It is with a heavy heart that just as the excitement of the breeding season gets under way, we must report the loss of two more of our hen harriers, Skylar and Marci.

Skylar was a symbol of hope for the project team, who were very excited to follow her progress from fledging the nest in Argyll, Scotland in July 2017. She was the offspring of DeeCee, one of the birds tagged in 2016, both as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project. This allowed the team to easily locate her nest. Skylar’s brother Sirius was also tagged but died of natural causes in October 2017.

Skylar was fitted with a satellite-tag in July 2017 just before she fledged from her nest and was a fascinating bird. The team were amazed when in autumn 2017 she made a brief, week-long sojourn to Ireland before returning to winter in South Lanarkshire. She spent much of summer 2018 in Highland Perthshire, returning once again to South Lanarkshire for the winter 2018/19 where she remained until she disappeared.

Skylar had been roosting overnight in an area of rushes and rough grassland fringing a grouse moor for several days before her tag abruptly stopped working on 7th February 2019.

The area where she disappeared has a history of similar cases and illegal bird of prey killings. A hen harrier and short-eared owl were shot and killed in 2017 on a grouse moor a few miles away from Skylar’s last known location. Another tagged hen harrier, Annie, was found shot nearby in April 2015 and two other tagged hen harriers vanished in the area, one in June 2014 and another, named Chance, in May 2016, after she had spent two winters in France.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager said “Skylar’s disappearance follows a depressingly familiar pattern. Her tag was working as expected, then suddenly stopped. There have been no further transmissions, and the bird’s body has not been located. Had she died of natural causes, we would have expected the transmitter to continue working allowing us to recover her body. Sadly, we’ll probably never know exactly what has happened to Skylar.” .

 Image of a hen harrier - Skylar

Disappointingly, Skylar’s disappearance was followed closely by Marci. Marci was a female chick born in 2018 and tagged on a nest on National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, continuing a very positive relationship with the Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve, at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. We were hugely excited to watch her leave her nest site and track her movements.

Marci’s tag was functioning normally, showing her exploring a wide area of north east Scotland until it suddenly stopped transmitting on 22 April 2019, despite no indication of any technical problems with the tag. Her last recorded position was in west Aberdeenshire, in an area managed intensively for driven grouse shooting near Strathdon and within the Cairngorms National Park. She had been in this area for the previous three weeks.

In the cases of both Skylar and Marci, follow-up searches by both the police and the RSPB uncovered no trace of the bird’s body or tag.

 Image of a hen harrier - Marci

The tags used in this project are highly reliable, so when they suddenly stop transmitting, this gives us immediate cause for concern. In natural circumstances, the tag continues to transmit after a bird has died, allowing our team to find it. Not being able to find any sign of the bird or the tag, makes us suspicious about what might have happened to it.

“A large proportion of the birds tagged during the LIFE project have disappeared in suspicious circumstances, in keeping with recent published studies indicating that 72% of hen harriers are being illegally killed on British grouse moors. And it’s not just hen harriers that are affected – another study found 31% of tagged golden eagles were illegally killed and again this was likely to be on grouse moors. Something has to change in the way our countryside is looked after, to help protect our iconic British birds of prey.” said Dr Cathleen Thomas.

As we inch closer to the summer, we begin to feel hopeful for signs of new life for our hen harriers. But it is bitter sweet, as we remember the birds like Skylar and Marci, who have disappeared in suspicious circumstances. We hope that the class of 2019 have a better chance at life.

If you have any information about Skylar or Marci, or any illegal killing of birds of prey, please report it  to Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s Raptor Crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.

  • This news is heartbreaking, showing that our iconic birds are being targeted in an unending fashion. It must be terrible for those who seek to repopulate these birds.  Until government and the justice system takes this matter seriously I can see no change.