Vulcan – another missing Hen Harrier, presumed dead.
A young male hen harrier has disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Wiltshire and is believed most likely to be dead.
The harrier, named Vulcan, was one of five chicks to fledge from a nest in Northumberland last summer. He was fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project, which enabled the nature conservation charity to track his movements.
Vulcan was tracked by the RSPB moving from Northumberland down to the Peak District where he remained throughout September. He then continued to head further south through Hampshire and Dorset. On 16 January 2019, Vulcan’s tag sent out its final transmission, from a location south of Calstone Wellington in Wiltshire.
RSPB Investigations staff searched the area, which is farmland and heavily managed for pheasant and partridge shooting, but there was no sign of Vulcan or his tag. He has not been heard from since and the matter was reported to Wiltshire Police.
Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds. Tags continue to transmit regularly, even when the bird dies, and until the tag reaches the end of its lifespan. Vulcan’s tag was providing regular updates on the bird’s location, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmission is suspicious and could suggest criminal interference. Vulcan is the 11th satellite-tagged hen harrier to disappear since last summer.
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. An overwhelming body of scientific evidence suggests that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with driven grouse shooting.
Dr Cathleen Thomas, RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said: ‘When a bird you’ve been following since it was a chick suddenly disappears without a trace, it’s a crushing blow. Vulcan’s tag had been performing brilliantly, so for it to suddenly stop transmitting makes us very suspicious that something has happened to him.
Wiltshire is not the only place where hen harriers have disappeared in unexplained circumstances. Since last summer 10 other satellite-tagged hen harriers have also vanished suddenly across the UK including in Northumberland, the Peak District, Wales and Scotland. There is a very worrying trend here.’.
Vulcan’s suspicious disappearance may prove a hurdle for the proposed southern reintroduction of hen harriers. Natural England is currently looking into the feasibility of introducing hen harriers from the continent to Parsonage Down National Nature Reserve, near Salisbury Plain.
Gareth Cunningham, RSPB Head of Nature Policy, said: ‘The disappearance of Vulcan raises serious concerns over the safety of any planned reintroduction. The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England and we believe ending hen harrier persecution is the key to restoring the UK’s population of these magnificent birds. As such, the RSPB does not support the proposed reintroduction.’.
PC Marc Jackson of Wiltshire Police, said: ‘Wiltshire Police have received a report from the RSPB in relation to the missing harrier ‘Vulcan’, and the Rural Crime Team are working with the RSPB to establish the full circumstances surrounding the incident.
To find no trace of this bird raises obvious concerns about what may have happened to it. If anyone has information please contact Wiltshire Police on 101 or Contact Crime stoppers on 0800 555111 if you would prefer to remain anonymous.‘.
Alternatively, anyone with information can call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline confidentially on 0300 999 0101. Follow @RSPB_Skydancer for the latest hen harrier news