In the week when the country is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day another 4 young Hen Harriers, one of which fledged in England, are listed as missing in action…….

Athena, is the Greek Goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice.

The nest from which Athena fledged was located in Northumberland and was monitored throughout the season by, NERF members, RSPB Investigations Team members and a Natural England fieldworker. We are grateful to all of the people involved for the dedication that they exhibited over many months. The nest was in a very remote location and to get to a suitable location from which to monitor the nest meant crossing difficult terrain. This was undertaken day after day for several weeks and as we all know this activity is not without risk. When the fieldworkers are two hours from their vehicle and then a further hour from the next human being a simply trip and twisted ankle can be a serious event.

We have mentioned before, and no doubt will do so again, that Hen Harrier Raptor Workers undergo a roller coaster of emotions during the breeding season; the excitement of finding a nest, the concern experienced whilst watching for hours before a food pass and delight when the first flight occurs. Athena was ringed by a NERF member and another member of NERF fitted the satellite tag. The physical and emotional investment paid off as Athena strengthened flight muscles and learnt to hunt. It is a magical experience to watch a fledgling develop, both visually on the ground and remotely by satellite. Unfortunately all ‘magic’ is transitory and illusional and our hopes and aspirations for this young female have come to nought. Once again the roller coaster came off the rails.

The RSPB have reported that Athena travelled from her natal area to the north-west of Grantown on Spey, Inverness-shire; in a straight line that is around 250 km. Add to that all of the to-ing and fro-ing and this young Harrier had flown many, many hundreds of kilometres and she had demonstrated that she was a fit and capable hunter. On the 16th August her satellite tag suffered an unexpected catastrophic failure and the last known data fix revealed that she was on a grouse moor.

One more Hen Harrier ‘disappearing’ under these all too common circumstances would be bad enough but the latest RSPB press release lists a total of 4 recently ‘disappeared’ birds all of which vanished in identical circumstances. They all ‘disappeared’ in Scotland and none of the birds have been located; which is interesting when you consider that the ground tracking equipment used to locate immobile birds is very sophisticated. It is also worth comparing the data from the birds that ‘disappear’ and are never found with the data from dead birds that are found after their satellite tags experience an observable failure. These birds are located and the post mortem examinations show that the cause of death is natural. This data comparison gives us the opportunity to conduct a very simple but revealing thought experiment. Consider this summary of typical events:-

  • the satellite data indicates that the birds is immobile, bird located, outcome – cause of death natural
  • the satellite data indicates a catastrophic tag failure on or adjacent to a grouse moor, bird not recovered, outcome – unknown listed as a member of the ‘disappeared’

Now consider the disparity between the two scenarios and ask why are the two datasets poles apart, why are the outcomes so different? This continuing repetitive, albeit circumstantial, evidence pushes the thought experiment to a conclusion beyond the coincidental.

We await the response from the Scottish Government to these latest revelations. Recently they have appeared to be taking a more robust course of action than that which we have come to expect from the English Government. Hopefully we will see a similar response from the Scots to these latest tragedies. We all know that the English breeding Hen Harrier population remains perilously small and the loss of a potential breeding female from that population will have a disproportionate detrimental effect. It is difficult to believe that Secretary of State Gove, or any of his Ministers, will contact his Scottish counterpart to question what action they are taking to investigate the tragic loss of Athena. Why would he when he shows little interest in Hen Harriers that vanish in the English uplands?

The list of Hen Harriers that are known to be dead or have ‘disappeared’ continues to grow and of course we only know about the satellite tagged birds. The proportion of birds that have been lost from the untagged cohort is not known but there can be little doubt that it will be significant.

There will be people living in the local rural communities who are horrified by these losses on their doorstep, others living in the same location will know what is happening to these missing Hen Harriers but choose to remain silent. There are individuals who represent the shooting industry who also know what is happening to the missing Hen Harriers, some of them are in denial. Others within the area know full well what is happening; the naysayers who know and don’t give a damn.

Which category are you in? Will you be part of the solution and help the Police to investigate these crimes? Or will you be part of the problem and remain silent?

If you took part in the thought experiment discussed above please also take time to reflect on this philosophical thought:-

Those who hold what is unreal to be real, or what is real to be unreal, will never know the truth. The Buddha.

In her short life Athena may have fulfilled her obligations; demonstrating courage and providing us with inspiration; but will she be abandoned by civilization, failed by the law and receive no justice. Time will tell but you can make a difference. If you have any information about these missing birds please contact:-

  • Police Scotland on 100
  • RSPB raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101
  • Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111


06 November 2018