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)