As two more Hen Harriers ‘disappear’ it’s time to roar not whisper

So, Cumbria Police are appealing for information following the disappearance of two male Hen Harriers, in what is typically described as ‘suspicious circumstances’, from the RSPB’s reserve at Geltsdale. Two more highly protected birds that the RSPB, the RSPB’s members, and birders everywhere cherish and thrill to.

It’s become common to describe wildlife crime as ‘underpinning’ the operation of grouse moors, but as these two Hen Harriers – both male, both apparently provisioning nests on the Geltsdale reserve – ‘disappear’ maybe it’s time we started to say that wildlife crime is actually the scaffolding that keeps the whole dodgy edifice from falling over. As the Langholm experiment showed, shoot operators can not make the vast profits from farming grouse that they want if there are birds of prey on the farm too: and rather than obey the law, admit that other species have a right to survive in the uplands, birds of prey are (in far too many cases) simply eradicated.

 

But, we can already hear the lobbyists protest, Geltsdale is an RSPB Reserve. This is down to mismanagement by the RSPB and nothing to do with wildlife crime at all. Only of course that’s shooting’s spin and ignores the absolutely bleeding obvious: the RSPB works to encourage and protect Hen Harriers on its land, and Geltsdale is surrounded by grouse moors.

Described by the RSPB as “hidden away in the north-west corner of the North Pennines”, Geltsdale may be remote by many people’s standards, but unfortunately ‘hidden away’ does not mean ‘distant from’ shooting estates. The reserve has boundaries that are shared with grouse moors, and – as anyone with even the most basic knowledge will know – birds have absolutely no idea how to recognise those boundaries nor appreciate what horrors might lie just over the other side of them. And we are in an area here that is notorious for raptor persecution. As warden at RSPB Geltsdale, Steve Garnett, puts it in somewhat restrained terms in the press-release below: “We can make sure they are safe when they are on our land, but of course, they are free to range more widely and we know that not everyone has the best interests of these birds in mind.  Hen harriers are illegally killed every year, so we are bound to view these disappearances as suspicious.”

How do you know it was persecution, the lobbyists shriek, maybe they just died…Yes, of course, natural mortality occurs, and yes, of course, predation occurs, but these were adult males, the fittest of the fit, birds that had survived the winter and were – biologically speaking – in prime condition. It is ridiculous for shooting to suggest (as they will) that these birds simply lay down and died. Did the male Hen Harriers with nests on the reserve that also disappeared at the same stage in 2015, 2017 and 2018 just lie down and die as well…? Of course not.

Shooting will seize on this ‘disappearance’ and spin it against the RSPB’s management of Geltsdale for all they are worth. They have to because as each persecution incident, each burning and flooding incident, each incident of harassment of monitors, and each misuse of traps and snares mount up the public are seeing grouse shooting for exactly what it is: a destructive, crime-ridden, anachronistic, cruel industry that needs to be taken apart and rebuilt from the ground up.

 

Can that ever happen? The membership of our NGOs is nowhere near as radical as campaigners like us might hope, but on the issue of illegal persecution of birds of prey it’s pretty much certain that we are all united. We can only hope (though we won’t be holding our breaths) that the RSPB finally tire of being shooting’s whipping boys and actually make the strongest statement possible about these disappearances.

Not that the RSPB is silent, it’s more that it whispers rather than roars. It has, for example, always supported Hen Harrier Day (albeit a little tentatively when it was first launched), but they need to be far more vocal now. There is absolutely zero chance that shooting’s own propagandists (and its largely acquiescent and ‘wilfully blind’ customers) will do anything about the wildlife crime on its properties. The myth of dialogue has been exploded by supposed partners on the various ‘groups’ set up to end wildlife crime walking away in a huff when challenged to actually do something. The government’s obsessive but entirely misplaced support for brood meddling of Hen Harriers (removing chicks from harm’s way and rearing them elsewhere while doing nothing about the cause of that harm) shows they’re not committed to ending raptor persecution either.

 

It’s time to grow some balls, frankly. Grouse shooting doesn’t give a damn – for the RSPB, for its members, for the rest of us who love wildlife. It is stuffed with apologists who relish putting the RSPB and ‘antis’ in their place, promising little and delivering even less, and who will never willingly concede any ground. Its intransigence proves that there is no ‘fairness’ here, no ‘gentlemen’ to talk with, no even-handedness, no-one on their side willing to listen.

Our NGOs must drop the ‘neutrality’, the studied politeness, and understand that while the opposition in the corner might look fierce, there are millions of us out here who will get in the ring and fight like tigers alongside them – but only if and when it looks like there is fight in them too.

 

Police appeal for information following disappearance of two male hen harriers

Cumbria Police are appealing for information following the disappearance of two male Hen Harriers, in suspicious circumstances from the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale.

PC Samantha O’Key the forces Wildlife, Rural and Environmental Crime Co-ordinator said,

The two male birds were servicing nests, and as a result both nests have now failed

In 2020 another male bird went missing in suspicious circumstances. The male was servicing two nests and as a result both nests failed. These birds were in good health, in a perfect environment for them to thrive, with plenty of food.  It is highly unlikely that the Harriers have died of natural causes.

Hen Harriers are a Schedule 1 protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and are one of the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey. Cumbria Police will continue to work in partnership with the RSPB and other agencies to protect our wild birds.

We would ask that anyone with any information contact Cumbria Police on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or www.crimestoppers-uk.org.” 

Warden at RSPB Geltsdale, Steve Garnett:

This is devastating news, for hen harriers, for our hard-working team here at RSPB Geltsdale and for everyone who is rooting for a better outcome for these birds.

Each season, the joy of seeing these birds return to breed is always tinged with worry over what might happen to them while they’re hunting beyond the safety of our reserve.  

We can make sure they are safe when they are on our land, but of course, they are free to range more widely and we know that not everyone has the best interests of these birds in mind.  Hen harriers are illegally killed every year, so we are bound to view these disappearances as suspicious.  

Anyone with information can contact the RSPB in confidence on our raptor persecution hotline (0300 999 0101) and we will support the police in any way we can.”

Cumbria Police, 18 May 2021