River – another young Hen Harrier joins the swelling ranks of the disappeared

Once again NERF is mourning the disappearance of another young Hen Harrier. This time a bird hatched on United Utilities land in the Forest of Bowland managed as a reserve by RSPB. River lasted just half a year before its life was ended on a grouse moor in the North of England. It is difficult to know what’s worse, the loss of yet another young Hen Harrier or the fact that we were not surprised that the RSPB have announced the fact that River’s satellite tag had inexplicably stopped working on a grouse moor in an area with a long history of raptor persecution. It was never a matter of if another report would be released it was a matter of when. It was never a matter of whether the bird had gone missing on a grouse moor or not, it was a matter of which grouse moor.

Once again NERF members had invested heavily in River. Together with RSPB staff and volunteers and United Utilities staff NERF members had committed endless hours protecting the adults, the nest and the young throughout the breeding season. Anyone who has not lived through the process may find it difficult to understand just how stressful it is sitting a kilometer away watching and waiting, worrying if everything is OK. The first visit to River’s nest, by a highly trained, licensed raptor worker, confirmed to the relief of all involved, that there was a full clutch and everything looked fine. Just another month to sit and watch; watch and protect. Finally the wait over; another milestone had been reached when the female was recorded by the watchers as she went out hunting and took food back to the nest.

The eggs had hatched. Would the weather hold?  Would the adults be able to catch enough food for the growing chicks? There would be no reduction in the stress levels. The watchers watched and kept meticulous notes of everything that they observed. Time for another nest visit. Have all of the eggs hatched? Do the chicks look to be in good condition? It takes a very short time for the raptor worker to assess that everything is looking good and on track. Once again the watchers breathed a collective sigh of relief but they knew that there was a long way to go; in fact there were two more months to go before anyone could relax.

The information gathered on the second nest visit was passed to the ringers who would decide when the next visit would be made. In the meantime the watchers watched.

Eventually the day arrived and the birds were ringed and their biometric data was  meticulously recorded. It was at that stage that the chicks that would be satellite tagged were selected. River was chosen and from the day that the tag was fitted we were able to monitor the bird’s movements remotely. Watching from 500 miles away by satellite is no less stressful. Waiting for the satellite to come on line, waiting for the data to download is horrendous. Finally it was all there and River was alive – for that day at least. Day after day it was all positive news until the data told a different, sadder story. The satellite tag, which had been working perfectly up to that point had, without warning stopped. Not just stopped moving – stopped working altogether. The day that we had all been dreading had arrived.

The Police and RSPB staff made a thorough search of the area where the last transmission came from and found nothing; no trace that River had ever existed. This has happened oh so many times before. Of course birds die but experience gained over many years tells us two things when a satellite tagged bird goes missing

  • when the cause of death is natural the tag continues to transmit and the body is located
  • when the tag stops and a thorough and extensive search fails to find the bird then we are inextricably drawn to the conclusion that the bird was killed and the tag destroyed

Even as I type this I can hear the shooting industry shouting from the mountain tops ‘you can’t prove it’. Predictable and frankly pathetic.

Time after time we have heard the leaders of the shooting industry seeking to persuade the general public that they abhor raptor persecution and that they are working tirelessly to bring it to an end. There is scant evidence to prove that claim. What’s the latest evidence that we have to show that they are working towards achieving that goal? Interestingly to show their collective commitment to ending persecution the Countryside Alliance, BASC, the Moorland Association and the National Gamekeepers Organisation all refused to attend the latest Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) meeting; the police led, Government sponsored partnership tasked with the single aim of bringing raptor persecution to an end. The NGO have since resigned from the Group. To justify their withdrawal from the RPPDG they have attempted to lay the blame for their departure at the door of Nick Lyall, the new and dynamic chairman, NERF, RSPB and the new members of the Group; namely the Wildlife Trust, a representative for the northern AONBs, Birders Against Wildlife Crime and the RSPCA Wildlife Unit. The new members can hardly be said to represent a bunch of eco terrorists. On the contrary these new members represent millions of people who care about the natural environment and the creatures we share it with. Collectively they have decades of experience that will prove invaluable to the success of the RPPDG.

Members of the shooting community who really do want to bring raptor persecution to an end are ideally placed to do so and NERF urges them to contact the North Yorkshire Police with any information that they have in respect of the disappearance of River. Perhaps the NGO, following their meeting with Defra, will be beating a path to the door of the North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force, outlining their new cunning plan to end raptor persecution. Then again perhaps not. NERF believes that Defra should decline all suggestions that a new forum should be formed. The RPPDG is the only forum to address raptor persecution in England and Wales and Defra must make that abundantly clear.

If you have any information that would aid the investigation please contact the authorities. There are several ways to pass on information; you can contact:

  • The Police on 101
  • Crimestoppers on 0800 555111
  • RSPB Investigation Team on 01767 680551
  • RSPB hotline on 0300 999 0101

NERF would like to thank the volunteers and raptor workers who watched over and protected River. You did a magnificent job and you should be proud of your efforts. NERF would also wish to thank the Police and RSPB for their hard work investigating the disappearance of River.

Until the next time; and regrettably there will be a next time NERF condemns all forms of raptor persecution.


22 January 19