Another hen harrier, Vulcan, has now sadly joined the ‘missing in action’ list.

Vulcan was tagged in Northumberland in the summer of 2018, along with over 30 more hen harriers in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. Almost half of these birds barely had time to make their mark on the world, entering and leaving it almost in the same breath. Vulcan is the 11th tagged hen harrier to disappear in similar suspicious circumstances since August.

Vulcan came from a nest of five chicks. As the strongest of the brood (and quite a feisty character), he was fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project, which allows us to monitor the birds after they leave the nest.

For the first few weeks of his life Vulcan remained close to his nest, testing his wings, before setting off into the wider world. Hen harriers are famously mobile. At the end of August, he flew from Northumberland to the Peak District where he remained throughout September: if you’d been in the Upper Derwent Valley, you might have been lucky enough to have seen him overhead. Local raptor workers did and monitored him there, even getting a few photos.

Then Vulcan was on the move again, heading south through Hampshire and Dorset. We expected him to continue across the English Channel like some of our other birds have done, but he surprised us and remained in England. He was seen again by raptor workers, roosting alongside some short-eared owls in the Cotswolds.

On 16 January 2019, Vulcan’s tag sent out its final transmission, from a location south of Calstone Wellington, in Wiltshire. RSPB Investigations staff and Wiltshire Police searched the area – a heavily-managed pheasant and partridge shoot – but there was no sign of Vulcan or his tag. He has not been heard from since.

We may never find out what happened to Vulcan, but the circumstances of his disappearance are highly suspicious. Based on our experience of sat tagging technology, a site visit and the history of intensive persecution of this species, we strongly suspect the bird is dead, and that illegal persecution is the most probable explanation. 

Vulcan disappearing in this way was always a strong possibility, as it is with all hen harriers. But it’s no less upsetting each time it happens.

There were just nine successful hen harrier nests recorded in the whole of England last year. In 2017 there were three. Back in 2013, none nested in England at all. These birds are teetering dangerously on the edge of extinction in England.

RSPB Assistant Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth was there when Vulcan was tagged. Jack is hugely passionate about raptors, but Vulcan made a particularly strong impression.     

“When a bird you’ve been following since it was a chick suddenly disappears without a trace, it’s crushing. We’re not supposed to have favourites, but when I met Vulcan as a chick and saw his incredibly feisty spirit already showing through, I was smitten. I watched as he began to explore the world, always fearful that he might not make it past Christmas. Vulcan’s tag had been performing brilliantly, so for it to suddenly stop transmitting makes us very suspicious that something has happened to him.”

Of course this news may prove another hurdle for the proposed southern reintroduction of hen harriers. Natural England is currently looking into the feasibility of introducing hen harriers to Wiltshire. However, as Gareth Cunningham, the RSPB’s Head of Nature Policy, explains:

“The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is not supporting the reintroduction project. The disappearance of Vulcan raises concerns over the safety of any birds potentially reintroduced to this part of the world, and we believe ending illegal hen harrier persecution is the first and most important step that needs to be taken to restore the UK’s population of these magnificent birds.”

If you have any information relating to this incident, please call Wiltshire Police on 101. All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail.

If you know about raptor persecution occurring in your area and wish to speak out in confidence, call the confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101. This number is for birds of prey related offences only.