Hen harrier ‘Skylar’ disappears next to grouse moor in south Scotland

RSPB press release (7 May 2019)


Skylar last recorded next to a grouse moor

RSPB Scotland is appealing for information from the public after a young hen harrier, fitted with a satellite transmitter, disappeared suddenly on a moor near Elvanfoot.

The female harrier, named Skylar, was being monitored by the RSPB as part of their EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project. She had been roosting overnight in an area of rushes and rough grassland fringing a grouse moor a few miles south of the village for several days before her tag abruptly stopped working on 7th February 2019.

[Hen harrier Skylar as a nestling in 2017, photo by RSPB]

The area where she disappeared has a history of similar cases and illegal bird of prey killings. A hen harrier and short-eared owl were shot and killed on a grouse moor in 2017, a few miles away from Skylar’s last known location. Another tagged hen harrier, Annie, was found shot nearby in April 2015 and two other tagged hen harriers vanished in the area, one in June 2014 and another, named Chance, in May 2016, after she had spent two winters in France.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project manager said: “Skylar has been a fascinating bird to follow; we were amazed to see her make a brief, week-long sojourn to Ireland in autumn 2017 before she returned to winter in South Lanarkshire in 2017/18. She spent much of summer 2018 in Highland Perthshire, before returning to South Lanarkshire for the winter 2018/19 where she remained until she disappeared.

Her disappearance follows a depressingly familiar pattern. Her tag was working as expected, then suddenly stopped. There have been no further transmissions, and the bird’s body has not been located. Had she died of natural causes, we would have expected the transmitter to continue working allowing us to recover her body. Sadly, we’ll probably never know exactly what has happened to Skylar.

Skylar was fitted with a satellite-tag in July 2017 just before she fledged from her nest in Argyll. Her mother, DeeCee, had previously been tagged as part of the LIFE project, allowing the project to easily locate the nest. Skylar’s brother Sirius was also tagged but died of natural causes in October 2017.

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations said: “Yet again, a young harrier has disappeared close to a driven grouse moor, never to be seen or heard of again. This area of South Lanarkshire has been notorious for some years as a black hole into which protected birds of prey simply disappear.

Skylar’s disappearance comes at a time when the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent enquiry into grouse shooting, including looking at options for greater regulation. A step change is now urgently required, as current laws and enforcement measures are proving inadequate to deal with such systematic criminality, and the negative cultural attitudes towards birds of prey that remains in many grouse moor areas. The most intensively managed “driven” grouse moors should be licenced, with sanctions to remove licences to operate, where the public authorities are satisfied that wildlife protection laws are being routinely flouted.”

Information about Skylar, or any illegal killing of birds of prey, can be reported to Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s Raptor Crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.


The last known location of this satellite-tagged hen harrier has been given as an area of rough grassland fringing a grouse moor a few miles south of the village of Elvanfoot. There are a number of grouse moors in this area, the nearest being the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire.

[RPUK map showing the boundary of the Leadhills Estate and its proximity to Elvanfoot. Map data from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]

Skylar’s suspicious disappearance follows the well rehearsed pattern of young satellite-tagged hen harriers in the UK as laid bare in this recent scientific publication (here).

The investigation in to her disappearance will follow a similar, well-rehearsed pattern. There will be insufficient evidence to charge any individual with killing this bird (no body, no tag) so the police have nowhere else to go with it.

Just like the hen harrier and short-eared owl that were seen shot and killed on grouse moors in this area in 2017, the buzzard that was found shot and killed in the area in 2018, the hen harrier that was found shot and killed on a grouse moor in this area in 2015. In fact there have been over 50 confirmed wildlife crimes in this area since 2003 and only two of those have resulted in a successful criminal prosecution (gamekeeper convicted in 2004 for shooting a short-eared owl; gamekeeper convicted in 2009 for laying out a poisoned bait).

2003 April: hen harrier shot [prosecution failed – inadmissible evidence]

2003 April: hen harrier eggs destroyed [prosecution failed – inadmissible evidence]

2004 May: buzzard shot [no prosecution]

2004 May: short-eared owl shot [gamekeeper convicted]

2004 June: buzzard poisoned (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2004 June: 4 x poisoned rabbit baits (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2004 June: crow poisoned (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2004 July: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2004 July: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2005 February: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2005 April: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2005 June: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2005 June: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 February: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 March: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 March: poisoned pigeon bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 April: dead buzzard (persecution method unknown) [no prosecution]

2006 May: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 May: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 May: poisoned egg baits (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 June: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 June: poisoned raven (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 June: 6 x poisoned rabbit baits (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 June: poisoned egg bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 September: 5 x poisoned buzzards (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 September: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2006 September: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2007 March: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2007 April: poisoned red kite (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2007 May: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2008 October: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran) [listed as ‘Nr Leadhills’] [no prosecution]

2008 October: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [listed as ‘Nr Leadhills’] [no prosecution]

2008 November: 3 x poisoned ravens (Carbofuran) [listed as ‘Nr Leadhills’] [no prosecution]

2009 March: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2009 March: poisoned raven (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2009 April: poisoned rabbit bait (Carbofuran) [gamekeeper convicted]

2009 April: poisoned magpie (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2009 April: poisoned raven (Carbofuran) [no prosecution]

2010 October: short-eared owl shot [no prosecution]

2011 March: illegally-set clam trap [no prosecution]

2011 December: buzzard shot [no prosecution]

2012 October: golden eagle found shot (just over boundary with Buccleuch Estate) [no prosecution]

2013 May: shot otter found on estate [no prosecution]

2013 June: significant cache of pre-prepared poisoned baits found on estate [no prosecution]

2013 August: red kite found shot and critically-injured in Leadhills village [no prosecution]

2014 February: poisoned peregrine (Carbofuran) [‘Nr Leadhills’] [no prosecution]

2015 April: hen harrier ‘Annie’ found shot [Leadhills/Buccluech] [no prosecution]

2016 May: hen harrier ‘Chance’ ‘disappeared’ [Leadhills/Buccleuch] [no prosecution]

2017 May: walkers witness the shooting of a hen harrier [no prosecution]

2017 May: walkers witness the shooting of a short-eared owl [no prosecution]

2018 [pre-April]: buzzard found shot dead in Leadhills village [no prosecution]

Without evidence, it’s impossible to implicate any individual or estate that may have been involved in Skylar’s suspicious disappearance, but it’s crystal clear that raptor persecution has been taking place in the wider area for decades.

The Scottish Government is well aware of the history of illegal raptor persecution in this area. How much more evidence does it need? Why is this allowed to continue, without sanction?

20 thoughts on “Hen harrier ‘Skylar’ disappears next to grouse moor in south Scotland”

  1. I was reading this story as the top story on ‘The National’ online newspaper minutes before you posted this. That has to be an improvement in getting the word out to the general public in Scotland.

  2. Sadly, in common with many of the other raptors which have died or vanished in this area, prosecution is unlikely, as you say. The perpetrators are well aware that they are unlikely to be convicted. I do not agree that the Scottish Government, indeed MSPs from all the parties in Holyrood, are needing more evidence. Because the perpetrators believe that the have the Scottish Justice system on their side, they will not stop until new laws are brought into play to put an end to tier get out of jail free cards, even when there is damning evidence. This is likely not a failing of Scottish Law, but it’s implementation, requiring new laws to put a stop to the failure to implement them properly. Add this to the unlikely appearance of evidence, and we have a situation which needs radical reform such as that hopefully to come from Werritty and elsewhere, which cannot be quick.

  3. With so many incidents of serious wildlife crime being uncovered on or very near to the estate in question, even up to present day, at what point do the authorities seriously re-consider allowing the estate to continue operating under a general license? Simply, what on earth does it take for the general License of a shooting estate to be revoked in Scotland? As I write, there are crow cage traps as well as Larson Mate traps being operated, and which are presently active up on the hills of Deadhills Estate. Corvids, sometimes up to seven, can be seen frantically flying back and forth in their cages and let’s not forget the young birds in their nests who may be waiting for their captured parents to return with food. I have also heard a rumour that this estate may have even acquired a special license to kill Ravens?? Can anybody confirm this?

  4. It seems to me that it would be a good one for the RPPDG to take a look at. I am guessing that the RSPB have a good idea of the exact location, time of death and on which estate the bird died on. Following on from that, identify who is employed by the estate, and then a cross reference between their mobile phone locations and Skylar’s last location might prove interesting.

    1. Because raptor persecution is not a ‘serious crime’ , which my petition seeks to remedy, the police would not be able to use such information in the quest for a perpetrator. The police would like the power MSPs would like to see them have these and other powers, but it all takes a huge amount of time. The Poustie report thumped on desks in 2015, but even placing this on the list of current session legislation has not resulted in an opportunity for MSPs to put in in place the legislation.
      It will happen and is possible in this session, but I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Thankfully the existence of tagged birds enables us to make the wider public aware.
    The huge numbers of raptors that are killed in the area and elsewhere will eventually be stopped thanks to the sacrificial tagged birds, but I suspect that it may well take another human generation before this happens.
    By then, grouse shooting will have ended as climate change will render it uneconomic.
    The huge increase in raptors elsewhere can reach the moorlands but these areas also need many decades to transform to diverse ecosystems.
    It will happen !

    Keep up the pressure !

  6. “RSPB Scotland is appealing for information from the public after a young hen harrier, fitted with a satellite transmitter, disappeared suddenly on a moor near Elvanfoot.”

    The transmitter stopped working 3 months ago and only now is an appeal put out for public help. That is outrageous. How can anyone ask the public for help after hanging about all this time before making an announcement. If people cannot grasps the basics of always acting quickly then the entire business of trying to trap the criminals is hopeless.

  7. The law in Scotland will change, and I hope in the not too distant future. Organisations like Revive, RPUK and Wild Justice are doing a great job and the next stage is to get Holyrood to agree to licence grouse moors. Licencing will provide the conditions to protect birds and mountain hares without the need to have the burden of proof needed for a criminal prosecution. My contact with Scottish politicians, as evidenced by the Revive fringe meeting at the SNP conference and my discussions with my MSP, are very hopeful and I suspect that if it wasn’t for Brexit we may have legislation already, at least to stop the killing of Mountain hares. It will be much more difficult to persuade the Tories in Westminster to do the same. The newer tags, once they are reduced in size, will also provide the evidence of prosecution that current devices cannot.. The time is right for greater respect for wildlife.

  8. Another sad day of news of our Hen Harriers. Many of the previous posts mention the apathy of government to take action against the criminals in the countryside.

  9. And so the killing continues………..let’s not forget the offer of SSPCA to assist with this problem.

    SNP are a government who allow the killing of our precious wildlife for fear of upsetting landowners.

  10. Are there any Wind turbines in that area .
    I live in a mountainous area in North Cork and we allways have some hen harriers . There are current efforts to build a 27 x 150m Windfarm and thisvis right in their hunting ground . I am fearful of all the Birds in our beautiful area if this goes ahead .

    1. Your right to be concerned Eddie – In Southern Scotland there has been a signifcant drop in upland bird numbers due to the rampage of wind farm developers across the Southern Uplands. Between that and ongoing criminal activity on Grouse estates in the area the outlook oforthe likes of Hen Harriers is indeed grim:(

  11. More powers for SSPCA, scottish courts to allow covert video evidence taken on “sporting” estates…the rest is hot air. The killers and their protectors are not listening.

  12. ..and just in case readers think that the killing suddenly started in 2003, the RSPB was recording and reporting incidents of poisoning going back to 1979….it has the worst raptor and raven persecution history in Scotland – up against some tough opposition.

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