Hen Harrier and chick

122 Hen Harriers confirmed ‘missing’ or illegally killed in UK since 2018

Using data from the RSPB and Natural England, the UK’s leading website on the illegal persecution of birds of prey, Raptor Persecution UK (RPUK), published the details yesterday of each of 122 Hen Harriers confirmed ‘missing’ or illegally killed in the UK since 2018.

Hen Harriers are the most persecuted bird of prey in Britain and are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. While harriers often winter along coasts they are confined to breeding in the uplands, favouring the open expanses of moorland all too often managed as grouse shoots. Persecution is acknowledged as suppressing their populations, and a government report in 2018 stated that 72% of satellite-tagged Hen Harriers were confirmed or considered likely to have been illegally killed, and that this was ten times more likely to occur over areas of land managed for grouse shooting relative to other land uses. In May 2023 the RSPB published findings that unequivocally stated that illegal killing is the major cause of death in Hen Harriers.


Male Hen Harrier hunting in habitat. Shutterstock


Brood meddling

Dr Ruth Tingay, the expert behind RPUK, has been compiling a rolling tally of ‘confirmed dead or missing’ Hen Harriers since the start of what has become known as the ‘brood meddling’ scheme – a hugely expensive Natural England trial launched across the English uplands in 2018 on behalf of the grouse shooting industry. It involves chicks being taken from the nests of Hen Harriers, fitting them with lightweight satellite tags to track their movements, and releasing them on ‘safe sites’ where they don’t ‘conflict’ with the profits of grouse shoots.

Natural England (a public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra)) has spent a massive £900,000 of taxpayers’ money on a scheme to essentially remove the temptation of illegal raptor persecution from gamekeepers. The project has failed dismally. Young Hen Harriers don’t remain in one place, of course. Tracking shows them spreading out and searching for optimum habitat, inevitably finding themselves back in the uplands where many of the tags abruptly stop working. The natural failure rate of modern satellite tags is almost zero.

Everyone warned the government and their shabby ‘partners’ in this sham of a ‘trial’ what would happen. Indeed the RSPB refused in 2016 to have anything to do with the then-planned scheme. As expected by all but Natural England who still limply laud its non-existent ‘partnerships’, the illegal killing has continued. In fact as RPUK points out, 27 of the Hen Harriers known to have been killed or gone missing are ‘brood meddled’ birds.

And that won’t be the full number of dead Hen Harriers. Tagging projects run by eg the RSPB and raptor groups try to fit satellite-tags to as many Hen Harrier chicks as possible, but not all nests are accessible. No one can be sure just how many untagged Hen Harriers have also been killed on top of the 122 listed by RPUK.


Meanwhile the shooting industry spins…

While all the evidence points the other way, the recipients of Natural England’s largesse, the shooting industry itself, has been in full spin overdrive to convince a largely unaware public just how excited they are about seeing Hen Harriers return to England’s moors.

In 2022, carefully spun press releases touted the success of brood meddling and the thirteen chicks reared and released that year. That figure was the same number fledged on just the community-run Tarras Valley Nature Reserve (TVNR) alone, and of course the industry failed to mention how many of those chicks had subsequently been shot or had gone ‘missing’. In 2023 we were subjected to yet more propaganda which was faithfully regurgitated by parts of the national media and pro-shooting organisations. In August (just in time for the start of the Inglorious 12th and the start of the grouse-shooting season), the moorland owners lobbying group the Moorland Association stated that “a pioneering trial set up to help rebuild the population of the endangered Hen Harrier in England has reared and released 24 chicks this year, almost double last year’s record high of 13”. The Countryside Alliance couldn’t resist adding its own puerile twist to the ‘news’, stating “Hen harriers – a conservation success story with no thanks to the RSPB”.

Every chick is to be welcomed of course, but we should put those figures into perspective. These are only ‘record’ numbers of chicks if they’re compared against the criminally low numbers of chicks that have been reared since the intensification of driven grouse shooting and the obsessive killing of harriers. Historically – when the birds were far more widespread and not subject to daily persecution – there would have been many hundreds of chicks reared in England, not two dozen. And these ‘brood meddled’ chicks were reared in ideal conditions:  their nests were monitored, the eggs weren’t stamped on by gamekeepers, and their parents weren’t shot while away gathering food leaving the chicks to starve.

In fact, at almost the same time as the Moorland Association was peddling its version of events the RSPB was reporting on the deaths of three Hen Harriers in six days!



To quote the RSPB, who are thankfully finally expressing how utterly fed up with the grouse shooting industry they are, “Sadly, although this pattern of satellite-tagged birds disappearing around the start of the Red Grouse shooting season has been seen before, the RSPB have never had a case of three satellite-tagged Hen Harriers going missing within six days.”


This must stop

As RPUK’s latest tallying up describes, harrier after harrier is being killed or ‘goes missing’ on the vast, lawless estates in the uplands. As Dr Tingay herself pithily expresses it, grouse moor owners are ‘taking the piss’. And given the omerta of silence that hangs over grouse moors it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone will ever be convicted of the deaths of any of these 122 Hen Harriers. No one has been convicted in the past, and estates for all their blather about ‘zero tolerance’ of raptor persecution have NEVER handed over one of their own to RSPB Investigations or the police.

The dire situation isn’t helped by Defra. As Protect the Wild reported in July 2023, Defra (the government department that tells Natural England what to do), announced the appointment of a grouse moor owner to what it described as a ‘key role’ and in December 2023 it was announced that Sunak’s government had inserted both Robbie Douglas-Miller (a grouse moor owner and former director of shooting lobbyists GWCT) and Richard Benyon (another shoot owner and pro-shoot lobbyist) into the very same department (hugely inappropriate placements we can only hope will be reversed by a new government).

The fact is that despite the bribes being handed out by Natural England, and despite the increased surveillance and public anger, estates and gamekeepers are unable to help themselves when it comes to persecuting birds of prey. See it, kill it. Just like in the past…
Hapit disappeared in an area where nine other Hen Harriers have vanished or been found dead with injuries consistent with persecution since September 2020. Photo RSPB.

If we ever want this destruction of wildlife to stop, there is only one answer – shut the bloody shooting industry down as soon as possible.

Or there will just continue to be a steady stream of images taken of young Hen Harriers like Hapit – birds full of life that just a few months later have ‘vanished’ or ‘disappeared’ never to be seen again.


  • Birds of prey have been protected by law for decades. For more information see our Protectors of the Wild page ‘Birds of Prey and the Law