Alarms bells ring for RSPB after hen harriers 'vanish' over grouse moors within days of 'Glorious Twelfth'

Three young satellite-tracked birds, named Martha, Selena and Hepit, have disappeared over grouse moors in the past few days

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The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has reported the disappearance of three young hen harriers to the national wildlife crime agency, after satellite tracking shows they suddenly disappeared over land managed for driven grouse shooting.

All three disappearances have happened in Northern England within days of the 'Glorious Twelfth' - the official start of the red grouse shooting season - and a time where grouse numbers are managed to be at their peak level to ensure a successful shooting season.  

Hen Harriers are protected and are one of the UK's most vulnerable bird species, making the UK conservation red list. Known for their acrobatic ‘skydancing’ courtship display over the uplands, the raptors are birds of prey, and are known to occasionally hunt grouse.

RSPB chief executive Beccy Speight said this was the first time so many hen harriers had gone missing in such a short space of time - "all on driven grouse moors".

All three hen harrier incidents have been reported to the police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the RSPB says (Getty Images)All three hen harrier incidents have been reported to the police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the RSPB says (Getty Images)
All three hen harrier incidents have been reported to the police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the RSPB says (Getty Images)

"This is on top of the 21 birds that we reported on in April as having gone missing in the last twelve months," she added. "If these magnificent birds are ever going to have a sustainable population in England this has to stop, productivity from nests means nothing if the birds don’t survive."

The RSPB is calling on the UK government to introduce a licencing system for grouse shooting in England, similar to measures now being taken in Scotland, "to act as a meaningful deterrent to raptor crime whilst also protecting the legitimate interests of those landowners who operate legally".

All three incidents have been reported to the police and the NWCU (National Wildlife Crime Unit), the RSPB said.

The three hen harriers that disappeared were all young female birds, and were all tagged and tracked via satellite. Their names were Martha, Selena, and Hepit.

Martha was a one-year-old who was tagged as a chick at Mar Lodge, a National Trust for Scotland estate in Aberdeenshire, in the spring of 2022. The satellite tracking data shows that Martha moved into Northumberland in early August, and gave her last transmission from Westburnhope Moor near Hexham on 9 August. 

Selena was a juvenile female tagged on United Utilities land in Bowland this spring. Her satellite tag showed that she had just moved to the Yorkshire Dales before her last transmission from Mossdale Moor near Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales on 11 August. 

Hepit was another young female hen harrier, who had also been tagged as a chick on United Utilities land in Bowland this year, before moving to the Yorkshire Dales last month. Hepit’s last transmission came from moorland at Birkdale Common near Kirkby Stephen, on 15 August – an area where the RSPB says 9 other satellite-tagged hen harriers have vanished or been found dead with injuries consistent with persecution since September 2020. 

Despite being legally protected, a number studies and reports have suggest that illegal killing is still going on, and is limiting the recovery of hen harriers in the UK.

A recent RSPB Centre for Conservation Science study, which investigated the illegal killing of satellite-tagged hen harriers in association with gamebird management, has shown that their survival rate is “unusually low”, with most birds surviving for just 121 days after fledging.

Human persecution was found to have accounted for 27 to 41% of the deaths of hen harriers under the age of one, and 75% of deaths in birds aged between one and two years. The study also found an overlap between hen harrier mortality and grouse moors. 

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