Once again the National Trust and the Peak District National Park Authority are in the news and once again it’s for all of the wrong reasons.
The area has a long, well documented, history of raptor persecution. However; in 2018 there were the first signs that a corner may have been turned and perhaps, just perhaps things were slowly improving for the beleaguered birds of prey in the Dark Peak. Hen Harriers bred for the first time in several years and was celebrated by everyone involved. Surely that was a positive signal, a glimmer of hope?
Well if it was a glimmer of hope it was soon extinguished and the Dark Peak is once again a dark place for birds of prey. Local Raptor Workers, all NERF members, are still trying to come to terms with the ‘disappearance’ of two satellite tagged Hen Harrier chicks, Octavia and Arthur, which fledged from the Dark Peak during the summer. Now we learn that a Short-eared Owl [SEO] was shot on 11 September on National Trust land on Marsden Moor near Wessenden Head, West Yorkshire. Additionally we learned that three weeks later on 1 October a Tawny Owl, which had also been shot was found stuffed into a drystone wall on land nearby but not on the National Trust property.
In the first incident a local runner had just returned to her car when she saw a Short-eared Owl fly over her head then heard gunshots from the direction of a vehicle described as a dark coloured pick-up truck with two dog cages with a thick wooden cover over the cages, parked nearby. The following morning the witness returned to the same location and found the SEO alive but injured. The bird was taken to a vet for treatment; however the injuries were so severe the bird had to be euthanized.
Short-eared Owls are scarce birds in the North of England, they are ‘Amber Listed’ as a species of concern in the UK. The breeding population which is probably less than a 1000 pairs in years when the vole population, a primary prey source, is low. This situation is taken so seriously that Special Protected Areas [SPAs] are designated for Short-eared Owls. Marsden Moor is part of one such SPA. If Short-eared Owls are supposed to be safe anywhere then land specially designated for their protection should be the ideal place to reside. On this occasion that was clearly not the case. We know of one SEO that was shot; how many more raptors have been shot in this area that we don’t know about? The persecution of owls, particularly Short-eared Owls, is a continuing problem in the North of England. This was demonstrated recently by a court case involving a gamekeeper convicted of shooting two owls in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The evidence strongly points to the fact that Short-eared Owls are being specifically targeted on upland estates.
Despite conducting extensive enquiries in the area West Yorkshire Police have been unable to trace the owner of the vehicle, with the very distinctive dog cages on the back, which was seen by the witness at the time that the SEO was shot.
What was the motive for killing the two owls? Who is most likely to profit from killing them? Is it possible that they were killed by some random passer-by who just happened to be parked up in in the area with a firearm to hand at the time the SEO flew overhead? Possible, but is it likely? Probably not.
No doubt the Investigating Officer(s) will be following these and other lines of enquiry. Identifying the individual(s) who has the Modus Operandi [MO], the opportunity and the desire to commit these crimes is the key to detecting them and NERF expects every member of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group to assist West Yorkshire Police in their enquiries to solve these crimes.
If you have any information that will help the Police bring the criminal before the courts please contact:
- West Yorkshire Police on 101 quoting the log number 1742 – 11.09.2018
- Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111
- RSPB raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101
08 December 2018
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
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
Another ‘disappeared’ Hen Harrier! Another Hen Harrier ‘disappeared’ near grouse moor! Another catastrophic sat-tag failure!
Mabel has joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. Another potential breeding female gone, gone but not forgotten.
Anyone who has committed endless hours monitoring, protecting Hen Harriers will tell you that it is not just time commitment that is involved, it is the emotional investment that is required to see the process through from nest to fledging that takes its toll. But when that magic moment comes, and the chicks take flight it instantly becomes worthwhile. Everyone involved knows the risks that young birds face post fledging. Everyone knows that nature will take its course, that some won’t make it. It’s sad but inevitable. Survival of the fittest intervened and that’s fine.
What’s not fine is that the ‘disappeared’ weren’t subject to some Darwinian theory. There are years of data all pointing to the same conclusion. Nudge theory is more relevant than Darwin. A little nudge in the right direction can have a massive impact. In almost every case ever recorded the same scenario plays out. The birds fledge and survive for several months, clearly, they can hunt and feed themselves. The sat-tags provide good data during that time then catastrophically fail without warning. Why? Sat-tags very rarely fail. Extensive searches using the best technology available fails to find a body. Why? All of this happens on or near grouse moors. Why?
To the layman there appears to be a pattern. To professional ornithologists there appears to be a pattern. To NERF there appears to be a pattern. Even NE believes that there is a pattern and, they have published that belief. And yet the grouse shooting industry continue to peddle the same old story “you can’t prove it”. It may be true that the ‘who dun it’ may remain unknown, however the evidence, albeit circumstantial, of ‘what dun it’ is becoming increasingly difficult to defend and yet try to defend it they do.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the loss of a Hen Harrier chick in these circumstances does not have the same effect as a bereavement because they are wrong. Our sympathies are with the landowner, the Dales NP staff and the NE staff on the ground who have all put so much effort into securing the future of Mabel and her siblings. All for nought. And how many others, not tagged, have died? That’s anyone’s guess but the answer is more than one.
How long will it take, how many more ‘disappeared’ Hen Harriers will there have to be before DEFRA comes to the same conclusion and takes any affirmative action?
Regrettably the answer is many more and that is shameful.
Today 18th October 2018, the RSPB announced that Thor, one of the young Hen Harriers tagged as a part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project in June 2018, is no more.
Thor fledged from a nest found and monitored throughout the breeding season by NERF members. One of three successful nests in the Forest of Bowland and the first successful breeding since 2015. This year three nests fledged a total of thirteen young.
The satellite tags fitted to Hen Harriers are phenomenally robust and reliable and once again this tag showed no evidence that there was a problem before it catastrophically failed.
We know from the tag data that after leaving the nest Thor stayed in the nest vicinity for several months.
Almost too predictably this young bird recorded its last known fix within only a short distance of where Sky and Hope recorded their last known fixes, in 2014 within a few days of each other.
Sky, Hope and now Thor along with five Natural England tagged Hen Harriers that we know have gone missing, we can only speculate at how many un-tagged birds must have suffered the same fate in this area.
Once England’s last remaining stronghold for Hen Harriers, the Forest of Bowland (an area in the spotlight just a few weeks ago due to the court case surrounding the persecution of Peregrine Falcons at their nest site), is designated as a Specially Protected Area for Hen Harriers, designated to hold twelve breeding pairs. Whilst this would itself be a fraction of the breeding population recorded in the not so distant past, the Forest of Bowland SPA has only managed to produce 6 successful nests in the last 5 years.
Persecution has been identified by several studies including the UK governments own study “A Future For The Hen Harrier In England” which included the following:
The English Hen Harrier population remains perilously small, with no more than 23 nesting attempts in any one year in the period 2002-2008.
Productivity from successful nests is high, but very few nesting attempts are successful on grouse moors.
There is compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and following the breeding season. Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England.
Readers should also remember that only a few months ago the representatives of the shooting industry were celebrating 9 successful nests from a total of 14 breeding attempts in the whole of England in 2018. No doubt we will be bombarded with the usual trite condemnations, or silence. Either way nothing will change, the criminals will continue killing Hen Harriers, the industry representatives will tell us that they are the solution to the problem when in fact they remain part of the problem, the Government will ignore the situation, again. So it goes on. The Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group has a new Chair and the response to this incident will be the first test of how the Group will move forward.
Bob Elliot, UK Head of the RSPB Investigations Team, is moving on to take up a new post as the Director of OneKind. Throughout his tenure as the Department Head Bob has worked tirelessly in the fight against the seemingly never-ending battle to protect the UK’s raptors from relentless persecution. It is widely acknowledged that the RSPB Investigations Team does phenomenal work aiding the police and prosecuting authorities to put the criminals who kill birds of prey before the courts. However, a good team needs good leadership and Bob provided that leadership expertly.
NERF wishes him well as he follows his new and exciting career path, however from a purely selfish point of view there is no doubt that he will be sorely missed by Raptor Workers across the UK, and OneKind can count themselves fortunate to have lured him away.
Good luck Bob
Your friends in NERF
4 October 2018