Yet another Hen Harrier disappears in ‘suspicious circumstances’

The RSPB is reporting that yet another satellite-tagged Hen Harrier, this time a female called Yarrow, has disappeared in ‘suspicious circumstances (legalese for ‘we have a damn good idea what happened but right now we can’t prove it’). Using the rolling total on Raptor Persecution UK (as far as most people are concerned the most accessible – and certainly most current – talliers of just how many Hen Harriers have ‘disappeared’ or been confirmed illegally killed) that would make fifty-three (yes, 53) since 2018.

Pro-shoot lobbyists have been queuing up on social media to point out that Yarrow (according to the RSPB report) disappeared while heading from Stockton-on-Tees towards the persecution hot spot of the North York Moors. Birds die naturally, they say, so why is the RSPB claiming the circumstances were ‘suspicious’? Yet more unsubstantiated gamekeeper bashing, they say…

Yes, of course birds die naturally, we say, but when they do their satellite-tags don’t die with them. Modern transmitters very rarely fail. They keep on transmitting, sending location data to researchers. Yet when Hen Harriers die their satellite-tags almost always in effect die too – because whoever kills them is removing the tag and burying it, wrapping it in lead, destroying it etc etc etc. Those are not the actions of for example birdwatchers, raptor researchers, wardens, cyclists, hikers, or anyone except wildlife criminals who do not want Hen Harriers on ‘their’ moorland. To be fair, that might not just be gamekeepers – some landowners don’t want harriers on the moors either.

Incidentally, these are the conditions that (Un)Natural England is telling us makes brood-meddling of Hen Harriers the very best way to build up the declining population. Not by doing something to stop the rampant persecution that is the real problem (and which is part of the IUCN’s explicit guidance on translocations and reintroductions), but then of course that’s not an alternative their chums in the grouse shooting industry want anyone discussing…


Yarrow being fitted with her satellite tag last summer. Photo credit John Wright

Yet another satellite-tagged hen harrier has disappeared in suspicious circumstances at a crucial time in the breeding season.

Yarrow, a female hen harrier, hatched in the Scottish Borders in summer 2020. She was fitted with a satellite tag, which provided scientists with regular updates on her whereabouts. But transmissions from her tag stopped suddenly and unexpectedly on 12 April 2021. Data showed her to be flying south-east that morning, from the North Pennines in the direction of the North York Moors. The tag’s final transmission came from Stockton-on-Tees, and Yarrow has not been heard from since. The matter has been reported to Cleveland Police.

Hen harriers are a red-listed species and their population in England is dangerously low. They are legally protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, yet these majestic birds remain one of the most persecuted birds of prey in the UK and continue to be illegally killed, or disappear in suspicious circumstances, particularly in connection with land managed for driven grouse shooting. Illegal killing is the most significant threat to the English hen harrier population. Twenty-four hen harrier nests were recorded in summer 2020, of which 19 successfully produced chicks. Yet there is enough habitat and prey to support 12 times that number.

The news comes only seven weeks after another harrier, Tarras, disappeared in similarly suspicious circumstances. Tarras was another Scottish bird from 2020 who moved south to the North Pennines AONB. Her tag’s last fix showed her to be roosting just off a grouse moor near Haltwhistle. And in September 2020, a hen harrier named Dryad also vanished. Dryad’s last transmission also came from a grouse moor in North Yorkshire. All birds were searched for, but no bodies or tags were found.

Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK, said:

“April is a crucial time for hen harriers as they pair up ready to nest and raise the next generation, and we had hoped for the same for Yarrow.

“After her tag ‘checked in’ over Stockton-on-Tees, which turned out to be the last known location we received, we expected a further transmission the next day showing that Yarrow had reached the North Yorkshire Moors but that never came. Sadly, it is highly likely that Yarrow was killed and the tag destroyed in a matter of hours after its last fix was recorded, based on our extensive knowledge of these tags and the patterns of disappearance of hen harriers.

“We are acutely aware of how difficult it is to come forward with information about a crime, especially in rural communities. If you know anything that may shed light on the disappearance of his young harrier, or know of anyone killing raptors in your area, you can call us in complete confidence on our Raptor Crime Hotline: 0300 999 0101. You are in control. And your call could help prevent more birds being illegally killed.”

To contact Cleveland Police about this crime, please call 101 and quote crime reference CVP-21-061647.

Jane Shelton (RSPB), Yarrow is latest hen harrier to vanish in suspicious circumstances, 29 April 21