had an ounce of sense between them they would be putting pressure on those within their industry who think its ok to kill raptors to behave themselves whilst this review is on going. This is probably the last thing the driven grouse industry needed just now. Was there not a shooting magazine earlier this year that told them to behave as it could have consequences for everyone.

    Can I make a suggestion to try to get more coverage for our cause? Each time such a post appears on RPUK, a media version with quotes from RPUK could be issued. My limited experience is that newspapers will gladly turn a press release into a news story especially if it has a quote in it.

    1. Just a thought I assume the Glenalmond one will be is Rosanna’s constituency. Hope we will see some words and action form her ASAP as a result of this occurring in her backyard.

  7. So we know what happened, where it happened and ergo who was responsible. None of the governments or any police force (not individual officers) will do anything serious to prevent this so the everlasting cycle will continue. I hope when the RSPB and Mark Avery get their day in court they get a judge who will not hide behind narrow points of law but will see that the so-called Hen Harrier Recovery Plan is just a way of perpetuating this cycle of criminality

  8. Presumably there are supporters of the SNP reading all this. Please could they explain the stance of the SNP. They are supposedly “progressive”. I know they are marginally better than the Tories down south on the issue, but really how can their supporters justify the lack of effective action? The conclusion can only be shooting wildlife is seen as more lucrative than wildlife tourism.Disgraceful and depressing for those of us who always saw Scotland as a wildlife heaven.

    1. Looks like they are not too bothered about raptor persecution. I guess they don’t see doing something about that supports their agenda. They sure as hell have not set the heather on fire in that respect.

  9. I suggest it’s time to put a ‘Special Tax’ on Shooting Estates! With all the money going towards the Bird Protection, Monitoring and Investigation. The more going missing, the higher the tax to pay for greater Protection, Monitoring, and Investigating.

    1. Agree, or to put it another way a licensing regime where you pay to apply for a licence, where there is a fit and proper person test to be gone through before you can even get a licence, an inspection regime along with annual fees to cover the regulation.

      1. Taxing & licensing etc. …………. good luck with these ideas – you’ll need an abundance of it.
        There is no chance of Holyrood puting the bite on the shooting estates. If there was, it would have happened long ago.
        Try finding out what is handed out in grants and subsidies. Gov. does not appear to be too free with that information either. It is us taxpayers who meet the bill.
        Wildlife crime continues unabated. Govs only pay lip service, at best, to law enforcement. It is clear who has the upper hand and it is not Holyrood. If the answer to why that is so can be found then perhaps something can be done.
        Without a radical change the crime will continue. The gov. will roar like a mouse now and again and the standard command “as you were” will be repeated.

  10. Write to your MSP asking what they are doing to reduce wildlife crime on driven grouse moors.

    Post their replies on RPUK

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