Press Release

More Hen Harriers disappear in suspicious circumstances

Two Hen Harriers have vanished in suspicious circumstances in just two weeks within the Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and nearby North Yorkshire.

RSPB InvestigationsPosted 5 min read
  • Two satellite tagged birds disappeared over two weeks in May, in Lancashire and North Yorkshire: the latest in a succession of similar incidents.
  • The RSPB recently reported that 21 Hen Harriers had been either killed or disappeared in the North of England in the past year.
  • Hen Harriers are rare birds on the red list of conservation concern, with illegal killing the key factor limiting their recovery.

The birds were fitted with satellite tags, which are fitted to gather information about this rare and persecuted species.

Rush, an adult male bird, had been spending time in Mallowdale, in the Forest of Bowland, throughout the spring until his tag unexpectedly stopped transmitting on 4 May. The tag’s last fix put him over a grouse moor. Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit carried out a search of the area but found no sign of the bird or its tag.

On 17 May, another tagged bird, Wayland, vanished in the Clapham area of North Yorkshire, just north of the Bowland AONB, where the land is a mix of farmland with gamebird shooting. Its tag had also been functioning normally until that point.

These two birds are in addition to the 21 Hen Harriers that were reported as either killed or missing across Northern England in the last year, including one found dead in the Yorkshire Dales National Park with its head pulled off.

Hen Harriers are rare breeding birds in the UK, known for their acrobatic ‘skydancing’ courtship display which they perform above upland moors in spring. In England there were 34 successful nests in 2022, despite a previous independent government report finding that there is enough habitat and food to support over 300 pairs.

scientific study published in the journal Biological Conservation found that survival rates of Hen Harriers were ‘unusually low’, and illegal killing was identified as a major cause. Using data from the largest GPS tracking programme for Hen Harriers globally, the authors discovered that individuals tracked by the project were typically living just 121 days after fledging. The risk of dying as a result of illegal killing increased significantly as Hen Harriers spent more time on areas managed for grouse shooting. Previously, a 2019 Government study concluded that Hen Harriers suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, most likely as a result of illegal killing.

The RSPB’s Birdcrime report found that, of the 108 confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution in 2021, 71% were in connection with gamebird shooting and, since 1990, 67% of those convicted of raptor persecution offences were gamekeepers.

Howard Jones, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, said:

“To have two more Hen Harriers disappear this spring is a huge blow for a struggling species where every nest counts. These latest disappearances are being treated as suspicious by the police. From Wayland’s tag data, it appears that the tag stopped mid-transmission - cutting out abruptly as it was sending data through to us - which strongly suggests human interference.

“We hope the otherwise tragic news of these birds sends a clear message that licensing of driven grouse shooting estates must be implemented to ensure all are operating within the law, and to protect birds like Hen Harriers from persistent persecution. Clearly self-regulation has failed, as evidenced by this spate of disappearances. How many more birds must vanish from the breeding population before action is taken?”