Author: Chris Collett

Blog Post: How to ID a hen harrier

With the launch of the Hen Harrier Hotline and our harriers once again taking to the skies, community engagement officer, Roisin Beck Taylor, takes us through some of the birds that can be commonly mistaken for hen harriers and how to identify them. He…

Blog Post: How to ID a hen harrier

With the launch of the Hen Harrier Hotline and our harriers once again taking to the skies, community engagement officer, Roisin Beck Taylor, takes us through some of the birds that can be commonly mistaken for hen harriers and how to identify them. He…

Blog Post: What is the RSPB doing to protect hen harriers?

Earlier this week, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas took a look at how the UK’s hen harriers had fared in 2018. Now she gives an overview of some of things that the RSPB is doing to help them. Here at the RSPB, we’re doing everything we can to protect hen harriers. Coming into the final year of the Hen Harrier LIFE project in 2019, our project team have already spoken with almost 12,000 members of the public about hen harriers. During these conversations, I’m always asked: ‘What are the RSPB actually DOING about this?’. The aim of our Hen Harrier LIFE project is to catalogue the incidents of persecution and suspicious disappearances of the birds, which our team works hard to do, and until the project started, we had no idea of the scale of hen harrier persecution in the UK. Fitting tags to birds has given us unprecedented insight into the journeys and fates of individual birds. Importantly, this evidence is used to underpin the core work of our organisation. Thor hatched in Bowland in summer 2018 and disappeared on 3 October (photo by Steve Downing) The data gathered from the satellite tagging we’re doing is being analysed by our conservation science experts, to learn about the fates of the birds, and how this relates to land use patterns, investigating the habitat use of the birds and their dispersal patterns. We’re already seeing that some of our birds are travelling long distances, including visits to Ireland, France and Spain. The location data we receive from the tags shows us the population is moving across the UK and beyond, so we need to protect it by working alongside colleagues in other countries too. The Hen Harrier LIFE project also involves working with college students studying gamekeeping and countryside management. We discuss the hen harriers and the broader issues around grouse moors to instigate an open debate about what the options are for future moorland management practices and what our moorlands could and should look like. Although some groups enter into discussion tentatively, it soon becomes clear that things cannot continue as they are. We hope that these students will enter employment at the end of their course more prepared for what the working world has to offer and their important role in ensuring the survival of some of our rarest species through legal and sustainable management of our countryside. Beyond the LIFE project the RSPB is doing a wide range of other work to secure a future for the UK’s hen harriers. We’re managing our reserves in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of hen harriers, using heather cutting techniques to promote highly diverse moorlands that are home to a range of species. Having successfully used these techniques for decades in some places and seeing flourishing habitats, we’re now advocating management practices to neighbouring landowners and statutory bodies with responsibilities around land management practices. As a wildlife conservation charity, we have no powers to arrest criminals or take them to court, but our Investigations team share the intelligence we collect and work closely alongside the Police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) and the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) across the UK, to ensure the scale of persecution is understood. We fear we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg and our evidence is informing policy and actions taken on by these groups. Our dedicated teams fight for hen harrier protection, push for wildlife criminals to be brought before the courts, and advocate for stronger sentencing for those convicted. We also train colleagues in the police forces and in the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to better understand wildlife law, and what kinds of trapping methods are commonly used by criminals. Raising awareness of what to look for in the countryside is a really important task. The community can help to be our eyes and ears and report wildlife crime. RSPB Investigations officer Howard Jones raising awareness of trapping methods with police officers and national park staff (photo by Bob Smith). We also work hard on policy and advocacy work with local and national governments, raising awareness of raptor persecution and calling for action to prevent it. We are calling for the licensing of grouse moors, to ensure they are managed in a sustainable and legal way. Our work has contributed to the instigation of the Scottish government’s review of sustainable and legal grouse moor management and we continually work with Westminster MPs to raise awareness and call for action. We are also in the process of a judicial review of the Natural England licence for a trial of a brood management scheme for hen harriers, which is a decision we have not taken lightly. When red lines are crossed, we will act. There are certainly interesting times ahead for hen harrier conservation. With Chief Inspector Louise Hubble OBE and Superintendent Nick Lyall taking on new leading roles as Chair of the NWCU and RPPDG respectively, growing evidence of the scale of hen harrier persecution and a growing awareness across Europe of the scale of the hen harrier population decline, there are calls for immediate action. Scottish and Welsh governments also seem to be taking positive steps to protect birds of prey. Seemingly, they are starting to realise that the evidence cannot be ignored. 2019 is the fifth anniversary of Hen Harrier Day in the UK, and the tenth anniversary of raptor crime becoming a police priority. Momentum is certainly growing and pressure continues to mount for moorlands to be managed sustainably and criminals to be held to account. We are cautiously optimistic that positive change is coming. In the new year, we’ll be blogging in more detail about the different ways we are tackling the plight of the hen harrier and working to secure its future in the UK.

Blog Post: Reflections on 2018 – part 1

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.

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.