Hen Harriers: Illegal killing major cause of death, says RSPB

As everyone but the shooting industry acknowledges, illegal killing IS the main cause of death in Hen Harriers aged between one and two years, and a major cause of death in birds under one year, according to a new paper, published in the journal Biological Conservation, and led by the RSPB.

According to a press release from RSPB Science, which discussed the paper’s findings, the authors found ‘multiple strands of compelling evidence’ that illegal killing is attributed to management for grouse shooting. A 10% increase in grouse moor use was associated with a 43% increase in mortality. There was also a strong overlap between the extent of mortality in 20km squares and the area of grouse moor, with hotspots of illegal killing identified in northern England and northeast Scotland. In contrast, there were no clear associations between use of grouse moors and death due to natural causes.

The news comes just days after a report that a Hen Harrier had been found that had her head pulled off while still alive and that twenty of these rare and fully-protected birds of prey ‘went missing’ from areas managed for grouse shooting in northern England in the past year.


Shooting industry sticks fingers in ears and goes ‘la la la’

Just last month a scheme being run in the Peak District – an area riddled with shooting estates and raptor persecution – to increase raptor populations closed after twelve years. Shelving the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative, the Peak District National Park Authority said that, “Incidents of shooting, poisoning, trapping, nest destruction or the disappearance of satellite-tracked birds active within the Peak District have featured in every year of the initiative’s monitoring.”

While clear and unequivocal evidence reaches Everest-scale heights that protected birds of prey are being massacred on grouse moors (solely because Hen Harriers find an abundance of grouse on moorland that has been turned into the equivalent of grouse farms), shooting lobbyists are repeating the mantra that ‘it’s the weather – and , er – foxes’ to blame, not heavily-armed gamekeepers scouring the uplands of birds of prey, stamping on their nests, and shooting them on sight.

While the RSPB is traditionally very wary of getting involved in finger-pointing (partly because their 120-year-old charter says that they should stay out of debates about shooting), Steven Ewing, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist and lead author of the study says: “Hen Harriers have been legally protected in the UK for almost 70 years, but this study adds to the already overwhelming evidence base that illegal killing remains a key cause of this species’ low population size and its ongoing absence from large areas of the uplands, particularly grouse moors”.

Quoted in the press release Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK and one of the most experienced and passionate raptor advocates in the country, said: “In the past year alone we know that 21 Hen Harriers have been illegally killed or gone missing in Northern England, in connection with land managed for grouse shooting. One bird is understood to have had its head pulled off while still alive. Illegal persecution is unacceptable, criminal and it would be an act of gross neglect and irresponsibility for the government to ignore what is happening.”


Hen Harrier

The government – giving to the shooting industry on bended knees and with both hands.

What about the government then? Ignoring isn’t quite the right word to describe the enabling, ‘roll over while their tummy is tickled’ approach they have been adopting when it comes to the grouse shooting industry.

As we have said previously, while Natural England (the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England) hasn’t been helped by a parade of Defra ministers parroting press releases from the likes of the Moorland Association and BASC, it is way beyond time to front up and admit that wildlife crime is why Hen Harriers remain at stupidly low populations levels, and put resources into tackling that rather than into shuffling young Hen Harriers around the country in their ‘brood meddling’ scheme.

There has been a belated but welcome recognition from some police forces recently that fox hunts are in fact ‘organised crime groups’ (ie a group which has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities, and. consists of three or more people who agree to act together to further that purpose).

Just how many reports do scientists have to produce before grouse shooting estates – which whine endlessly about not being able to make a profit when birds of prey are ‘allowed’ to live on ‘their’ moors – are treated in the same way?


  • For more information on protections for birds of prey please see our Protectors of the Wild page Birds of Prey and the law
  • Featured image female Hen Harrier/RSPB