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)