Disappearance of fifth hen harrier fuels concerns bird heading towards extinction

Mystery disappearance follows reports that a hen harrier had abandoned its nest in Cumbria, amid suggestions 'rogue gamekeepers' may be targeting birds

Jamie Merrill
Sunday 07 June 2015 11:58
The latest disappearance is the fifth hen harrier this spring to have gone missing
The latest disappearance is the fifth hen harrier this spring to have gone missing

The mysterious disappearance of a fifth hen harrier this spring has fuelled fears that England’s most endangered bird of prey is being persecuted towards extinction.

The RSPB confirmed that a male hen harrier had disappeared from its nest in Bowland, Lancashire, leading to the fifth nest failure in the north of England this spring. Lancashire Police has appealed for information about what happened to the protected upland bird of prey.

Graham Jones, the RSPB’s conservation manager for the RSPB in North West England, said: “All of the RSPB and United Utilities staff and volunteers who have been monitoring the hen harrier nests in Bowland are devastated by this latest disappearance, as are the estate’s shooting tenants.

“However, we are now more committed than ever to rescuing this beautiful bird from the brink of extinction in England.”

The news comes only days after the RSPB confirmed another male hen harrier had disappeared from its nest in Cumbria. The last sighting of the latest missing Bowland male bird was on 29 May when it was spotted passing food to the female, however RSPB volunteers became concerned by its prolonged absence and on 1 June discovered the nest had been abandoned and that the eggs were cold.

Bowland Forest has been called the “last stronghold in England” for the harried birds, but four of the species have now disappeared mysteriously from the area in recent months, while earlier this week a bird was reporting missing from an RSPB reserve at Geltsdale in Cumbria.

Together the Geltsdale and Bowland Forest incidents have resulted in the failure of five nests, which the RSPB has described as a “significant proportion” of the breeding birds in England.

Of all of the UK’s the stealthy hen harrier is the most intensively persecuted and while there is thought to be enough suitable habitats for up to 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England, only four pairs bred in 2014. This year only a handful of nesting pairs are thought to remain, though there is hope the RSPB may discover new nest sites in the next month.

Officially the RSPB declines to speculate on the cause of the hen harrier disappearances citing possible future criminal prosecutions, but they come against a backdrop of fierce conflict between “rogue gamekeepers” who are alleged to kill the animal, which eats red grouse chick, and wildlife conservationists. The RSPB does point to a 2008 commissioned report by Natural England which found that it was very unusual for male hen harrier to abandon an active nest in most places.

The RSBP stages 24-hours watches to protect breeding sites, but there are fears “rogue gamekeepers” are targeting the birds as they travel long distances to feed, often on young grouse chicks

Lorraine Ellwood, Lancashire Police Rural Policing and Wildlife Co-ordinator, said: “We remain open minded as to the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the male harriers, and are exploring all possibilities of both natural and criminal intent.”

The disappearance at Bowland comes as the RSPB is involved in high-profile row with former cricketer Sir Ian Botham, who owns a grouse moor on the North York Moors and fronts You Forgot the Birds, a campaign group which claims the bird charity is obsessed with birds of prey and fails to protest other species.

You Forgot the Birds has claimed that “bird bothering” by bird enthusiasts in Bowland could be responsible for the latest failed nest site by scarring away nesting birds.

Sir Ian Botham told the Independent: “Birds are twitchy by nature. They have evolved over millions of years to protect themselves against predators. So it is hardly surprising if hen harriers, which have remarkable senses of hearing and sight could be frightened by humans surround their nests.”

However the RSPB rejected the claim. A spokesperson for the charity said: “The allegations set out by grouse industry-funded You Forgot the Birds are very serious and we have seen no evidence to support them. If they have any evidence to back up these claims, we would urge them to report it to the police... The real issue here, though, is the survival of hen harriers. A wealth of scientific studies, including the Government's own reports, indicate illegal persecution is the main constraint. To save hen harriers, we must end illegal persecution. The RSPB and our partners are already committed to doing this and the grouse shooting industry must play its part to stamp out wildlife crime.

“The RSPB's staff and volunteers on the ground do an incredible job of trying to protect hen harrier nests around the clock. Their job is one of the most physically and emotionally draining in conservation. They work in extremely difficult conditions and their dedication, passion and expertise is second to none. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”

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