The news today from RSPB is that yet another hen harrier has disappeared. The bird was a female, satellite-tagged as a fledgling in Scotland in 2014, and her last known position was at the end of May this year on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire. RSPB Investigations staff made a search of the area but there was no trace. This missing bird follows on the heels of four harriers satellite-tagged, also in 2014, in the Forest of Bowland by my former colleague Steve Downing, which are now also missing. (Steve was formerly the wildlife crime officer for West Yorkshire Police and is now heavily involved with the Northern England Raptor Forum.) The most recent of these four birds to go missing was on 16 April this year in County Durham. Satellite tags can fail, though this is unusual, and an extraordinary coincidence if that occurred in all five cases. Harriers also die of natural causes or are taken by other predators, but in those cases the signal would continue and the bird can normally be found. Death is therefore most likely to have been as a result of a particularly nasty unnatural cause, with the criminal quickly disposing of the evidence.
In a post on 13 June last year I wrote about the disappearance of five male hen harriers in Cumbria and Lancashire. With so many harrier nests being under close observation by conservationists the easiest way to disrupt the breeding attempt is to shoot or trap the male away from the nest. The males often range a considerable distance from the nest in their hunting forays, often on to adjacent or nearby estates. It can never be proved that all or most of these five males were ‘taken out’ but I am no doubt whatsoever that is what happened. All were partners of nesting females, resulting in the nests failing.
In addition to these incidents there have been others where harriers are known to have been shot, or attempts made to shoot them, and indeed in Scotland one such case awaits trial. Since only a fraction of harriers are fitted with satellite tags there must be many more harriers killed or nests destroyed where the deed is known only to the criminal involved. For those who are unaware, the hen harrier is one of the most beautiful and certainly the most persecuted of all the raptors in the UK.
Hen harriers are so regularly killed off that the police, conservationists and government must consider who has a motive to do such a thing. Of those working in the country farmers, shepherds and foresters have no gripe with harriers. Gamekeepers on low ground should have no problem with harriers, though unfortunately some still hate any bird with a hooked beak. The problem unarguably lies with grouse moors, particularly driven grouse moors where grouse numbers are king and to Hell with the rest of wildlife. Anyone who argues against this is naïve in the extreme. The evidence against grouse shooting is mounting and I would suggest is now beyond reasonable doubt rather than on the balance of probabilities. I am sure this is not lost on the Scottish Government (though they are rather busy just now sorting out a Westminster mess). It will not be lost on the Westminster Government either though they seem less willing to tackle the problem. I have some sympathy for those involved in game management who stay within the law but with or without the 46,000 signatures now on the petition to ban driven grouse shooting (including mine, despite at one time being a keen shooter) it must surely be on the road to self-destruction.