Record number of hen harriers fitted with satellite tags

Martin Fowlie

Wednesday 9 August 2017

The RSPB has fitted a record number of hen harrier chicks with satellite tags, across a wider geographical area than ever before in the UK this year, more than doubling the number it tagged in 2016.

By tracking the movements of these threatened birds of prey, the RSPB will be able to build up an even clearer picture of where hen harriers go and where they are most at risk from wildlife crime linked to intensive grouse moor management.

This is the third consecutive year that the RSPB has tagged hen harriers as part of its EU- funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project. Birds have been tagged in Scotland, the Isle of Man and, for the first time, in Wales, by highly trained experts working under strict protocols.

Unfortunately, poor weather conditions at the critical time, just before fledging, prevented the RSPB from fitting satellite tags to any hen harriers in England this year.

This dramatic increase in the number of tags deployed was made possible by cosmetic company LUSH, which raised funds through the sales of a specially created “Skydancer” bath bomb.

It is hoped that these newly tagged youngsters will fare better than last year’s cohort.  Out of the 12 young hen harriers tagged by the RSPB in 2016, only five are still alive. One of the birds, known as Carroll, was found dead in Northumberland. The post-mortem showed she was in very poor condition and suffering an infectious disease. Disturbingly, it also revealed two shotgun pellets lodged in her body, indicating she had survived being shot at some earlier point in her life. Two of other the birds disappeared in suspicious circumstances when their tags suddenly ceased transmissions, while a further three were lost to unknown causes. All are presumed to have died, as it’s very rare for tags to fail for technical reasons.

It’s not only RSPB-tagged hen harriers that have met with untimely demises over the past 12 months. In October 2016 a hen harrier tagged by Natural England, known as Rowan, was discovered shot dead in Cumbria, while in May of this year a police investigation was launched after a hen harrier was allegedly witnessed being shot on Leadhills Estate, in South Lanarkshire.   

The RSPB sincerely hopes that Natural England will publish the publicly funded satellite tracking data which the statutory agency has collected over the past decade, as this will add significantly to the weight of evidence being gathered through the RSPB’s work.

The need for this sort of data has never been greater. Hen harriers are in serious trouble across the UK. The results of the recently published 2016 National Hen Harrier Survey revealed the number of breeding pairs has declined by more than a third (39%) in the past 12 years. The situation does not appear to have improved this breeding season. In England there were only three successful nesting attempts despite suitable habitat for at least 300.

The main reason hen harriers are continuing to decline is illegal killing and disturbance associated with the increasingly intensive management of grouse moors for driven shooting in northern England and parts of mainland Scotland. While the vast majority of suitable hen harrier habitat in England is managed for driven grouse shooting, not one of this year’s nesting attempts occurred on a grouse moor.   

The RSPB hopes that satellite tagging hen harriers will eventually help pave the way for better protection for hen harriers through the introduction of a licensing system for grouse moors. The Scottish Government recently set up an independent enquiry into gamebird shoot licensing after an independent scientific review of golden eagle satellite tracking data revealed that approximately a third of them are being illegally killed.

Blánaid Denman, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, said: “By satellite tracking more hen harriers than ever before, we’ll gain a clearer picture of where these birds are spending their time and what exactly is happening to them. We’ve already discovered previously unknown nesting and winter roosting sites, as well as been able to pinpoint where natural deaths and illegal killings have occurred. 

“It’s both infuriating and utterly heartbreaking to see these beautiful birds, year after year, disappear off the radar. Something needs to change. A system of grouse moor licensing would not only protect hen harriers but also tackle wider damaging grouse moor management practices, such as heather burning on deep peat and inappropriate drainage.

“For now though, I’ll be watching our newly fledged hen harriers, praying for their safety, and waiting to see what incredible journeys are about to unfold.”

Paul Morton from LUSH said: “We’re thrilled to hear that the money raised by our customers has allowed the RSPB to sat tag more hen harrier chicks than ever before. Monitoring as many youngsters as possible as they take their first flights across the length and breadth of the country is vital for their long-term protection. The message is loud and clear; a nation is watching and will have the welfare of each of these birds close to our hearts. The illegal persecution of hen harriers or any bird of prey will not be tolerated.”

From September, it will be possible to follow the travels of a selection of this year’s tagged hen harriers, together with last year’s surviving birds at


For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Martin Fowlie, Senior Media Officer, 01767 693257 / 07740 756624

 Chris Collett, Regional Communications Manager, 0191 233 4317 / 07885 834889

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: England Country: Scotland Country: UK Topic: Hen harrier Topic: England Topic: Scotland Topic: Species protection