RSPB press release (12/11/18):
A rare Hen Harrier has suddenly disappeared in North Yorkshire, triggering an investigation by the police and the RSPB. This is the ninth bird to disappear in suspicious circumstances in the last 12 weeks.
The bird, named Arthur, hatched from a nest in the Peak District this summer. This was the first time Hen Harriers had successfully bred in the Peak District since 2015. Arthur, along with his sister Octavia, was fitted with a lightweight satellite tag by RSPB staff as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project, which has enabled the RSPB to track his movements since leaving the nest in July.
[Hen harrier Arthur, photo by Steve Downing]
Transmissions from Arthur’s tag showed him fledging from his nest and remaining faithful to that area in the Peak District. He then moved to the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, in mid-October before flying back north to Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. On the morning of Friday 26 October he flew onto the North York Moors National Park. He registered his last position at 0955hrs when he was just north of Lowna Bridge, near Hutton-le-Hole.
[RPUK maps showing approximate last known location of Hen harrier Arthur in the North York Moors National Park, close to Spaunton Moor, owned by George Winn-Darley, the North York Moors representative for the Moorland Association. Red star denotes Lowna Bridge]
RSPB Investigations staff searched the area of the bird’s last known location but found no sign of either a tag or a body – prompting concerns that the bird may have been deliberately killed and the tag destroyed. In August, his sister Octavia’s tag also suddenly cut out, with her last location coming from a driven grouse moor in the Peak District. No trace was found of her either. The police and the RSPB are appealing for information.
RSPB Assistant Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth said: “Arthur’s last location showed he was in an upland area close to several driven grouse moors. When tagged Hen Harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies of the bird are usually recovered. To find no trace of Arthur or Octavia is extremely concerning. Arthur is the ninth Hen Harrier to suddenly disappear in suspicious circumstances since August. This is gravely concerning given that the species is on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England.”
Hen Harriers are one of the UK’s rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. They nest on the ground, often on moorland, and are known for their spectacular courtship display, the ‘skydance’. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to intentionally harm or disturb them. Anyone found to have done so faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that the main factor limiting their population is illegal killing by humans.
Over 30 Hen Harriers were tagged during June and July 2018 in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project. Of those, eight birds (Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen, Thor, Athena, Stelmaria, Margot and Arthur) have since disappeared in suspicious circumstances, along with another bird, Heather, who was tagged in 2017.
Calculations based on habitat and prey availability indicate that England should be able to support around 300 Hen Harrier pairs. But this year only 34 chicks fledged from nine English nests, according to a report by Natural England. In 2017 there were only 10 chicks in the whole of England.
The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. Data showed that 15 of the 55 confirmed incidents in England in 2017 took place in North Yorkshire. Since these only represent known, confirmed incidents, the RSPB believes this is just a glimpse of the true scale of the problem, and that many more crimes will have gone unreported and unrecorded.