Three young hen harriers have disappeared in suspicious circumstances in the past month.
All of the birds had been fitted with satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and their movements were being tracked by the nature conservation charity.
Young female harrier Hilma was tagged in June 2018 at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 8 August showed she was near Wooler, Northumberland over land managed for driven grouse shooting.
A few weeks later another female bird, Octavia, vanished without trace. She hatched from a nest on National Trust’s High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park in June. This was the first time the species had bred in this area for four years.
Octavia stayed faithfully close to her nest, until the 22 August when she moved onto privately-owned driven grouse moors near Sheffield. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 26 August showed she was over an area of land managed for driven grouse shooting at Broomhead.
Heulwen was born on a nest in Gwynedd, North Wales. After she left her nest, Heulwen travelled through north Wales, across Snowdonia and eastwards towards Wrexham. Her satellite was transmitting regularly until it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 29 August show she was within the vicinity of Ruabon Mountain.
Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds and tags continue to transmit regularly, even when the bird dies, and until the tag reaches the end of its lifespan. The tags were all providing regular updates on the birds’ locations, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmissions is suspicious and could suggest criminal interference.
Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite sufficient habitat for over 300 pairs. It is widely understood that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors.
Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project said: “Just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK, but already these young chicks are disappearing in suspicious circumstances when they are just a few months old. It’s devastating for those of us involved in watching and protecting these chicks and terrible news for a birds of prey species that is continuing to decline.
“While we don’t know yet what has happened to these birds, we do know that the main factor limiting the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing associated with the intensive management of grouse moors.”
If anyone has any information about the disappearance of any of these birds, please call the police on 101 – or alternatively call the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline 0300 999 0101.