“Work with moorland managers and other key stakeholders to devise and implement a local approach to end illegal persecution of raptors, including independent and scientifically robust monitoring, and co-ordinated Hen Harrier nest and winter roost site protection”
NERF is represented on the group and works tirelessly for the benefit of birds of prey within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Further information about the Working Group can be found here:
Earlier this year NERF published this statement in response to two reports of raptor persecution.
“Another dark day in the Dark Peak
On the 25th February we learnt that the RSPB Investigations Team were concerned about the fate of a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that had joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District near to Stocksbridge. The matter has been reported to South Yorkshire Police for investigation and we will have more to say about that case when further details are made public.
Today [5th March] we learnt that in March 2021 a member of the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group [PDRMG], a NERF partner, found a dead Buzzard in woodland close to the Flouch near Langsett. Coincidentally, perhaps, as you can see from the Google earth image the Flouch is less than 5 miles from Stocksbridge where the latest Hen harrier went missing. The finder reported the incident to the Police and we now know that the bird was shot to death by someone using a shotgun.”
Anyone thinking, hoping, that this would be the end of persecution in the Dark Peak will have been saddened; but not surprised, to read that two adult, breeding males have joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ in the Upper Derwent Valley. Without the support of their male partner females are unable to incubate their eggs and hunt; and inevitably they have to abandon their eggs. That is exactly what happened in these latest cases. Each female abandoned 5 eggs.
It should not be underestimated how hard it is for a fledgling Hen Harrier to reach adulthood and go on to find a female in what remains a tiny population and breed. You don’t have to be a geneticist to recognise that adult breeding males are a valuable asset to the Hen Harrier population and had they continued to survive they could have each fathered a further two dozen chicks. The ‘disappearance’ of these two males needs to be seen in that context. It is not just the loss of two of these iconic birds it is the potential loss of 50 plus chicks. Many of those chicks would have gone on to breed and produce young of their own and that is what we should focus on. Calling the disappearance of these two adult males a tragic loss doesn’t really do it justice.
How ironic that on the same day that the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group reported the ‘disappearance’ of the two male Hen Harriers the Moorland Association published an article extolling the virtue of the Hen Harrier brood management scheme.
The press release contains nothing new; it is simply a rehash of the number of chicks that fledge each year and how the numbers have increased in recent years. It is correct that the numbers have increased; however to claim that the number of chicks fledging, 84 from 24 nests, represents an increase of over 800% is disingenuous to say the least without also pointing out that if 84 represents an 800% plus increase it had to have increased from 0.
The number of chicks fledging is not the matrix that should be used to judge the success of the brood management scheme. What we need to see is a massive increase in the geographical spread of breeding Harriers away from the core areas of Northumberland and the Forest of Bowland; not just the occasional satellite tagged bird breeding on a grouse moor. We also need to witness an increase in survivability of fledglings that we know have a 72% risk of being killed on, or adjacent to a grouse moor. We know that because Natural England used its own data to come to that conclusion.
Perhaps the Moorland Association’s press release could also have pointed out that:
24 nests represents c7% of the 330 nests that academics calculate is the actual number of nests we should have in England
84 chicks from 24 nest gives an average of 3.5 chicks per nest
330 nests would produce 1155 chicks per year
That may be an ambiguous target, non-the-less it should remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind when deciding what success looks like. The interim stage needs to be consistently achieving the number of breeding pairs designated for the North Pennines SPA, 11 pairs, and the Forest of Bowland, 12 pairs. We are a long way from that situation and that is the inconvenient truth.
Three Hen Harriers have joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Dark Peak since the 25th February this year; one every 3 weeks and the breeding season has only just got underway. The press release also reminded readers that 5 nests have been subjected to brood management and 7 chicks, 1.4 per nest, have also joined the ‘disappeared’. That’s another inconvenient truth.
In the Moorland Association’s press release John Holmes, Chair of the Brood Management Project Board, Natural England is quoted:
‘…………………..monitoring [Hen Harriers] and improving intelligence to detect and prevent persecution……..’
How is the prevention of Hen Harrier persecution part of the plan going Mr Holmes?
No matter how the 2021 breeding figures are presented by The Moorland Association et al, or how much they want us to believe that that everything is working perfectly and Hen Harriers are prospering on grouse moors, the reality is that the future of Hen Harriers in England remains in a perilous position. The primary cause, identified by Natural England, is persecution on land connected with the grouse shooting industry.
On the 25th February we learnt that the RSPB Investigations Team were concerned about the fate of a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that had joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District near to Stocksbridge. The matter has been reported to South Yorkshire Police for investigation and we will have more to say about that when further details are made public.
Today we learn that in March 2021 a member of the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group [PDRMG], a NERF partner, found a dead Buzzard in woodland close to the Flouch near Langsett. Coincidentally, perhaps, as you can see from the Google earth image the Flouch is less than 5 miles from Stocksbridge where the latest Hen harrier went missing. The finder reported the incident to the Police and we now know that the bird was shot to death by someone using a shotgun.
Commenting on this latest incident Steve Davies of the PDRMG said: “Here is yet another case of illegal raptor persecution tainting the image of the Peak District National Park. Wildlife Crime enforcement needs more teeth to enable it to be a successful deterrent. Licencing of shooting estates and the introduction and effective implementation of vicarious liability legislation, including suspension and clawback of any associated agricultural subsidies, would directly impact on the shooting estate landowners or shooting tenants and estate managers who are ultimately responsible and benefit directly from game shooting.”
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn about either of these incidents. Regrettably the adjacent Peak District National Park has a long history of raptor persecution. In 2018 in a paper co-authored by Mike Price [PDRMG] and the RSPB, published in British Birds, https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/raptor-persecution-peak-district-national-park the researchers identified that heather burning practices on land managed for driven grouse shooting within the Peak District National Park had a statistically significant relationship with raptor persecution. This paper together with population studies undertaken over many years by members of the PDRMG and intelligence gathered by the Police leaves us in no doubt that raptor persecution, one of the wildlife crime priorities for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, is thriving in the region.
Although 12 months has passed since the incident was reported to the Police NERF has, in confidence, been aware of the timeline associated with this case and we are reassured that the delay was not caused by the Police who were not made aware that the bird had been shot until December last year.
We pride ourselves on being a country of animal lovers. However, if you were a bird of prey living in many parts of Northern England, where death by trap, cosh, poison or shotgun awaits, you may take a different view. In this land of animal lovers there is a parcel of rogues at large apparently killing raptors with impunity.
If you find a wild bird of prey which you suspect has been illegally killed, please:
contact the Police on 101,
email RSPB Investigations at firstname.lastname@example.org, or,
‘My role is to protect game – buzzards presented a risk to those birds’.
That was a statement offered by the Defence on behalf of Mr Orrey in mitigation at the sentencing hearing.
Incredibly it appears to be an attempt at justification rather than mitigation. He could just as easily said ‘OK I killed a couple of Buzzards; I’m a gamekeeper, it’s my job. What’s the problem with that?’
The problem with that of course is that killing Buzzards is illegal and has been illegal for decades. Yet here we have a professional gamekeeper who appears to believe that killing birds, caught in one of his cage traps, is part of his job description. He also appears to believe that he has a duty of care to the game birds under his control to protect them by killing Buzzards until the day that the pheasants are shot for profit, for pleasure or for both.
This case came to light thanks to the quick thinking of two members of the public who, when out walking, happened upon a crow cage trap containing a Buzzard and recorded the fact in a short video. They then reported the incident to the RSPB Investigations Team and one of the Team attended the location the following day and also found a Buzzard in the trap along with various items of bait. This Buzzard was safely released and a covert camera was installed to monitor the trap. Interestingly; when images of the Buzzard released by the RSPB were compared to images of the original bird taken by the witnesses it was clear that these were two different birds.
What happened to the original bird? We simply don’t know. By law it should have been released unharmed by the person managing the trap; but was it?
The covert camera, installed by the RSPB to monitor the cage trap, recorded Mr Orrey visiting the trap twice and on each occasion he beat a Buzzard to death with a billhook.
On one hand the footage is shocking in that Mr Orrey showed not an ounce of compassion as he bludgeoned the defenceless birds to death. On the other hand we should hardly be surprised because we have seen similar behaviour before when gamekeepers were covertly filmed by the RSPB Investigations Team doing exactly the same thing. Killing protected species caught in crow cage traps on land managed for game shooting is not as rare as the shooting industry would have us believe.
In an earlier hearing Mr Orrey had pleaded guilty to four firearms offences with regards to the storage of his firearms and possession of ammunition. He also pleaded guilty to Wildlife and Countryside Act offences in relation to the unlawful use of a cage trap, possession of the billhook, the killing of two Buzzards and the possession of two Stock Doves. On 28 January he was sentenced to a total of 20 weeks imprisonment suspended for 12months and ordered to pay a total of £1880 in fines, victim surcharge and compensation to the Wildlife Forensic Working Group. He has also had his firearms and ammunition confiscated and his firearms licence revoked by Nottinghamshire Police.
We know from many, many previous cases involving the killing of birds of prey on land managed for game shooting that this is not an isolated incident. We also know from past experience that Mr Orrey will be described by the shooting industry as ‘another bad apple gone rogue, unrepresentative of the industry at large, and repeat the mantra of having zero tolerance of bird of prey persecution, etc.’ In the event that they comment at all of course. Statements such as that are meaningless, simply another example of Hobson’s Choice at work and proof, if proof was needed, that the shooting industry representatives on the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery have zero influence on the activities of members of the industry that they represent.
In this case the ‘bad apple’ is an insider who appears to think that it’s all in a day’s work to kill protected species to protect gamebirds and was prepared to say so in court. His actions and that statement by the Defence shine a very bright spotlight on a very dark industry.
Our heartfelt thanks go to the witnesses who reported the original incident to the RSPB. The follow up by the RSPB is another example of outstanding, professional, dedicated casework by the Investigations Team.
On 16 December Cheshire gamekeeper Hilton Prest appeared at Manchester Magistrates Court and pleaded guilty to:
“Unlawfully using a trap on or before 10/2/21 contrary to Sec 5(1)(b) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.”
Legalistically that all sounds ‘interesting’; but what does it mean in reality? It means that an amateur gamekeeper misused a crow cage trap and a Blackbird and a Sparrowhawk paid the ultimate price – they died; killed by what could at best be described as incompetence.
Gamekeeper Prest was described in the RSPB Investigations blog as an amateur gamekeeper. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an amateur as a person who:
works on an unpaid basis, or
is considered inept at a particular activity.
Consider the facts of this case and decide which one of these definitions more accurately describes Mr Prest’s actions that led to his prosecution.
The facts in this case are simple. Mr Prest was responsible for the management of a ‘crow cage ladder trap’ on an estate managed for shooting gamebirds near Bosley, Cheshire. When used correctly this type of trap can be operated legally under the appropriate General Licence issued by the Government. The General Licence defines this type of trap as:
“Multi-catch cage trap” means a cage large enough to be entered by the operator, which is covered in mesh and uses either a roof-funnel, ground funnel or ladder/letterbox entry point for birds to gain access to the cage”
The cage is designed as a predator trap with one way in, no way out. The purpose of this trap is also simple, catch a predator, designated as such in the legislation, and kill it. Non-target species accidently caught must be released and when not in use the trap must be disabled by ensuring that the door has been removed completely or secured in the open position enabling birds to escape if they do enter the trap.
In the depth of winter on 10 February 2021 a member of the public found the closed cage trap containing a Sparrowhawk. A Sparrowhawk is not a specified target species and should have been released when Mr Prest undertook his legally required daily inspection; as should the Blackbird that was also later found dead in the trap. The fact that the Blackbird was described as ‘the remains of a Blackbird’ is perhaps an indication that the trap had not been examined for some time prior to the 10th February.
Photograph courtesy of RSPB.
Initially, when the Sparrowhawk was found in the cage trap, it was alive. The witness opened the door slightly in the hope that the Sparrowhawk would escape. The incident was then reported to the RSPB Investigations Team on 16th February and they attended on the following day. The Sparrowhawk was still in the cage; however it was dead. A post mortem later confirmed that the bird had starved to death.
Photograph courtesy of RSPB.
At the conclusion of the trial, District Judge Mr Jack McGarver said that he accepted that the act was careless rather than reckless or intentional, but that the degree of carelessness was high, and that it was well below the standard that was expected.
Perhaps it was carelessness or forgetfulness that led to the door being left in the closed position; but there are other interesting questions about this case that are not covered by the short press release. When this type of trap is operated with a decoy bird it must be supplied with adequate food, water, a suitable perch and shelter from the prevailing wind and rain. Looking at the snow covered cage photograph there is no evidence that any of these legally required elements were present in the cage. Had they been removed, or never installed? If they had been removed it would imply that the trap was being decommissioned; if so why wasn’t the door removed or secured in the open position at the same time?
Whether Mr Prest is an amateur or professional gamekeeper is irrelevant. Whether he was careless or not, as the person responsible for managing this cage trap he had a duty of care to ensure that these two birds did not have to endure a long protected, excruciating death in freezing temperatures. He failed in that duty.
We know from the statement made by RSPB Investigations Officer, Tom Grose, that there was a small amount of grain inside the cage; was it this grain that first attracted the Blackbird into the closed cage? They will eat seeds and with snow on the ground it may have been the only food available at that time. Did the Sparrowhawk follow the Blackbird into the cage looking for an easy meal? We will never know. However, we do know that had the door had been removed or secured in the open position both birds could have escaped and avoided a pointless and cruel death.
The General Licence that permits the use of multi-catch traps, specifically states that if the door it not removed it must be secured in the open position when not in use. Unfortunately the licence then goes on to give ‘advice’ about how this can be achieved, including that padlocks are the most secure method. Unfortunately this is inadequate; the General licence needs amending to make the use of padlocks mandatory. With this amendment, already applicable in Scotland, there can be no ambiguity about what operators are legally required to do to ensure that birds are not caught and left to die in unsupervised traps.
The Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] is a Police led organisation and in respect of criminal activities the first duty of the Police is to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. This case has highlighted the short-comings within the advice section of the General Licence and provides an opportunity for the RPPDG to press the Government for a change in the Licence which would make the use of a padlock to secure cage trap doors (if the door has not been removed) mandatory . The shooting industry is very well represented on the RPPDG and several of the member organisations have published guidelines highlighting the statutory responsibilities of trap operators. In theory therefore they should be eager to support any measure that would help their members to avoid breaking the law.
The RPPDG also has had an action to deliver educational programs to young gamekeepers in relation to raptor persecution for several years. R. v Prest is an excellent example of how not to manage a multi-catch trap and the potential consequences of operating one without due diligence and should be added to the curriculum. This is something else that the shooting industry representatives can support wholeheartedly.
Whilst trainee gamekeepers can undoubtedly benefit from studying this case it should be remembered that Mr Prest is 58 years old and his peer group of gamekeepers should also take note of the case and the penalties imposed by the court. The shooting industry representatives on the RPPDG could condemn the actions of Mr Prest and circulate details of this case to their members immediately. This action would be in line with the obligation upon all members to raise public awareness of raptor persecution nationally.
We are pleased to announce the publication of our 2020 review. An interesting year, complicated by Covid 19. Highlights include visits to the NERF study area from White-tailed Eagles and a Bearded Vulture. Foreword written by @MarkAvery
Spokesperson for the ‘Custodians of the Countryside’.
Bird photographs courtesy of RSPB Birdcrime 2020 [gunsights added by NERF]
“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” At least that is what the ‘Custodians’ would have us believe. In truth, that is far from the reality that we see on the ground. The latest RSPB Birdcrime Report, covering 2020, puts that nonsense to rest, again.
Whilst the general public were obeying the Government’s instructions to stay at home during the Covid – 19 lockdown to save the lives of our families and neighbours, the raptor killers were plying their trade across the countryside that the ‘Custodians’ were supposed to be protecting. You could be forgiven for asking – ‘how did that work out?’ The simple answer is – not well at all if you were a bird of prey on land used for game shooting. You could also be forgiven for thinking ‘well that is not new’ and you would be correct. The statistic that makes 2020 different is the scale of the killing. Lockdown gave the raptor-killers free reign to go about their daily business without fear of being caught and the latest statistics published by the RSPB reveals just how effective they were. You can read the full Bird Crime Report here.
Across the UK there were 137 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, the highest annual number recorded by the RSPB and agreed by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. The shocking statistics reveal that there were 57 cases of shooting, 17 cases of trapping and 35 cases of poisoning of birds of prey. In total 63% of the reports came from land associated with game shooting [34% pheasant and partridge shooting, 28% grouse shooting and 1% mixed shooting]. Of the 137 confirmed cases, 99 occurred in England and c 66% of those were located in North Yorkshire making the county the hotspot for bird of prey crime for the 7th year in succession.
Following the release of the latest Birdcrime report there will no doubt be cries of derision from the game shooting industry; shouting foul, it’s nothing to do with us, we have zero tolerance of persecution, it was the bad apple brigade trying to discredit us and anyway 137 is a small number. ‘Nothing to see here, move along’.
Indeed 137 is a small number; but it has to be seen in context when discussing raptor persecution. The real question is not how many victims were found; it is – what percentage of victims were found? Most birds of prey are predominately brownish, perfectly camouflaged, a dead body will cover less than 1000 cm2 and they are killed on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land that is predominately brown. The amazing thing is that any are ever found and the true figure must be very, very significantly higher than the number reported. The phrase ‘the tip of the iceberg’ is frequently used when discussing raptor persecution statistics and it is an accurate description of the scale of the crimes against birds of prey. When searching for the victims of persecution the phrase ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ is appropriate; but in 2020 no one was allowed to look in the haystack. Unlike the individuals who are employed in the game shooting industry, who were allowed free range over the countryside, the general public were confined within our homes. We were oblivious of how high the body count of protected species was becoming.
The negative media coverage criticizing the game shooting industry over recent weeks has, or should have, caused reputational damage to the industry; but does it care? There have been numerous reports of multi-agency, Police led, raids on shooting estates. Mr Phil Davies, the Countryside Alliance representative on the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG], has rightly been removed from the Group following his involvement in a webinar where fox hunters were advised about tactics that they could use to avoid prosecution when conducting illegal hunts. You can read more about this on the Raptor Persecution UK Blog here.
A damning article entitled ‘Reports of raptor killings soared during the U.K.’s lockdown’, published in the National Geographic, a highly respected publication with global reach, focuses on the disgraceful illegal killing of birds of prey on shooting estates during the Covid lockdown period. You can read the full article here, although you will have to share an email address to read it.
Now we have RSPB Birdcrime spotlighting the fact that 137 confirmed cases of raptor persecution, the highest number on record, were reported in 2020. It also highlights the fact that 63% of the birds of prey that were slaughtered were killed on land associated with game shooting and 40% took place on protected landscapes, in our National Parks and in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or their Scottish equivalent.
It is a national disgrace and we all know it, so what response can we expect from the shooting industry in light of this latest report? “Move along, there’s nothing to see here” followed by attacks on the integrity of the RSPB and suggestions that a small amount of persecution is only part of the story, all is well and raptors are thriving. We have heard it all before. It’s as predictable as day follows night.
NERF has been calling for the licensing of the shooting industry, with the licence being applied to the land, not the owners or managers of the land, for several years. Once again we reiterate that call for licensing of shooting estates and it has to be implement without further delay. The public require it and our natural environment deserves it. We know that Government Departments set media alerts for reports such as the National Geographic article, Birdcrime and blogs, including the NERF website. Defra Ministers and Natural England know what is happening to our birds of prey, they know the scale of the problem and they know the causes of the problem; it is persecution by individuals connected with games shooting. The RSPB report identifies the fact that of the 186 individuals convicted of raptor persecution 66% were gamekeepers and a further 6% were also connected to the game shooting industry. The Government has published its own data which confirms these facts. How much more evidence do Ministers need before they take meaningful action?
The Government also knows that land management practices on upland shooting estates, which includes heather burning, adds to global warming and destroys countless reptiles, amphibians, the eggs of early ground nesting birds, kills billons of insects, which is the primary food source for upland birds, and leads to increased downstream flooding. Having had these facts reinforced, again, with these latest reports will Defra Ministers and Natural England grasp this nettle with both hands and actually do something about it rather than tinkering around the edges with schemes such as Hen Harrier Brood Management and the ludicrous Hen Harrier Southern Re-introduction proposal. They might; but regrettably the chances of that happening are next to nil under the current Government and we are all the worse off for that.
In theory the Wildlife and Countryside Act provides all of the protection that raptors require. In reality it is inadequate because it fails at the compliance and enforcement stages. It is time for a change of emphasis, a change in enforcement strategy and sentencing guidelines; changes that will actually protect our iconic birds of prey are long overdue. They, and you, deserve nothing less.
If you have information in respect of any bird related crime please contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
Whenever a bird of prey is shot or poisoned, let’s not get pedantic about whether or not an owl is a raptor, the shooting industry usually offer one of two bland statements, sometimes both.: firstly ‘we have zero tolerance of raptor persecution’ and secondly ‘there’s no proof of persecution’.
Unfortunately, neither statement stands up to scrutiny. The oft used ‘zero tolerance’ statement is a classic example of Hobson’s Choice in action.; without positive action it is meaningless. An examination of the websites of the Moorland Association, BASC, the NGO and the Countryside Alliance at 1450 today reveals that not one of these organisations has a news item condemning the shooting of this bird. Those of us who follow these raptor crimes closely recognise this familiar response and it comes as no surprise.
Raptor persecution is happening across the northern uplands; that we know as a matter of fact. Regardless of how many times the shooting industry tries to play down the problem, the data doesn’t lie. What we don’t know is the scale of the problem. We are constantly told that ‘it’s just a few bad apples.’ Really? If it is just a few they are highly mobile popping up all over the uplands, killing something, anything, and moving on to the next. If there are just a ‘few bad apples’ as claimed, where are the ‘good apples’ helping the Police to rid their industry of criminals?
‘You can’t prove it was persecution’. Well, in this case we can. The Short-eared Owl was shot with a shotgun, and found on a grouse shooting estate, it was killed illegally and there is an ongoing Police investigation.
Shooting this bird was a mindless act of brutality; for what? For fun, to prevent it from eating the odd grouse chick? Really? They eat small mammals, predominately voles. If shooting this bird wasn’t despicable enough it was killed during the breeding season. If it was paired and had eggs or chicks it is likely that the eggs failed to hatch or the chicks starved to death. Unfortunately, this is not the first Shortie to be killed in the same area; two other bodies were found shot and unceremoniously stuffed down a hole in 2015. In addition to these 3 Short-eared Owls a Hen Harrier, satellite tagged and called Marc by the RSPB, disappeared without trace when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped working on the same grouse moor.
This latest incident occurred in the North Pennines AONB as did the disappearance of the Scottish bred Hen Harrier called Reiver, reported 3 days ago. Despite the valiant efforts by Chris Woodley-Stewart and his colleagues who work tirelessly to enhance the AONB, the outstanding natural beauty of the region is diminished every time a bird of prey is persecuted.
There is probably a statistical model for calculating the probability of finding 100% of raptors being killed and found in 2000 km2; if there is then the probability of finding them will be infinitesimally small. It is logical therefore to assume that many more birds of prey have met a similar fate; whilst we will never know the true figure it is reasonable to believe that the numbers will be very significantly higher than those recorded.
Someone knows, or seriously suspects, who is responsible for the death of this bird and if you want to help end the blight that pervades your community then please:
pass the information to Durham Police on 101
alternatively, if you have information in respect of this, or any other bird related crime, contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
you can also pass information to the Police anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555111
If you think that you have read this information previously you are correct; only the name of the bird has changed. The remaining information is another example of business as usual as another Hen Harrier disappears without trace on or near a grouse moor in Northern England. This report refers to the 4th Hen Harrier to join the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ this year, and it has not ended yet.
In summer of this year a female Hen Harrier called Reiver fledged from a nest on Langholm Moor in southern Scotland. Prior to fledging RSPB staff fitted her with a satellite tag as part of a long-standing project monitoring the movement and fate of the birds post fledging. The tags used in this project are extremely reliable and rarely fail as a result of faulty equipment. In fact, they are so reliable that they continue to work after a bird dies of natural causes, enabling researchers to locate the body. Having successfully fledged and strengthened her powerful flight muscles she made what would prove to be a fatal mistake; she crossed the border and entered English airspace. From that moment on her fate was sealed. This was one ‘Border Reiver’ that would not be returning home.
Initially Reiver’s tag functioned as expected providing technical data, together with her location and confirmation that she was in good health. Whilst the technical data and health indicators were welcome news her location gave cause for concern. Previously Hen Harriers had disappeared without trace in the same general area. In 2019 a Hen Harrier called Ada sent her last transmission to the satellite from a grouse moor east of Allendale Town. At the end of February this year Tarras, a bird that also fledged from Langholm, was never heard from again when contact with her was lost suddenly and inexplicably near Rowfoot, Northumberland.
On 17 September RSPB researchers pronounced that Reiver’s tag had ‘stopped, no malfunction’. Those 3 words may sound like a description of a technical failure, however that is far from the case. In fact, they are a euphemism for – the bird has been killed and we can’t find the body. Reiver disappeared without trace less than 5 kilometres from the area where Tarras also disappeared. A coincidence, or organised crime?
In addition to the 3 birds that have joined the ‘disappeared’ in Northumberland, Yarrow, a bird satellite tagged in 2020, disappeared in April. The satellite data from the last contact with Yarrow revealed that the flight path put her on a trajectory that would take her to the grouse moors of the North York Moors; a raptor persecution hotspot.
Four Hen Harriers are named in this article; Ada, Yarrow, Tarras and Reiver. They all disappeared in similar circumstances this year; never to be seen or heard of again. Even the most naïve nature lover would not accept that the disappearance of these 4 birds was a coincidence; and they would be correct to avoid that trap. Analysis of data from both the RSPB tagged birds and the data from birds tagged by Natural England unequivocally indicate that when Hen Harriers suffer from a satellite tag catastrophic failure / stop no malfunction on or near a grouse moor the most likely cause of the failure was that the bird was killed and the tag was destroyed. The common denominator in these cases, and countless others, is land managed for grouse shooting. It is long past the time when the Government stopped tinkering at the edges and got a grip on the Hen Harrier persecution problem. It will take more than declaring raptor persecution a wildlife crime priority, continuing with Brood Management and the ludicrous southern re-introduction scheme, if it ever happens, to resolve the raptor persecution problem on grouse moors. NERF has been calling for the licencing of grouse moors for several years and whilst it may not prevent all raptor related crimes in the uplands it will be a huge step to achieving that goal. Drafting legislation, which would include the suspension of a licence to operate a shoot, is not difficult; it just needs the political will to get on with it. Therein lies the problem; the Government does not have the political will to take any meaningful action to prevent raptor persecution. There are no ‘sunlit uplands’ for birds of prey in the North of England Prime Minister; in this part of the country the uplands are killing fields. The current situation is unsustainable; urgent action is needed to tackle this pernicious situation and it needs taking now.
We are only able to discuss the disappearance of these 4 birds because they were fitted with satellite tags by the RSPB; without those tags we would be totally unaware of the fate of these individuals. Whilst we can collectively mourn the loss of these 4 it is inconceivable to think that untagged Hen Harriers have not been killed this year in the same or similar locations.
Now that is a truly frightening thought; but it does go a long way to explain why the English breeding population remains perilously low. Unfortunately; the population will remain in a critical condition until persecution is ended and there is a very long way to go before that happens despite what the shooting industry would have us believe.
If you have any information relating to the disappearance of Reiver please contact Northumbria Police on 101 quoting reference NP-20210920-0837.
Alternatively, if you have information in respect of any bird related crime please contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
You can also pass information to the Police anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555111
The arson attack at the home of Chris Packham overnight Thursday 8th / Friday 9th October was truly shocking, although perhaps not surprising and our thoughts are with him and his family at this extremely difficult time.
Chris has been under a sustained personal attack for many years be it via social media trolling or by being targeted by people leaving dead birds and animals hanging on the gates of his home. It is very easy to see Chris as the target of these attacks, which is undoubtedly true; however he is not the only victim. Chris’s partner and step-daughter are also victims and knowing that must be a heavy burden for Chris to bear. There are endless calls for Chris to stand strong and I have no doubt that he will; however this is a family standing strong, a family that will not be cowed by the bullies who wish to force them to abandon all that they believe in. When discussing why conservationists or environmentalists do what we do, I always respond by saying ‘this is who we are, not what we do’. What Chris does to protect the natural environment reflects upon who he is; it is part of his DNA and that cannot be changed, nor should it.
It is far too early to point towards a particular group of suspects, let alone the individuals involved. There is a long and varied line to work though ranging from individuals who are furious at the changes to the previously illegal General Licences, pro shooting lobbyists, pro hunting lobbyists, pro heather burning groups, climate emergency sceptics and a host of others or they could just be cult followers of the Patron Saint of Killing Stuff. Whilst the vehicle that was used by the arsonists was clearly a write-off there may be clues left for the Police to pursue during their investigation; hopefully to a successful conclusion.
This was an extreme warning. There has been a pattern of increased intensity targeting Chris and his family; in all probability by a large number of individuals each emboldened by a previous incident. However; this latest event is a very dangerous escalation and unless it is stopped immediately the situation is likely to deteriorate further. Experience in similar cases shows just what a small step it takes to move from violence against property to violence against people.
Disagreeing with Chris’s views and campaigns is fine; after all calm well-argued discussions to resolve disagreements to find a better way forward is a foundation stone on which a working democracy is built. It has been well documented that there are many organisations, with tens of thousands of supporters, which have opposing views to those held by Chris however, it is now time for those organisations to stand firm, denounce what has happened, and support the rule of law. They need to publicly condemn this latest case and the persistent trolling and they need to do it immediately. They also need to publicly encourage their membership to contact the Police if they have any information which may help them detect this outrageous crime. Failure to do so could be construed by those responsible as tacit approval for this wholly unacceptable criminal behaviour.