Record number of hen harrier chicks tagged this year

Jess Barrett

Friday 3 August 2018

Over 30 chicks tagged by RSPB project

An unprecedented number of hen harrier chicks have been fitted with satellite tags this year by the RSPB as part of its EU funded Hen Harrier LIFE project to secure the future of these threatened birds. 

So far more than 30 of the young birds have been tagged, the majority of them in Scotland. This is the fourth year in a row that the project has fitted satellite tags on hen harrier chicks. A number of those tagged this year are the offspring of birds tagged in previous years by the project including DeeCee who hatched in Perthshire in 2016.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds and the satellite tags allow the project to follow their movements as they leave the nest, gaining invaluable information on where the birds spend their time. The odds are stacked against hen harrier chicks from the start with survival rates of around 22 per cent in their first two years of life. The tags can reveal information about the cause of death for many of these young birds.

Of the birds tagged in 2017 almost 40 per cent are known to have died from natural causes, in line with these low survival rates. As the tags continue to transmit after a bird has died the remains of many of them were able to be recovered allowing post mortems to be carried out. These showed some to have been predated, while others died of starvation. One bird, Eric who was tagged in Orkney in July 2017, apparently drowned in January.

However, the tags also reveal that over a quarter of last year’s chicks have disappeared in suspicious circumstances. In these cases, transmissions from tags that have been functioning perfectly suddenly stop. The tag of one bird, Calluna, ended transmissions abruptly over a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater on 12th August last year. Manu and Marc, from the same Borders nest, both disappeared over grouse moors in northern England.

The latest national survey of hen harriers, carried out in 2016, shows that the UK population has declined by 24 per cent since 2004. In Scotland there has been a 57 per cent decline on grouse moors since 2010. The continued illegal persecution of these birds is having a huge detrimental impact on their numbers.

RSPB Scotland is currently awaiting the recommendations of an independent enquiry panel commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP in May 2017, to look into how grouse moors can be managed within the law and explore options for its regulation. The panel was created following the review of satellite tagged golden eagles in Scotland and is expected to report back in Spring 2019.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project said: “Satellite tagging technology has taught us so much about the movements of hen harriers. We can follow individual stories; from the birds that make huge journeys crossing over seas to those that stay closer to home and only move short distances from where they were hatched. We’ve discovered new nesting places and winter roosting sites, which help us protect the birds when they are at their most vulnerable.

“The tags also allow us to investigate where and in what circumstances these hen harrier chicks are lost so we can better understand how to protect them and advocate for licensing of driven grouse shooting. This species is only just holding on in the UK; it’s both heart-breaking and infuriating that year after year many of these chicks disappear in suspicious circumstances. The loss of birds in this way is both needless and senseless and cannot go on. We hope that the recommendations of the enquiry panel here in Scotland will give hen harriers, and other birds of prey, a fair and fighting chance at survival and help stamp out these outdated illegal persecution practices.”

The project is grateful for the fantastic support given from members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and to the many landowners and their staff for their interest and help in assisting to tag so many birds.

From September a selection of this year’s tagged birds will be added to the project website where their travels can be followed along with some of the surviving birds from previous years: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife

Last Updated: Friday 3 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: Scotland Topic: Birds Topic: Conservation Topic: Hen harrier Topic: Scotland Topic: Scotland Topic: Ongoing Topic: Species protection