Satellite-tagged red kite ‘disappears’ on grouse moor in North Pennines AONB

Press release from RSPB (30 April 2020)

Red kite vanishes in suspicious circumstances

Durham Police, the RSPB, the North Pennines AONB Partnership and Friends of Red Kites are appealing for information following the disappearance of a red kite in County Durham.

The young bird was fitted with a satellite tag at Rowlands Gill, near Gateshead in June 2019 by Friends of Red Kites (FoRK) with NERF support. It has been monitored since by the RSPB.

[Red kite ‘KK’ being fitted with a satellite tag as a nestling. Photo via RSPB]

The bird, nicknamed ‘KK’, toured northern England, making it as far as the Peak District, then returned north and has been faithful to the Derwent Valley region ever since.

KK’s tag had been functioning normally until it suddenly and unexpectedly stopped transmitting. The last fix came from an area of driven grouse moor near the Derwent Reservoir on 17 April. It has not been heard from since.

Emma Marsh, RSPB England Director, said: “If you’ve seen a red kite wheeling high overhead you’ll know that they’re splendid birds. They enrich our landscapes and bring joy to many.

When a tag which has been functioning reliably suddenly cuts out, this gives us immediate cause for suspicion. The additional fact that the tag’s last data fix came from an area dominated by driven grouse shooting rings serious alarm bells.

The connection between driven grouse shooting and the illegal killing of birds of prey has been well documented. Sudden, unexplained disappearances of tagged birds of prey are happening far too often in these landscapes. Satellite tags continue transmitting even after death, so if this bird had died naturally we would expect to be able to recover it.”

Red kites are specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) which makes it an offence to deliberately kill or injure this species. Those found to have done so could be given an unlimited fine and/or a prison sentence.

Harold Dobson, spokesman for the Friends of the Red Kites, said: “It’s 15 years since the first red kites were re-introduced in the Lower Derwent Valley. They are faring well in the valley itself and we enjoy watching these impressive, majestic birds of prey.

As mainly scavengers, the red kites are of no threat to anyone. However, we fear that human persecution is preventing them from naturally expanding their range: since 2010, seven red kites have been found poisoned or shot near the Derwent Gorge and surrounding Durham Moorland. We fear that this may be the tip of the iceberg and that many more persecuted kites are never found.”

Inspector Ed Turner, the lead for wildlife and rural crime for Durham Constabulary said: “The fate of this red kite is not yet clear, we are working with the RSPB to establish what has happened since its transmitter unexpectedly stopped on 17 April 2020. Until we can rule out the possibility that a crime has not been committed, then we will be taking this matter very seriously and if anyone has any information please contact the police quoting 22042020-0078.

Chris Woodley-Stewart, Director of the North Pennines AONB Partnership, said: “Though the fate of this bird isn’t certain, the fact that it was carrying two reliable trackers means this looks very like a crime may have been committed. This is an area where a significant number of kites have been shot or poisoned and we’d really appeal to anyone who knows anything that might help shed light on this incident to come forward.”

If you have any information about this incident, please contact the police on 101, quoting the reference number 22042020-0078. Alternatively, if you have information about birds of prey being killed or targeted near you, please call the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.


44 thoughts on “Satellite-tagged red kite ‘disappears’ on grouse moor in North Pennines AONB”

  1. I would like to see sat tagging on Goshawk and Ravens if possible. Their numbers are being hammered in the lowlands by pheasant shoots.

    1. I agree with you Daniel, but its not as simple as that especially with Goshawks which spend most of their time under the canopy to tags would be less likely to both recharge themselves and get and give reliable fixes.
      Sickening, this Red Kite population should now be a considerable size, that it is not really says it all. Birds of prey with tags are all too frequently lost on the Durham grouse moors in circumstances such as this bird. There is only one conclusion to draw yet we as yet are failing to get these criminals caught and in court. Sadly it is only a matter of time before another victim or victims is recorded but the message to the criminal bastards doing it is one day we will get lucky and you WILL be caught. We are not discouraged by your crimes it makes us angry and all the more determined to succeed, not only in catching you but all of those of like mind and action.

      1. Thanks for explaining why goshawks haven’t been sat tagged so far that explains an awful lot. If the technology improves and it becomes a viable option this will be a big blow against the raptor haters, goshawks must be massively persecuted given the habitat and food available for them. Strange how those arguing for widespread killing of corvids to protect ground nesting and songbirds clam up when asked if it wouldn’t be better to have more goshawks. Looks like most of the (slowly) expanding red kite populations are actually quite badly persecuted and haven’t increased as much as they could have, but this has been obscured by the utterly dreadful level of killing inflicted on the Black Isle one – would there be any left at all if it wasn’t for the feeding station at Tollie? Sadly there’s yet to be a red kite translocation properly within Scotland’s central belt away from grouse moors and higher level pheasant shooting you get in north Stirlingshire and Perthshire etc. The closest one to Falkirk is at Doune and between there and here there’s some grouse moor and a fair bit of pheasant shooting so I can’t help wondering if 24 years after the reintroduction red kites shouldn’t be more than a very rare sight over the Helix or the Falkirk Wheel by now. That’s a terrible shame.

      2. “as yet are failing to get these criminals caught and in court. Sadly it is only a matter of time before another victim or victims is recorded but the message to the criminal bastards doing it is one day we will get lucky and you WILL be caught. We are not discouraged by your crimes it makes us angry and all the more determined to succeed”

        Paul, by now you may have heard of my project CamTag, it is the continual week in week out reports of Raptor persecution that spur me on to try to get the newest technology available to develop and produce a camera satellite tag to run alongside existing tags. I am glad to say work is progressing, albeit slowly for now due to the lockdown, with those working with me having been furloughed for the time being. As you say, ‘you WILL be caught’ I too hope one day, I will be able to help contribute to this aim. I will take on board your comment regarding the recharging capabilities and see if we can overcome those issues.

        Along with all the other Raptors, I now fear for the WTE’s that are exploring the countryside and being tracked going near grouse moors, it’s fantastic that we have these magnificent birds flying in English skies, but all the hard work that has been done over decades could be undone instantly at the pull of a trigger.

        With lockdown keeping the ‘Eyes in the Field’ at bay, i dread to think of the persecution taking place that cannot be seen. I hope we can get back to some degree of normality soon, so that gamekeepers don’t think they are the only ones allowed on the moors!

        1. Brilliant news about cam tag, hope work on it fully restarts ASAP too! If goshawk were sat tagged that would be brilliant. That a bird which is a major predator of the corvids they keep moaning about as well as wood pigeon and grey squirrels keeps ‘disappearing’ near shoots would not go down well with the public. The persecution they’re currently suffering from can’t be much less than what hen harriers are receiving, maybe even worse – supposed to be 10,000 pairs of them and we only have approx 500. I’m particularly worried about WTEs too – there’s a lot of guff from the other side about them not being a native eagle because they were reintroduced (!?!) and that they supposedly displace golden eagles when in fact both species are (or were) increasing away from ‘sporting’ estates – of course something that was the result of genuine conservation work by genuine conservationists has to be run down. They can be openly critical about WTEs in a way they’d never be about golden eagles.

          1. There are at least three projects currently sat-tagging goshawks in the UK. Different tag types have been trialled and there is now a greater understanding of which gos tags are useful for high res short-term data and which are better for low res but longer term data.

            You might remember this story from one of the projects a couple of years ago:


            1. I would love to see the information from this. I bet it proves without doubt the levels of persecution I suspect.

              1. It’s not as straight forward as that as it depends on the type of tag and the settings used, which is defined by the research questions being posed. As mentioned above, some of the data are of very high resolution but others are not and therefore are of limited usefulness (spatially) for that particular question.

                Data from at least one study are being analysed by a PhD student so hopefully there’ll be more to report in time.

                There are other long term studies (not using sat tags) that have demonstrated strong evidence of persecution (as defined by high turnover rates of breeding pairs). At least one of these is due for publication soon.

                1. Thank you for this, I wasn’t aware there were any trials (possible I had looked at the feature you mentioned, but had forgotten – memory is becoming a sieve these days). Levels of goshawk persecution must be bloody horrendous to suppress the population as much as it is, there’s a lowland, non sporting estate near me which should be perfect for them, buzzard and raven have moved back, but only a couple of sightings of goshawk going back decades. It’ll be great if we can start moving towards the level of notification for goshawk ‘disappearances’ that we have with hen harrier, at least a step in the right direction and hopefully another door closed for those wanting to deny illegal persecution of raptors. Can’t come quick enough.

  2. Maybe we should fit satellite trackers to keepers and their guns so it would be obvious when birds, keepers and guns come into contact!

    1. Another group of individuals who sail close to the wind in terms of sticking to the law are trawler-men
      ….they have sat transponders on their boats so that they can be tracked. Its not a novel suggestion.

  3. Just read a blog on Mark Avery’s site about satellite tags on cuckoos, four tags (on cuckoos) have been to central Africa and back without any malfunction. Can the shooting lobby explain why tags can travel, on birds, halfway round the world and back, but when they pass over a grouse moor they suddenly fail?

  4. Evidently a very well travelled bird, I am amazed it lasted that long. I’ve seen a lot of the Rowlands Gill red kites over the years, while driving on the A68. When I see one flying east I always think to myself – “lovely, I bet I see that bird again”. However, when I see a bird flying west, I automatically do a little bit of “expectation management”. I accept I am unlikely to see it again. I know that if the bird is regularly travelling west into the dales, it’s life expectancy is in handfuls of days, not even in weeks. It’s a sad and cynical outlook I know, but the experience of being proven right over the years just accustoms one to that grim way of thinking.

  5. I hope the “not” in Inspector Turner’s statement is just a typo! (“Until we can rule out the possibility that a crime has not been committed, then we will be taking this matter very seriously”)

    1. The sat tagged gamekeeper is good idea. Also sat tag the firearms.
      From my home I can see the grouse moor where this bird was last recorded, it probably flew over my garden on its way to make its last signal -how it is it possible gamecreepers can be in this area and I cannot .

      1. Since with this virus outbreak we may have to carry tracking apps on our phones, then why not role this out and have it a legal requirement to have a live tracking app on your device whenever you are out with your firearm. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

        1. My understanding is that all fire arms owners must keep their weapons in their personal locked cabinets except when they take them out to use. Your idea of requiring the owner to use a tracking device when taking the weapon out of the cabinet is a really interesting idea. Thank you.

  6. Perhaps somebody should be persuaded to conduct an experiment rather akin to GWCTs Otterburn experiment. Take a large area where there are currently lots of gamekeepers and a host of last satellite tagged raptors. Then remove all gamekeeper activity from it for a period of say five years. Then compare the complete loss of satellite tagged birds between the two periods. If that were to be done I suspect after the results were published there would be little sympathy for the oft heard cry from the shooting cabal “not us honest” or ” no comment.”
    In the mean time in the real world we all should continue to campaign for an end to driven grouse shooting and the mass release of alien game birds.

    1. This has all become totally pointless. We all know who the criminals are and so do the police, the courts and the government. Maybe somebody should start writing a paper on the link between the shooting industry, the establishment and the blatant corruption we have in this country?

  7. I assume Mr Gilruth will be along shortly to express GWCTs indignation about the land manager not knowing what is going on on their land…

  8. Given the current restrictions, have they been able to conduct a search of the area of the last known transmission? None of the comments are clear on that, from what I can see.

  9. Not surprising…on the occasions when I have been out on the moors and countryside over the last month, the activity by game keepers is very visible.
    Only 2 days ago I watched one keeper enter a wood where pheasants are reared, but which I know is frequented by buzzard. After a short passage of time I heard the 4 distinct shots from a shot gun.
    Clearly something had been killed, but I couldn’t identify what. I can draw some assumptions- as there have been no humane methods deployed to reduce crow numbers then simply killing crows under the defence of the GL would potentially be unlawful. Plus the wood hasn’t an unduly large crow population.
    Could it be a fox that was being killed? But the time of day was wrong for when fox would be out of a den?
    I can only hope it wasn’t one of the buzzards- but the shooting was very close to area where they regularly use.
    Over the last month, I have been watching a pair of red kite on one of the notorious grouse moors close to me home. But recently they seem to have vanished? – which seems to tie in with a high amount of keeper activity on that moor- in fact its guaranteed I will see a number of keepers out- either on quad bikes roaming the moor or in a 4X4 up on the shooting tracks.
    Having previously reported suspicious activity to the police, but rarely had a reply- I have lost faith. And to be honest during this “lockdown” period- they seem to be more interested in placing notices on cars which have parked up in rural areas or stopping people from even short journeys to engage in exercise in rural areas- despite the advice from the CPS that this is perfectly lawful.
    So has the police Operation Owl been kicked into the long grass?
    It can only have success if people are out reporting suspicious activity- and the police should be allowing those that can travel within the constraints to the lockdown guidance and legislation to be on the moors, hopefully deterring criminal activity against raptors.
    Sadly I suspect that we will find that once normal observations by various bird watchers returns- there may be very little to observe except for large numbers of grouse or pheasant?

    On a separate note- it would not be difficult for the manufacturers of shotgun cartridges to make cartridges identifiable, through the use of micro-dot technology. This already happens with tasers, and when a taser is deployed, microdots are released which identify the taser cartridge fired.
    With shotgun cartridges – this technology could be employed within the cartridge, and then the serial numbers assigned to various batches of cartridges registered against purchaser of those cartridge and recorded against the shotgun certificate.
    Whether that technology could be embedded within the actual shot would have to be explored…but it could mean that shot becomes identifiable, which would greatly increase the number of prosecutions of those criminals shooting birds.
    It would be very difficult for offenders to deny offences with such strong evidence. Especially if it also became an offence to exchange cartridges with another person without keeping records of that exchange and recording serial numbers?
    Sadly, I can never see this happening- the screaming from the shooting lobby would be too loud, there isn’t the political will to enact such legislation or enforce shotgun cartridge manufactures to employ this practice. But when measured against the huge sums of public money spent on various raptor schemes and environmental protection- it is absurd that we aren’t focusing enough attention on the criminals, and taking very robust measures directly targeted at the them and their criminal activities.

  10. Daniel in his comments above, has it right and in another way – in my humble opinion – also has it wrong. It isn’t corruption, it is just the way that power and influence within british society works and has done since those times when scary revolutions occurred on the continent. There are tonnes of academic tracts already written on this. Half of the laws on the statute books are not even worthy as toilet paper, as they were created only to appease people at the time and split the hardliners from wishy-washy grumblers among the general public. Obvious example? The foxhunting ban…even Blair himself has subsequently been honest enough to say it’s just a sham. In this new red kite case, will a copper even be troubling to knock on a few keepers doors…only three or four needed, or stop a few quad bikes…not to find the culprit exactly – but just to say “we are here, out and about with our eyes open”. I doubt it. The copper just wouldn’t dare for fear of a back-stairs reprimand from those above. And anyway they constantly move officers around from role to role to ensure that they don’t draw their own obvious conclusions. Durham Police – genuinely I would welcome being wrong, so please correct me.

    1. The point about the police “knocking on a few keepers doors” is a very valid one. It should be a matter of course in every criminal investigation, including those involving the persecution of raptors to make “house to house enquiries” , establish whether there are CTV or ANPR opportunities to identify suspect movements either through vehicles of individuals, carry out realistic suspect profiling and then examine suspects movements, and ask them to account for their movements at the time of the incident- this doesn’t have to be formally but through the normal day to day questioning and interaction of the police with people in the area of the crime. Does this happen? Hard to say, but if it did, I would suspect there would be an awful lot more noise coming from various shooting and gamekeeper quarters about “persecution by the police”.

      I don’t think the current generation of police officers are fearful of “back-stairs reprimands”- modern senior management in the police does not have the ties with landowners which were held by older generations of police management. But that is not to say landowners won’t use their political influence to try and steer the police away from certain actions which might be detrimental to the status quo.

      And you are absolutely right about legislation- if we as a society were absolutely serious about ending raptor persecution once and for all, then the government could simply introduce a raft of well thought out legislation without loop holes and “get out of jail” clauses which would stop all forms of “shooting activity” wherever there was evidence of raptor persecution. This could take into account the environment and suitability of the land for successful raptor habitat- no successful breeding raptors – no shooting!! This legislation could have its evidential test based “on the balance of probabilities” and not the more onerous “beyond reasonable doubt”.
      Why isn’t this happening? For the reasons you cite. Legislation is all about maintaining the power of a ruling elite, and strengthening that elites ideology so it remains dominant within society. The last major shift in power/ideology came with the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism- but even then the landed aristocracy managed to hang onto much of their previous power centred around land ownership and title… hence a very undemocratically elected “House of Lords” !!!

      1. Thanks John, we are of a similar mind and my view on “back-stairs reprimands” might well be out of date. I admit I was harking back to a couple of moors in Teesdale in the nineties, where many of the loaders and pretty much all of the picker-ups were in fact comprised of the senior and pensioned off plods of Durham Constabulary.

  11. Could be that the battery is flat on the transmitter but YET AGAIN blame shooters and gamekeepers.I think these revievers are cruel as theyre not natural.RSPB do more harm than anyone else but try to stand on a pedestal.HYPOCRITES

    1. As I have pointed out, there is a blog on Mark Avery’s website about satellite tagged cuckoos. These cuckoos have been tracked halfway round the world and back. It’s strange that tags can operate over these vast intercontinental distances, but as soon as they pass over a grouse moor the battery goes flat. Or is the carrier of the tag the critical factor in this comparison?

    2. Paul – not sure how much you know about the functionality of satellite tags but generally the level of charge remaining in the battery is indicated in the tag’s engineering data, which the researcher can access every day.

      If it’s a solar-powered battery, it is quite evident for a number of days before the tag stops that the battery charge is draining and when there is insufficient charge to obtain a location fix the data output file will actually say ‘low battery’.

      Can I suggest you have a read of this excellent & comprehensive review of satellite tag technology and how it works, I think you’ll learn a lot:

      Click to access analyses-of-the-fates-of-satellite-tracked-golden-eagles-in-scotland.pdf

    3. Two batteries losing charge on the same day at the same time! Come on! Let’s be honest here! Something has happened to both those tags to stop them working. My guess is someone didn’t want the tags to continue working because they’d committed an offence.

  12. Gamekeepers are the scum of the countryside. Our countryside is riddled with these brainless idiots that can`t get real jobs

  13. I feel utterly sick!

    Unfortunately, the wildlife in this small area of County Durham has been absolutely devastated by the outrageous activities of a few people whose sole aim seems to be to create some of the ‘best’ shoots in the country. The victims have not only included the usual foxes, stoat, crows and hare but also raptors and badgers.

    Some of these estates seem to have no compunction about employing people who have wildlife crime convictions or who are clearly thoroughly unpleasant people.

    [Ed: this para deleted as potentially libellous]

    Two other gamekeepers have been employed locally despite having convictions for setting a 4ft-high moss-covered pole trap to try and catch hen harriers.

    Inevitably these people and the practices they have employed on the estates have had a massive impact on the local wildlife.

    I know of at least 16 badger setts which were occupied in this area. Shortly after the appointment of one particularly nasty piece of work and a huge increase in the number of gamekeepers, most of those badger setts were ‘abandoned’ and, strangely, have never been re-occupied. There are signs of badgers that have been caught in snares (black and white hairs and churned up donut shaped soil of the victim trying to dig and pull themselves free) but no occupied setts. I call it a campaign of extermination!

    Similarly, raptors seem to have an unfortunate, repeated habit of eating poisoned bait and getting caught in gun cross-fire in this general area! Raptors seem to find it difficult to establish nests anywhere on the grouse shooting estates. I have found at least 5 bird cage traps, some with bait, others with decoy birds and yet more located just hundreds of feet from stink pits. Some might think that that is a deliberate policy to attract corvids and birds of prey to the bird traps. I call that a campaign of extermination!

    Over the last decade or so there have been annual campaigns on some estates to kill off as many predators as possible with hundreds of spring traps set and hundreds of snares put out. I call that a campaign of extermination!

    Rabbits get killed off as well with lines of rabbit drop traps on the edges of some woods. Exterminate, exterminate, exterminate!

    Unfortunately, the law is just about impossible to prove. Nothing sticks. It seems that even the most implausible explanations will do. Junk explanations or no comment are enough to make a conviction hard or impossible to achieve.

    Despite evidence from multiple sources, to my knowledge, there has been no criminal prosecution of any gamekeeper in the area during the last decade.

    Despite all this, I have it in writing from Durham Police that there is no official Durham Police Force Wildlife Crime Officer.

    Despite all this, the local MP, Richard Holden, doesn’t see fit to sign the EDM urging the government to provide permanent funding for the NWCU.

    Thank goodness for Chris Woodley-Stewart, the Friends of Red Kite team and the RSPB Investigations Team.

    In particular, thank goodness for John Gill – an extraordinary wildlife campaigner who has photographed, videoed, reported and exposed the atrocities taking place in this area for decades. Keep those shocking photographic posters up on display on your gates, John. They hate you for it. We love you for it!

    1. I’ve lived in Durham on the eastern edge of the North Pennines AONB for five years now, most of the land around me is managed by xxxxxxx Estate, other than a couple of Sparrowhawks and a well hidden Kestrel nest it’s a raptor free zone. I’ve never seen a Buzzard up here never mind a Kite despite abundant suitable breeding habitat and available prey/road kill.

      The local keepers serve their masters well, and the attitude of many people I’ve spoken to is truly backward when it comes to wildlife conservation. Much as I despise the word ‘vermin’ I’m content to apply it to the minions of the shooting industry who have turned our uplands into an impoverished grouse farm and continue to persecute native wildlife with impunity.

      [Ed: estate name removed as following commentary is potentially libellous]

      1. I know these places too. Yes you do get low numbers of some raptor and owl species – those that tend to stick to relatively small tight territories. However, species that like to rise, drift, quarter, glide and soar over many miles in a day just don’t last, at least not if their tendency is westwards (which it generally is, as to young birds all they can see below is thousands of rabbits, voles and grouse.) But even a high drifting female sparrowhawk can cover a lot of territory and any bird sticks out like a sore thumb with a load of songbirds mobbing it. More so if the keepers best friend – the peewit – also starts making a row. Oh, and you might consider the locations of much of the “roadkill” that you mention on the (public!) road “over the tops” to the next valley. Most of it isn’t accidental roadkill. It is carefully placed (but not poisoned) bait, usually after slight crest in the road. As the keeper knows, at four and five in the morning those roads are deserted…the 5-shot auto is easy to poke out of the vehicle’s window as he drives slowly and continuously around and around. Dirty deeds are thus easily done…All back to the cottage for tea and medals!

        1. Fascinating comment about carrion being placed on road to turn raptors into genuine roadkill – this point is actually raised in Hugh Warwick’s book ‘Linescapes’. When driving through Northumbria he noticed dead rabbits at very regular intervals on the road and it was peculiar enough for him to mention it when he popped into a pub for a bar meal. He was given the exact explanation you have, clearly this is a common practice. What utter shites. If the perpetrators could be caught on camera dropping off the ‘bait’ it would at least give credence to this point, what other explanation would there be for this bizarre behaviour? I don’t envy anyone living near these estates must be utterly soul destroying.

          1. I seem to remember reading that the biggest loss of WTE in Norway was caused by trains. Elk wander onto the track and get hit by the train, the next train along takes out the sea eagles.

            1. The rabbits on the road . I spoke to a scarred gamecreeper on the service road to Cow Green reservoir, Teesdale, some time ago about the number of dead rabbits and what killed them,”traffic”, three vehicles per day causing carnage. Now we know.

                1. Hi tony. At cow green, I saw a quad with a gamecreeper type. He had his shot gun uncovered across front of the vehicle. Drove off at ridiculous speed.
                  Outrageous. I passed another quad, maybe the same chap, by the Langdon beck hostelry on the main road, shotgun still uncovered and still across the front uncovered .
                  I look forward to meeting with this again with evidence.
                  Regards lance

    2. Maybe I have remembered this wrong. But isn’t Muggleswick one of the estates Boris Johnson used to shoot grouse at – before he was eyeing up top jobs and was thus obliged to reluctantly distance himself for political PR reasons? Again, someone please do correct me if I’m wrong.

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