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Durham constabulary

Another satellite-tagged Hen Harrier ‘disappears’ in suspicious circumstances

Another satellite-tagged Hen Harrier ‘disappears’ in suspicious circumstances near a grouse moor.

“It is believed the protected species could have been shot down or killed unlawfully.”

Under the title “Officers team up with partners in search for missing hen harrier“, Durham Constabulary has posted a press release describing a multi-agency search for Sia, a satellite-tagged Hen Harrier that (to use the jargon) has ‘disappeared in suspicious circumstances’. The bird’s last known location prior to her (extremely reliable) satellite tag suddenly stopping working? Hamsterley Forest, close to grouse moors in the raptor persecution hotspot of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (‘one of England’s most special places’ to quote the AONB website).

 

North Pennines AONB

Officers have teamed up with partner agencies to investigate a suspected case of raptor persecution.

Led by Wildlife Officer, PC Dave Williamson, members of the Barnard Castle Neighbourhood Policing Team, RSPB, the National Wildlife Crime Unit and Police Scotland carried out a search in an area close to Hamsterley Forest on Wednesday morning (November 2).

The activity came after a 2022 female hen harrier called Sia, from Southern Scotland, went missing in the area on October 10 when her tag stopped transmitting.

It is believed the protected species could have been shot down or killed unlawfully.

PC David Williamson, who led the operation, said: “We will always do everything we can to act on information received about alleged criminal activity.

“I would encourage anyone with information about this suspected crime to get in touch.”

If you have any information call 101 quoting incident reference number 79 of October 19, email PC Williamson at david.williamson@durham.police.uk or contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. (Durham Constabulary 04/Nov/22)

 

Unusual for a police force to speak out

The key line there, which we welcome, is of course that sentence: “It is believed the protected species could have been shot down or killed unlawfully“.

Police forces have typically been circumspect when it comes to making claims like that without evidence. The shooting industry (often in the shape of various gamekeeper organisations and the Moorland Association (a collection of moorland landowners)) typically cry foul and suggest that a previously healthy, fit young bird who’d been surviving well until they started feeding near a grouse moor could have ‘just died’ (interestingly they’ve more or less given up suggesting ‘the tag must have failed’ after realising that absolutely no-one was buying that line after studies repeatedly showed that modern tags simply don’t suddenly stop working as if a switch had been flicked).

Presumably the growing pile of harrier corpses that have now died (or ‘disappeared in suspicious circumstances’) on or near grouse moors has finally convinced everyone except shooting lobbyists that the illegal killing of highly-protected birds of prey is routine and part of the grouse shooting industry’s business model.

That ‘pile’ is unmissable after all. The Raptor Persecution UK blog has been keeping a rolling tally of Hen Harriers that have ‘disappeared’ since just 2018, and (with Sia added to the list) says the total is now 73! Not all chicks are tagged so those are only the ones we know about of course.

Most of these dead or ‘missing’ Hen Harriers were youngsters that had only fledged in the previous summer, reinforcing the point that Protect the Wild and others have been making that shooting’s ‘celebration’ of the number of chicks being born (in often well-monitored and therefore secure nests) is greenwashing because it bears little relation to the number of juveniles that actually survive to maturity. Little wonder that the number of breeding age Hen Harriers on England’s grouse moors remains ridiculously low.

 

No ‘LIcencing lifeline’

Yet another wildlife crime involving Hen Harriers and grouse moors also brings into sharp focus the ‘licencing lifeline’ being offered to grouse moor owners.

Licencing grouse moors, according to the scheme’s supporters, will stop the crimes taking place because any moor found committing wildlife crimes will have its licence revoked and be unable to operate As we have pointed out repeatedly, Hen Harriers (and other birds of prey) are already protected by law but are still being killed anyway. And as this press release from Durham Constabulary makes clear, even multi-agency searches don’t always produce evidence: it’s extremely easy for a gamekeeper to shoot a harrier and dispose of the body and the tag miles from where the bird was last reported. There is nothing in ‘licencing’ to suggest more officers on the ground or better enforcement. It will be ‘business as usual’.

 

Female Hen Harrier

 

Removing the ‘human threat’

Hen Harriers will of course always be vulnerable to predators and bad weather, but foxes and natural events are not what is suppressing Hen Harrier populations in the UK – it is crime.

Grouse shooting estates have proved over and over again that they will not tolerate predators taking ‘their’ grouse chicks, whether the law says they have to or not. That won’t change with licencing.  Shooting should not be dictating which and where birds of prey survive in the UK. Shutting down the grouse shooting industry is the only way to remove the ‘human threat’, allowing harriers and other moorland species to determine natural population levels by themselves.