Author: Chris Collett

Blog Post: Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

This summer we were overjoyed to have hen harriers nesting in Bowland for the first time since 2015. Our project team worked round the clock to monitor the three nests there, and the parent birds fledged an amazing 13 chicks between them. Young hen harriers were fitted with tags as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we watched with anticipation as the chicks grew and started to fly away from their nests and make their way into the world. Unfortunately, it was unlucky 13 for one of our brood. Young male hen harrier Thor fledged from a nest of four chicks in the Forest of Bowland and his satellite tag was fitted in mid-June. After leaving the nest he remained in the vicinity for several months. His tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. His last known fix on 3 October 2018 showed he was over Goodber Common near Salter in Lancashire, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. This disappearance was reported to the police, and a search revealed no sign of the bird or his tag. Thor is the fourth bird to disappear in the past two months, following the disappearances of Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in August this year. Alarmingly, the last known fix for Thor is directly between the sites where tagged hen harriers Hope and Sky were last heard from before they disappeared back in 2014.   Thor as a youngster (photo: Steve Downing) James Bray, RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, was involved in monitoring the nests in Bowland over the summer, and watched as Thor hatched, grew and fledged from his nest. He says: “Whilst we know that hen harrier mortality rates are high for young birds – with a survival rate of around 22% within the first two years – if Thor had died naturally we would have expected to find some sign of him or his tag. His tag was functioning well before he disappeared, which sadly suggests there has been some kind of interference with it.” If anyone has any information as to what may have become of Thor, you can contact Lancashire Police on 101.

Blog Post: Three more hen harriers disappear suddenly

Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, reports on the sudden disappearances of three more tagged hen harriers in England and Wales in suspicious circumstances. Just weeks after celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK this summer, the sobering reality of the continued illegal killing of our birds of prey was brought firmly into light with the suspicious disappearance of three satellite tagged birds in England and Wales. All of the birds were fitted with satellite tags this summer as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we were regularly tracking their movements as they left their nests and started to make their way into the world. We’d hoped against hope that they’d at least manage to survive for a year or two, but we’re very sad to see that these three birds only lasted a couple of months. Young female harrier Hilma was tagged in June 2018 at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders. After she left her nest, she moved across into Northumberland. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 8 August showed she was near Wooler, Northumberland over land managed for driven grouse shooting. Hilma is the second tagged bird to disappear in Northumberland in the past year, after we reported on the disappearance of Manu in October 2017, closely followed by his brother Marc in Cumbria in February 2018. Hilma. Photo – Steve Downing A few weeks later another female bird, Octavia, vanished without trace. She hatched from a nest on National Trust’s High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park in June. This was the first time the species had bred in this area for four years. Again, we had high hopes that the tables may have turned in favour of our hen harriers and we watched anxiously as she began to spread her wings. Octavia stayed faithfully close to her nest, until the 22 August when she moved onto privately-owned driven grouse moors near Sheffield. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 26 August showed she was over an area of land managed for driven grouse shooting at Broomhead. Octavia. Photo – Steve Downing Just three days later, a bird in north Wales also disappeared. Heulwen was born on a nest in Gwynedd, North Wales, her name was chosen as it is Welsh for ‘sunny’. After she left her nest, Heulwen travelled through north Wales, across Snowdonia and eastwards towards Wrexham. Her satellite was transmitting regularly until it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 29 August show she was within the vicinity of Ruabon Mountain. Heulwen was not far from where Aalin , one of our 2016 cohort, went missing on 9 February 2018. Heulwen. Photo – Guy Anderson Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds and tags continue to transmit regularly, even if the bird dies. The tags were all providing regular updates on the birds’ locations, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmissions from three birds all near grouse moors is suspicious, which is why the police are involved in all three cases. For each of the birds, we have data on the location of their last transmission, which are shown in the maps below. We don’t know anything further about the movements of any of these birds after their last fixes. All three birds were searched for but were not recovered. It is expected that a bird that dies from natural causes the tag will continue to transmit data and provide the opportunity to be found on a follow up search.      Last known fix of Hilma Last known fix of Octavia Last known fix of Heulwen Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite sufficient habitat for over 300 pairs. It is widely understood that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors. Just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK, but already these young chicks are disappearing in suspicious circumstances when they are just a few months old. It’s devastating for those of us involved in watching and protecting these chicks and terrible news for a birds of prey species that has shown a 24% decline in numbers between 2004 and 2016. While we don’t yet know what has happened to these three birds, we do know that the main factor reducing the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing of birds associated with the intensive management of grouse moors. If anyone has any information about the disappearance of any of these birds, please call the police on 101 – or if you have sensitive information which you want to discuss in confidence with the RSPB, you can use the Raptor Crime Hotline 0300 999 0101.

Blog Post: UK Government needs an independent inquiry into driven grouse shooting to deliver 25 Year Environment Plan

Earlier this month, Les Wallace launched a Government petition calling for an independent review of the economics of driven grouse moors. Our Head of Nature Policy Gareth Cunningham explains why we are calling for a full independent inquiry that not only looks at the economics of grouse moor management but also the role of regulation in the industry. Les Wallace’s petition raises interesting questions. It requests that benefits such as ecotourism and flood alleviation are fully considered against the economic benefits provided by driven grouse moor management practices. We agree that most previous studies of grouse moor economics have generally only measured economic benefits, whilst the costs or public contribution through Single Farm Payments and agri-environment support are usually disregarded. It would be helpful if these wider issues could now be considered to allow a properly informed debate. Like other forms of land use, grouse moor management, should be held to account for the way in which it operates, and from our perspective we will challenge any unsustainable and environmentally damaging management practices. The petition comes at a time when there is increased scrutiny around the way we manage our land, and, in particular, the way that driven grouse moors are managed. Scottish Government has recently set up its own independent inquiry into grouse moor management to look at how this particular land use can be managed both more sustainably and within the law, including options for regulation. The inquiry should report its findings in spring 2019. The RSPB supports the regulation of “driven” grouse moors to ensure that public interests are safeguarded, including the protection of birds of prey and peatland habitats. The Scottish Government has also commissioned independent research on the impact of large shooting estates on Scotland’s economy and biodiversity. More recently, the Westminster Labour shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman has called for an end for rotational heather burning and an independent review into the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse moors. These calls for action are, in theory at least, underpinned by the direction and mood of Government. For example, the UK Government’s recently published 25 year plan for the environment provides some clear and bold plans to improve England’s environment. This includes using and managing our land sustainably, with a recognition that a new environmental land management system is needed. The Environment secretary, Michael Gove MP, has begun to outline the economics of delivering this ambition, calling for public money to deliver public goods. Clearly indicating that those who receive Government subsidies to manage land are expected to deliver clear and tangible benefits to the wider public. But while most agree we should be using our natural environment sustainably, and ensuring there are benefits for wildlife, there is not always agreement around the need for regulation. In contrast, most other forms of land use involving natural resources management, apart from gamebird hunting, are generally regulated in some form. Wild deer and fish, water management, and forestry are all covered by regulations which define clear public standards required for sustainable management. Despite this, the UK still lags behind nations in Europe and North America in having no system of regulation for hunting, instead relying heavily on voluntary and self-regulatory codes of practice to encourage compliance with legislation. In the face of increasing intensification of driven grouse shooting management, this approach is failing to deliver both sustainable management of natural resources and the UK’s commitments to halt biodiversity loss. Despite repeated warnings by environmental NGOs, and now the Scottish Government, for the need to stop bad practices, we maintain that grouse moor owners have failed to deliver, and therefore self- regulation has failed. In these circumstances it is now time for the Government to intervene. We recommend that the UK Government should now follow Scottish Government’s example and launch a full independent inquiry that considers not only the economic benefits of grouse moor management, but also takes account of the use of public funding to supporting existing management practices and the public costs. It is our view that any inquiry should also look into the role of regulation as part of its remit. In so doing the UK Government can take a meaningful step towards delivering the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan, particularly in relation to delivering biodiversity conservation in our internationally important upland landscapes. On this basis, we support this petition and hope this study comes to fruition as part of a wider debate as to how our uplands can be better managed for conservation and in the public interest.  

Blog Post: Our response to Natural England’s publication of raw data of tagged hen harriers

On the 25 August Natural England published the raw data from tagging 158 tracked individual hen harriers. Publication of this data is something which the RSPB has previously called for. It’s good to see that the data will be finally used as the basis for a scientific and peer-reviewed paper “ The dead tell no tales – but perhaps their tracking data can? Exploring associations between ‘disappearing’ hen harriers (Circus cyaneus) and grouse moor management ”. It would be disingenuous to comment before the final peer-reviewed study is published, however, we are pleased that this information will finally be in the public domain and open to proper scrutiny. We hope that the peer-reviewed process will ensure the final paper is free from any perceived bias and helps to reduce future hen harrier persecution. This year 34 chicks fledged across Lancashire, Cumbria, Northumberland and Derbyshire, many of which were tagged. Ongoing data collection helps to ensure an accurate picture of hen harrier movements and help pinpoint where they disappear.

Blog Post: More good hen harrier news in Bowland

Last month we reported that hen harriers had bred successfully for the first time in the Forest of Bowland since 2015, with two nests, both containing four chicks. Shortly after, the final egg on the second nest hatched very late, making it five.   Now we can reveal there is a third nest on the United Utilities Bowland estate, boasting four male chicks.   The third nest in Bowland. Photo: James Bray   As part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project, we’ve fitted chicks in the nest with satellite tags so we’ll be watching their movements very closely during fledging and beyond.   We would like to send a big thank you to RSPB staff and volunteers, United Utilities and their tenants, and raptor workers who have all worked hard to protect all three nests, resulting in a successful season at the site.  

Blog Post: Hen harriers breed in Bowland

Recently, it’s been one bad news story after another on this blog with many reports of our satellite-tagged hen harriers disappearing in unexplained circumstances.  So, it makes a nice change to give you some good news. I’m delighted to report that, for the first time since 2015, there are hen harrier chicks at Bowland in Lancashire. RSPB wardens discovered two hen harrier nests on the United Utilities Bowland Estate in early spring and have been monitoring them closely ever since. The nests were visited recently by the wardens under licence who were delighted to find four healthy chicks in each of them.   One of the two hen harrier nests  with chicks in Bowland. Photo by M Demain A single male hen harrier is responsible for both of the nests and he is currently taking food regularly to them.  Bowland used to be known as England’s last remaining stronghold for breeding hen harriers. But, until this year, hen harriers hadn’t bred successfully there since 2015 when a single chick fledged.  We now hope that the arrival of these eight chicks may mark a reversal in the fortunes for the hen harrier in Bowland. It’s a nerve-wracking time for all involved in protecting these birds, especially for the team that have been constantly monitoring the birds since they arrived on the estate in April. The male hen harrier is doing a fantastic job of keeping the chicks in both nests well fed and we’re doing all that we can to ensure that they fledge safely.                        

Blog Post: Mannin’s failed sea-crossing

RSPB Scotland’s Investigation Intelligence Officer Jenni Burrell provides an update on Mannin, the Isle of Man sat-tagged hen harrier.   Monitoring satellite-tagged hen harriers can bring many positives – following an individual bird from the day it was fitted with a transmitter until its first flights away from the nest area, its travels through the UK (and beyond in some cases ) or even hopefully until its own first nesting attempt. Unfortunately, however, it can also bring some negatives. Sadly, here, we report on the death of another of our 2017 birds.  Mannin, along with his sister Grayse, was tagged on the Isle of Man on 3 rd July 2017 by trained & licensed members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and Manx Ringing Group in partnership with Manx Birdlife. After fledging in July, Mannin explored his home island until 14 th August, when the tag data showed he had departed the island and headed north towards the Galloway coast in SW Scotland. Sadly he never completed this journey, and the data showed that he had gone down in the sea, approximately 5km off the Scottish coast. Mannin and sister Grayse – image by James Leonard   We have not lost one of our tagged birds at sea before, and while we were almost certain he had died, we were unsure if the tag would continue to function or when we would eventually lose track of Mannin, if the voltage in the tag’s battery declined or if his body sank to the bottom of the sea? A few days later, on 24 th August we had our answer. The satellite tag had continued transmitting, and the data showed that Mannin was now located on the shoreline. After a brief search of the area, near Kirkcudbright, my colleagues soon found Mannin’s remains and the tag. As with all recovered birds we submitted his body for examination, at the SRUC Veterinary Laboratory. Their subsequent post mortem report said that there was no evidence of trauma or health problems and that Mannin had eaten a small mammal recently. We’ll never know what caused Mannin to go down in the sea. Maybe he was caught in heavy rain, and with nowhere to land, became waterlogged and was unable to complete the sea crossing? Whatever the cause, it was a sad end to his short life.   Map of Mannin’s movements  Sadly, Grayse has also died, also just a few weeks after fledging. She was recovered on the island on 9 th August after her tag showed that she had died. Her body was examined by ZSL whose interim diagnosis did not implicate human interference as a cause of death. Neil Morris from Manx Birdlife said “Obviously, everyone involved in the project here in the Isle of Man is desperately sad that Grayse and Mannin have perished. Their early demise highlights the vulnerability of young birds learning to fend for themselves once they have fledged the nest. It also underlines the need for a large healthy population that can withstand such losses. “At the same time, it’s wonderful to see Aalin coming through her first year so well, and to get such an insight to her behaviour. We need to know so much more about these wonderful birds of prey in order to formulate ever better conservation strategies. We shall continue the work to study Hen Harriers on the Isle of Man.” Whilst the deaths of both of these birds through natural causes is disappointing, the finding of their bodies and recovery of them and their tags was straightforward. As you would expect, their transmitters continued to provide us with good location data, even after one of them had spent ten days in the sea. This is, however, in marked contrast to the disappearance of “ Calluna ”, whose perfectly-functioning tag’s transmissions ended very abruptly on 12 th August. Her last recorded position was on a grouse moor, a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park, and her disappearance can rightly be regarded as highly suspicious. Here’s hoping that the ten remaining birds from the Class of 2017 continue to thrive and provide us with many more positive stories. You can follow them here .            

Blog Post: Meet the Hen Harrier Class of 2017

RSPB Scotland’s Investigations Intelligence Officer Jenni Burrell introduces the new class. This year the Hen Harrier Life Project website has been improved to provide a more interactive experience for visitors. You can choose to look at individual birds, track their journey and look at any points of interests that appear. The profiles of twelve of this year’s satellite-tag hen harriers are now online and what a brilliant bunch they are. Take a look on the website to learn more about their stories and meet: Calluna (image by RSPB) Eric (image by Alan Leitch) Heather  (i mage by Brian Etheridge)   Lia  (i mage by Guy Anderson)   Mairie  (i mage by Paul Howarth)   Mannin  (i mage by James Leonard)   Manu  (image by Tim Jones)   Rannoch  (i mage by Brian Etheridge)     Saorsa (i mage by Brian Etheridge)   Skylar  (image by RSPB)     Sirius  (image by RSPB)     Tony  (i mage by Dave Anderson)   Sadly Calluna is no longer with us. Calluna’s sat tag transmissions abruptly ended on 12 th August, with no further data transmitted. Her last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park – Jeff Knott has written this blog about her. You’ll be able to follow the progress of the other birds as we map their movements online. To protect sensitive breeding sites, maps of their movements will only be added as soon as they’ve dispersed away from their nest sites. We have already been able to share the first movements of Heather, Eric, Skylar, Sirius and Saorsa who have already proved to be adventurous and spread their wings. We’ll add the remaining birds as soon as we can.  You may notice that only one of last year’s birds is back on the website. After a very successful breeding season, DeeCee has moved away from the nest site so we are able to share her movements again. Don’t worry, the other four are safe and well, but have yet to move away from breeding areas. We will keep you updated and will begin to map their movements in due course. In the meantime, see what they have been up to in a previous blog . It’s going to be an exciting year following these birds and seeing what they get up to and we can’t wait to share it with you.  

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day 2017 – in pictures

Here are a selection of photos from last weekend’s Hen Harrier Day events at RSPB Arne, RSPB Rainham Marshes, Sheffield, Boat of Garten and Vane Farm Tayside. Hen Harrier Day South – RSPB Arne – (photos by Terry Bagley) Hen Harrier Day Highlands – Boat of Garten (photos by Guy Shorrock)       Hen Harrier Day Sheffield       Hen Harrier Day – RSPB Rainham Marshes       Hen Harrier Day – Vane Farm, Tayside (photos Guy Shorrock)  

Blog Post: Skydancer from Russia with love

The RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer James Bray gives the lowdown on Bowland’s special new visitor. RSPB staff and volunteers on the United Utilities estate in Bowland are out in the hills monitoring and protecting birds of prey every day of the week in all types of weather. We have been spending much of our time looking for returning hen harriers over the past few weeks in some rather un-spring-like weather so yesterday I was elated when I looked up and saw a mature male harrier skydancing low over my head. The bird disappeared out of sight down a gulley very quickly so I headed to a different position for a different view, happy that another male hen harrier was back on the estate. Over the next few hours the harrier was skydancing and hunting the slopes, mostly at very long range in a welcome bit of heat haze. I gradually got better and better views, and as the sun dropped a bit I began to strongly suspect that it was actually a pallid harrier. I called a good friend who was nearby and as we returned to the site the harrier flew low along the opposite hill giving superb views for the first time, allowing us to confirm that it was a mature male pallid harrier . Pallid harriers are rare visitors to the UK, most recently juvenile birds in the autumn. Adult males are exceptionally rare in the UK but one was seen near Hornsea in East Yorkshire early last Sunday morning and this is likely to be the same bird. Thanks must go to Mark Breaks for the photographs of this stunning bird. It’s not a hen harrier (the focus of my work), but I didn’t allow that to temper my excitement at having found a very beautiful and rare bird. We would like other birders to see this bird but must ask that people strictly follow the access arrangements as detailed below.   Access arrangements Please be aware that the pallid harrier is in a valley that is a four km walk from the nearest public parking. The walk is on a private road and vehicle access is only permitted for estate workers and the tenants that live and work here. BIRDERS MUST NOT  drive along this road, and will be asked to leave if they do.     Cars must only be parked in the pay and display car park in Dunsop Village at SD662502. The road to walk on is then accessed by walking west through the village (toward Lancaster and the Trough) over the river and take the first right. Follow this road north for approximately 3.5 kms up the Dunsop Valley until the road splits. Take the right hand split and walk for another 500 metres. The harrier has been hunting the slopes below the cairn on the hill on the other side of the river. Best views have been had from around the first cattle grid that you reach on this road after the split (approximately SD659543).   There are schedule 1 species nesting on the estate so it is vital that people coming to watch the harrier stick to the tracks so as not to cause disturbance at what is a really sensitive time in the breeding season. Please feel free to ask anyone that you see off the road to stick to the road!   We must also respect the goodwill of United Utilities, the land owner, as well as their tenants, who are incredibly supportive of our work so please stick rigorously to these access arrangements. There is a very nice cafe in Dunsop Village (Puddleducks) and there are toilets by the pay and display car park. Thank you, and good birding!