Sky and Hope

Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB
Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB

The information that two young Hen Harriers (named Sky and Hope) have gone missing has been a talking point between Guildford and Sheffield – and beyond!  I know that because I was giving a talk near Guildford on Wednesday evening and another in Sheffield on Thursday evening.  At each, people were very concerned and surprised about these sudden disappearances and they should have been concerned but not surprised – we know that the scale of loss of Hen Harriers is immense. However, the story of where (roughly) and when (roughly) these birds went missing has struck home to birders and nature conservationists in a way that the cold scientific facts have not.

The rate of loss of Hen Harriers must be immense otherwise we would have lots of Hen Harriers nesting in England! Simples!

Remember, there should be c2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers nesting in the UK each year and there are more like 6-800 in reality.

Remember, there should be c500 pairs of Hen Harriers nesting on driven grouse moors each year and there are more like five each year.

And remember, there should be c330 pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in the English uplands and this year there were four pairs.

And we know, because Hen Harriers move around a lot in the winter, and settle to breed often far from where they were born, that heavy illegal persecution on the breeding grounds, added to killing of birds at roosts, is enough to cause these ‘discrepancies’.

The uplands of England are an enormous crime scene and the only people killing Hen Harriers are those associated with grouse shooting. No-one else gives a fig about Hen Harriers!  How many more birds will be tracked to ‘catastrophic tag failure’ before our politicians wake up to the fact that they must act?

The satellite tags put onto these birds are, in many ways, a great leap forward – but in some ways they aren’t. Here are three thoughts around that area.

1. BASC were quick to put out a press release, moistened with tears of sadness, over the loss of these birds. BASC would rather we all held our tongues and didn’t talk about these birds’ disappearance until more evidence comes to light.  However, it is a bit unlikely, though not impossible, that any more evidence will come to light.  We know where and when the tags stopped transmitting but we don’t know why. However, it is very (very, very) unlikely that they stopped working through some technical malfunction. And it is very (very) unlikely that both birds were grabbed by a Fox and taken underground – few Foxes are clever enough to want to send researchers the wrong way like this.  No, the most likely explanation, the working hypothesis, is that the birds were killed and the tags destroyed.  That might not be what happened, but it is the most likely explanation.

And BASC, whilst telling us all not to speculate, released information into the public domain about the location of one of the disappearances that I don’t really see that they should have had.  Surely the information on what is known about the locations where the birds disappeared should be a matter between the police and those tracking the birds?  Where did BASC get this information and why did they release it? Duncan Thomas who works for BASC in the north of England is, as BASC point out, a former wildlife crime officer.

The rest of the BASC press release is simply the usual nonsense saying how much the whole world loves Hen Harriers and how there is a non-joint non-plan available for their conservation.  No-one could regard the BASC press release as helpful.

2. It would be easy to calculate how likely such rapid disappearances of juvenile Hen Harriers might be if Natural England only published the data from their 12-year study of Hen Harriers.  What, I wonder, are the lifetimes of other satellite-tags put on Hen Harriers? How do the signals behave before signal failure? Given that our taxpayers’ money has been funding more than a decade of research on this subject why is Natural England not making a statement – based on their studies – of their thoughts on this subject? Why the silence? Why the non-emergence of the data?

We should expect our nature conservation agencies to be talking about these matters, openly to the taxpayers for whom they ultimately work (and by whom they are paid) not remaining silent. NE are researching this very subject – do they have nothing at all to say? How craven!

3. The information from these satellite tags is more detailed than ever on the timing and location of the birds’ disappearance – but we don’t know who held the smoking gun. In fact, we don’t know with complete certainty that there was a smoking gun in any particular case, but we do know that over all.

I’d have to ask my former colleagues in the RSPB how with even such detailed information on losses, and even if we have 100 such cases, they could possibly lead to licenses for grouse shooting being removed if such licenses existed?

No, licensing of grouse shoots is bound to fail.  These losses of two tagged Hen Harriers, so quickly after they fledged, bring home the scale of the problem but they don’t point to a better way of solving the problem of criminality in upland Britain than banning driven grouse shooting. The people carrying out these crimes are increasingly being called ‘the untouchables’ – because although the shooting community admits that they are responsible for illegal killing of protected birds, and despite the fact that we know the biological impacts of this illegality, and despite the fact that we are learning more and more about where and when it occurs – the perpetrators don’t feel the least bit disposed to changing their ways.


And therefore, the only way to stop this shocking wildlife crime is to ban driven grouse shooting – so please sign here to ask government to do just that.


32 Replies to “Sky and Hope”

  1. BASC urges us to exercise ‘pragmatic common sense’. Pragmatic common sense does rather indicate that these birds were shot, and, of course, they would be easier to shoot at a known venue – a traditional winter roost. That the roost is not on shooting land is irrelevant, as the persecution of Hen harriers on United Utilities land has shown.

    1. Common sense? There remains very little on this subject from many quarters. Have the wildlife crime police done a thorough skilled search of the roost site? As Jonathan below says, Will Natural England (I assume it is NE as an independent publicly accountable body and not a conservation NGO) publish the data prior to failure from the solar powered tracker – as it records ambient and body temperature etc.

      This rabid speculation is spiking any hope for joint partnerships or future health of harriers.

      1. Rob – no, what spikes any hope for partnership is that people keep killing our Hen Harriers. And those that speak for the shooting community demonstrate no ability to call off the killers.

        1. Easy answer Mark. Face the tough one and do a FIA request why NE haven’t got or won’t publish data. That’s because RSPB probably hold it!

          1. Rob,

            From NE in response to a similar query from Mark on the subject back in February:

            “We intend to publish an analysis of remote tracking data once the wider PhD research of which it forms a part has been completed. We had hoped this would be during 2014 but it may not now be available until 2015.

            We expect the study to provide much new information about the movements and ranging behaviour of Hen Harriers in England, BUT IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE TO THINK THAT THE DATA WILL SHED MUCH LIGHT ON THE MAIN CAUSES OF HEN HARRIER MORTALITY (my emphasis). For radio-tagged birds, locating a bird that has died is dependent on there being someone in the vicinity at the time. Given the vast areas involved and the limited range of the tags this is usually not possible. The satellite tags which we now use usually provide good quality data over regular intervals for a day or two, but then have a downtime of a day or more when the battery is recharging and no information is received. For this reason the final transmission received from each tag does not necessarily reveal the site at which the bird has died and bodies are rarely recovered.”

            It would be interesting to know the claimed mean-time-between-failure (MTBF) rate of the radio-tracking devices. My experience in another life using similar radio-tracking technology and devices is that claims made by manufacturers for failure rates of their products should be viewed with much skepticism and reduced by a significant factor. We have yet to invent the perfect, 24/7 available, 100% serviceable tracking device, much beloved of science and crime fiction.

            Remember Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370? Great things these radio-tracking and other similar electronic devices for pinpointing, accurately, last locations.

          2. Keith, I believe that there was evidence that someone on flight MH370 turned off the automatic tracking equipment; we can probably be confident that the Hen Harriers didn’t tamper with their tags. After this the flight changed course over a vast area of ocean where it was not being tracked by ground radar so it is not surprising that it proved impossible to find. Your comparison may not have been an attempt to muddy the waters but it was nevertheless not very illuminating in relation to the disappearance of the Hen Harriers.

          3. Jonathan,

            There are several on-board, systems in modern aircraft (not all of which can be turned off like IFF & ACARS) that can be used to back plot historical location information, INMARSAT for example amongst others. Moreover, there are also several regional ground-based tracking systems in the area – not least the Malaysian, Chinese & Australian Integrated Air Defence Systems. Modern aircraft are also fitted with a sonar locator beacon in the event of a crash in water to help pinpoint the crash site/wreckage for Search and Rescue experts.

            My point is that despite all these technologically advanced systems, a Boeing 777 aircraft can go missing, can be lost, notwithstanding some of the most sophisticated space-based, aerial and sub-surface reconnaissance systems in the world being employed to find it. And don’t ask how many Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) – the ‘drones’ so beloved of the media – go ‘missing’ or ‘lose link’ with their control authorities. Clearly no-one can tamper with their on-board systems! In my experience, manufacturers’ claims for the reliability of such systems are often over-optimistic and do not always consider or reflect end-to-end system serviceability.

            Now I don’t know what the manufacturers’ figures are, in terms of reliability, for the systems in use in this and other cases. How often does the aerial fail, how often does the harness fail, how often does the battery fail – in isolation or in combination?

            What happens if the bird fitted with such a system is predated (by a Goshawk, Peregrine, Eagle Owl, Fox, Badger or whatever)? Will the transmitter continue transmitting if it is buried in a cache for later retrieval? If the aerial is damaged or dislocated from the harness installation will data still be transmitted? If the aerial is shielded under the body of a dead bird, or in a thickly wooded area, or on a plucking ledge on a cliff, or in an underground den/sett will its signals still be able to be received? If the aerial is no longer pointing upwards, but lying sideways or inverted in a ditch, perhaps underwater, will its signals still be able to be received? I don’t know – do you?

            We all know what happens to mobile phone signals when we are in a culvert, tunnel, high-sided underpass or underground, or in areas of poor or no reception, or when the receiver/transmitter is shielded, or when our phone or radio aerial are damaged, or underwater……and so on.

            How far can a harrier fly for the 24 hour or longer period when the battery is recharging? (referred to in the NE response to Mark’s earlier question). Now draw a circle using that distance as a radius from the last known position. This will delineate the possible area in which the bird could be.

            Mark was told that the data is likely to be released as part of PhD research sometime in 2015. Let’s wait and see and not ‘muddy the waters’ by endless uninformed speculation and casting of aspersions against whole industries, professions, groups or individuals.

            English law is based upon the presumption of innocence, so as Rob Yorke quite correctly implores, let’s not fuel the rabid speculation, and rather let the investigation and due process run their course.

  2. I am afraid that ‘craven’ is the mot juste with respect to Natural England’s failure to publish the data they hold on satellite-tagged Hen Harriers. Either the data show nothing conclusive about where and when tagged birds disappear – in which case why should anyone object to their publication? – or they show a pattern that points to persecution, in which case we should know, and as the body appointed as guardians of our natural heritage, they should be vigorously pursuing the perpetrators, not bending over backwards to avoid offending the shooting lobby.

  3. Everyone concentrates on the harriers, and I agree that this is criminal and must be stopped. However I was shocked to discover the other creatures being destroyed for the benefit of the morons wanting to shoot grouse!
    The mountain hares for example – over a thousand in the Lammermuir hills!
    I gather deer are on the list, as well as the more obvious crows, magpies, stoats, foxes, etc etc.
    The perpetrators say this increases wildlife diversity – Does It?
    It seems to me they are destroying the wildlife we all want to see.

    1. Mark W – it seems like that to me too. And the other aspects have certainly been mentioned here (and will be again).

      A difference is that killing protected birds of prey is illegal (as you know (I know!)) and therefore it is indefensible.

      But you are right.

    2. Those hares. I have no words.
      Too few people know about this slaughter. Mark, with all respect, is preaching to the converted/unconvertable.

      Why do programmes like Autumnwatch/Countryfile not highlight these crimes? Why does every school child know about endangered wildlife thousands of miles from home (usually in struggling countries) and not know what is happening on their own doorstep?

      Who shoots driven grouse?

      1. I agree with everything you say, Hilary. It’s bewildering and outrageous and deeply upsetting. It can only be because those with money, power and influence don’t want to stop this illegal slaughter – it is they who shoot driven grouse – it is they who believe they are above the law. And the people who should stand up to them don’t because of this money, power and influence. Someone here made the point that it’s the public schools where education campaigns need to happen – exactly.

        Mark – thank you for your erudite passion. Like Hilary, I have no words to express my outrage at these latest crimes – but you speak so well for us.

  4. On Friday one of the still alive female adult Hen Harriers was observed quartering a grouse moor in Bowland 6 miles west far from where this years chicks fledged. The area was festooned with new partridge release pens full of partridge. Feeding hoppers could be seen everywhere. On Sunday I visited the area with my wife, but unfortunately we did not see the harrier. What we did encounter was a young under keeper who we had been watching filling the feed hoppers across the moor.

    The young man eventually came across the moor to where we were sitting asking what we were doing. After informing him we were here to see if we could observe the hen harrier that had been here a day or so ago, he asked my wife and I to leave the area. After I reminded the young man we were on access land. He then said don’t go near any of the release pens, which we agreed we would not do. Before he left I asked him had he seen the hen harrier, no he relied but he had seen all the news stories about the missing two birds. I then asked him, what he knew about the failure of the peregrine site located 300 metres from where we were sitting. The lad relied by saying he knew nothing of any nesting peregrines and had not seen any on the estate. The significant point is that the pair had incubated their clutch of eggs for over 40 days and were know the pair abandoned the nest in August. Both adult birds were observed on Saturday at the nest site feeding on a recent prey item.

    The lad then left on his quad machine disappearing from our view below the nesting site lower down the moor. Within several second three loud sequential shot gun discharges were heard in the area of the nesting site. Perhaps this was just to let my wife and I know the lad was in-charge here. Not much chance my wife whispered of any hen harriers of peregrines surviving here, let’s go.

    1. I’m sure the shots were for your benefit – “I’ll do what I like & I have the power, you can go ——-“.
      That is the attitude. You watch Downton Abbey and see what their mentality is…….

  5. The reason for all of this secrecy is almost certainly vested interests. The shooting community has friends in very high places. You are right, licensing grouse moors will be pointless. Current levels of prosecution indicate that there will be very few occasions on which licenses will be removed. Banning driven shoots is the only option. There seems to be this perception that grouse shooting is a country pursuit and, therefore, good for the environment. The wholesale slaughter of Hares in Scotland on grouse moors proves that the only interest of those controlling the shoots is to increase their own income at the expense of any wildlife which gets in the way.

  6. “That might not be what happened, but it is the most likely explanation.”

    Data to back that assertion up?

    I asked on here the other day whether if, rather than underground, the satellite tags were under tree cover (or even just on the ground in a dip) they would still function and continue to be received

    Certainly my experience of radio transmission is that its far from being as simple as ‘no reception means its no longer functioning’

    So, can anyone who actually knows anything about these transmitters tell us what conditions would be needed to maintain contact, or what would prevent it?

    1. kie – there are no sight observations of these birds either remember. And you aren’t denying that hen harriers are killed at such an intensity that they are close to extinction as an English breeding bird are you?

      Given your track record of comments here, I recognise that you may wish to cloud the issue and give every possible benefit of the doubt to the shooting community.

      1. Well, you’d be bound to dismiss any challenge to the consensus as someone trying to muddy the waters after all Mark… We all carry our own biases I suppose. As a Scientist I have spent a lot of time trying to control my own and let the data lead me, rather than looking for confirmation of my theory. Its pretty fundamental to the scientific method.

        Its a serious question – does the lack of trace tell us anything let alone prove it? If it was the case that a loss of transmission was hugely unlikely even if the bird had met a natural death then I would be more likely to accept your presumption of deliberate killing.

        However, if the loss of transmission indicated nothing other than the bird was lying on the ground (ie. in the open or under tree cover, I would accept that the ‘dragged underground’ conclusion is fanciful) then it would be much harder to draw the same conclusion

        I’m uncertain exactly what tracking device/chip was used, (you’re in a better position than me to be able to find that out Mark!) however there seem to be many different types that uplink the GPS data in different ways (some by GSM/Phone network for example – Some even switch to conventional VHF when movement is not sensed for some time, the introduction of a function like this would indicate that location of a dead bird even with a working transmitter is a known problem, and point towards it not being as simple a conclusion as ‘lost trace=dead bird’)

        I don’t think that its unreasonable to question this, as otherwise we jump to the wrong conclusions – to quote Twain: ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).’

        Perhaps you should ‘pause and reflect’ on exactly what the loss of track means Mark, so far there seems to a lot of conclusion and a bit less critical analysis.

        1. kie – I am a scientist too (although not a ‘Scientist’) – although since you are operating under an alias it is difficult to know whether ‘too’ is true. Your previous posts on here don’t exactly show you in, dare I say, a very rational light.

          What I wrote makes it clear that the birds might be alive – it’s just rather unlikely (but still possible). We’ll see. And I’ll be pleased, of course, if they are. And if you don’t know the details of the tags I am certainly not putting such ‘useful’ information into the public domain.

          1. since you are operating under an alias it is difficult to know whether ‘too’ is true. Your previous posts on here don’t exactly show you in, dare I say, a very rational light.

            Good reliance on ad hominem, 6/10 I’d say – lets look at it this way Mark, if I was a Broadmoor escapee and completely irrational, would it make any difference to or negate the substance of my argument on the conclusions that can be drawn from a lack of transmission, or would the argument stand on its own merits?

            What I wrote makes it clear that the birds might be alive – it’s just rather unlikely (but still possible). We’ll see. And I’ll be pleased, of course, if they are. And if you don’t know the details of the tags I am certainly not putting such ‘useful’ information into the public domain.

            And a fantastic switch from ad-hom over to straw man – I’m not alleging that the birds are still alive, I simply don’t know but would tend towards the lack of tracking indicating they are probably dead, but if they ARE dead, does the fact that we’ve lost satellite tracking indicate to us that foul play was involved (eg. the tracking devices were deliberately destroyed by whoever killed them as in your working hypothesis) or does it just indicate that the bodies are lying on the ground somewhere (whether that be at the bottom of a wind turbine or the middle of an open fell)?

  7. Kie, you could ask the GWCT as they are using satellite tracking on Woodcock with rather more success than NE/RSPB are having with Hen Harrier.

    Satellite trackers are a completely different animal than radio transmitters and will work under reasonable tree cover (as modern GPS units and mobile phones do).

    1. Quite!
      We can track a cuckoo to Africa, back, & to Africa again – we can track woodcock to Russia & back, even knowing which fields they use to feed in – we can track Elephant seals to see where they feed and how deep in the sea they dive to feed – we track albatrosses round the world for months on end……..
      But there appears to be some doubt (expressed above)that we can cope with tracking a couple of hen harriers for a few short weeks!
      I am sure the people on the computer could give you a grid reference of where the harriers disappeared & could go & check for a foxes lair, or whatever! Let’s be honest, they have tracked geese to the hunter’s freezer in the past!

  8. We live in the age of lie and keep on lying with the expectation that if you are powerful enough you’ll get away with it – and if you get caught, you can of course hire far pricier lawyers than the crown – and in England, in any case, its the guy at the bottom of the pile who gets it. Perhaps it would be worth the people responsible (and from my knowledge of the rural scene there’s no doubt in my mind that quite a few people will know who is responsible) reflecting on the phone hacking story – and ponder whether the people outraged by the illegal killing of raptors aren’t just as persistent and determined as the Guardian.

  9. Hi Parakeet,

    We can’t really compare the Derbyshire birds though, due to the fact the satellite tags didn’t suddenly stop transmitting, rather they stopped moving highlighting that there was a problem and the dead birds were recovered. Being unable to locate the dead birds, as in Bowland, points towards human interference rather than technical failure or natural loss.

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