Long-awaited scientific paper nails grouse moor crimes

It’s been a long time coming but the paper published today in Nature Communications is crushing proof that grouse moor management is overwhelmingly the source of wildlife crime against Hen Harriers.

The open-access paper by Megan Murgatroyd, Stephen Redpath, Stephen Murphy, David Douglas, Richard Saunders and Arjun Amar is entitled:

Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors.

This paper confirms what has become blindingly obvious to all, except to Defra ministers, over the years, that Hen Harriers are killed on grouse moors, and this is summed up in the paper thus;

Using data from 58 satellite tracked hen harriers, we show high rates of unexpected tag failure and low first year survival compared to other harrier populations. The likelihood of harriers dying or disappearing increased as their use of grouse moors increased.


We almost knew this from the dataset eventually published of last fixes of satellite-tagged Hen Harriers last summer. That dataset showed that lots of Hen Harriers’ die in their first year, indeed first few weeks of life and that they are often found dead or simply unexpectedly cease transmitting signals on driven grouse moors.

Why do I say ‘almost’? Let us imagine that a third of people die in bed – if we spent only 1% of our lives in bed then this would indicate that bed seems to be a pretty dangerous place but if we all get a good 8 hours a day asleep then we would expect that about a third of us would die in bed. And by analogy we need to know how much time Hen Harriers spend on grouse moors to assess their likelihood of death/disappearance on grouse moors compared with other land uses. If Hen Harriers spend all their time on grouse moors then a high proportion of them will die/disappear on grouse moors.

So we have to know about the relative time that Hen Harriers spend on and off grouse moors in order to analyse properly their risk of death/disappearance on grouse moors. This is an important finding;

… the mean percentage of [satellite] fixes on grouse moors per week
for harriers that survived was (±SE) 15 ± 2.6 %, which was half of
the mean percentage for those which died or disappeared (30 ±
3.9 %).


In other words, those Hen Harriers that died/disappeared spent 30% of their time on grouse moors whereas those that survived spent 15% of their time on grouse moors. If people who died spent twice as much time in bed as those who survived then you’d think twice about going to bed…

But the authors take this much further, and I admire the cleverness of the analysis. They look also at the use of different habitats by the Hen Harriers who were known to have been illegally killed or which disappeared unexpectedly (SNM – ‘stopped no malfunction’ where the transmitter stopped abruptly and unexpectedly based on diagnostic plots and the bird
was never found). The authors found that …

Harriers were more likely to be located on grouse moors during
the terminal week (i.e. the last 7 days of tracking prior to the date
of death or disappearance) than during other weeks (Fig. 1a).
Moreover, the probability of a bird dying or disappearing
increased with the proportion of fixes on grouse moors …. and this pattern was more pronounced when only data from tracked birds that
were known to have been illegally killed and those with tags that
were classed as SNM were tested (Fig. 1b.


If you are a satellite-tagged Hen Harrier who has died, then you are very likely to have spent more time on grouse moors in your last week of life than on grouse moors in your previous weeks of life. Hen Harriers that spend lots of time on grouse moors face a much greater risk of death/disappearance thn those who do not.

But there is more …

Fixes from the terminal week were distributed disproportionately on grouse moors compared to their overall use (Supplementary Fig. 2). The proportion of fixes in each 20 × 20 km2 grid square, attributed to terminal weeks varied from 0.02 in grid squares with no grouse moors to 0.20 in squares with 50% grouse moor, indicating that harriers were ten times more likely to die (I and N) or disappear (SNM) in areas dominated by grouse moors (Fig. 2).


Ten times more likely… We’ve never seen that figure before and it can only come out of a dataset like this one with satellite fixes. Just remember we are always being told that Hen Harriers need grouse moors, love grouse moors and thrive on grouse moors – except that the science shows that they are ten times more likely to disappear or die on grouse moors.

You could say that the analysis in the paper so far has told us what we already knew, and to an extent it has, but is no less valuable for doing that so clearly and with data. We’ve known that Hen Harriers die on grouse moors with alarming frequency but this paper quanitifies, very importantly, how much more likely Hen Harriers are to die on grouse moors than in other areas – ten times more likely. Massively more likely.

But there is more, and this is really new.

The authors look at eight protected areas, so-called National Parks (NPs, which aren’t what anyone elsewhere in the world would call a National Park) and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). The eight areas are; Lake District NP, Northumberland NP, North York Moors NP, Yorkshire Dales NP, Peak District NP, Forest of Bowland AONB, North Pennines AONB and Nidderdale AONB.

Of these eight areas the Lake District has the lowest coverage of grouse moors in its boundaries (about 12%) and the North York Moors the highest proportion (about 30%).

The authors looked at the fixes from satellite-tagged Hen Harriers in each of these geographic areas and then for each area calculated simply the percentage of all fixes that came from Hen Harriers in their last week of life (or prior to unexpected disppearance). So this is not a measure of use of an area, it is a measure of the ratio of ‘fixes in the week you died’ to ‘flying around alive fixes’ and is therefore a measure of risk of death/disappearance in an area. And we’ve never seen that before.

The authors find that …

As the percentage area of grouse moor within a Protected Area (PA)
increased, there was an increase in the proportion of terminal
fixes per PA … This suggested that harriers were more
likely to be illegally killed in PAs that had more grouse moor
habitat. For those birds that were illegally killed or disappeared,
the North York Moors and the Peak District followed by the
North Pennines, Nidderdale, Yorkshire Dales and Forest of
Bowland had the highest proportion of terminal fixes, indicating
higher than expected harrier mortality in relation to use (Fig. 4).


So, the Lake District and Northumberland NPs are relatively safe places for Hen Harriers to visit. They may or may not be the greatest places to be if you are a Hen Harrier in terms of finding food etc but you are unlikely to be bumped off, or even simply to die, while you are flying around the Lake District NP. And these are the two NPs/AONBs with the smallest proportions of grouse moor within their boundaries. In the middle ground, as it were, in the Yorkshire Dales NP, where the simple maps of locations of dead Hen Harriers might lead one to think that this is the most dangerous place on Earth for this species, Hen Harriers spend quite a lot of time flying around alive too (not enough, but quite a lot). A middling proportion of fixes recorded within this NP come from the terminal week of life of Hen Harriers – and the Yorkshire Dales NP has a middling amount of grouse moor within its boundaries.

But the NP/AONB with the highest risk factor is, perhaps surprisingly, the North York Moors NP which, surprise, surprise, has the highest proportion of grouse moor within its boundary of all eight of the Protected Areas examined in this study.

Per day of flying around NPs and AONBs, Hen Harriers risk a higher chance of death in the North York Moors NP than any other (and it is the most dominated by grouse moor) and face the lowest risk of death per day in the Lake District NP and Northumberland NP (which have the lowest proportions of grouse moors within their boundaries). This finding is new and important.

This study is a devastating critique of the industry of driven grouse shooting. We are here only looking at the fate of free-flying young birds followed by satellite telemetry. We already know that grouse moors rarely host nesting Hen Harriers and that when they do the nests are likely to fail and the adults prone to die. But this analysis nails the lie of ‘a few bad apples’.

A Hen Harrier flying around the north of England risks death if it visits a grouse moor. The more time it spends on grouse moors the greater its chance of death. The more grouse moor there is in the area it frequents the greater the chance of death. The bad apples are distributed widely and in proportion to grouse moor abundance. And there are more than enough bad apples to drive the Hen Harrier population to close to be extirpated from the whole of northern England as a breeding species.

When you meet a grouse moor owner or upland game keeper you meet an individual from a so-called sport which is steeped, drenched, drowning in wildlife crime.

It’s likely that this blog will come back to this subject fairly soon…


21 Replies to “Long-awaited scientific paper nails grouse moor crimes”

  1. Seems astonishing that Defra / Natural England is seriously proposing to rear harrier chicks and then release them onto the very grouse moors on which they’re ten times for likely to get shot / vanish.

    Not astonishing – a farce; crazy; illogical; scientifically illiterate.

    Defra / NE – Michael Gove – needs to ensure grouse moors are safe by sorting out illegal killing by game keepers.

      1. …and, just remind me, what is the research hypothesis to be tested by brood meddling?

        1. One hypothesis I think is:

          “Captive rearing hen harrier broods and then releasing them at the age they’re vulnerable to getting shot onto moorlands where they’re highly likely to get shot reduces the likelihood that they’ll get shot”

          The Null hypothesis is:

          “They vanished on grouse moors according to the satellite tags, but we’re not sure why and didn’t catch the people who some allege shot them”….

          I think we can anticipate which hypothesis the data will support – they’ve spent ten years collecting relevant data and the published results sort of already support the Null hypothesis.

          Another ten years later….

    1. For a start you could get the pro-shooting and pro-gamekeeper morons on BBC Countryfile to present the findings to the public. I expect a star in the East when they do that!!!

  2. I see the release of this paper devastating for the grouse botherers as it is engenders the usual platitudinous crap from Amanda Anderson. Sorry Amanda this really does show none of your pals are ” letting the harrier in” Time you were all transported to Australia or the stocks or whatever it is we do to the criminal classes these days. ( if you know your history transportation used to be the normal punishment for poaching)

      1. Ah Prasad my friend, for years it was the standard punishment for poaching, in other words killing something you had no right to do. So to me it seems appropriate and I’m no fan of some of Australia’s unpleasant some might say racist policies so a few criminals from here won’t make any difference. ( Read The Long Affray by Harry Hopkins to know more about the UKs “poaching wars”) I was also being a little ironic, after all in many cases its the same bloody landowners!

  3. I expect most people thought I was being a bit extreme over the years when I’ve insisted that the circumstantial evidence suggested that illegal Hen Harrier persecution was taking places on the vast majority of grouse moors. The big question is not how widespread this wildlife crime is, but do any shooting estates at all stick to the law?

    1. “do any shooting estates at all stick to the law” – reminds me, did justice ever get served when two Hen Harriers was shot at Dersingham, on a day when Prince Harry and his chums were out shooting at Dersingham?

      I am so glad I turned down the opportunity that came my way to be the Site Manager at Dersingham: I cannot abide the impression there is one rule for some people and another rule for the rest of us. It goes against all natural justice.

    2. Would be good to have a map of all driven grouse moors at which there have been no instances of illegal killing or harrier disappearances….

    3. If they don’t they certainly profit from it.
      Can you imagine what would happen to a gamekeeper that tried to obey the law if he (not being sexist) was surrounded by criminals which i assume is the case. He would come under immense pressure from surrounding gamekeepers and his and their bosses. They would see themselves, arguably so, as doing his dirty work.
      I have heard on comments here and on RPUK that that is the actual case.
      This study shows that the bad apples are distributed over driven grouse moors in proportion to the intensity of the grouse management. That isn’t bad apples that is a management practice with crime as it’s driving force. If that isn’t the UK Mafia then what is? It should be headline news but no apparently no, it is the very foundation of Redpath and co.s thinking. Illegality is the starting point of the madcap’s schemes and, nod to Syd, no one is laughing.

      1. There are a few, very few decent keepers and I feel extremely sorry for them – they should have, should be spending their time doing full, genuine conservation work. One gamekeeper was so concerned about what he’d seen regarding capercaillie dying in snares he co-authored a report for the Scottish Ornithologist Club newsletter about it. Significantly though he was retired at this stage. If you do any degree of whistle blowing while in post you are taking a big risk with your job, and from what we see in social media a lot of the tweed and carbofuran lot are hardly charmers at the best of times, when they get pissed off at ‘one of their own’ it can’t be fun.

  4. Great news. I am sure that NE staff will feel buoyant that science one again shows what is actually happening.

    The lies of the Tóraíthe government once again exposed for what they are.

    I would write to my MP to ensure that the criminals are bought to justice, however Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle Drax has not yet bothered to respond to my suggestion that it would be good idea if the Education Minister was able to meet with representatives of England’s Headteachers.

    I don’t think they feel they are accountable to us. Which is why they remind me so much of the Ancien Regime

  5. The issue now then, is what will Gove, Coffey et. al. do about the criminality linked to grouse shooting?

    We’ve heard the procrastination ad nauseum, ‘they’ still believe that brood meddling is a solution …. fast forward a few years, and imagine that it fails, who will be held actually accountable and lose their pension, post or whatever?

    Conflict resolution, seemingly profitable in some respects appears to have failed to deliver unless the continued promotion of brood meddling as a solution is deemed viable? Sadly though, there isn’t a consensus so back to the drawing board?

    When will Nero stop fiddling and actually do something to stop the continued criminality ….

    1. Conflict resolution was tried through the auspices of the Environment Council ( sadly no longer with us) They tried very hard but essentially the criminals and their support organisations would not move one iota from their fixed positions. So in their “wisdom” DEFRA set up a further ” cross party dialogue” without raptor workers and with only RSPB as the conservation side against a host of them and this produced the current plan that RSPB quite rightly disavows. There is unlikely ever to be consensus the sides are too far apart, one steeped in criminality and all making sure they don’t break ranks and the law promoting conservationists. Any other walk of life and problem we would resort to very heavy and thorough law enforcement. If it was a ” hobby” of the ordinary folk it would have be banned as antisocial at the first sniff of institutional criminality. Whilst the results of the paper are highly illuminating and devastating for the criminals who bother grouse do you really expect this shower of incompetent, uncarers at DEFRA or NE to actually do anything as a result because currently I sadly don’t, we need a change of biodiversity minister , one preferably without blood sports blinkers on and preferably a change of government, even then—–.
      This quite clearly is a war!

  6. Thank you for teaching me the new word extirpated. Which I never knew existed. Still too many people are oblivious to the hen Harrier and grouse situation due not enough media coverage on the issue.

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