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.