Hen harrier’s ‘wings removed’ & its satellite tag fitted to a crow in sick ploy to disguise the crime

In December 2021 I blogged about a disturbing incident I’d heard about concerning a young satellite-tagged hen harrier whose wings had been ripped off – whether that was done when she was still alive or after she’d been killed was not known (see here).

I understood the incident had happened approximately nine months earlier, in Spring 2021, and I asked Natural England to clarify. Natural England refused to comment in December 2021 (see here) and in March 2022 it issued a statement saying it was remaining silent on police orders as the investigation was ongoing (see here).

I had intended to blog further about this case before now, but it’s been complicated for a number of reasons that I can’t divulge and besides, I didn’t want to compromise the ongoing police investigation by revealing too much detail that might provide a defendant with an opportunity to escape justice.

I’ve now been advised that the police investigation has been closed and nobody is being prosecuted due to there being insufficient evidence to charge anyone, so here is the full, sickening story.

Hen harrier ‘Asta’ hatched at a nest site in Northumberland in 2020. By the end of her first winter, she had settled in County Durham for several months and had a defined home range on moorland just south of the A66. Incidentally, an area dominated by moorland managed for driven grouse shooting where a young brood meddled hen harrier ‘vanished’ without trace in 2019 (here) and where a Marsh harrier was found with gunshot injuries in 2011 (here).

In late March 2021 Asta’s satellite tag signal temporarily went offline before reappearing in early April. However, when it came back online the signal was coming from 29km to the south east in the lowlands, near to Arrathorne in Richmondshire. Prior to this move, Asta’s tag had rarely dropped below 400m but was now showing an altitude of approx 103m.

This odd behaviour and the erratic tag data raised the suspicions of the Natural England employee who was monitoring the tag data and a search was launched to find out what was going on.

Eventually the tag was found later in April 2021 but it was no longer attached to hen harrier Asta – it had been fitted to a carrion crow (which was dead when the fieldworkers found it).

I use the word ‘fitted’ deliberately. The police were brought in and they asked two expert, highly experienced satellite-tag practitioners (including one from Natural England) to examine the tag and its harness while it was still attached to the crow. They both concluded that the harness had been deliberately ‘fitted‘ to the crow; in other words, it wasn’t a case of the crow having become entangled in a discarded tag harness, it was “only human intervention that could have fitted it in the manner it was securely attached” [to the crow], according to the police officer I’ve been talking to.

But here’s the bit that makes my blood run cold. The two experts also concluded that the harness “could not have been removed from the harrier unless the wings had been removed, and the condition of the harness did not suggest that it had become damaged and been able to just fall off the hen harrier. The hen harrier could not remove the harness/tag itself“.

Obviously, without sufficient evidence to prosecute anyone we’ll never know the full grisly details of what happened to Asta, but we can make an educated guess.

She vanished from a known raptor persecution hotspot, in an area managed for driven grouse shooting – an industry with an acknowledged filthy history of persecuting birds of prey, and particularly hen harriers, as demonstrated by decades of prosecutions, convictions and endless scientific evidence (e.g. here).

We also know the lengths the raptor killers will go to disguise their barbaric crimes, from removing a satellite tag, wrapping it in lead sheeting (to block the signal) and dumping it in a river (here), to dumping a tag 15 miles offshore in the North Sea (here).

It is not implausible to surmise then that Asta was illegally killed and her tag fitted to a crow in the hope that the person monitoring the tag data would assume that nothing was amiss as the tag continued to transmit as the crow flew about the countryside.

This wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. I’m told a similar case apparently took place in Scotland several years ago when hen harriers were first being satellite-tagged by Roy Dennis.

Asta has not been found and let’s face it, she’s unlikely to be. Her mutilated, wingless corpse has probably been stamped into a peat bog or thrown into an incinerator, perhaps after ‘trophy‘ photographs had been taken.

I’ve been asked by the police not to divulge certain aspects of the investigation (so as not to compromise future investigations) and I’ll respect that request. I think it’s fair to say the investigation was rigorous, based on the information provided.

However, what I won’t respect is the police’s complete silence about this case. It’s been almost 18 months since it happened and there hasn’t been a peep. No statement, no public appeal for information, nothing. I don’t accept that issuing a statement or appeal, no matter how generalised, would have compromised the investigation.

I also won’t respect Natural England’s decision to remain silent. Natural England is supposed to be the regulator and is using public funds to pay for these satellite tags and staff time to monitor the data. It could easily have made a statement about this case, which is very much in the public interest, without compromising the police investigation.

In my view, saying nothing by hiding behind the excuse of a live police investigation is simply a convenient cover for Natural England not to have to admit that its hen harrier brood meddling trial is a conservation sham because hen harriers are still being brutalised by the industry with which NE has jumped in to bed (at least 70 hen harriers killed or ‘missing’ in suspicious circumstances just since 2018, most of them on driven grouse moors). Meanwhile, Natural England is happy to put its name to ludicrous propaganda being pumped out by the very industry responsible for bringing the hen harrier population to its knees.

I also noticed that in its summer 2021 update on its satellite-tagged hen harriers, Natural England stated that Asta’s tag was still transmitting in July 2021 and her status was listed as ‘alive’, when actually she was dead three months earlier:

What else is Natural England lying about?

What else is Natural England covering up?

And why on earth does it take a blogger to bring this horrific crime, a so-called national wildlife crime priority, to the public’s attention?

UPDATE 25th August 2022: Natural England accepts £75k bung for hen harriers from game-shooting organisation BASC (here)

UPDATE 4th September 2022: Natural England utterly compromised on tackling hen harrier persecution (here)

44 thoughts on “Hen harrier’s ‘wings removed’ & its satellite tag fitted to a crow in sick ploy to disguise the crime”

  1. No suprise at all that this is being done, when this blog first mentioned it I thought this is what it would be. Seems a poor choice of bird (crow) to use though. Might it be the case that this has / is being done using other species? I can think of one that would be better suited to a longer term deception, although difficult to catch alive. Perhaps one or two other functioning & seemingly active tags on the database are not actually on harriers!

  2. It’s public money that employs NE but it will be private money that directs them.
    If I’m wrong, take me to court.

  3. Excellent exposing journalism. Without this level of dedication we would be none the wiser about the activities of these so called humans. Please don’t stop your very valuable work. The hypocrisy of these institutions knows no boundaries. Thank you.

  4. My heart is broken reading this. The litany of horrors against our harriers is truly sickening but this one is the worst yet. Natural England and the police should be ashamed of themselves – we expect nothing less from the grouse shooting industry.

  5. It seems Natural England is in the same league as other state regulators in the news lately such as Ofwat and Ofgem, long on rhetoric and short on action. I’m sure they all contain good people but a fish rots from the head does it not?

  6. I think this questions the use of satellite tags to track raptors. These are not very secure and there seem to be incidents of foul play where tags have been removed when birds are killed. Is there any other technology that could be used to protect birds more effectively? I wondered about micro chips which would be easy to implant.

    1. You won’t get something that tracks if implanted (Thing dog microchips), it needs to have a power source to transmit. As I understand it, modern raptor tags work by having solar panels to charge the battery that allows them to transmit.

    2. Hmm – if the wings of the hen harrier had to be ripped off to get the tag off then it seems to me that it is a secure device. It’s individuals who take extreme actions that make the tag insecure.

      I am surprised that the tag could then have been attached to a carrion crow.

      1. I’m not. Not in the slightest. These so called people will stop at nothing to ingratiate themselves with wealthy landowners in order to protect their perverse excuse of a job.

    3. “Is there any other technology that could be used to protect birds more effectively?”

      What do you mean, exactly, by ‘protect’? Tags are tracking devices, transmitting data to orbiting satellites which re-transmit that data to ground stations. For any mobile signal to reach a satellite requires substantial power from the fitted transmitter, the tag. Micro chips, on the other hand, are passive devices, reacting only when a transmitting scanner is passed within an inch or so of it (radio waves from the scanner generate electronic pulses within the chip circuitry sufficient for the chip to transmit its identity over a very short distance.)

      Tracking does not, of itself, protect anything.

  7. Not sure not revealing details will have any effect on future investigations – we know that there’s zero chance of any conviction, especially with the ‘omerta’ that exists.

  8. What lovely people…I bet they thought this was a great joke. Disguting poeple do disgusting things. remember this one if you are ever tempted to think “well, they have a point..”. Theres no excuse for savagery.

    1. Well said. They hide behind facade of respectability, with links to high status influential people. If only the public were made more aware of what a sham this inhumane circle of cronies actually are. Blood soaked hands, all of them.

  9. County Durham? Just south of the A66? That narrows down the xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx for those of us who grew in Durham, as it’s just that stretch along the Greta from Bowes to the Cumbria boundary and north of Tan Hill and Arkengarthdale. Or mebbe from Bowes to Greta Bridge, but that bit isn’t grouse moor…

    How many grouse estates are in that stretch?

  10. I hope this bird was dead before being so horribly abused. as to the whole sorry tale I can only think of an insult for the culprit(s) used when I was a teenager ( which you may well censor) I trust and hope his testicles will swell turn black, cause indescribable pain and then drop off. Police and NE responses as ever inadequate.

  11. One only has to take a look at the RSPB raptor persecution map to realise the extent of raptor persecution taking place on the moors just south of the A66 and just north of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
    Sadly it is an area without the tourist/hiker attraction of the Yorkshire Dales or Teesdale, and as such the potential for witnesses to the appalling crimes which are being committed is greatly diminished.
    Perhaps the best way to help stop these crimes and bring the offenders to justice would be for people reading this blog to make it their business to visit these moors, and make it their business to watch what those managing the moors are up to. The vast majority of these moors are open access land, so there is public access.
    The fact that the satellite tag had been removed from the Hen Harrier and fitted to a crow, suggests that whoever was responsible had access to crow/larsen traps.
    We are back to the old chestnut of motivation and means.
    Who in that area would have the motivation to want to kill a Hen Harrier, and would have the means to trap a crow and fit the satellite tag to this bird? One answer springs immediately to mind!!!!!
    The very nature of this wicked and deplorable act is clear evidence of the evil criminal mindset of the person responsible. A person who should be nowhere near animals or wildlife.
    What has taken place should also be sufficient justification for Durham and North Yorkshire Police to make it their business to carefully watch what is happening on these moors, develop close relationships with the local community and hopefully gain intelligence on just who is responsible for these wicked crimes.
    I would also make the public living in this area fully aware of the horrible nature of this crime through reports in the local media, as I suspect many people will be sickened by the depravity of what has taken place. This may be enough to create a chink in the rural wall of silence which so often hinders police investigations.
    Thank you Ruth for exposing just what has taken place. I hope someone from the mainstream media reads this blog and brings this evil act to the wider publics attention.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if Natural England also did something and maybe suspended the GL over all these moors?

    1. Three additional questions to ask:

      Who trained the perpetrator to fit the harness on the crow correctly?

      Was it happenstance that a sat tagged hen harrier was caught…or was the perpetrator aided to maximise the chances of a sat tagged harrier?

      Was it a silly attempt to cover up a dead harrier by masquerading a crow in its place…or was it a message that was intended to be found?

      This incident, in my opinion, is a message. A calling card if you like.

      1. Sounds like a threat to me. What exactly is your stance? You seem to know a lot? Please do share your opinion, more the merrier 😊

  12. Fitting the tag to the crow wasn’t necessarily done properly, they wouldn’t dare as long as it stayed on for a few days. These sick criminals don’t give a dam.

    1. Absolutely agree 👍 these dullards think the whole thing is a wheeze. I personally want to see the job title ‘Gamekeeper ‘ become redundant in my lifetime. Let them retrain as wardens, rangers, etc. if they want to help nature or do valuable conservation. Not doing sick perverse acts like this and deriving twisted enjoyment from it.

  13. Thank you Ruth, and Mark and Chris for your constant relentless pursuit of these terrible people who, it seems will stop at nothing to abuse our wildlife(yes if a crow has been used it must have suffered surely?) Sometimes I’m almost in shock at the depths of depravity stooped to by individuals who in my opinion don’t have any compassion for any living creature. I’m just appalled . I met Tony Juniper years ago at a Friends of the Earth conference and thought he was an eloquent and caring speaker……
    How times have changed!!!!!

  14. Ruth,
    Please could you advise whether details of the last movements of the Hen Harrier have been released into the public domain so that the exact location of where this Hen Harrier was most probably killed can be ascertained?

    It seems very clear to me that some planning and thought went into this crime. Firstly the criminal had to target the Hen Harrier and kill it. Then the Harrier had to be retrieved and the satellite tag removed. There was clearly some knowledge and thought into how satellite trackers work, its role in conservation and how the signals sent would alert the authorities.
    The perpetrator clearly planned and trapped a crow, so that the satellite tag could be fitted to another bird, which was then released to give the impression that the Hen Harrier was still alive, and that an investigation wouldn’t start over the moor where the bird was killed.

    It the perpetrator was prepared to go to this length to conceal this particular crime, it makes me wonder what the scale of killing raptors which aren’t satellite tagged is over this particular moor?

    If the police have indicated that they don’t want the exact location divulged then we must accept that.
    However, history tells us that a successful prosecution of the criminal is highly unlikely, and prevention/disruption of future crimes might be a better way forward than waiting for the suspect to commit further crimes and hope that one of those crimes will result in a successful prosecution.
    As such, if details of the moor were released to the public, then it would make it possible for the public to frequent that area, making getting caught a higher probability for those engaged in crime. It would also enable protest groups to target the moor and disrupt the shooting- so that a very clear message was sent- crime doesn’t pay.

    My concern is that whoever has committed this crime, will probably do it again, and may well share their methods, so that others who don’t want Hen Harriers over their land will do something similar.

    I would also hope that if details of the moor were released, then those organisations within the game shooting world who profess zero tolerance to raptor persecution would actively actively encourage their members never to shoot on this moor, remove those working on the moor from any organisations and associations they are part of, and effectively black list the moor so it became it became unprofitable and couldn’t function as a grouse moor.

    It should be remembered that Hen Harriers are on the red list of conservation species, their population is so low that they are endangered and run the risk of extinction in the UK if population numbers don’t recover, and they continue to face illegal persecution. These birds are the UK equivalent of the tiger or rhino. We rightly expect governments in Africa and Asia to take proper measure to protect such endangered species. The same should be happening here with regards the Hen Harrier and other red listed birds. Those that persecute the Hen Harrier are our equivalent of the tiger and rhino poacher- nothing more.

    This has to be a war against the criminals who are capable of committing these appalling acts. It is a war that really should unite conservation groups and those who engage in legitimate sustainable shooting- so that the criminals are removed from managing the countryside. The shooting industry has to realise that having these criminals on their estates and moors is akin to having drug dealers and burglars running round the streets, or rhino poachers running amok over game reserves. It is bad for all concerned.

    So, if possible please could details of where this Hen harrier was most likely killed by shared?
    Thanks.

    1. Apparently going any closer in identifying the most likely location isn’t allowed. However, it is not hard to find where this happened: took me around 30 seconds using some local knowledge, the description given ATL and a well-known search engine.

      I am not at all clear how getting closer to identifying the likely location will impede any future investigations, as surely if more folk know where then they may remember seeing things of relevance. But there you are…

  15. Equally it could have been a casual opportunistic killing. Keeper out on his rounds – whats that? Bang x 5. Bends down to pick it up oh shit this f–kers got a tag on it. Thinks lets try something to muddy the waters…Rings another keeper, “bring a crow out of one of the larsens and bring some baler twine / wire / cable ties / pliers & come pick me up at ?shittydyke? We’re going for a little drive…

    1. Either way they are still silly little boys playing with big guns. They need to grow up fast. Nature is way bigger than they will ever be. And I firmly believe in Karma for the next life. Hopefully they will get theirs.

      1. I wouldn’t describe them as “silly boys”. They are evil cruel sadistic criminals who cause unimaginable suffering to some species of wildlife.
        What I find very hard to understand is why rural communities tolerate them?
        People in those communities will have a very good idea of who is doing what.
        There has to be a shift in mindset- the game keeper who persecutes wildlife and breaks the law shouldn’t be viewed as the “local gamekeeper”- but as a criminal, no better than a drug dealer, burglar or thief.
        What they are doing casts a dark shadow over the communities in which they work.
        They are depriving rural communities of the experience to see and enjoy wildlife.
        If they are prepared to break the law when it comes to wildlife- what other laws are they breaking?
        Crime is often a pattern of behaviour.
        They are also an absolute blight on all those game keepers who go about their business in a proper lawful manner and who do take their conservation responsibilities very seriously.
        Hopefully karma will catch up with them in this life!

        1. Nice reasonable reply. However the only way to sort this out is to terminate the job description of ‘Gamekeeper ‘(sic) and let people who truly care about the countryside retrain as wardens, rangers, conservationists, etc. I understand also about culling. Where appropriate it can be done humanely and sensitively. Not with 12 bores. Or Larsen traps, etc. Neither for ‘sport’. I do enjoy meat, Chicken, Lamb, dairy products, etc. So I am not anti farming. We need it. But again, sustainability and eco awareness is paramount. Who seriously eats Partridge, Pheasant, Grouse etc these days? Except the very rich. Is there any need? Or Venison for that matter. Let’s begin by respecting nature. The whole notion of ‘Game’ must ✋️ stop. Yes they are silly little boys, because if I call them sick idiots then they feel proud and wear it like a badge. Who else could take delight in twisting off a Hen Harrier’s wings? Any defense? Hopefully not. Hopefully you agree with me.

    2. Doubtful. I would have thought if this was just an opportunistic crime the initial reaction would be one of panic- and a rapid disposal or destruction of the satellite tag. Too much thought and effort has gone into trapping and then fitting the tag to a crow and then releasing it to make it appear as thought the Hen Harrier was still alive.
      This crime has been planned and thought through- It suggests to me the actions of someone engaged in the systematic persecution of raptors- someone who needs to be caught- and a shooting estate which needs special attention if it is allowing such activity to take place.

      1. Who knows (other than them), this is just friendly conjecture between us of course. The presence of the tag may have given rise to a few swear words no doubt, but panic – definetely not – at least not in that part of the world! They like the challenge of getting one over on the authorities / townies / birders. They know their business, know the game, know they are playing cat & mouse with RSPB & Co. and in my experience (although it is dated, though many faces are still the same) they love playing the game…at least when they are young and they are reaping all the plaudits of being bag-record breaking keepers, going about like billy big bollox amongst their peers. It is only these past few years when the RSPB, etc, birders, this blog, wild justice, etc, etc have started scoring a few hits that they are blubbering like little kids, saying “not fair – we’re being targeted”, and whinging about people going about on the moors with spotting scopes and the like.

  16. The naming of Hen Harriers to be fitted with satellite tags could be used to greater effect, I think. Get celebrities to sponsor them (figuratively – not necessarily financially), and name the bird after them. Perhaps see if Royal Patronage can’t persuade someone with a high profile to accept a Hen Harrier chick with their name.

    Then get loads of publicity.

    See what happens if Hen Harrier ‘Elizabeth II’ or ‘Charles’ is reported as suddenly mysteriously disappearing, over a grouse moor, on the national news? Or, Adele? Or, David Attenborough? Or, Nicola Sturgeon?

    Take your pick… use your imagination.

    1. A very good idea. Well reasoned and constructed. Let’s see if it develops wings and flies! (No pun intended. )

      1. And the relevance is? We all like a joke. However, this isn’t comedy half hour. Wrong place and time. Imo.
        Go make a cup of tea instead.

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