“Sickened”: Hen Harrier had head pulled off while still alive

Natural England (whose useless scheme to boost populations of the rare Hen Harrier has been slammed repeatedly by conservationists) says it is “sickened by evidence of persecution” of Hen Harriers after a staggering twenty of the rare birds ‘went missing’ from areas managed for grouse shooting in northern England in the past year.

Hen Harrier chicks have been fitted with lightweight satellite tags by Natural England and the RSPB for at least fifteen years now. Rather than giving important data about harrier movements and habitat requirements, the tags have proved instead how widespread their persecution is. Many tags have simply ‘stopped working’ (now almost analogous for ‘removed after being killed on grouse moors) and the tagged birds never seen again.

And the killing of these protected birds is often brutal and savage. One satellite-tagged bird was found on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, a notorious hot spot for raptor persecution, with their head and a leg missing. A post-mortem examination concluded the mutilated bird was still alive when the head was pulled off.

Such lawless cruelty is par for the course, unfortunately, and follows reports like the one of a nest of Hen Harrier chicks being stamped to death in North Yorkshire last year and 2018’s report of Rannoch, a young satellite-tagged female killed in an illegally-set spring trap on a grouse moor in Perthshire.


Never underestimate just how lawless the grouse shooting industry is.

Emboldened by inertia and endless ‘last chances’, the industry has been on a relentless mission to wipe out Hen Harriers and other highly-protected birds of prey from the moorlands they manage to provide Red Grouse to be shot.

Just last month a scheme being run in the Peak District – another 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.”

The RSPB have done their best to halt raptor persecution, but time and again has run up against vociferous lobbying from self-interested shooting groups and moorland owner ‘associations’ and a government whose response to persecution has been to implement a ‘brood meddling’ scheme whereby Hen Harrier chicks are removed from nests where the presence of their parents ‘conflict’ with shooting interests. They are then raised elsewhere and rereleased. With the utterly predictable results described here and forewarned over and over again by anyone who sees the grouse shooting for the rapacious, law-breaking industry that it is.

Responding to the latest desperately sad news, the RSPB said the following:

“Hen Harriers are on the red list of birds of conservation concern in the UK, with the last national survey in 2016 recording 545 pairs in the UK – a decline of 13% since 2010. In England there were 34 successful nests in 2022, despite enough habitat and food to support over 300 pairs. In 2019, the Government’s own study found illegal killing to be the main factor limiting the recovery of the UK Hen Harrier population.

The story began in April 2022 when an RSPB satellite-tagged Hen Harrier named Pegasus vanished whilst on Birkdale – an area of driven grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park on the North Yorkshire/Cumbria border. This was followed shortly after by the discovery of a dead Hen Harrier in the same area – a Natural England tagged bird called Free. The bird was missing its head and leg, which had held a metal ring for identification. Expert veterinary assessment concluded the bird has been killed through traumatic removal of its head and leg, whilst alive – consistent with persecution. A month later, another hen harrier, NE tagged bird Harvey, vanished in this area. The police carried out a search warrant in connection with the incidents, but the ensuing investigation has failed to lead to charges.

However, since the investigation ended a further four satellite-tagged Hen Harriers (one from a RSPB project and three from a Natural England one) have disappeared in this same area, managed for driven grouse shooting.

During autumn 2022, two additional RSPB tagged birds vanished in Cumbria and Durham, both also on grouse moors.

These nine birds are separate to another seven Natural England satellite-tagged Hen Harriers recorded as missing, fate unknown, over the past year.

Finally, also in the past year, five (un-tagged) breeding male Hen Harriers have vanished, including two in the Peak District National Park in 2022 and, in April this year, one in Durham and two from the RSPB’s Geltsdale Nature Reserve in Cumbria: both these birds had active nests which have now been abandoned, one containing three cold eggs. Male harriers are known to hunt away from their nest sites, and this is not the first time that adult male harriers with active nests have vanished from Geltsdale in recent years.

All 21 birds were reported at the time by the RSPB and Natural England to the Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.”

Being ‘sickened’ is nowhere near good enough

It’s all very well for Natural England to say they are ‘sickened by evidence of persecution’ – and no doubt some of the remaining staff at the severely understaffed and underresourced ‘government’s adviser for the natural environment’ do care – but what have they done to halt the endless wildlife crime taking place on grouse moors besides reinforcing how entitled the shooting industry feels? Nothing that has worked, and nothing that suggests Hen Harriers will finally start to recover after decades of illegal persecution.

They haven’t been helped by a parade of Defra ministers parroting press releases from the likes of the Moorland Association and BASC, but it’s time to grow some balls and openly admit what so many of us know: the shooting industry is rotten to the core, there are better moorland usage alternatives in terms of rewilding and carbon capture, and in the midst of biodiversity and climate change crises we need imagination and new thinking not deference to the monotonous whining coming from shooters.

Things are bad and getting no better. We have said many times on this site that while it may be a little ‘out there’ right now to call for the end of the shooting industry, we remain convinced that this will be the mainstream view in a few years’ time.

Killing vast numbers of birds and mammals to support a few hobbyists who enjoy blasting lead into live targets makes no sense at all. Reports of the decapitation of a live bird of prey for simply daring to breathe the same air as a gamekeeper can only hasten the final ‘hurrah’. We will certainly continue working for that day (see End Shooting), even if the likes of Natural England seem willing to be conned into hoping that by juggling a few nests around the country the shooting industry will change…because it won’t.

  • Featured image female Hen Harrier/Shutterstock


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