When RSPB Investigations followed a satellite-tagged hen harrier’s movements, it led to the discovery of a new hen harrier roost site – plus another more concerning surprise. Assistant Investigations Officer Tom Grose was there that day.

In the fight to protect hen harriers the satellite tag – a piece of kit smaller than a matchbox – has emerged as one of the major weapons in the conservationist’s arsenal. All too often we bring you news of yet another bird which has vanished in suspicious circumstances, like Vulcan last week.

However, these tags do much more than just provide dots on the map showing where a harrier has gone missing. A major component of the EU Hen Harrier LIFE Project is the discovery and monitoring of communal hen harrier winter roost sites, and the satellite tags are leading us to areas previously unknown to RSPB staff and raptor workers.

It was data received from one tagged bird that led myself and my colleague Jack Ashton-Booth to an area of driven grouse moor between Nidderdale and Colsterdale, North Yorkshire on 15 November 2018. We had previously visited a roost site a few kilometres away, but suspected there was another site – which we hoped to find.

It was a warm, late-autumn day and once we reached the ridge we could see the moor stretching out below us, down to the roost area. After satisfying ourselves that we weren’t being watched, we began to make our way towards the area we thought the birds might be using.

Then, a word of caution from Jack made me stop in my tracks. An all-terrain vehicle was moving down the slope in front of us. We dropped to the ground but the vehicle continued down the slope, away from us. After a pause, we decided to circle round to the west, giving the vehicle’s route a wide berth.

As we neared the potential roost area we found a clough on the hill above it: perfect for tucking ourselves out of sight and far enough away to prevent any disturbance to the harriers we hoped to see. This was where data had shown the tagged bird spent the night. We had a great 180º view over the moor before us and soon a harrier was flying almost straight towards us. As it neared we could see it was a juvenile female. It turned slightly allowing us to see that it wasn’t carrying a tag, and continued to fly east until lost from view. What a start!

We continued scanning and soon a different harrier appeared, smaller and darker in colour with the pronounced rufous underside of a juvenile. It began to quarter the roost area in front of us and was quickly joined by a second similar individual, and then another! We were absolutely buzzing now, watching the three young harriers which began to drop down into the heather as the light faded.

Moments later, at 4.20pm, came an urgent whisper from Jack - he'd seen someone. We lay flat in the heather, hearts pounding, trying to make the most of what little cover was available. Jack told me a man in a flat cap had just walked through his scope view, just 50 meters in front of us. Inching myself upward, I could see a black Labrador bounding through the heather. Not ideal. Then I saw the man, wearing a long green coat and carrying a shotgun.

He appeared to be sending the dog through the patches of heather while he walked through the roost area, like he was searching for something: to me this was surely the harriers we had just been watching. I managed to reach my video camera and began to film, doing my best to remain out of sight.

He reached a small gulley and crouched down, almost lost from view for several minutes while his dog worked through the vegetation. Fortunately, no harriers were flushed. The light was fading fast now and it was hard to see him on the camera screen but through his binoculars Jack noticed second dog, a brown terrier. The man stood up and walked back in the direction he had come from, checking several patches of rushes before going out of sight around the corner of the hill. At 4.54pm we heard the noise of an engine and then saw vehicle lights moving away in the distance.

Here's what we saw:

We immediately notified North Yorkshire Police and supplied a full statement, but as yet the man has not been identified.

The RSPB is concerned about what this man was doing at the precise spot of a hen harrier roost, on a grouse moor, at dusk and with a gun. We believe there is a strong likelihood that he intended to flush and shoot the hen harriers. (Hen harriers will sit very tight and will not flush until almost stood upon).

What we didn’t know at the time is that River, another satellite-tagged hen harrier, had also been close by. She sent a transmission the day before, on 14 November, from another roost site in this area. This, crucially, turned out to be her last.

If you have any information which could shine further light on these events, please contact the RSPB 01767 680551.

Alternatively, you can speak to us in confidence by calling the Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101 if you have any information about illegal activity involving birds of prey in your community. Thank you. 

A blackspot within a blackspot

North Yorkshire has the unenviable reputation for having had more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other UK county. But even within North Yorkshire, this general area is a particular blackspot. Since the year 2000, within five miles of this incident there have been eight confirmed incidents including:

Four poisoned red kites

A poisoned buzzard

A shot hen harrier

A pole trap

And an illegal cache of pesticides.

Two local gamekeepers were convicted in respect to two of the incidents. Within the wider Nidderdale AONB area, in addition to the hen harrier River (satellite tagged by the Hen Harrier LIFE project) another seven Natural England tagged birds have been recorded as ‘missing fate unknown’. A scientific paper on Natural England's satellite tagging work is due out later this month.

Additionally, within this five mile radius, since 2000 there have been 19 hen harrier breeding attempts, only five of which were successful (one case relied on supplementary feeding after the male bird disappeared). In 13 cases, persecution was suspected as the cause of the breeding failure.

Hen harriers have not bred successfully in the whole of North Yorkshire since 2007.