Lots of people are really passionate about nature and the environment, whether they are wanting to enjoy it, study it or protect it. Raptor persecution remains a highly emotive issue and Yorkshireman and ultra marathon runner Henry Morris decided to go to the distance, quite literally, to demonstrate his concern about the illegal killing of hen harriers.

Ultra marathon runner Henry Morris - going the distance for hen harriers

By way of background, in March 2019, a scientific article, the ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors’ was published in Nature Communications. This provided yet further compelling evidence that the illegal killing of hen harriers is widespread on England’s grouse moors. The paper was the culmination of a 10-year study of 58 satellite-tagged hen harriers, using data from Natural England. It revealed that 72% of the satellite-tagged hen harriers were either killed, or were likely to have been killed, on or near grouse moors during the study period from 2007–2017. It also concluded that the likelihood of a hen harrier dying or disappearing was 10 times higher on a grouse moor than any other land use.

Against this backdrop, Henry planned an epic run across numerous driven grouse moors to join the up the locations of where all these satellite tagged birds had ‘vanished’ in suspicious circumstances. This was to raise awareness of the plight of the hen harrier and additionally he set himself a target of crowdfunding £8000 for the not-for-profit group Wild Justice, who are standing up for wildlife using the legal system and seeking changes to existing laws.

This RSPB blog at the end of May provides more detail about this marathon four-day challenge of 200 km. This was to start on 3 July in Bowland, Lancashire then continue across moors in Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Henry also set up a website to cover the event and planned to wear a tracking device so his progress could be followed live. In June, a very excited Henry went out with RSPB staff to see his first ever hen harriers in the Peak District.

Henry's four day 200 km route past check points (CP) of missing hen harriers

I was so inspired by Henry’s determination, that I decided to join in; though it must be said in a rather more modest way by completing the last few miles on days three and four. I picked the last five miles on day three, going from West Scrafton over the moor to Colsterdale, plus the final 11 miles on the Saturday from Ramsgill in Nidderdale to the enticing finish point at the Stone House Inn at Thruscross. This whole area is one of the worst in the UK for raptor persecution with a litany of crimes and failed bird of prey breeding attempts. So, on the Friday afternoon, I caught up with Henry in West Scrafton, along with his support team (Ed, Tim and John), who had all been running sections of the route with him. We were also joined by fell runner Bob Berzins, who has spent lots of time in the Peak District highlighting problems with intensive grouse moor management, and long distance runner Pascal who had come up all the way from London.

It was a bright and blustery afternoon as we climbed over the watershed and dropped down into Colsterdale. En route, all but one of the group made a slight detour to a notorious spot where the body of hen harrier, affectionately known as Bowland Betty was found shot back in July 2012.

A sombre moment for runners at the final resting place of hen harrier Bowland Betty, found shot in 2012

There was a lot of controversy around this incident, and some specialist forensic examination was undertaken to confirm the bird had indeed been shot. Because of the police investigation and wait for additional forensic work, there was one piece of information that didn’t get into the public domain. From the satellite tag information, Bowland Betty is believed to have died between 8 and 11 June 2012, and her body was eventually located on 5 July. A few days prior to the body being recovered, a failed hen harrier nest was found on the moor about 450 metres away. This may have even been a breeding attempt by Bowland Betty, and whatever the background, it is just another sad statistic of how badly this species does in this area of North Yorkshire.