Another day and another young Hen Harrier is listed as ‘missing in action’. This time it is Arthur, brother of Octavia; she was declared ‘missing’ in August. These two Hen Harriers were part of a brood of four chicks ringed and satellite tagged on 16 July by NERF members in the Dark Peak as part of the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE Project. These four chicks carried the hopes and aspirations of the National Trust, the Peak District National Park, local Raptor Workers and all wildlife lovers living in the North of England in general and the Dark Peak in particular.
Raptor persecution has been endemic in the Dark Peak for many years and has been documented by the RSPB in their publication ‘Peak Malpractice’ and the subsequent update. After several high profile incidents, occurring over many years, in 2018 matters appeared to be improving. When the Hen Harrier nest was discovered by NERF members, the hope was that the tide had turned, not just in the Dark Peak but across the Northern uplands as a whole. The organisations and individuals involved with these birds must be bitterly disappointed at this latest news. However NERF recognises their commitment and hopes for a better outcome in 2019.
Fortunately we have a great deal of evidence that reveals just how vulnerable Hen Harriers juveniles are when they leave their natal area. Thanks to the satellite data we know that Arthur spent his early days close to his nest before visiting the Brecon Beacons. He returned north, first to the eastern farmland in east Nidderdale before moving on towards the north-east. The satellite stopped transmitting, inexplicably, at Lowna Bridge in the North York Moors on 26 October. The area was searched thoroughly by RSPB Investigations staff, using very sophisticated equipment, yet once again the body was not located. The last known fix [LKF] is close to grouse moors and ironically about 300 metres north-west of Grouse Hall. Whether or not this is significant may be answered by the Police enquiries, although NERF will not be holding its collective breath that the Police will be in a position to make any meaningful progress with this case.
Five Hen Harriers from the 2018 cohort that were located, monitored, ringed and satellite tagged by NERF members have joined the ‘disappeared’. Hilma, Thor, Athena Octavia and Arthur – all missing – along with three others Heulwen, Stelmaria and Margot, which were not monitored by NERF. The phrase, ‘tip of the iceberg’ is often used when conservationists discuss raptor persecution and it is very likely to be an accurate description of the true extent of the problem. It is inconceivable that the only birds to have ‘disappeared’ from this year’s Hen Harrier broods are the ones that we have recorded from the satellite data. The question is ‘how many more are missing, presumed dead’? Of course the ‘tip of the iceberg’ analogy is based on a mixture of facts and anecdotes together with the analysis of raptor ‘black holes’ in habitats that are eminently suitable for particular species. Goshawks and Red Kites, which are absent from large swathes of the NERF Study Area, immediately spring to mind. Whilst this type of speculation / calculation may not be based on pure mathematics the totality of the information available from all sources pushes the speculation to the very brink of reality.
There is a well-known principle in law to deal with these types of cumulative events – ‘evidence of similar facts’, also known as ‘similar fact evidence’, establishes the conditions under which factual evidence of past misconduct of an accused can be admitted at trial for the purpose of inferring that the accused committed the misconduct at issue. Using this principle it is not unreasonable to compare two real time scenarios:
- satellite tag data indicates that the bird is dead
- the body is recovered and the post mortem shows that the bird died of natural causes
- unexplained catastrophic failure of a satellite tag
- the failure occurs on or close to a grouse moor
- an extensive search, using the same very sophisticated tracking equipment by trained staff, fails to locate the bird
It is clear that the two scenarios provide significantly different outcomes. The consistent failure to find birds that suffer from a catastrophic satellite tag failure is a good indicator that something unnatural is occurring in these cases. This consistency is ‘evidence of similar fact’ and should be treated as such by Defra and Natural England ministers and mandarins. Regrettably we all know that in this case, as with all of the others over the years, the North York Moors will echo to the sound of silence from Michael Gove and Therese Coffey.
What will it take Secretary of State Gove before you do or say anything other than trotting out the usual pre-prepared statement that you have a Hen Harrier Action Plan? If you have a plan Mr Gove you can be reassured by Raptor Workers and others that your plan is not working. You need to formulate an effective Plan before more Hen Harriers join the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ and the species reverts to being at serious risk as a breeding species in England once more.
It is not possible to predict when NERF will be obliged to write another obituary for a Hen Harrier but it is likely to be in the not too distant future. Raptor Workers and conservationists have to remain positive despite the adversity they face almost daily. It is worth taking inspiration from the following advice.
‘It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop’.
We may be going slowly but we will not stop highlighting the issues affecting Hen Harriers and all other raptors.
In his short life Arthur, a name which is derived from the Roman clan name Artorius meaning noble and courageous, may have fulfilled his obligations by demonstrating courage; but will his ‘disappearance’ provoke Government to take affirmative action? Time will tell but you can make a difference. If you have any information about the disappearance of Arthur please contact:-North Yorkshire Police on 101
- RSPB raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101
- Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111
13 November 2018