This picture shows Ada having been satellite tagged as part of the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project. It was taken just prior to her being returned to her nest. She was on the point of fledging, on the point of leading a long and productive life, adding generations of Hen Harriers wild and flying free in the North of England, or anywhere else she chose. That was her promise to her species; a promise that she would never live long enough to fulfill.
Whilst Ada’s nest was in southern Scotland, just over the Northumberland / Scottish Border, she was monitored and satellite tagged by NERF members working in partnership with the RSPB Life Project staff. We were heavily invested in Ada’s well-being and future potential. Her ‘disappearance’ without trace after a short life of 130 days, 2,790 days less than her expected lifespan, is not just an unfortunate tragic statistic to be accepted by the people involved. NERF takes the loss of Ada, and all of the other ‘disappeared’ Hen Harriers, tagged or not, personally and we are sick of it! Society is sick of it! Be under no illusion, the killing of Hen Harriers is not a random isolated act of brutality; it is a function of organised crime pervading grouse moors across our uplands, often sustaining their profitability. Anyone with a modicum of humanity cannot avoid being emotionally affected by the never-ending pointless slaughter. It is not just an insult to Hen Harriers, or the people that commit their lives to protecting them, it is an insult to the very fabric of civilization.
The pattern repeats itself
The sudden and inexplicable catastrophic failure, or ‘stopped no malfunction’ of Ada’s tag followed an all too predictable pattern:
- Ada was tagged on 28 June
- the tags used by the RSPB are known to be 94% reliable
- the tag provided excellent data for 105 days
- prior to failure there was no indication that there were technical issues with the tag
- the tag inexplicably ‘stopped no malfunction’ on 10 October
- her last transmission placed her on a grouse moor, east of Allendale, Northumberland
- a ground search conducted by very experienced RSPB staff using sophisticated tracking equipment failed to locate her
- despite long periods of settled, sunny weather there has been no contact with Ada’s solar powered tag in the last 6 weeks
- Police enquiries have proved unsuccessful
The pattern surrounding ‘disappeared’ Hen Harriers repeated itself, again, and Ada was the latest victim.
Unless the body of Ada is recovered we will never know what actually happened to her. However, our previous experience gives a very credible working hypothesis. The bodies of Hen Harriers that die naturally are invariably recovered and post-mortem examinations pronounce the cause of death as natural, even though some were revealed to have been previously shot although the injuries had not been fatal. The opposite is also true. Birds with satellite tags that ‘stop no malfunction’ when the last transmission was from a grouse moor are invariably not recovered. Why is that? This scenario was eloquently described in a recent paper, ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors‘ Murgatroyd et al, March 2019, using Natural England’s data. The data revealed that 72% of the satellite tagged Hen Harriers in their study were killed, or very likely to have been killed, on British grouse moors.
In short – the combination of live Hen Harrier plus grouse moor equals killed Hen Harrier, 72 times out of 100.
Ada was a Scottish Hen Harrier. She joined the ‘disappeared’ on an English grouse moor. What will SNH have to say about that? What will the Scottish Government have to say about that? Will there be harsh, angry communications between Scotland and England or will it all be swept under the heather?
Where does Ada’s ‘disappearance’ leave the Defra / Natural England failed Hen Harrier Recovery Plan now? Will it be business as usual, throwing huge amounts of tax-payers money, our money, at the ill-conceived Brood Management Plan and the ludicrous Southern Re-introduction Scheme? Or will the senior managers in Defra and Natural England take a spoonful of humility, a dose of reality and make a public announcement that these schemes are not fit for purpose until persecution ends and the northern Hen Harrier breeding population reaches the minimum number set out in Natural England’s SPA designations?
A change of policy by the senior managers at either Defra or Natural England is highly unlikely, so it remains business as usual and Hen Harriers will continue to ‘disappear’, presumed killed, on grouse moors across the northern uplands. It is widely accepted that past performance predicts future behaviour. Facing that inevitability, under the current circumstances we must continue to collectively apply pressure to the decision makers to do the right thing. The ‘right thing’ in this case would include introducing a system of licensing driven grouse moors, introducing vicarious liability for owners and managers of grouse moors, take a harder line by withholding financial support under the farm payment scheme where appropriate and suspending the use of General Licences.
In the meantime we await the next inevitable, depressing, press release from the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project that another bird has ‘disappeared presumed dead’.
28 November 2019