Hen harriers doing well on Mar Lodge Estate but what happens when they leave?

Back in 2016, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was celebrating the rare success of a hen harrier breeding attempt on the Mar Lodge Estate, the first such success for decades (see here).

[A young hen harrier fitted with a satellite tag on Mar Lodge Estate in 2016. Photo by Shaila Rao]

The NTS has just published an update on the return of hen harriers to Mar Lodge Estate, detailing further breeding successes in each year since (see here).

This is really, really encouraging news, but it’s only half of the story. Breeding success is meaningless if survival rates are low, and they are low, very low. The most recent national survey of hen harriers in Scotland, conducted in 2016, documented a 9% decline since the previous survey in 2010. It was the second successive decline in the Scottish hen harrier population revealed by national surveys, signalling a worrying trend. In the longer term, over a period of just 12 years, the number of breeding pairs had dropped by 27% in Scotland (see here). Illegal persecution connected to driven grouse moor management is widely acknowledged as being the most significant threat to this species’ conservation, not just in Scotland but across the UK (e.g. see here).

The NTS blog recognises this and states:

However, it’s not all good news. The success of hen harrier breeding at Mar Lodge Estate led to us being involved in the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project and through this 14 harrier chicks from Mar Lodge Estate were satellite-tagged between 2016 and 2020. But of these 14 chicks, only one still survives in 2020 – a female named Tamara, who spends much of her time in Perthshire. Eight of the satellite tags stopped suddenly, with no trace of a bird or body found, raising suspicions of possible foul play‘.

Some of those young birds satellite-tagged at Mar Lodge didn’t even make it out of the Cairngorms National Park, ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances on driven grouse moors – e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, joining a growing list of other sat-tagged hen harriers that have vanished or been found dead there (e.g. see here, here, here, here). Such is the extent of this issue, the Cairngorms National Park Authority has had to publish statements that illegal persecution continues to be a problem (e.g. see here).

Some of those young birds from the Mar Lodge Estate feature on the grim list of 45 hen harriers ‘missing’ or confirmed illegally killed in the UK since 2018 – see here. I’m led to believe that this list is now out of date (see here).

9 thoughts on “Hen harriers doing well on Mar Lodge Estate but what happens when they leave?”

  1. Mar Lodge is where the develop relationships and create trust with a view to accessing information. Use a long spoon.

  2. We all know these birds are unlikely to last long as are most birds of prey with all these silly shooters to keep happy they are just like children they think they are tough but they are just cowards.

  3. The number of chicks that fledge, taken as a lone statistic, is almost completely meaningless and is used by the driven grouse industry as a barometer for ‘success’, completely ignoring the fact that they’ll very often not reach breeding age due to illegal persecution. In the short term, it enables them to deflect away from the long term trends and hide away from the fundamental fact that driven grouse shooting is incompatible with healthy populations of raptors. Disgracefully, Natural England is also complicit in the deliberate misinformation spread by the shooting industry.

  4. NTS seems to omit mention of grouse moors – “Eight of the satellite tags stopped suddenly, with no trace of a bird or body found, raising suspicions of possible foul play.”

  5. Even those with a limited understanding of conservation would understand that it is not the number of chicks which fledge which is important, but the number of birds which go on to reach adulthood and form breeding pairs.
    If the survey data is correct (and there is no reason to believe it isn’t). The fact that the number of breeding pairs has declined by 27% in the last 12 years in Scotland. Or of the 14 satellite tagged chicks which fledged between 2016-2020 -93% appear not to have survived, is absolute damming evidence as to what is actually happening to Hen Harriers.
    The shooting industry is no doubt very aware that a very high percentage of the birds which fledge will go on to be persecuted and illegally killed.
    So when their media propaganda machine rolls out stories about the success of chicks which have fledged on grouse moors, is this not nothing more than deceitful information designed to mislead both public and politicians about the role they are playing in conservation?
    Whilst in reality the wildlife criminals within that industry are driving the Hen Harrier ever closer to extinction.

    This then raises other questions concerning the truthfulness and integrity of the shooting industry and just how deceitful they are being about everything else which goes on in the countryside?
    Dishonesty doesn’t just involve the telling of blatant lies, it also includes providing misleading information or obscuring the truth.
    Once dishonesty has been exposed, it discredits anything and everything else which is said or claimed.
    If it is the case that the shooting industry is being misleading in how it describes and reports the conservation success or failure of the Hen Harrier, or any other species of bird of prey for that matter. Then that is a matter of grave concern.
    Those within the “shooting and conservation world” who do act with honesty and integrity really do need to disassociate themselves from those that don’t. Speak out truthfully about what they know, and then join in honest discussions about how we rid our countryside of the wildlife criminals.
    Until this happens there is nothing which they can offer to this dialogue as it will be meet with scepticism and disbelief. This is not helpful to the wildlife which the law should be protecting , but is clearly failing to do so properly. We need to resolve this problem fast, before there is no wildlife left to protect!

  6. Ed, (Ruth), What happened to these new super-tech sat tags that we all donated to 2 years ago? You couldn`t reveal what they did exactly. Is there any news on this?

    [Ed: I don’t know which tags you’re talking about, Phil. Unless you mean these, but I don’t think anyone was asked to donate towards the cost of development as it was part of a Civitech challenge:


    I haven’t heard anything more on these tags since this press release in March 2019]

  7. We still need mainstream public support for this issue – that will tip the balance against the grouse shooting industry once and for all.

    For the public to care about hen harriers, they have to be able to relate to them. The majority of the British public do not even know what hen harriers are, let alone where they live or the difficulties they face.

    Last year, in my city, the game industry paid for a huge billboard poster beside a busy road, extolling the delights of wild game. Why aren’t we using these methods?

    I suppose our message could be a grim one but it would catch the public’s attention:

    “43 under 3 years olds missing since 2018.
    If these were children, there would be a national inquiry.”

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