Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, shares the sad news of the loss of a second tagged hen harrier in Wales in suspicious circumstances.

At this time of year, our Hen Harrier LIFE project team are very busy monitoring birds, protecting nests and satellite tagging juveniles. As we get caught up in the elation and optimism that a new generation of this rare bird brings, it was a timely reminder of their potential fates when we received the post mortem results for Lia, one of our Welsh hen harriers.

Hen harriers were once widespread in Wales, but following a long history of illegal persecution and eventual extinction on mainland Britain as a breeding bird, the hen harrier finally came back to Wales in the 1950s. Since then, the Welsh population has slowly recovered, but it continues to vary greatly in size from year to year due to a number of factors, including food availability and weather conditions. The latest survey in 2016 showed the number of pairs had fallen by more than a third over the past six years, from 57 to 35 pairs. This is the lowest population that has been seen in Wales for over a decade, hence our devastation when Lia met her demise.

Lia was one of four chicks born on a nest on the National Trust’s Ysbyty Estate in north Wales in 2017, and we fitted her satellite tag at the end of June. After fledging, she headed south to the Brecon Beacons National Park, and in October she had a brief two-day trip across the Bristol Channel to Somerset, before returning and settling in mid-Wales.

Lia, a hen harrier tagged in Wales

Lia (image courtesy of Guy Anderson)

Her tag was functioning regularly, showing us that she spent most of her time in Wales, until 18th April 2018, when RSPB staff monitoring the tag became concerned she had stopped moving over an area of lowland farmland near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes. An initial search of the area yielded nothing. However, on the 17th May 2018, a further transmission confirmed she was dead, and RSPB Investigations staff searched again and found her lying face up in short grass in a sheep field.

Map of Lia's final journey in Wales        

A map of Lia’s final journey and last known location

RSPB Investigations staff retrieved both the bird and her tag, which were immediately sent to the veterinary laboratory at ZSL for post mortem. Although the bird’s body was ‘mummified’, the vet’s main finding of interest was a fractured tail feather. The report stated that fractures of this type “have previously been found in a hen harrier proven to have been shot with ammunition (Hopkins et al., 2015). No other signs of shooting were detected in this bird.”

Lia’s fractured tail feather (image courtesy of ZSL)

Sadly, we’ll never know for sure what happened to Lia due to her state of decomposition, but her death was reported to Dyfed Powys Police from the outset as suspicious and they have been investigating, as she was found in an area with a history of illegal raptor persecution.

Lia was the first hen harrier ever to have been satellite tagged in Wales, and we had high hopes she would help us better understand the dispersal of Welsh birds. Alarmingly, she is the second bird to be lost in Wales this year in suspicious circumstances. Aalin, who was tagged on the Isle of Man in July 2016, spent last winter in north Wales, and disappeared in the Ruabon mountains near Wrexham in February 2018. The loss of both of these birds is heartbreaking, but the more we can learn about the fates of our hen harriers, the more measures we can put in place to protect them.

If anyone has any information that might help us find answers to how Lia died then please contact Dyfed Powys police on 101 quoting the reference number 47 24 04 2018 or alternatively speak to the RSPB confidentially on 0300 999 0101.

The Hen Harrier LIFE project team are tagging more birds in Wales this summer, so watch this space to follow their fortunes. Hopefully they’ll have a bit more luck than Lia.