Four Hen Harriers disappear on Scottish grouse moors

Press release from RSPB:

Margot – a Hen Harrier last heard from on 29 August from a driven grouse moor on the Aberdeenshire/Moray border.

RSPB Scotland is appealing for information following the suspicious disappearance of four satellite tagged hen harriers over the last 10 weeks.

All of the birds were tagged at various nest sites, three this summer and one in 2017, in Scotland and Northern England as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project. The last known locations of all four birds were over land managed for grouse shooting.

Satellite tagging technology is increasingly being used to follow the movements of birds of prey, allowing scientists to identify areas important for their feeding, roosting and nesting. The tags are fitted by licensed, trained fieldworkers and are designed to transmit regularly, even after a bird has died. In all four cases, the tags had been functioning without any issues before they suddenly and unexpectedly stopped transmitting, suggesting criminal interference has taken place.

The first bird to disappear, Athena, was one of a small number of chicks to fledge from a nest in Northumberland. She travelled north into Scotland, with her last known position on a grouse moor a few miles north west of Grantown on Spey in Inverness-shire, on 16th August.

Two of the birds were tagged on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire this summer. Margot disappeared on 29th August, with her last known position on a grouse moor on the Aberdeenshire/Moray border, a few miles south west of the Lecht ski centre. Stelmaria was last recorded on grouse moor a few miles north west of Ballater, Aberdeenshire on 3rd September. Stelmaria’s mother was DeeCee, a hen harrier tagged by the project in Perthshire in 2016.

The fourth missing bird, Heather, was a year older than the others. She was tagged at a nest in Perthshire in 2017, and last recorded on a grouse moor to the north of Glenalmond on 24th September.

Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project said, ‘To have more hen harriers disappear, including three of this year’s youngsters, is devastating for all of us involved in monitoring these hen harrier chicks. These birds have vanished in similar suspicious circumstances to four other birds tagged by the project that disappeared this summer with last recorded locations on or near grouse moors in England and Wales. These eight suspicious disappearances in the past 10 weeks are a further blow for the conservation of a species whose UK population has declined by 24% since 2004.

The main factor limiting the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors. Young hen harrier chicks already face huge survival challenges in their first few years of life without the added threat of illegal persecution.‘.

Each year a number of the chicks tagged by the project are lost through natural predation or starvation. So far in 2018 the remains of 12 young hen harriers have been recovered. Their tags continued to transmit after they died allowing their remains to be located and for post mortems to take place. These established that they all died of natural causes.

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations for RSPB Scotland said, ‘Given the tiny number of hen harrier chicks tagged each year, the regularity with which they disappear, again indicates that we are only ever aware of a tiny proportion of the true number of protected raptors that are being illegally killed.

In common with so many previous disappearances of satellite-tagged birds of prey, each of these missing birds was last known to be on a moor managed for driven grouse shooting before its transmitter suddenly stopped. The picture is becoming ever more clear – in almost all cases when a tagged birds dies naturally we are able to recover its remains; if it disappears over a Scottish grouse moor, it’s never seen or heard of again.‘.

Information about the birds’ disappearances were passed to Police Scotland, and while local enquiries have taken place in each case, no further information on what has happened to the birds has been found.

Anyone who can provide information about any of these missing birds is asked to contact Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.


The last journey of Athena, fledged in Northumberland but ceasing to transmit somewhere near Lochindorb.

The last journey of Heather

Four missing Hen Harriers – all with their last known locations on driven grouse moors. And these are to be added to the four Hen Harriers that went similarly missing, mysteriously, near grouse moors in England and Wales.

But probably the most telling piece of information in this release is the fact that the bodies of 12 Hen Harriers have been recovered, analysed and shown to have died of natural causes.  These bodies were recovered because the satellite tags continued to transmit the locations of the dead birds after their deaths.  We aren’t told (and I can understand why at this stage) how many of these birds were found on driven grouse moors – that would be interesting to know.  But I’m sure that in the fulness of time we will learn.

But we do know that of this year’s young Hen Harriers satellite-tagged by the RSPB, 7 have mysteriously ceased to transmit (assumed to have died) near driven grouse moors and 12 have died of natural causes.

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13 Replies to “Four Hen Harriers disappear on Scottish grouse moors”

  1. I, and all those in the media do know what has happened to them. Mark speaks out against the perpetrators. A Scottish Parliament committee will likely hear my petition on or before January and Parliament there is likely to take yet more actions to try to stop these events happening. I fear that it will not be enough to stop such crimes in future.
    The vast majority of the media everywhere is still in the thrall of the criminal enterprises behind these events.
    The Scottish justice system still protects the criminals. Those in the system who are most likely opposed to the actions which have been taken are able to be kept silent by senior people in the Scottish Crown Office, I believe.
    We have to keep letting the media, those in the justice system and our politicians know that we do know that this is happening, and that we know that they are complicit.

    1. Alex please, please submit a comment / analysis to the Scottish Grouse Moor Management Group chaired by Professor Werritty. The secretary's email address is

  2. It was said when the original natural England Harrier recovery project started in 2002 that if the grouse shooting cabal (or is that coven Amanda!) had any sense at all they would cease harrier killing for the life of the project ( which at that time used radio tags, small satellite tags not yet being made) such that there would be no or little evidence of harrier persecution. Fat chance! The grouse criminals are so ignorant, arrogant and dismissive of the law of the land that they have blatantly carried on their campaign of extermination even in the face of mounting and irrefutable evidence via these satellite tags of what they are doing. Yes the authorities can in certain lights be seen to be complicit for as yet doing little or nothing to combat this blatant criminality, especially in England where of course breeding harriers hang on by a thread. What this tells us about the grouse shooting cabal is that they will not, cannot and have no intention of changing their attitudes and actions against protected predators especially Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles ( or is that just because they are the species most often tagged!).
    No amount of discussion with them or proposed compromises has ever, will ever work, they have proved beyond doubt irredeemable. Their "Sport", "Pastime", "Business", "Pleasure killing"(Thanks Bill!), "Perversion", whatever you want to call it should banned forthwith and whilst we are waiting for the politicians to wake up and smell the coffee on this one they should also be off PAW Scotland and PAW England where they are part of the problem not the solution.
    While we are at it when are we going to ban the release of millions of non native Pheasants and Red legs for canned hunting, the Dutch have done it why can't we?

  3. I think somebody asked this some time ago, but I can't recall the answer: are the tags actually helping the criminals, ie they can be hacked, thereby revealing the bird's location? I desperately hope not, but have to ask, from someone more technologically competent than myself. Or is it simply a case of low-tech and depressingly familiar raptor killing?

    1. No Roberta as far as I am aware they cannot and in fact it is so unlikely that it can be entirely discounted. Many harriers are targeted at roosts using night sight technology that was once only used by the military, others once seen are vigorously hunted and a few are killed in chance encounters. A friend and colleague, a retired wild life crime officer once said and it is just as true today bar a very, very few individuals and estates that given the opportunity ALL keepers kill harriers, most of course do not because of the lack of opportunity not because they are law abiding.
      One thing that strikes me since I wrote the comment above is that why do Hawk and Owl Trust still support the DEFRA plan and more specifically brood meddling? They did originally say that if there was proof of continued persecution they would withdraw their support. Perhaps like the gov't ministers in DEFRA they are wilfully blind.
      Given that of those birds NE tagged up to 2017 about 80% are missing fate unknown due to catastrophic tag failure ( persecution)and young harriers have a relatively high rate of death in their first year naturally and persecution is probably largely additive to this it is little wonder that the English population has been on the point of collapse for nearly a decade. it suggests that 80% of all harriers, tagged or not are killed on grouse moors. How many that is beggars belief.
      Then there are all the vacant Peregrine territories, many kept that way by annual attrition, the same in Scotland for Golden Eagles on grouse moors, in both all the Short-eared Owls and Goshawks that die in woods adjacent to grouse moors every year.
      Its carnage out there just so the pleasure killers can shoot lots of grouse, never mind the habitat abuses that make it all possible in the first place.
      The high and mighty campaign for saving elephants, rhinos and tigers abroad but when it comes to this at home despite appeals they are notably silent, I wonder why?

      1. Paul, thanks for that. Not being in any way technical myself, you do wonder at what is possible these days.
        Also, sadly have to agree about HOT.

    2. Roberta, I asked this myself a while ago. You didn’t see an answer because I didn’t get one. Some techie out there must know if this is possible or not. I do hope it’s not!

    3. Amanda has I believe in the past asked for more information to be made public. The NGA and SGA have said they would like to have access to the raw data, but I don't think that they provided a good reason. The RSPB can I'm sure be relied upon to keep it well under wraps but I don't have the same faith in the senior personnel at NE. The data is I'm fairly sure secure to the point of delivery to the end user bar s country we purity service.

  4. I’m not suggesting for one minute that persecution of some hen harriers does not happen. Many years back I witnessed it first hand and have helped the Police, etc out in their follow up investigations.
    However surely this is only one piece of the young harriers very difficult survival jigsaw? It is reported that around 2 out of 3 harriers will perish of natural causes in their first year of life.
    Add on top of this the added burdens and weight of a satellite tag, harness and a bloody great aerial sticking out the back of each of these young harriers. Surely these magnificent raptors have evolved over millions of years to be both light and aerodynamic for hunting and to avoid other larger and more powerful aerial raptors? These large aerials will surely allow the likes of Golden Eagles and Goshawk to home in and focus their aerial attacks on these young harriers? Once predated the aerial and satellite tag would obviously be ripped of and future satellite transmissions could potentially be lost. I’d like to ask readers a very important question. Are these harness satellite tagging monitoring systems doing the young harriers more harm and actually potentially causing even lower natural survival rates?

    1. Mike - it's a fair question but you don't ask it very well. You have to explain why the birds away from grouse moors die of natural causes whereas birds on grouse moors simply disappear from the record. Those Golden Eagles are taking off the tags of Hen Harriers on grouse moors in northern England are they? Blimey!

      Has the RSPB published the number of birds satellite-tagged this year? Where please?

      But the number of dead birds is quite high, I agree (despite not knowing how many were tagged in the first place).

    2. You seem to consider it virtually axiomatic that the satellite transmitters carried by these birds will cause significant increased mortality and that predation of a tagged bird will result in the loss of the signal from the transmitter. Presumably the licence to tag the birds in the first place was based on evidence that it does NOT place the tagged bird at significant risk and in fact there is plenty of evidence available to show that birds of various different species and sizes can survive perfectly successfully with these tags, including undertaking long distance migration with them. The BTO cuckoo studies would be a good case in point. Comparison with Montagu's Harrier is perhaps more informative however, given the similarity between this species and the Hen Harrier and here again there is strong evidence to suggest (a) that the birds can survive happily with these tags (b) that the tags have a high level of reliability, and (c) that when birds die the transmitter usually continues sending signals from the location where the bird died. See this rspb blog for example for a good explanation of this and also of how the nature of transmission failures can point to foul play.

  5. As someone who has been aware of the illegal persecution of raptors not just for years but decades ,I have been shocked by this latest news that in the last ten weeks 8 Hen Harriers have disappeared in mysterious circumstances.Let's not pretend that we don't know what has really happened to them and it is a national disgrace that so many of our political,business and legal institutions are blatantly ignoring it at best or supporting it with breathtaking arrogance, corruption and criminality.
    What is happening in the Grouse shooting industry is a microcosm of what is happening in our wider society,otherwise this disgusting trophy hunting would have already been banned.
    How many of us really believe that anything other than a complete ban on driven Grouse shooting is going to stop our Harriers from becoming extinct as a breeding species in England,an extinction that will be caused by the excesses of greed and criminality rife in this industry.And on that subject,we want our Peregrines,Mountain Hares,Stoats and many other species back thank you very much.

  6. This is truly appalling. When will those person who have the powers to stop this illegal slaughter of our wildlife ensure the law is upheld.
    The politicians are the first to expound the necessities for up holding the law when it suits them but when their vested interests are concerned they are strangely quiet and do nothing.
    One does wonder if we live in a fair and democratic society or whether actually vested interests pull the strings behind the scenes and those very rich interests such as grouse moor owners really control what goes on.
    This abomination of the slaughter of our wildlife has GOT to be stopped if the average person is to maintain any faith in our democracy, which looks very shaky at present.


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