As we reach the end of 2018, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, looks back over the year.

Working on the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project is a rollercoaster of emotions. Scientific studies estimate that here in the UK we have enough suitable habitat to sustain a thriving hen harrier population of around 5,000 birds, yet the 2016 hen harrier survey found there are only around 1,000 birds left in the wild. The main reason for this is the continued illegal killing of birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and mainland Scotland.

2018 started out as a promising year for hen harriers. Reports from raptor workers and local RSPB colleagues suggested winter roosts around the country had higher numbers of hen harriers than usual, and in some areas of the UK this coincided with higher numbers of voles. Our tagged birds had done well to survive the cold winter, so we were hopeful.

Our first loss was the natural death of Eric on 27 January, who was tagged in Orkney in the summer of 2017. Eric spent his life on Orkney, but data from his tag, which continued to transmit as expected, showed that he made an unexpected journey eastwards, away from the islands and out into the North Sea. Data from later that day then showed that he had gone down in the water, and shortly afterwards the tag ceased transmitting. Eric’s loss coincided with a period of bad weather on Orkney, so it appears likely the strong south westerly winds blew this young bird off course and all the evidence suggests that he drowned.

On 5 February, Marc disappeared in suspicious circumstances on a grouse moor near Middleton-in-Teesdale. Marc’s tag was transmitting regularly and showed him moving to the grouse moor at the end of January, where he spent his final week before his tag suddenly stopped transmitting, with no indication of any technical problems. This was particularly sad given that Marc’s brother Manu disappeared in suspicious circumstances just months earlier. To this day, we have not heard from either of the brothers’ tags, their bodies have not been found and no one has been held to account for their disappearances.

Marc and Manu as youngsters on the nest in 2017 (photo by Steve Downing)

Marc’s loss was closely followed by the apparent loss of several more birds. On 9 February, we lost Aalin, who had almost made it to two years old, having been tagged in the summer of 2016 on the Isle of Man. Aalin disappeared in suspicious circumstances in an area of Ruabon moor in Wales where grouse shooting takes place.

A further three birds then disappeared in suspicious circumstances, Saorsa, Finn and Blue. On 16 February, Saorsa disappeared in the Angus Glens, Finn disappeared on 25 March near Moffat and Blue disappeared on 31 March near Longsleddale in Cumbria. Losing five birds in seven weeks in suspicious circumstances across Scotland, England and Wales was a harsh reminder of the challenges these birds face.  More bad news followed.

Lia’s tag stopped suddenly on 18 April over an area of lowland farmland near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes and an initial search of the area yielded nothing. On 17 May, a final transmission confirmed she was dead, and RSPB Investigations staff found her lying face up in short grass in a sheep field. Her body was sent for an independent post mortem, where 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.” Sadly we’ll never know for sure what happened to Lia, due to her state of decomposition.

During this time, we were also getting reports from areas where birds were skydancing, pairing up and building nests, and our project team worked alongside raptor workers and volunteers to monitor and protect these birds.

Most of the UK’s hen harrier breeding population is found in Scotland. Here, we were getting reports of pairs of hen harriers settling and building nests in known nesting areas, and were excited to see that numbers had increased on last year, for example at NTS Mar Lodge, with an increase from one successful nest in both 2016 and 2017, to seven successful nests in 2018. However, amongst this good news, on 17 July we received the last transmission from Harriet, a bird tagged at Mar Lodge in 2017. Harriet’s body was recovered on the Mar Lodge estate in July this year. An independent post mortem could not identify a cause of death, due to the state of decomposition.

In England, the species is of highest concern as it has teetered on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird for several years now and the 2016 survey revealed it had declined by 64% since 2004. In 2018, there were nine successful hen harrier nests, and the project team were very proud to be directly involved in protecting and monitoring seven of these nests. We worked closely with landowners and gamekeepers, and were pleased to see four successful nests on grouse moors for the first time in a while, on land owned by our partners at the National Trust and United Utilities. This showed that it is possible to have grouse shooting and hen harriers side by side.

In September, we were overjoyed to have 34 chicks fledging in England and our expert team had fitted tags to around a third of these birds, representing the biggest and strongest chicks in the nests. Our project team also fitted tags to hen harriers in Wales, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, representing an unprecedented number of tagged birds, and we would like to thank all concerned for their support and hard work over a very hot summer.

Sadly, our joy was short-lived when we then lost Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in suspicious circumstances. We hadn’t even had chance to introduce the tagged cohort of birds for 2018, when these birds disappeared. These young chicks were just weeks old, making their first journeys away from their nesting sites when they disappeared over land managed for grouse shooting in England and Wales. None of these birds have been heard from since their disappearance, and no one had been held to account.

Sadly, this downhill trajectory continued. Over a period of 12 weeks, we lost a total of nine tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances, with the further loss of Thor, the first hen harrier chick to hatch in Bowland for three years, who disappeared in Lancashire on 3 October, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. Athena, Margot, Stelmaria and Heather then disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Scotland, over land managed for grouse shooting between 16 August and 24 September. Finally, we lost Arthur in suspicious circumstances on 26 October. None of these birds have been heard from or seen since their disappearance, and once again no one has been held to account for this.

We also lost birds due to natural causes. Keen died on 9 October. His body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. The diagnosis was starvation/failure to thrive. Nyx died on 16 October, and his body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. He appeared to have died of natural causes, and received a puncture wound to his chest, that may have affected his ability to fly and hunt for prey. The examination suggested he appears to have died of starvation. These natural losses are felt all the more strongly with the high level of persecution these birds experience.

We’re particularly worried about the English population. Whilst having 34 chicks successfully fledge is more than the 10 chicks that fledged last year, it’s still a long way from the 600 birds we should have in England. As for the fates of the chicks we tagged this summer in England, to date, just under half of the birds are still alive. Just under a fifth have died, were recovered and sent for post mortem with cause of death identified as natural or undetermined due to state of decomposition, while over a third have disappeared in suspicious circumstances.

It’s difficult to put into words the feelings of frustration, disappointment and anger that this continues to happen. Losing nine birds in 12 weeks during the grouse shooting season over or adjacent to land managed for grouse shooting tells a damning tale, and is an average of one bird disappearing in suspicious circumstances every nine days. Independent scientific research and government-commissioned studies continue to identify illegal killing associated with land managed for driven grouse shooting as the main factor causing the decline of this species. It’s clear that if this situation continues, hen harriers will become extinct as a species in the UK. This cannot be allowed to happen, and we are working hard to make sure it doesn’t.

In our next blog, we'll be talking about some of the things we are doing to help save the UK's hen harriers. 

  • This is a heartbreaking tale, particularly for those who have taken such care to ensure that the birds were able to fledge by monitoring the nests. Natural losses are expected, but to find that such a  large number, 15, of the birds had died in suspicious circumstances is an utter disgrace, reflecting badly on the government organisations whose responsibility it is to ensure that this does not happen.

    We should be celebrating the success of the larger number of breeding pairs in England. This tells a different story, unfortunately. 

    Thank you to the personnel and volunteers who ensured that some birds were allowed to fledge.