As we reach the end of 2019, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, looks back over the year.
Those of you that regularly follow the fates of hen harriers in the UK will know that it’s a real roller coaster of a journey, and 2019 has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs for our Hen Harrier LIFE project team.
We started the year with the suspicious disappearance of one of our longest lived birds, and a favourite of the project team, DeeCee. We tagged DeeCee on a nest in Perthshire in 2016 and we’d followed her life closely. Her tag suddenly stopped transmitting near the border of Angus and Aberdeenshire on 28 January 2019. A follow up search revealed no sign of the bird or her tag, and neither have been seen or heard from since.
Earlier in DeeCee’s life, we were really pleased to see her successfully raise a brood of chicks in 2017 and you may remember we tagged two of her offspring, named Sirius and Skylar. Sadly, the devastating disappearance of DeeCee was quickly followed by the suspicious disappearance of her daughter Skylar in South Lanarkshire on 7 February 2019, resulting in the end of DeeCee’s blood line. All that time and effort gone into raising chicks and trying to establish the next generations of hen harriers gone within a week.
(Top) DeeCee on the nest as a chick in 2016 (Bottom) Her daughter Skylar on the nest in 2017
We then lost more birds from the class of 2018. Two hen harriers died in unknown circumstances, one in Scotland and one in France. Despite ground searches being made, we could not locate the birds or their tags. In both these cases the tags continued to transmit after the birds' deaths so whilst we do not know exactly what happened to them, we do not think there was anything suspicious about their deaths at this time.
We reported the suspicious disappearance of Vulcan on 16th January 2019 near Calstone Wellington in Wiltshire in an area that was a heavily-managed pheasant and partridge shoot. Vulcan and his tag have not been seen or heard from since. In April, we lost another bird in France to natural causes, closely followed by Marci and Rain whose tags suddenly stopped transmitting in suspicious circumstances. Marci disappeared on 22 April 2019 and was last recorded in west Aberdeenshire in an area managed intensively for driven grouse shooting. Rain disappeared over a grouse moor on 26 April 2019 in Nairnshire. Neither Marci nor Rain were located during searches and they have not been seen or heard from since.
Just as we started to head into the breeding season for 2019, enjoying the sights of hen harriers skydancing, pairing up and nest building, we were devastated to discover two birds were victims of crimes.
River was tagged in Lancashire in 2018. We last heard from her tag in November 2018, in North Yorkshire on a driven grouse moor between Colsterdale and Nidderdale. RSPB Investigations and North Yorkshire Police searched the area but there was no sign of the bird or her tag. In April 2019 the tag battery recharged and the team were able to locate her – she was found dead on Ilton Moor and subsequent investigations revealed her body contained two pieces of lead shot from a shot gun.
Rannoch was tagged in Perthshire in 2017. We last heard from her tag in November 2018, when she stopped moving in an area of moorland between Aberfeldy and Crieff. Despite two ground searches we hadn’t been able to recover her body or her tag. In May 2019 the tag battery recharged in the spring sunlight and transmitted more accurate location data, allowing the team to locate her. The post mortem report from SRUC veterinary laboratory said: “The bird was trapped by the left leg in a spring trap at time of death. Death will have been due to a combination of shock and blood loss if it died quickly or to exposure and dehydration/starvation if it died slowly. Either way the bird will have experienced significant unnecessary suffering.”
With only 20% of our hen harrier population remaining, every single illegal death is absolutely devastating for the population – it’s not just Rannoch and River’s loss that we mourn, but all the future chicks they could have raised.
(Top) Rannoch found dead in a spring trap (Bottom) River recovered with two pieces of shot in her body
Over the summer, the project team worked hard to monitor and protect this year’s nests. Thanks to the fantastic partnership working with landowners, agents and managers, raptor workers and statutory bodies across the British Isles, we monitored over 30 nests across England, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
In Scotland we monitored a range of nests and observed reasons for failure, this year including predation, disturbance and bad weather. In England it was a similar picture with continuous days of wet weather just as chicks would have been getting ready to fledge the nest. Hen harriers nest on the ground so waterlogging of nests amongst the heather can cause the chicks to become cold and die of hyperthermia.
We were proud to be involved in protecting nine nests across England fledging 33 chicks. You’ll probably know that we should have a breeding population of around 320 pairs of hen harrier in England, based on estimates of food and habitat availability, so whilst these nests represent just under 3% of this total, with the perilous position of our English population, I hope you can understand why every single bird that successfully fledges from its nest is something to celebrate.
Our team in Bowland worked round the clock to protect five nests there (an increase of two from 2018), resulting in all 22 chicks that hatched fledging from their nests about a month later. Northumberland continued to be a stronghold for hen harriers for the fifth year running, with three successful nests fledging nine chicks. We were also pleased to see repeat nesting success on the National Trust’s High Peak Moor, with one nest.
We tagged over 30 hen harriers during the summer of 2019, and the bulk of this work was carried out by just one of our taggers, showing that there are no bounds to how dedicated people are in protecting this species. Once the hard work of coordinating monitoring, protection and tagging was over, we waited to see how our class of 2019 would fare. The autumn of 2018 was a really difficult time, with nine tagged birds disappearing in suspicious circumstances in a 12 week period. However, 2019 has so far proved to be a little different.
We recently reported on the suspicious disappearances of Ada, Thistle and Romario, whose tags suddenly stopped working near Allendale, in east Sutherland and between Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey, the latter two over grouse moors. We also reported on the discovery of the body of another untagged hen harrier on a grouse moor near the village of Wanlockhead in Scotland, whose post mortem revealed it had been shot. We also lost birds in natural circumstances, including Xena tagged in the Peak District, Marvel tagged at NTS Mar Lodge and Angharad tagged in Conwy who all died of natural causes.
All in all, it feels like it’s been a tough year for hen harriers. There were a lot of confirmed or suspected criminal acts against the birds at the start of the year, and we fear for how the class of 2019 will fare. Although the LIFE-funded portion of our Hen Harrier programme will finish on 31st December, we will continue our hen harrier work, including monitoring our tagged birds.
Watch this space for more updates in the New Year!
Thanks for this update. I do try to keep a record of what you publish, but the information on Rain, Xena, Marvel and Angharad were new to me. I'd like to add my thanks and I'm sure that of many other members to those who spend so much of their time monitoring these birds.
I do wish that we had more information from Natural England, who also tag birds, but publish little, and nothing since the the 3 birds Mabel, Tom and Barney vanished in 2018.
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