Three hen harriers vanish in suspicious circumstances

Martin Fowlie

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Police and the RSPB are appealing for information following the disappearance of three protected, satellite-tagged hen harriers in Scotland and Cumbria.

After monitoring her progress since she fledged last June, a hen harrier named Saorsa suddenly ceased sending transmissions in February 2018 whilst located in the Angus Glens, Scotland. She has not been seen or heard of since. 

A male bird, named Blue, then raised concerns in March this year when his tag, which had also been functioning perfectly, suddenly and inexplicably cut out near Longsleddale, Cumbria.

In the same month, a tagged bird named Finn – after young conservationist Findlay Wilde – vanished near Moffat, Scotland. Finn was tagged as a chick in 2016 from a nest in Northumberland, one of only three hen harrier nests to fledge young in the whole of England that year.

RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search for all three birds, but no tags or bodies were found. Where tagged hen harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies have generally been recovered. Cumbria Police and Police Scotland are making local enquiries.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with just three successful nests recorded in England in 2017. There is a slightly larger population in Scotland. These slight, agile birds of prey nest on the ground, often on moorland. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that their declining population is largely associated with human persecution.

Several birds have been fitted with a lightweight satellite tag as part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project to help build a better understanding of hen harriers, their movements and the threats they face. Since the project began in 2014, a number of tagged hen harriers have disappeared in similarly inexplicable circumstances.

Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said “The UK population of hen harriers is really hanging in the balance and the disappearance of these three birds is extremely troubling. These tags are over 90% reliable and capable of transmitting long after a bird has died. If these birds had died of natural causes we would expect to recover both the tag and the body. But this has not been the case.”

Findlay Wilde said “In the short time we followed Finn, we went through every emotion possible; from the excitement of knowing she had safely fledged to the nagging worries that she was settling in high-risk areas; and then of course to the worst news of all. Finn isn't just another statistic in growing listing of missing hen harriers. Her life mattered, and she mattered to me."

If you have any information relating to any of these incidents, call police on 101. Or to speak to RSPB investigations in confidence, call the Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.

Last Updated: Tuesday 22 May 2018

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