The fire is extinguished as Vulcan joins the ‘disappeared’

When Hen Harrier ‘River’ joined the 2018 cohort that had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances the NERF article, published on 22 January 2019 ended:

Until the next time; and regrettably there will be a next time.

Knowing that there would be a ‘next time’ did not take away the pain felt when we learnt that yet another young Hen Harrier had joined the ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances.

Little did we know when the article about River was written that Vulcan’s satellite tag had already suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting six days previously. Vulcan, one of five chicks from Northumberland, drifted south through the Peak District to Hampshire, spent time in Dorset before the tag finally sent out the last transmission from farmland, managed for pheasant and partridge shooting south of Calston Wellington, North Wiltshire.

Regrettably Wiltshire is no stranger to controversy where Hen Harriers are concerned. This is the county where Natural England propose to release circa 100 hen Harrier chicks, sourced from the Continent, over a 5-year period, as part of their southern reintroduction scheme. Natural England has always proclaimed that the area is a safe haven for reintroducing Hen Harriers – an essential condition for such reintroduction programmes, yet this new evidence would suggest that this is not the case. The fact that Vulcan has inexplicably ‘disappeared’ in an area approximately 10 kilometres to the north of the proposed release site is of great concern to our members.

NERF raptor workers are largely responsible for locating breeding attempts, monitoring the birds throughout the breeding season, ringing and satellite tagging the chicks in the North of England in partnership with RSPB.

Vulcan – in happier times
 

NERF has consistently opposed Natural England’s southern reintroduction scheme, which we believe is designed to divert attention away from the continuing tragedy of persecution of Hen Harriers, which remains the biggest threat to the species throughout England. Importing young birds and releasing them to face an uncertain future in the lowlands will not, in the opinion of NERF, be the panacea for Hen Harrier survival as a breeding species in England as envisaged by Natural England. The fate of Vulcan clearly demonstrates this. Nor will be a substitute for the demise due to persecution in upland areas. NERF urges Natural England to abandon the scheme and concentrate on resolving the primary problem of Hen Harrier persecution on land predominantly used for driven grouse shooting.

 

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 Forestry Commission, RSPB Life Project and Raptor Workers who watched over and protected Vulcan. You did a magnificent job and you should be proud of your efforts. NERF would also wish to thank Wiltshire Police and RSPB Investigations Team for their hard work investigating the disappearance of Vulcan.

 

 

NERF

10 March 2019

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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.

NERF

22 January 19

Congratulations Chris Packham CBE

Congratulations Chris, the award of the CBE in the New Year’s Honours List is well deserved. The conservation of our natural environment has always had a place in the public’s heart and yet the protection that it requires has for too long been seen as a ‘Cinderella’ service by successive Governments. Decades of avoidable decline have left many species and habitats vulnerable to minor changes that could have a major, negative impact. This is not a prediction, we are already witnessing potentially catastrophic changes occurring all around us. Fortunately if the correct remedial policies are implemented the situation can be reversed. Now they have a champion recognised both publicly and politically for years of effort, speaking out on behalf of our natural heritage.
NERF
December 2018.

Photo by Ruth Peacey

Two owls shot in the Dark Peak – why?

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

NERF

08 December 2018

Arthur joins his sister Octavia in the land of ‘the disappeared’

Photo by Paul Thomas

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:

Scenario one

  1. satellite tag data indicates that the bird is dead
  2. the body is recovered and the post mortem shows that the bird died of natural causes

Scenario two

  1. unexplained catastrophic failure of a satellite tag
  2. the failure occurs on or close to a grouse moor
  3. 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’.

Confucius

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

  1. RSPB raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101
  2. Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

NERF

13 November 2018

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

NERF

06 November 2018

Mabel joins the ‘disappeared’

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.

 

NERF