At least 72% satellite tagged hen harriers presumed illegally killed on grouse moors

At long last, after years of stalling, hiding, prevaricating and obsfuscating (e.g. see here and here) and 13 years after its publicly-funded study began, Natural England’s hen harrier satellite tag data has finally been analysed and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded here: Widespread illegal killing of HH on British grouse moors

Here is the abstract:

The results? Entirely predictable (hen harriers are highly likely to be killed on grouse moors – gosh, who knew?), and are more likely to be killed inside protected areas such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) with large areas of grouse moors than any other type of landuse, especially these protected areas in North Yorkshire, Bowland and the Peak District:

Unfortunately the results do not have the same fine resolution as those of the golden eagle sat tag review, but that is simply a consequence of using different types of satellite tag and duty cycles. E.g. the golden eagle tags, especially the newer GSM solar powered tags, are ‘on’ constantly and are collecting data every minute when fully charged, whereas the hen harrier tags are using the Doppler/Argos system so the tags are less spatially accurate and have frequent periods when they are not ‘on’, thus not collecting data. Nevertheless, even being forced to undertake an analysis at a coarse scale, the results are still damning.

The most devastating result, in our opinion, is the extent of the criminality and this is what should be grabbing the attention of Ministers. Sure, we’ve all known for years that hen harriers are killed by gamekeepers on many driven grouse moors; everybody knows and acknowledges that, but the scale of the killing has always been challenged (or more usually, denied).

But this paper puts an end to those denials. 72% of the Natural England sat tagged hen harriers are presumed to have been illegally killed, versus 9% natural deaths. 72% is the MINIMUM value. If you exclude the tagged birds that are still alive/being tracked (7), and thus just look at the tagged birds with a known end fate, then the maximum value of illegally killed satellite tagged hen harriers would be 82% versus 9.8% natural deaths. It’ll be interesting to add the RSPB-tagged birds to this in due course.

82% of young tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed, on grouse moors. Compare that to the 31% of satellite tagged golden eagles that ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on or near driven grouse moors in Scotland. In a direct response to that 31%, Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham ordered an independent review of grouse moor management, specifically to examine opportunities for licensing.

How do you think her Westminster counterparts, Michael Gove & Dr Therese Coffey will respond to the 82% figure? Let’s see, shall we?

A press release has been issued by the partner organisations involved in the hen harrier sat tag analysis, as follows:


A new study reveals that young hen harriers in England suffer abnormally high mortality compared to populations in Orkney and mainland Scotland and the study provides compelling evidence that the most likely cause is illegal killing in areas associated with grouse moor management.

Published today in Nature Communications, this paper represents the culmination of a 10-year Natural England study involving 58 satellite tagged hen harriers. The analyses have been led by the University of Cape Town and Aberdeen University with the provision of land use data by the RSPB. The study showed the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study revealed that 72% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.

The hen harrier, sometimes called the ‘skydancer’ because of its amazing acrobatic display in the breeding season, is one of England’s rarest birds and is legally protected. Illegal killing of hen harriers has long been thought to limit their population size, but identifying the scale of these crimes and their impact on harrier populations has been difficult because they occur in remote areas and evidence is likely to be destroyed, thus successful prosecutions are rare. This long-term study has enabled patterns of disappearances to be assessed across a large number of birds. This provides overwhelming evidence that illegal killing is occurring on some grouse moors, where some gamekeepers view hen harriers as a threat to their grouse stocks.

Stephen Murphy from Natural England led the data collection and commented: Natural England welcomes the publication of this study, which demonstrates the value of tagging as a legitimate conservation tool. These analyses are a significant step in understanding the fate of tagged hen harriers, and confirm what has long been suspected – that illegal persecution is having a major impact on the conservation status of this bird.”

Dr Megan Murgatroyd, from the University of Cape Town, who is the lead author of the study said: “Natural England’s long-term commitment to this tracking study has yielded an important dataset involving over 20,000 individual fixes. This is a remarkable achievement for a species whose population in England has averaged only a handful of pairs for the last few years. Whilst dead harriers can be disposed of, the pattern of hen harrier disappearances revealed by this data could not be hidden. [Ed: She’s clearly been listening to Dr Hugh Webster – that’s his line!] The multiple levels of analyses of the data have all led to the same robust conclusion that hen harriers in Britain suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, and this is most likely the result of illegal killing.“

Dr David Douglas, RSPB Principal Conservation Scientist and a co-author on the paper, said: “The high rate of illegal persecution on grouse moors revealed by this study goes a long way to explaining why hen harriers are barely hanging on as a breeding bird in England. Satellite tag data is giving us very valuable insights into what is happening to our birds of prey in the UK. It has already provided compelling evidence of the link between suspicious golden eagle deaths and grouse moors in Scotland and now it has done the same for hen harriers in England.”

Rob Cooke from Natural England said: “Natural England will continue its satellite tracking work to further improve our understanding of hen harrier movements and behaviour, and will continue work to improve the conservation status of the species. Natural England welcomes the support of many landowners in this, and will continue to work with all landowners and other interested parties to find ways of enabling hen harrier populations to increase from their current critically endangered levels in England”. 


[Satellite-tagged hen harrier Carroll, who’d been shot]

UPDATE 20 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Supt Nick Lyall, Chair RPPDG (here)

UPDATE 21 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: BASC (here)

UPDATE 21 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: DEFRA Wildlife Minister Dr Therese Coffey (here)

UPDATE 22 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Northern England Raptor Forum (here)

UPDATE 24 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Moorland Association (here)

UPDATE 25 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: GWCT (here)

37 thoughts on “At least 72% satellite tagged hen harriers presumed illegally killed on grouse moors”

  1. I wonder what excuse NE will give to the French (other EU sources maybe available but not Scotland) for aking them to provide chicks or eggs for a Southern reintroduction?

    1. If we assume, and I think it is entirely valid to do so, that satellite tags hen harriers are a legitimate sample of the whole population then 72% of the whole population in England die illegally on grouse moors. The big question now is what Government is going to do about it, ( can they really continue to site on their hands with their eyes closed?)

  2. With respect Editor, your insert, “[Ed: She’s clearly been listening to Dr Hugh Webster – that’s his line!] “, ain’t necessarily so. She has her own evidence, just as Dr Webster has his. One does not copy the other. Des Thompson in his, “Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland” repeatedly makes the same point. They and others confirm each other.

    1. Fair point, Bill, it’s just we’re so used to seeing/using that line from Hugh.

      One important thing to note – Des Thompson did not author the golden eagle sat tag review (although you’d be forgiven for thinking he did, given the number of times he’s ‘presented’ that work at conferences, workshops etc). The actual authors are Drs Whitfield & Fielding.

      1. Yes, we’re both guilty of using shorthand. A more important point is that the illegal rate killing amongst English hen harriers is twice as high as the appalling rate of killings, amongst Scottish eagles. That is just utterly disgraceful. And we Brits have the temerity to tell Africans about elephants and rhinos. We are world beaters, by a country mile, which is another point made in the Whitfield & Fielding paper.

  3. Rob Cooke from NE doesn’t seem to think it fit to mention criminal activity or grouse moors in his washy comment?

  4. It’s not going to solve the problem relocating Hen Harriers to the South, they will still get shot. By relocating the Government are giving them the ok to carry on killing. It’s high time these criminals were brought to justice. Every single Hen Harrier needs to be tagged preferably with the same tags as the GE’s, which give real time data of where said bird was (I would gladly contribute towards the tags). If a bird suddenly disappears on a grouse more they lose their licence and any subsidies, maybe they will think twice. There are no deterrents for the illegal killing of birds of prey, so they just keep doing it. The Government need to come down hard, otherwise it will never stop.

    1. Don’t conflate brood meddling with the southern reintroduction. The idea of brood meddling is to remove and rear chicks from grouse moor nests where there are too many nests to reduce adult predation of grouse chicks. once the chicks are grown and flying well they will be released near where they came from not moved to the south. I’ve always been opposed to brood meddling as described by the DEFRA plan it is pointless if persecution is not reduced to near zero. Even then it is ethically unsound and as a rolled out tool may be illegal except for research purposes.
      This paper actually shows the futility of doing anything other than tackling the criminality within the grouse lobby or getting rid of grouse shooting all together. Anything else is just tinkering around the edges.

  5. It’s pretty easy what you need to do Rob Cooke instead of pandering to criminals do the right thing and protect the victim in all this, the hen harrier, what you intend to do ( brood management) is legal persecution , since when have we rewarded criminals because that’s what brood management represents. Natural England are an utter disgrace.

  6. I wonder why they’ve released this data now after all the waiting? We are past the inglorious 12th, most of the grouse will have been shot and the hills have been burnt again….

    I agree with The Watcher – every single harrier should be tagged with these new GSM solar powered tags – although there is the question of how much more evidence do we need before these fantastic birds are robustly protected. This is a truly sickening data set.

  7. I notice that NE is not saying it will do anything more, just more of the same, & we all know how effective that’s been!

  8. This pretty much confirms the point I’ve been making for a long time. That is that Hen Harrier persecution isn’t something which is being done by a few bad apple gamekeepers on a few estates. This is a landscape wide phenomenon happening on the majority of grouse moors. We must remember that only a small minority of Hen Harriers are tagged, and their disappearances are the tip of the iceberg. Therefore the problem is much bigger than these figures indicate, as most Hen Harriers being killed don’t have satellite tags, and their disappearance is never noted.

    The idea that a tiny minority of tagged Hen Harriers are somehow, with bad luck, just bumping into a few bad apple gamekeepers is absurd. As I say, this suggests that in actual fact, on most grouse shooting moors, illegal Hen Harrier persecution is taking place. Once you understand this, the whole strategy for dealing with this problem is revealed as mistaken in the extreme. The idea of working with shooting interests is based on the false premises that most shooting estates are opposed to the illegal persecution of raptors. Yet once you realise that most shooting estates are involved in this, and we have no idea exactly how this works, this whole strategy is bound to fail. The authorities have been working with the perpetrators of this wildlife crime, and effectively giving them advance notice of their strategy to tackle it.

    Let me clarify what I mean. I doubt these shooting estates all sit down and discuss killing raptors. I’m sure it operates with the well known strategy of plausible deniability, and that those carrying out the killing have been given a hint and a nudge as to what’s expected of them, without clear orders. In other words no one wants to know what’s going on, so they can plausibly deny it. Nevertheless most involved in the management with a lot of shooting estates, likely the majority, must have an idea of what is going on.

    How can the government carry on turning a blind eye?

  9. NE now needs to get the finger out and go after these criminals instead of pandering to them with nonsense like brood meddaling

  10. I’ve left a link to the paper on Therese Coffey’s facebook page. I suggest others do the same. Anywhere’ll do, just comment on one of her posts.

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