Category: RSPB Hen Harrier Project

Blog Post: The Hen Harrier Hotline is open!

As spring arrives we’re asking you to keep your eyes to the skies and you may even spot some skydancing! Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas tells us how you can help us to protect hen harriers. For anyone new to the blog, hen harriers are a bird of prey that breed in the uplands, principally on hills with heather moorland. They are the UK’s most threatened bird of prey and on the brink of extinction as breeding bird in England, with just 9 successful nests in the whole of England in 2018 despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 pairs. So, the population size is a very long way from where it should be for a healthy, self-sustaining population. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that the main reason for the decline of our hen harriers is illegal killing by criminals in areas associated with intensive management of moorlands for grouse shooting. Just two weeks ago, the English government contributed to published research that found hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or disappear in areas of grouse moor, relative to areas with no grouse moor. This paper also found that 72% of their tagged birds were either definitely, or very likely to have been, illegally killed on grouse moors. Here at the RSPB, the staff working on our Hen Harrier LIFE project carry out direct conservation action on the ground to protect and monitor nests. We work alongside local raptor workers, including those that are part of the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG). To be able to protect the birds we need to know where they are and that’s why we’re asking for your help. As the weather is slowly warming up, the birds are becoming more visible as they start long journeys moving away from their winter roosting grounds and towards their summer breeding grounds. They will be moving into areas of heather moorlands in places like the North Pennines and the Forest of Bowland. Hen harrier are birds of prey with strong talons and a curved beak. They are a medium-sized bird of prey, smaller than an eagle and similar in size to a buzzard. Female hen harriers have brown and white feathers that camouflage them when they nest on the ground amongst the heather. They have horizontal stripes on their tails and a patch of white just above it. Males are slightly smaller and ash grey with black wing tips. Both have a round, owl-like face and a wingspan of just under a metre. A female hen harrier with mottled brown feathers and a barred tail (photo by Steve Knell, RSPB-IMAGES) In the spring, the male hen harrier performs a spectacular courtship display to attract a female, known as skydancing. The bird sweeps and somersaults, climbing high in the air before plunging to the ground and then pulling up just before he hits it! He twists and turns, all to impress the female and it should be a common sight on our hills and moorland in the spring. A grey male hen harrier (photo by Andy Hay, RSPB-IMAGES) If anyone spots a hen harrier, skydancing or otherwise, please make a note of the date, time and location with a 6-figure grid reference if possible. A description of what the bird was doing is also helpful. Sightings can be reported to or you can call us on 0845 460 0121. Please help us to keep these birds safe this summer.

Blog Post: Working with the next generation of gamekeepers

Hen Harrier LIFE project Community Engagement Officer Roisin Taylor reflects on her experiences working with gamekeeping students and finds reasons to be optimistic about the future of England’s hen harriers. Regular readers of this blog will know that…

Comment on New study reveals widespread illegal killing of hen harriers on England’s grouse moors

The NE study was based upon 58 birds. The RSPB has stated that even in 2018 they tagged more that 30 Hen Harriers. The RSPB may hold even more data than that which the excellent paper is based upon. I would like to ask the RSPB if they are prepared, us…

Blog Post: New study reveals widespread illegal killing of hen harriers on England’s grouse moors

A new study has provided compelling evidence that many young hen harriers in England are being illegally killed in areas associated with grouse shooting. The RSPB’s Head of Nature Policy Gareth Cunningham discusses the significance of this scientific r…

Blog Post: Vulcan’s fire goes out

Another hen harrier, Vulcan, has now sadly joined the ‘missing in action’ list. Vulcan was tagged in Northumberland in the summer of 2018, along with over 30 more hen harriers in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. Almost half of these birds …

Blog Post: Hen harrier ‘River’ disappears in suspicious circumstances

Yet another of 2018’s hen harrier chicks has disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Today the RSPB issued the following press release: River, who hatched from a nest in Bowland in 2018 The police and the RSPB are investigating the sudden disappearance of yet another satellite tagged hen harrier in North Yorkshire, the county with the worst reputation for bird of prey persecution. The bird, named River, was one of several hen harrier chicks in England fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project last summer (2018). These lightweight tags allow the RSPB to monitor the birds after they fledge. Her tag’s last known transmission came from a driven grouse moor between Colsterdale and Nidderdale – an area with a history of bird of prey persecution – on 14 November. She was known to have been hunting and roosting in the area for several weeks. RSPB Investigations staff and North Yorkshire Police searched the area, but there was no sign of the bird or the tag. She has not been heard from since. All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. North Yorkshire Police investigated the disappearance, but no information has been forthcoming. Hen harriers are rare birds which nest in moorland, especially in the uplands of Northern England and Scotland. However just nine nests were recorded in England last year, despite enough prey and habitat to support over 300 pairs. They have not successfully bred in North Yorkshire since 2007. Over 30 hen harriers were tagged last summer in the UK. Between August and November 2018, nine of these, including a 10 th bird tagged in 2017, disappeared at different locations in the UK. Police and RSPB officers search for River Mark Thomas, Head of RSPB Investigations UK, said: “Again we have news of a disappeared harrier, again in North Yorkshire, and again last known to be on a grouse moor. Hen harriers are barely clinging on as a breeding species in England. They should be a common and joyful sight over the moorlands of North Yorkshire, however the reality is most people only know them as being rare and persecuted. “The idea that this bird may have been deliberately targeted is incredibly worrying, especially in the context of eight others which have vanished in similar circumstances. When a tagged hen harrier dies naturally, we expect the tag to continue transmitting, enabling us to find the body. This was not the case here. Instead, there was no trace of the tag or the bird, which is highly suspicious. When hen harriers disappear like this over an area with a history of raptor persecution, it’s hard not to draw conclusions.” The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. In 2012, hen harrier ‘Bowland Betty’ was found shot at nearby Colsterdale. A reward was offered but no culprit was identified. If you have any information relating to this incident, call North Yorkshire Police on 101. If you know about raptor persecution occurring in your area and wish to speak out in confidence, call the confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101. If you find a wild bird of prey which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form:

Comment on What is the RSPB doing to protect hen harriers?

I think that it is essential the The RSPB keeps up it’s work in this area. Clearly, at present, it is not showing huge results, which must be hugely disappointing to those investigators and volunteers who have put so much effort into this. I live in Scotland, where the work of government is being frustrated by the actions of Crown Counsel, whose decisions directly impact on the ability of the RSPB investigators to work effectively. Let us hope for better results in 2019. The number of ‘good’ estates prepared to work with the RSPB are to be congratulated on their opposition to the actions of other ‘not so good’ estates. I look forward to future blogs, and wish they had greater coverage and advertisement as to their existence among members.

Blog Post: What is the RSPB doing to protect hen harriers?

Earlier this week, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas took a look at how the UK’s hen harriers had fared in 2018. Now she gives an overview of some of things that the RSPB is doing to help them. Here at the RSPB, we’re doing everything we can to protect hen harriers. Coming into the final year of the Hen Harrier LIFE project in 2019, our project team have already spoken with almost 12,000 members of the public about hen harriers. During these conversations, I’m always asked: ‘What are the RSPB actually DOING about this?’. The aim of our Hen Harrier LIFE project is to catalogue the incidents of persecution and suspicious disappearances of the birds, which our team works hard to do, and until the project started, we had no idea of the scale of hen harrier persecution in the UK. Fitting tags to birds has given us unprecedented insight into the journeys and fates of individual birds. Importantly, this evidence is used to underpin the core work of our organisation. Thor hatched in Bowland in summer 2018 and disappeared on 3 October (photo by Steve Downing) The data gathered from the satellite tagging we’re doing is being analysed by our conservation science experts, to learn about the fates of the birds, and how this relates to land use patterns, investigating the habitat use of the birds and their dispersal patterns. We’re already seeing that some of our birds are travelling long distances, including visits to Ireland, France and Spain. The location data we receive from the tags shows us the population is moving across the UK and beyond, so we need to protect it by working alongside colleagues in other countries too. The Hen Harrier LIFE project also involves working with college students studying gamekeeping and countryside management. We discuss the hen harriers and the broader issues around grouse moors to instigate an open debate about what the options are for future moorland management practices and what our moorlands could and should look like. Although some groups enter into discussion tentatively, it soon becomes clear that things cannot continue as they are. We hope that these students will enter employment at the end of their course more prepared for what the working world has to offer and their important role in ensuring the survival of some of our rarest species through legal and sustainable management of our countryside. Beyond the LIFE project the RSPB is doing a wide range of other work to secure a future for the UK’s hen harriers. We’re managing our reserves in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of hen harriers, using heather cutting techniques to promote highly diverse moorlands that are home to a range of species. Having successfully used these techniques for decades in some places and seeing flourishing habitats, we’re now advocating management practices to neighbouring landowners and statutory bodies with responsibilities around land management practices. As a wildlife conservation charity, we have no powers to arrest criminals or take them to court, but our Investigations team share the intelligence we collect and work closely alongside the Police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) and the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) across the UK, to ensure the scale of persecution is understood. We fear we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg and our evidence is informing policy and actions taken on by these groups. Our dedicated teams fight for hen harrier protection, push for wildlife criminals to be brought before the courts, and advocate for stronger sentencing for those convicted. We also train colleagues in the police forces and in the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to better understand wildlife law, and what kinds of trapping methods are commonly used by criminals. Raising awareness of what to look for in the countryside is a really important task. The community can help to be our eyes and ears and report wildlife crime. RSPB Investigations officer Howard Jones raising awareness of trapping methods with police officers and national park staff (photo by Bob Smith). We also work hard on policy and advocacy work with local and national governments, raising awareness of raptor persecution and calling for action to prevent it. We are calling for the licensing of grouse moors, to ensure they are managed in a sustainable and legal way. Our work has contributed to the instigation of the Scottish government’s review of sustainable and legal grouse moor management and we continually work with Westminster MPs to raise awareness and call for action. We are also in the process of a judicial review of the Natural England licence for a trial of a brood management scheme for hen harriers, which is a decision we have not taken lightly. When red lines are crossed, we will act. There are certainly interesting times ahead for hen harrier conservation. With Chief Inspector Louise Hubble OBE and Superintendent Nick Lyall taking on new leading roles as Chair of the NWCU and RPPDG respectively, growing evidence of the scale of hen harrier persecution and a growing awareness across Europe of the scale of the hen harrier population decline, there are calls for immediate action. Scottish and Welsh governments also seem to be taking positive steps to protect birds of prey. Seemingly, they are starting to realise that the evidence cannot be ignored. 2019 is the fifth anniversary of Hen Harrier Day in the UK, and the tenth anniversary of raptor crime becoming a police priority. Momentum is certainly growing and pressure continues to mount for moorlands to be managed sustainably and criminals to be held to account. We are cautiously optimistic that positive change is coming. In the new year, we’ll be blogging in more detail about the different ways we are tackling the plight of the hen harrier and working to secure its future in the UK.

Comment on Reflections on 2018 – part 1

This is a heartbreaking tale, particularly for those who have taken such care to ensure that the birds were able to fledge by monitoring the nests. Natural losses are expected, but to find that such a large number, 15, of the birds had died in suspicio…

Blog Post: Reflections on 2018 – part 1

As we reach the end of 2018, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, looks back over the year. Working on the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project is a rollercoaster of emotions. Scientific studies estimate that here in the UK we have enough suitable habitat to sustain a thriving hen harrier population of around 5,000 birds, yet the 2016 hen harrier survey found there are only around 1,000 birds left in the wild. The main reason for this is the continued illegal killing of birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and mainland Scotland. 2018 started out as a promising year for hen harriers. Reports from raptor workers and local RSPB colleagues suggested winter roosts around the country had higher numbers of hen harriers than usual, and in some areas of the UK this coincided with higher numbers of voles. Our tagged birds had done well to survive the cold winter, so we were hopeful. Our first loss was the natural death of Eric on 27 January, who was tagged in Orkney in the summer of 2017. Eric spent his life on Orkney, but data from his tag, which continued to transmit as expected, showed that he made an unexpected journey eastwards, away from the islands and out into the North Sea. Data from later that day then showed that he had gone down in the water, and shortly afterwards the tag ceased transmitting. Eric’s loss coincided with a period of bad weather on Orkney, so it appears likely the strong south westerly winds blew this young bird off course and all the evidence suggests that he drowned. On 5 February, Marc disappeared in suspicious circumstances on a grouse moor near Middleton-in-Teesdale. Marc’s tag was transmitting regularly and showed him moving to the grouse moor at the end of January, where he spent his final week before his tag suddenly stopped transmitting, with no indication of any technical problems. This was particularly sad given that Marc’s brother Manu disappeared in suspicious circumstances just months earlier. To this day, we have not heard from either of the brothers’ tags, their bodies have not been found and no one has been held to account for their disappearances. Marc and Manu as youngsters on the nest in 2017 (photo by Steve Downing) Marc’s loss was closely followed by the apparent loss of several more birds. On 9 February, we lost Aalin, who had almost made it to two years old, having been tagged in the summer of 2016 on the Isle of Man. Aalin disappeared in suspicious circumstances in an area of Ruabon moor in Wales where grouse shooting takes place. A further three birds then disappeared in suspicious circumstances, Saorsa, Finn and Blue . On 16 February, Saorsa disappeared in the Angus Glens, Finn disappeared on 25 March near Moffat and Blue disappeared on 31 March near Longsleddale in Cumbria. Losing five birds in seven weeks in suspicious circumstances across Scotland, England and Wales was a harsh reminder of the challenges these birds face. More bad news followed. Lia ’s tag stopped suddenly on 18 April over an area of lowland farmland near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes and an initial search of the area yielded nothing. On 17 May, a final transmission confirmed she was dead, and RSPB Investigations staff found her lying face up in short grass in a sheep field. Her body was sent for an independent post mortem, where the vet’s main finding of interest was a fractured tail feather. The report stated that fractures of this type “have previously been found in a hen harrier proven to have been shot with ammunition (Hopkins et al., 2015). No other signs of shooting were detected in this bird.” Sadly we’ll never know for sure what happened to Lia, due to her state of decomposition. During this time, we were also getting reports from areas where birds were skydancing, pairing up and building nests, and our project team worked alongside raptor workers and volunteers to monitor and protect these birds. Most of the UK’s hen harrier breeding population is found in Scotland. Here, we were getting reports of pairs of hen harriers settling and building nests in known nesting areas, and were excited to see that numbers had increased on last year, for example at NTS Mar Lodge, with an increase from one successful nest in both 2016 and 2017, to seven successful nests in 2018. However, amongst this good news, on 17 July we received the last transmission from Harriet, a bird tagged at Mar Lodge in 2017. Harriet’s body was recovered on the Mar Lodge estate in July this year. An independent post mortem could not identify a cause of death, due to the state of decomposition. In England, the species is of highest concern as it has teetered on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird for several years now and the 2016 survey revealed it had declined by 64% since 2004. In 2018, there were nine successful hen harrier nests, and the project team were very proud to be directly involved in protecting and monitoring seven of these nests. We worked closely with landowners and gamekeepers, and were pleased to see four successful nests on grouse moors for the first time in a while, on land owned by our partners at the National Trust and United Utilities. This showed that it is possible to have grouse shooting and hen harriers side by side. In September, we were overjoyed to have 34 chicks fledging in England and our expert team had fitted tags to around a third of these birds, representing the biggest and strongest chicks in the nests. Our project team also fitted tags to hen harriers in Wales, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, representing an unprecedented number of tagged birds, and we would like to thank all concerned for their support and hard work over a very hot summer. Sadly, our joy was short-lived when we then lost Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in suspicious circumstances. We hadn’t even had chance to introduce the tagged cohort of birds for 2018, when these birds disappeared. These young chicks were just weeks old, making their first journeys away from their nesting sites when they disappeared over land managed for grouse shooting in England and Wales. None of these birds have been heard from since their disappearance, and no one had been held to account. Sadly, this downhill trajectory continued. Over a period of 12 weeks, we lost a total of nine tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances, with the further loss of Thor , the first hen harrier chick to hatch in Bowland for three years, who disappeared in Lancashire on 3 October, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. Athena, Margot, Stelmaria and Heather then disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Scotland, over land managed for grouse shooting between 16 August and 24 September. Finally, we lost Arthur in suspicious circumstances on 26 October. None of these birds have been heard from or seen since their disappearance, and once again no one has been held to account for this. We also lost birds due to natural causes. Keen died on 9 October. His body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. The diagnosis was starvation/failure to thrive. Nyx died on 16 October, and his body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. He appeared to have died of natural causes, and received a puncture wound to his chest, that may have affected his ability to fly and hunt for prey. The examination suggested he appears to have died of starvation. These natural losses are felt all the more strongly with the high level of persecution these birds experience. We’re particularly worried about the English population. Whilst having 34 chicks successfully fledge is more than the 10 chicks that fledged last year, it’s still a long way from the 600 birds we should have in England. As for the fates of the chicks we tagged this summer in England, to date, just under half of the birds are still alive. Just under a fifth have died, were recovered and sent for post mortem with cause of death identified as natural or undetermined due to state of decomposition, while over a third have disappeared in suspicious circumstances. It’s difficult to put into words the feelings of frustration, disappointment and anger that this continues to happen. Losing nine birds in 12 weeks during the grouse shooting season over or adjacent to land managed for grouse shooting tells a damning tale, and is an average of one bird disappearing in suspicious circumstances every nine days. Independent scientific research and government-commissioned studies continue to identify illegal killing associated with land managed for driven grouse shooting as the main factor causing the decline of this species. It’s clear that if this situation continues, hen harriers will become extinct as a species in the UK. This cannot be allowed to happen, and we are working hard to make sure it doesn’t. In our next blog, we’ll be talking about some of the things we are doing to help save the UK’s hen harriers.

Comment on Another hen harrier disappears in suspicious circumstances

I think it would be helpful if it was clearer that this post simply repeats the original press release.

Comment on Another hen harrier disappears in suspicious circumstances

Thank you very much for revealing that over 30 Hen Harriers were tagged in the 2018 season. Whilst I personally am not able to make any valid scientific conclusions from the data made available, the number of RSPB tagged birds,and in the absence of dat…

Blog Post: Another hen harrier disappears in suspicious circumstances

Arthur became the ninth tagged hen harrier in three months to vanish in similar circumstances in the UK In November we reported that a rare hen harrier had disappeared in North Yorkshire, triggering an investigation by the police and the RSPB. This was…

Comment on Four hen harriers disappear on Scottish grouse moors in suspicious circumstances

I have pressed like to the post, but I’m truly appalled about this continued destruction of our wildlife. I am not one of the people who put effort into protecting and tagging the Hen Harriers which were tagged, and it must be worse for them. Thanks t…

Blog Post: Four hen harriers disappear on Scottish grouse moors in suspicious circumstances

Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, reports on the sudden disappearances of four more tagged hen harriers in Scotland in suspicious circumstances. Following our recent blogs on the suspicious disappearances of Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen…

Comment on Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

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Comment on Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

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Comment on Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

hello, please, why aren’t any comments showing? I have made a map using the RSPB type Sky and Hope 1 mile radius map to show the 3 Natural England and 3 RSPB ‘missing’ Hen Harriers. There is something rotten in Roeburndale.

Comment on Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

So so sorry to read this , awful news , one day I do hope justice will be done and these birds can grace our skies in peace

Comment on Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

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