Comment on Highlander lives?

Some good news for 2017. Thanks for confirming that the tag failure, if that's what it is, is thought to be within the expected failure rate. I, along with many others, am really hoping that the remaining tagged birds can survive to breed in 2017, and that raptors in general can look forward to a better 2017.

Blog Post: Highlander lives?

It’s a rare delight in the world of hen harriers to be able to start the New Year with some good news, but I am utterly astonished and elated to report that Highlander, a female hen harrier which fledged from United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland in 2014, and who suddenly and unexpectedly went missing in County Durham in April 2016, has possibly been found alive! Highlander and her sibling, Sky, just after having their satellite tags fitted, in Bowland, 2014. (Image: Jude Lane) To most people, Highlander is the eponymous lead character, played by Christopher Lambert, in the classic 1986 British-American action fantasy film, about an immortal Scottish swordsman on an epic quest. As our own Highlander was “adopted” by children from the local Brennand’s Endowed Primary School however, I’m going to hazard a guess it’s unlikely they had that particular kilt-wearing protagonist in mind when choosing a name for our young female. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a more fitting name for a bird that apparently against all expectation, seems to keep surviving.   The classic 1986 film, Highlander. The full story of Highlander’s tenacity can be read in the blog we posted in early June 2016, around the time of her disappearance. However, here’s a quick reminder of this exceptional bird’s life story: June 2014 : Four hen harrier chicks from two nests are ringed and satellite tagged by Natural England in partnership with RSPB on the United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland. Two of these are “adopted” by children from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School, who name the young females, Sky and Highlander.  September 2014 : Highlander starts to explore areas to the south of Bowland but her sister, Sky, and a tagged female from the other Bowland nest, Hope, suddenly disappear within days of each other in suspicious circumstances. They are never found. Winter 2014/15 : Highlander spends the winter months favouring a few particular roost sites within 30 miles of Bowland. March 2015 : She returns to Bowland April 2015 : She pairs up with a third-year adult male and they start the process of nest-building and egg-laying. May 2015: Highlander’s mate is the first of four adult males with active nests in Bowland to inexplicably and suspiciously vanish while hunting away from their nest sites that summer. Having been forced to abandon her nest to hunt, Highlander quickly pairs with a young male and resumes her nesting attempt, laying a record total of nine eggs between both mates. Highlander’s new mate is discovered to be polygamous and, struggling to provide for his two females, he abandons Highlander to fend for herself, resulting in the failure of her nest. June 2015: She leaves Bowland for southern Scotland but returns a week later and pairs with a third male. July 2015 : Highlander’s first chick hatches but just five days later, the nest is predated and all young are lost. Autumn/Winter 2015/16 : She returns to her favoured roosts from the previous winter. March 2016 : Highlander returns to Bowland for several short visits but doesn’t stay. April 2016 : Highlander's tag stops transmitting. Her last known location is in County Durham.   Highlander's second nesting attempt with an incredible 9 eggs. (Image: James Bray, 2015) Here’s what we said about her disappearance at the time: Sister to a missing sibling, partner to a missing mate, and three nest failures in the space of two months, our Highlander endured through it all. However, on 16 April 2016, Highlander’s satellite tag suddenly and unaccountably ceased transmission.  The last signal received placed her in County Durham but it's possible she may have moved on from the area before going offline. We don’t know what caused the satellite tag to fail but transmission up to that point had been strong and there was no indication of battery failure. She has not been found.  ...until now (maybe)! In October 2016, an unknown satellite-tagged hen harrier was seen at roost near to where Highlander spent her two previous winters. Initially it had us stumped – neither we, nor Stephen Murphy at Natural England, had birds registering as being in that area and the BTO confirmed that no one else has been fitting tags to hen harriers in the UK. We contacted the only other hen harrier tracking projects in Europe, one in Ireland and one in Germany, but neither of them could claim this mystery bird either. With the dedicated help of local raptor workers, we’ve since confirmed the bird as an adult female, with no colour rings, a single BTO ring on the correct leg, but the real clincher... a tag aerial which bends very slightly to the left – all of which match with this bird being Highlander. Of course with no signal coming from the tag, it’s impossible to be 100% certain of the ID but the facts available are certainly very suggestive that this is more than just coincidence. So if it is actually Highlander, where did she go? And what happened to her tag? The bend in the aerial had been there from the start, so it can’t be to blame for the loss of signal. The short answer to both of these questions is we will probably never know. Satellite tags of this type are designed to last for up to 5 years (though sadly, hen harriers rarely seem to live that long). Highlander’s tag was two years old and is the only confirmed failure out of 23 RSPB-monitored hen harrier satellite tags deployed in the last 3 years (ie a 4% failure rate). Researchers at the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation have previously recorded a 6% technical failure rate (out of 67 birds tagged) using exactly the same make and model of satellite tag, with all failures occurring on tags older than at least one year. This puts the failure of this bird’s tag well within the realms of expected normality, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that something like this would happen sooner or later. Whatever the reason for her tag failure and indeed, whether this bird is actually Highlander or not, her rediscovery is undeniably a cause for celebration. The tricky business now will be keeping track of her without a functioning tag. And of course if this is Highlander, the big question is... will she return to Bowland to breed this summer? We’ll be watching and waiting... If you're lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please help us keep track by submit your sightings ( description of the bird,  time, date, location with grid reference if possible) to our Hen Harrier Hotline on 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email henharriers@rspb.org.uk.  Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer  

Comment on A natural death on Mull

Keith, As far as we’re aware, the Scottish Government’s satellite-tagging review is already collecting a significant amount of data and information on the fitting, operation and reliability of transmitters. To quote from their website: “The review will investigate a massive data set on satellite tagged raptors, much of it funded and held by RSPB, Highland Foundation for Wildlife and Natural Research. The review will report on the fate of tagged birds, the distribution of losses and known and adjudged causes of loss. It will attempt to determine the significance of these losses nationally and regionally, and factors associated with these. Drawing on international research, the review will comment on the reliability of tags, any effects of tags on raptors, and any inferences on the value of the techniques employed in Scotland.” The Scottish Government review is rightly an independent process and as such, we will not be commenting on its methods other than to say that we have, and will continue to, submit information to the Review as and when we are asked to do so.

Comment on A natural death on Mull

Blanaid, For information, and to reinforce my earlier point below, more evidence of inadequately fitted satellite transmitters, or premature failure of the satellite transmitter harness system, see here - http://tinyurl.com/jgu324t   This issue is clearly more widespread than is publicly acknowledged, and should be given the same media airing as the earlier unhelpful speculation of conflating every loss of satellite signal with human persecution.  Clearly the system failure rate of satellite tagging for golden eagles in eastern Scotland is much higher than the rosy picture that is painted by many. On your point below about the avocet radio tags, none appear to have been found by tracking them with a radio receiver, 2 were found below a buzzard plucking post, and the other aerial found embedded in a buzzard casting/pellet.  The radio system, like a satellite system, will not operate when any one element of the system - aerial, electronics pack or battery - is detached from the rest of the system.  Or they may simply fail, like any other piece of electrical equipment, see here - http://tinyurl.com/hjbg9he   Finally, how does one go about inputting into the Scottish Government review of satellite-tagged raptors?  They need to be made aware of the apparent prevalence of these fitting / harness failures

Comment on A natural death on Mull

Blanaid, For information, and to reinforce my earlier point below, more evidence of inadequately fitted satellite transmitters, or premature failure of the satellite transmitter harness system, see here - http://tinyurl.com/jgu324t   This issue is clearly more widespread than is publicly acknowledged, and should be given the same media airing as the earlier unhelpful speculation of conflating every loss of satellite signal with human persecution.   Clearly the system failure rate of satellite tagging for golden eagles in eastern Scotland is much higher than the rosy picture that is painted by many. On your point below about the avocet radio tags, none appear to have been found by tracking them with a radio receiver, 2 were found below a buzzard plucking post, and the other aerial found embedded in a buzzard casting/pellet.  The radio system, like a satellite system, will not operate when any one element of the system - aerial, electronics pack or battery - is detached from any other element. Finally, how does one go about inputting into the Scottish Government review of satellite-tagged raptors.  Roseanna Cunningham needs to be made aware of the apparent prevalence of these fitting / harness failures.

Blog Post: Hen harriers on the move and another bird lost

As the cold weather sets in and Christmas approaches, it’s clear that winter is truly upon us. My thoughts at this time of year, as ever, turn to our young harriers out on the hills. Over the last two months, the number of hen harrier sightings at roosts and hunting grounds in southern and coastal areas has increased dramatically, as many of these birds seek to escape the harsh upland weather. Hen harriers have been spotted at a number of RSPB reserves across the country including Saltholme, Burton Mere Wetlands, Blacktoft Sands, Wallasea, and Rainham Marshes, not to mention the National Trust's Wicken Fen reserve in Cambridgeshire and the Wildlife Trust's Upton Warren reserve in Worcestershire, amongst others. Several birders and photographers have been kind enough to share some of their incredible photographs of these birds with us, and stunning shots they are too!   Male hen harrier at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee Estuary. Image ©Andy Davis ( flickr.com/photos/twodees )   Female hen harrier at Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve, Nov 2016. Image © Martin Clay ( @ClayGaseous )   Male hen harrier at RSPB Wallasea reserve, Essex. Image © Andrew Armstrong ( @drumon25 ) Some of our satellite-tagged harriers are clearly following this trend with Aalin , Harriet both on a mission south, while Finn moves ever closer to the Ayrshire coast. However DeeCee , Carroll , and Bonny seem to be sticking resolutely to the upland ground they’ve come to know, while Wendy has made herself at home with island life over on Mull. Unfortunately, it saddens me to report that our young male, Beater, has gone missing and is presumed to have died. Beater fledged from land owned by Wildland Ltd, on their Glen Feshie, Glen Tromie, and Gaick property in the western Cairngorms. He was named by children, Lejla and Cuillin, after their mother, and was the second chick to be tagged on this estate after another young male, Lad , was tagged and fledged from the same location in 2015.   Beater as a chick, shortly before fledging in July. Image © Ewan Weston After spending his early months sticking close to home in the Cairngorms, Beater spread his wings at the end of September and headed south towards England, stopping just short of crossing the border. He spent October and most of November in the central Scottish Borders. Sadly, no data has been received from Beater since his tag last transmitted on 14 th November. His last known location was on an area upland pasture in the central Scottish Borders. We have no information to suggest anything illegal has happened, the transmissions did not stop abruptly as in other recent cases, but we do now think it most likely that he has died. Beater’s last known location is highlighted by the large red circle. As we head deeper into the winter, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project team will be working closely with the raptor study groups NERF and SRSG, to monitor and protect important hen harrier winter roosts throughout the north of England and southern and eastern Scotland. The data from our satellite tags is helping with that but there are so many more birds without tags, we need your help to keep track of where these birds are spending their time. If you’re lucky enough to see a hen harrier in England, please report it to our dedicated Hen Harrier Hotline, with information on the time, date, and location of the sighting (six-figure grid reference if possible), a description of the bird and it’s activity (eg hunting, roosting, flying over). Tel. 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) Email. henharriers@rspb.org.uk If you tried to report sightings in the last month and had problems with the phone line, please accept our apologies. This was down to some technical issues which have now been resolved, so it would be great if you could try resubmitting the information. If you still experience problems, please use the hotline email address and include a description of the issue encountered. For sightings in Scotland, please report these to the Heads Up for Harriers hotline on: Tel:  07767 671973 Email: henharrier@snh.gov.uk The more eyes we have keeping a watch over these birds, the better the future will be for them.   

Blog Post: The autumn outdoor classroom: a lesson on hen harriers and special landscapes

Katy Saulite is  the Hen Harrier LIFE Project's  Community Engagement Officer for Scotland, working with local schools and community groups in areas where hen harriers should be, to raise awareness and promote the conservation of these spectacular skydancers.   At the beginning of September I had my fingers and toes crossed for good weather in the weeks ahead. Two school groups were all set to venture out onto the moorland with the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and I feared the unhelpful presence of that all too familiar horizontal precipitation we’re often blessed with. Thankfully September has been lovely up here in Scotland, and the pupils who took part in our moorland field trips were more than happy to be out and about, exploring and engaging with the outdoor classroom. The primary 5-7 class of Kirkmichael Primary School spent an afternoon on Moulin Moor, in the heart of the Forest of Clunie SPA. A small road, shared with sheep, runs across the moor, and although having seen the moorland from the car, only two of the pupils had stepped onto the landscape which lies only two or three miles from their school. Binoculars at the ready, we saw only a handful of birds, but armed with a moorland bingo activity we looked up high, and down low amongst the heather for ‘sphagnum moss’, ‘a carnivorous plant’, or ‘something you’ve never seen before’. We explored the moorland as a habitat through activities centred around vegetation, insect life and, of course, hen harriers. Kirkmichael Primary School pupils creatively forming front page pictures for genuine newspaper headlines ‘Sharing the Planet: Hen harrier conservation and grouse shooting’ Within the same week, I journeyed to RSPB Airds Moss, within the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA to meet with biology students from Sanquhar Academy. In the first part of the session we got our hands dirty and socks wet as we sampled moorland vegetation. We then considered the place of the hen harrier within this landscape; geosquishing (think Taj Mahal tourist pictures!) features of the landscape that we thought benefitted or hindered the hen harrier’s survival. We debated what the future of the uplands and hen harrier should be, from the perspective of different upland stakeholders. A talk on the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and an introduction to some of the other great work of the RSPB concluded an extremely enjoyable afternoon. Biology students from Sanquhar Academy dramatically representing the newspaper headline ‘The mystery of the missing hen harriers’ Once again I have been so pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which children of all ages take to outdoor learning. Often a little shy at the beginning, it does not take long for laughter, learning and a little silliness to begin. Being in the midst of a beautiful moorland landscape truly brings learning to life. We did not see any hen harriers but I could certainly picture them soaring above, and found myself hoping that one day soon I’d be out on one of these moors with a group, in equally agreeable weather, admiring a hen harrier or two through the binoculars. To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife  or folllow us @RSPB_Skydancer .  

Comment on Remarkable hen harrier journeys revealed by satellite tagging

Alex - thank you for the kind words. I've been working on hen harriers for over five years and every lost bird stays with me. It doesn't get easier but the way I see it, we have a choice - either to despair, our to let it harden our resolve to make a difference. I choose the latter. The LIFE project runs until 2019, so I promise there will be plenty more satellite tags to come. Alan - yes please! If you could include time date and location as accurate as possible, that would be much appreciated.

Comment on Remarkable hen harrier journeys revealed by satellite tagging

A wonderful tale, Blánaid. I've only just realised that I can comment if I join the group. Your blog deserves a wider audience. Please encourage other RSPB employees to share their feelings and experiences. I am sometimes disheartened by the likely fate of the young hen harriers, and I imagine it is worse for you and your colleagues. I take great heart from the spotlight which is put upon the loss of each of the satellite tagged birds, but it is a shame that it requires the death of many of the young birds to expose the real truth. More tags, please.

Comment on Remarkable hen harrier journeys revealed by satellite tagging

Thanks Alan. I do too! Satellite tagging is brilliant but for the majority of hen harriers, we rely on sightings from people on the ground to help us keep track. It would be a huge help to us if you could share any sightings via our Hen Harrier Hotline, by emailing the details (including time, date, location, description of the bird, and a 6-figure grid reference if possible) to henharriers@rspb.org.uk or phoning 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates). The hotline is linked directly to our Investigations and Regional Conservation teams and is instrumental in helping us to target our limited resources to maximum effect.

Blog Post: Remarkable hen harrier journeys revealed by satellite tagging

The recent recovery of Rowan, a Langholm hen harrier tagged by the Hawk & Owl Trust and Natural England, who appears to have been illegally shot in Cumbria, highlights the vital role that satellite tagging has to play in the conservation of this threatened species. These tiny devices, barely 2 cm long and weighing only 9-12g do not, of course, confer protection in and of themselves (the bodies of Rowan , Lad , Annie , and Betty are all testament to that). However they do shine a light on what is happening to these birds, helping us to better understand their movements – where they go when they leave their nests, which roosts they favour over winter, where they attempt to breed and build their nests, and ultimately, where they stop. That final piece of information is the bit that gets most publicity – whether the birds die naturally, are illegally killed, or simply “disappear” – but the journeys these birds undertake to get them to that final point are often fascinating and of equal relevance to their conservation. Hen harriers in particular are captivatingly unpredictable in their movements and I’d like to take a moment to share with you some of the stories of this year’s birds that are unfolding, even as I type. M ar Lodge hen harrier, Harriet, receiving her satellite tag. (Image: Shaila Rao) Harriet One of four chicks from the first successful hen harrier nest on National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire in living memory, Harriet has resolutely stuck to her home ground since fledging in mid-July. Just over a month ago, she briefly ventured south but almost immediately returned to familiar territory, where we assumed she would stay. Without warning however, she suddenly upped sticks and jumped from the Cairngorms, to the Firth of Forth, to Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, and on to Cumbria in the space of just a few days Harriet's journey south (Image: RSPB) Isle of Man hen harrier, Aalin. (Image: Sean Gray) Aalin Named by the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment, who sponsored her tag, Aalin was satellite tagged on the Isle of Man in partnership with Manx Birdlife and the Manx Ringing Group. The Manx hen harrier population declined by a whopping 49% between the 2004 and 2010 national surveys and no one is entirely sure why. One long-held theory is that Manx birds are emigrating to the UK mainland and failing to return, but although several hen harriers have been tagged on the Isle of Man over the years, none of them have ever been recorded as leaving the island. Like Harriet, Aalin stuck close to her natal site for several months after fledging until suddenly one day flying to the north of the Island, before heading straight out to sea, over Blackpool, and ending up at Woolston Eyes SSSI reserve in Warrington, where she was spotted and photographed by local birder, John Tymon. Manx hen harrier, Aalin, photographed at Woolston Eyes SSSI. (Image: John Tymon) Wendy Wendy, one of two hen harriers to be satellite tagged at the Coulport MOD base, in Argyll, this year has done the reverse of Aalin and forsaken the mainland for the joys of island life over on Mull. However it’s Wendy’s sibling, Donald (named after renowned hen harrier expert Donald Watson, not the US President Elect!), who’s made the most significant journey of all. Coulport hen harrier, Donald, before fledging. (Photo: John Simpson) Donald If Aalin’s recent travels have suggested the real likelihood of population exchange between the Isle of Man and the UK mainland, Donald has further confirmed it. Having spent some time exploring the west coast of Argyll, Donald crossed the water from the Mull of Galloway to the Isle of Man. Not content to stay there however, he almost immediately took a hop, skip, and a jump across Wales, all the way to Northern France, mirroring the journey of our 2014 female, Chance. Donald is the third satellite tagged hen harrier we have recorded making this journey after Northumberland bird, Nile , in 2015. Sadly, not long after his arrival, the data from Donald’s tag showed that he had stopped moving, indicating that he had died. He was traced to an area of scrubby farmland but due to international logistics, by the time our team could reach him, the battery in his tag had run down, meaning the signal had stopped. Despite a thorough search of the area, his body couldn’t be found, so sadly, we will never know the cause of his death.  Hen harrier conservation is full of challenges (understatement of the century?) and these remarkable journeys highlight the crucial point that anything which affects hen harriers in one part of their range, is likely to affect their population as a whole. Regardless of where illegal killing or disturbance takes place, birds from the Isle of Man, Orkney, the Cairngorms, Wales, Yorkshire, and the Western Isles, probably even Ireland, are all potentially vulnerable and a few bad estates can have a disproportionate impact. To truly secure a future for these birds, we need to see them protected wherever they go. This is why the RSPB will keep pushing for the introduction of a system of grouse moor licensing, to support those who operate within the law and effectively enact a targeted ban on those who don’t. By enabling us to satellite tag and follow the movements of more hen harriers than ever before, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project and the funding raised through sales of the LUSH Skydancer bathbomb, are helping us to better understand where hen harriers go and identify where they’re most at risk. Regardless of where in the British Isles they originate, we all have a stake in the future of these birds and we want to see them protected. Join us in following the fortunes of all our remaining satellite tagged hen harriers on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .   

Comment on Guest Blog: Rowan – a personal reflection

Thank you Guy, a very telling statement. Knowing that most of the initiatives have failed and that self regulation is a non-starter your argument comes very close to supporting a ban on driven grouse shooting.

Blog Post: Guest Blog: Rowan – a personal reflection

Guy Shorrock is currently the longest standing member of RSPB's Investigations Team. Following the apparent shooting of satellite-tagged hen harrier, Rowan, here he reflects back on his 25 year career in the fight against raptor persecution.   On Monday Cumbria Constabulary released the news that many suspected, that the satellite tagged hen harrier Rowan appears to have been shot . So it looks like yet another victim in the unending catalogue of crimes perpetrated against hen harriers and other birds of prey in the uplands of the UK. One wonders what hope there is for the Defra Hen Harrier plan  whilst persecution appears to continue unabated. The last week or so has been a period of reflection for myself. Friday the 28 October was something of a personal milestone for me – 25 years to the day since I started work in the RSPB Investigations Section. More on that in a moment. My next day at work was the Monday when I attended as an observer at the Westminster Hall debate following the e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. This had been initiated by author and campaigner (and former RSPB employee) Mark Avery and had generated over 123,000 signatures; a clear indication of the strength of feeling over some of the concerns related to driven grouse shooting. RSPB had previously called for regulatory reforms rather than a ban and we were hopeful this forum would at least present an opportunity to discuss much needed change. We firmly believe the government need to consider options such as vicarious liability and a robust system of licensing to make sporting estates more accountable for what takes place on their land. There had already been an earlier evidence session  on the 18 October in front of the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. This sought to gather evidence to help inform MPs taking part in the subsequent debate. The RSPB were invited to take part and my colleague Jeff Knott outlined very clearly at this hearing, that the status quo simply cannot continue. In addition to oral evidence, there were over 500 written submissions, including a comprehensive one from the RSPB  plus supplementary evidence . Sitting at the debate, I already knew the nature of Rowan’s recent demise and wondered whether Thérèse Coffey, present as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was also aware. Against that, I listened with some disbelief at the nature of the debate that unfolded. To be frank, I wasn’t hopeful for a great deal to come out from the process. However, I thought at least this was an opportunity for some serious environmental concerns to be properly aired. Hopefully this would lead to a commitment from the government to at least look at options to tackle the pernicious problem of raptor persecution and a range of others environmental problems in our uplands. This was supposed to be a forum for debating the evidence, much of it supported by peer-reviewed science, that had already been supplied. Unfortunately, I found the standard of debating by many to be extremely disappointing. The personal nature of some of the comments towards some who had raised concerns I felt was unwarranted and undignified. To me this was hardly what democracy should be about and, whatever an individual views on driven grouse shooting, the process seemed inherently disrespectful to the many people who had taken the trouble to sign the e-petition. At the end of the debate Therese Coffey read out a prepared statement that basically it would be business as usual. We know what has gone before is not working, so I simply don’t understand this response. With just three pairs of hen harriers breeding in England this year, just how bad do things have to get? I do wonder how history will look back on the quality of this debate and whether future society will judge us for failing to take meaningful action.                             Just three pairs of hen harriers bred in England in 2016 So what of my 25 years. Having left a police career of over seven years, I still remember the slightly nervous anticipation whilst driving to The Lodge on my first day at work. It is easy to forget there was no internet, email or digital cameras; however it was clear from the outset just how important the work of the RSPB was in getting cases to court. In some ways the last quarter of a century seems the blink of an eye, and at times I can’t really work out where the time went! However, on reflection, plenty has happened during my time, some good and some bad. When I started there were less than 100 pairs of red kites and just a handful of pairs of white-tailed eagles breeding in the UK. These species have had a remarkable upturn in fortune. Against this we have seen the dramatic expansion of the common buzzard population; when I started if a buzzard flew over The Lodge, many of us would leave our offices to look at this ‘rare’ bird. They now breed in the grounds, and I have these, along with red kites and ravens, gracing the skies over my home. The conservation status of species like ospreys and marsh harriers have also significantly improved and all this is a testament to what can be achieved. So plenty of good news, particularly across much of lowland UK. Unfortunately, there is also a much darker side to this story. Firstly, there were more hen harriers breeding in England when I started than now. Golden eagles, peregrines, red kites and goshawks are still not faring well in large parts of our uplands where driven grouse shooting forms a dominant part of the land management. We now have a compelling range of peer-reviewed science about the continuing negative impacts that illegal persecution poses for such species. The problem is simply not going away. In closing the debate, Thérèse Coffey explained how reliance on existing regulation and enforcement would tackle the problem of raptor persecution . Now this is a subject I like to think I know something about, and I feel the current levels of enforcement are woefully inadequate and not making any real impact. During the last 25 years, I have had extensive involvement with the investigation and prosecution of raptor persecution offences across the UK. I have dealt with thousands of reported incidents, and assisted police and other agencies with hundreds of criminal enquiries. I lost track a long time ago of the number of illegally shot, poisoned and trapped raptors I have picked up from our countryside. I suspect I am one of the few people who have been present on grouse moors watching people trying to shoot hen harriers. One of these incidents ended with a female being shot, and I had the sobering experience of unearthing the body from where it had been hidden. Watching these events, which have gone on for generations, play out before me was utterly surreal. Rather like watching a play in a theatre and being the only person in the audience. The reality of just how difficult it is to catch the raptor killers is graphically clear to me. Up close and personal - a female hen harrier shot on a grouse moor in the north of England Perhaps most revealing have been the extremely disturbing discussions with several individuals within the shooting world, typically gamekeepers, about the way many grouse shooting estates are actually operating. These people allege that the majority of driven grouse shooting estates are involved in some level of raptor persecution, though the scale of this can vary significantly. At the very worst end of the scale, some estates are reportedly killing in excess of 200 raptors per year, akin to the horrific accounts traditionally linked to the Victorian period. From the wealth of evidence available, I have no doubt this is organised crime and, despite raptor persecution becoming one of the government UK wildlife crime priorities in 2009, I have not seen any meaningful improvement in the levels of enforcement. Since I started, around 150 individuals (approximately two thirds of which were gamekeepers) have been prosecuted for raptor persecution related offences, an average of about six cases a year. I have been involved in over 25% of these cases and know that gathering hard evidence of offences committed in private and remote places by individuals with an intimate knowledge of the land, often operating on the edge of darkness, remains incredibly difficult. The risks of detection for those involved is extremely low, and the risk of actually being prosecuted even lower. The RSPB Investigations Section remains at this coalface, and its work gathering evidence and undertaking covert surveillance has been essential to the success of many cases. This Scottish gamekeeper was the first individual convicted for shooting a hen harrier following a lengthy RSPB surveillance operation. Another case is due in court soon. Despite thousands of people within the statutory law enforcement agencies, the fact remains that over half of all convictions have been initiated by a few individuals within RSPB Investigations. Without this specialist support far fewer cases would ever reach court. The shooting industry is fully aware of this and, not surprisingly, many would much prefer the statutory agencies to reject our help. Even when gamekeepers are prosecuted, they are very often well represented in court by specialist defence firms, invariably retain their employment and will be supplied suitable references for future employment. This ‘relationship’ allows managers and employers to remain very distant from the criminal actions of their staff . A single day’s grouse shooting may cost an individual over £2,000 – so fining the odd gamekeeper a few hundred pounds is an ineffective deterrent. In Spain, recent huge fines following wildlife poisoning incidents suggest that matters in the UK could be taken more seriously. Interestingly a Scottish prosecution in December 2014 resulted, for the first time, a gamekeeper being actually jailed for raptor persecution. More results of this type may start to change the minds of others in this profession who are expected to break the law. However, the cold body of Rowan suggests there is still a very long way to go. For myself, the absolute key problem is one of accountability. Whilst it is invariably individuals like gamekeepers committing most of the crimes, in my view this does not even begin to touch upon the real nature of the problem. From my experience, I have absolutely no doubt that it is the shooting industry itself, the managers and employers of gamekeepers, who are at the fundamental root of this problem. They create the environment for their staff to operate within and are ultimately orchestrating the widespread illegal practices taking place. The desire to produce artificially (and in some cases, incredibly) high numbers of birds for driven grouse shooting, and now well beyond what was considered necessary when I started at the RSPB, will continue to provide the motivation for widespread illegal predator control. Compared with elsewhere in Europe and North America, game shooting in the UK is almost uniquely unregulated even though it is far more intensive in nature than almost anywhere else. To the best of my knowledge, no other industry in the UK has to rely on killing rare protected birds. Driven grouse moor management should be no different and simply has to adapt its business model to a more sustainable form of land management to conform to modern day conservation and the wishes of wider society. The industry has shown no signs of being able to self-police so I fail to see how any type of voluntary approach could be effective. I cannot see progress happening without meaningful government intervention. Whilst I believe enforcement has an incredibly important role, unless there is a legislative system that allows the statutory agencies to exert pressure on those controlling events in our countryside, I fail to see how the situation can really change. Unless those in charge are held to account, I believe there is absolutely no chance of a significant change in some of the serious environmental problems associated with grouse moor management. Scotland has made some progress with the introduction of vicarious liability and this should be put in place across the rest of the UK as soon as possible. This is valuable not just for the deterrent effect of convictions, but also encourages estates to take proactive steps estates to prevent wildlife crime. I don’t think this will be a magic fix but should feature as part of a range of measures. The RSPB thinks that a system of licensing could help, with an option to withdraw the ‘right’ to shoot game, or businesses to supply shooting services, for a fixed period following conviction for a wildlife or environmental offence. This could start to bring meaningful pressure in the right places and force reform. When I started at the RSPB the debate about grouse moor management, and friction between conservation agencies and parts of the shooting industry, was almost totally dominated by raptor persecution. However, in recent years a wide range of serious environmental concerns have been raised about the potential impacts of driven grouse moor management. These include concerns about loss of carbon contributing to climate change; concerns about water quality and aquatic biodiversity; the poor condition of many upland SSSI (under 15% in favourable condition) and the negative impacts of over burning and grazing; the dangers of consuming lead from shot game; whether society is getting value from payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); and potential effects on flood risk for some downstream areas. So a wide range of really significant environmental and social issues. More upland restoration work, such as that taking place at the RSPB Abernethy reserve, is badly needed. As highlighted at Westminster Hall, it seems economics plays a very large part in this debate. However, the government do not appear to have done the sums to assess how the benefits from employment and income generation to local communities from grouse shooting compare with counteracting the cost of any environmental damage, loss of wildlife tourism opportunities or the huge sums of agricultural subsides paid into the uplands. A clear picture of the true costs and benefits of current upland management to society would help inform the debate. Money aside, the government needs to explore progressive ways to bring the necessary accountability and ultimately to bring the UK uplands into good environmental condition. For raptors, at the very minimum, vicarious liability and a range of strong legal mechanisms, such as licensing , are needed urgently. The RSPB will continue to fight for raptors and the uplands and push for much needed change. Initiatives such as current the Hen Harrier LIFE Project , including a revealing program of satellite tagging young hen harriers, will continue to help maintain the profile of this beleaguered species but it is our government that needs to take the lead. The death of hen harrier Rowan, those before, and those undoubtedly to come, paint a sorry and dark shadow on our uplands. Whilst I will not be at the RSPB a quarter of a century from now, I would hope to still be here and to have witnessed a real change in the condition of our uplands and for the shame of raptor persecution to finally end. However, for these hopes to become a reality I believe this government needs to start taking take meaningful action now, and not just watch from the sidelines hoping it will all sort itself out. Our society deserves better.

Comment on A natural death on Mull

Keith – thanks for your message. Several birds of prey, fitted with satellite-transmitters, that have died, have been located in recent years. For example, I’m sure you will be aware of “Alma” & “Fearnan”, golden eagles both found poisoned on grouse moors in Angus, and “Annie”, a hen harrier found shot in SW Scotland. We have also recovered a number of birds that have died of natural causes – through predation or starvation, as well as transmitters that have become detached, as designed, from their hosts. It's also interesting to note that in the wader study you link to, despite three of the tagged chicks being predated, all three tags were recovered. As you may have seen in our recent guest blog by the Dutch Montagu’s harrier project, the transmitters are highly reliable, and numerous recent studies, notably one on Black Kites in Spain, have demonstrated that, if fitted correctly, such transmitters do not adversely impact on the birds survival, breeding performance or behaviour. With regards to your specific request to publish photos of Hermione, while we will of course notify the public through this blog if anything happens to one of our tagged birds (they are after all, public-facing already and one of the aims of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project is to tell their stories), we feel that while the Scottish Government review of satellite-tagged raptors is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment more widely on specific cases. We will be contributing comprehensive information regarding all of our dead or missing birds, including Hermione, to this review and await their findings with interest.

Comment on Guest Blog: Hen harriers and grouse shooting – Inquiry and debate

Well done Jeff, I thought your contribution was excellent. I agree that not enough emphasis was put on the illegality that goes on in the uplands, especially when questioning the two proponents of DGS. Perhaps that can be brought out more strongly in the debate.