Hen harrier Ada ‘disappears’ on grouse moor in North Pennines AONB

Joint press release from Northumbria Police and RSPB (27 November 2019)

Hen Harrier Ada Disappears

Today, Northumbria Police and the RSPB have issued an appeal for information following the sudden disappearance of yet another satellite tagged hen harrier, a female bird known as Ada.

[Hen Harrier Ada being satellite tagged in the summer. Photo from RSPB]

Ada hatched on a nest on the Scottish borders this summer (2019). She was fitted with a lightweight satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project, to learn more about the journeys made by these rare birds of prey and the survival challenges they face.

Ada was the first of the chicks tagged this summer to leave her nest and proved to be naturally adventurous. After fledging she flew north, spending some time on a disused golf course near Dunbar, then she headed south to the North Pennines. On the morning of 10 October 2019 she sent her last transmission from an area of grouse moor east of Allendale, Northumberland. Her tag showed no signs of malfunction and there were several satellites passing over, so it was expected to continue to provide data. RSPB staff were in the area at the time the tag would have transmitted, but neither the bird nor her tag could be found nor have been heard from since.

Her disappearance is being treated as suspicious and was reported to the police.

All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. Yet the evidence shows hen harriers continue to be killed, or disappear in suspicious circumstances, particularly on or near land managed for driven grouse shooting.

Scientific research published in March 2019 showed that 72% of the satellite tagged hen harriers in their study were killed or very likely to have been killed on British grouse moors, and that hen harriers were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over areas of grouse moor relative to other land uses.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project Manager for the Hen Harrier LIFE project, said:

Over 30 chicks were tagged this summer and we’ve watched with interest as they’ve grown up and flown around the country. We’re absolutely gutted that Ada has disappeared in suspicious circumstances at just a few months’ old.

Emma Marsh, Director for RSPB England, said:

Hen harriers have become a rare breeding bird across the UK mainly due to illegal persecution by humans. In England, the last population survey recorded only four territorial pairs, despite scientific studies showing enough food and habitat to support over 320 pairs. Our own tagging work has shown that survival of young birds post-fledging is very low. This won’t change until something is done about illegal persecution. The Government’s own data has highlighted a loss of 72% of their tagged birds in suspicious circumstances, and we are calling on them to take vital measures to address this appalling situation.”

The RSPB is calling for the Government to introduce of a system of licensing for driven grouse moors, whereby this license to operate could be taken away should illegal activity be uncovered. We believe that this approach will act as a far greater deterrent than current legislation.

If you have any information relating to this incident, call Northumbria police on 101.

If you find a wild bird of prey which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form.


It looks like Ada has vanished in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB):

The tag Ada was carrying is believed to be the same make and model as the other tags deployed by the RSPB on hen harriers (the tag with a known reliability rate of 94%). Technical failures are possible (of course) but are rare (6%), and according to this researchtag failures have always been preceded by irregular transmission periods and, most importantly, a drop in battery voltage (another parameter monitored by the transmitter). This makes it relatively straightforward to distinguish between a likely mortality event and a likely transmitter failure”.

The hen harrier tags deployed by the RSPB are completely different to the new and untested tags that were deployed by Natural England on some of this year’s brood meddled hen harriers; tags that are known to have a high failure rate.

10 thoughts on “Hen harrier Ada ‘disappears’ on grouse moor in North Pennines AONB”

  1. No doubt regular harrier workers will be aware of this, and I’m not sure it should be broadcast, but shooting harriers is easier than most might presume (all keepers know this anyway). As a relatively long-term observer and ringer of harrier broods over twenty years I am only too familiar with the level of nest destruction inflicted upon not only breeding pairs but naive juveniles and wintering adults. I’d give further details, but most harrier workers may frown upon that, because we don’t want to encourage added persecution. However my main point is that we need to intensify pressure to improve the situation regarding the increasing pressure on the species. I’m not criticising the efforts of Raptor Study Groups, RSPB and others, but those of national conservation agencies could be better.

    1. Keen birder, piqued my interest:

      [Grouse shooting is a UK endemic with a reducing range. Now scarcely to be found in Wales or NI, it is under threat across most of its range. Long-standing threats include concern over raptor persecution, currently increasing because of wider public awareness. More recent threats include new science on burning, flooding and climate change, and increased public concerns on these issues as well as on trapping, snaring and broader animal welfare issues. Climate change is also a direct threat to the target species and numbers available to be shot are expected to fall. Of more immediate concern are the problems flowing from over-intensification such as transmission of disease in the target species, the absence of a true market for the product (not least because of concerns over the introduction of toxic materials into the human food chain) and the PR problems associated with disposal of unwanted corpses.

      The outlook for grouse shooting is judged very poor, with no notable attempts being made to address the systemic problems referred to above. Trends in public opinion seem certain to go only towards greater awareness and condemnation, supported for example by cultural events called “Hen Harrier Days”. Whilst the response of legislatures is likely to be sluggish, and therefore to favour survival of grouse shooting in the short term, in the medium term it will follow public opinion. Of greater concern is the unstable economic base of grouse shooting. Whilst it is clear that some estates can make a great deal of money in the short term, there are concerns that the promise of ever-increasing returns has created a speculative “tulip mania” type false market. Alongside this, claims that grouse shooting is good for local economies (often misunderstood as meaning better than any alternative) have been exposed as lies, and local communities are increasingly seeking the greater benefits of more sustainable activities such as wildlife tourism. A significant externality, is that much land used for grouse shooting is not owned by those who shoot grouse. Increasingly owners are concerned for reputational damage, and some fear for land values in the medium term. Whilst many older landowners have a sentimental attachment to grouse shooting, they are not known to allow sentiment to interfere unduly with private profit.

      Grouse shooting, as stated earlier, is endemic to the UK and so when it goes extinct there, that will be the end of it. Fortunately, there are many cultural relics already in museums and other collections, though much of the amassed material is of very low quality, featuring caricatures of those who indulged in the activity, usually involving some element of what appears to have been attempted humour, for example a person with a gun having accidentally ‘peppered’ some other party, often under the influence of alcohol. For this reason, it seems unlikely, even with modern scientific techniques, that a recognisable version of the activity could be recreated in the future. However, it is judged that these relics are a sufficient record of the activity and no specific further action is needed to record the history of this dying sport, in which the public have largely lost interest.]

      With apologies to the IUCN, I’m sure they could do a better job of it.

        1. Thanks Les. Not sure I’d call it analysis but it flowed more easily from the pen than is my norm. Slightly bonkers really. Hope no-one thinks its attempted levity somehow shows indifference to Ada’s disappearance. Nothing could be further from how I feel, especially after Cathleen Thomas’s presentation on the Hen Harrier ‘Life’ project on Tuesday. Perhaps I should offer it again on 1 April. It could quite easily be turned into an obituary as written in 100 years time. Or 10.

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