Steve Garnett was first to spot the figures crouched on a ridgeline in the middle distance. Sitting in the heather scanning for birds of prey, the RSPB warden had noticed that we were being watched.
Ensconced in the centre of a 12,000 acre RSPB reserve in Cumbria, where Mr Garnett is moorland warden, we were there to hear from the staff and volunteers who have spent this spring monitoring breeding hen harriers – one of England’s rarest birds.
Along with the Forest of Bowland 100 miles to the south, the vast RSPB Geltsdale reserve here in the north west is prime habitat for the bird. But this spring five male hen harriers have mysteriously disappeared from their nests at Geltsdale and Bowland, causing despair among bird lovers and staff at RSPB reserves alike.
Last week, the latest disappearance and ensuing nest failure at Bowland prompted fears that the endangered bird, which feeds on grouse chicks and is known for its beautiful aerial displays, is being targeted by “rogue gamekeepers” and is facing “extinction by persecution” in England.
Mr Garnett won’t be drawn on who is watching us, but admits that relations with the neighbouring shooting estates can be “tense” and that this week he’d heard the sound of a propane gas gun booming across the hills. The guns are used by gamekeepers on grouse moors to scare off predators, and its installation near Geltsdale comes only weeks after a male hen harrier disappeared from under the noses of the RSPB monitoring staff and their 24-hour watch hen harrier vigil.
“The habitat is perfect for the hen harrier here and the male was bringing in food six or seven times a day, but then one day it didn’t come back,” said Mr Garnett. “It’s heart-breaking and illegal persecution is always a possibility we worry about. It’s happened before.”
The disappearance was felt particularly hard because no hen harrier pair has nested successfully at Geltsdale for eight years. During our visit a kestrel hovered above us as Mr Garnett pointed out the site of the now-abandoned hen harrier nest. There’s a moment of excitement as he spots a short-eared owl hunting for voles, but of the hen harriers of Geltsdale there is no sign.
Of all the UK’s protected birds of prey, the hen harrier is among the most persecuted and despite suitable habitat for 300 breeding pairs in England, only four sets of birds bred successfully last year. There are larger populations in Scotland and Wales, but the spate of nest failures in England is “unprecedented” according to Natural England and has prompted police in Cumbria and Lancashire to appeal for information.
It has also led to renewed tension in the villages around Geltsdale, where Mr Garnett admits that he doesn’t “tend to advertise” that he works for the RSPB. There is tension too at Bowland, where the Independent on Sunday had been due to observe the single remaining active hen harrier nest with the RSPB, until the landowner United Utilities banned the visit, claiming the issue had become “too political”.
The ban came after ex-cricketer and keen grouse moor shooter Sir Ian Botham, who is engaged in a long-running battle with the RSPB as frontman of the You Forgot the Birds campaign, said bird enthusiasts has been “bothering” hen harriers and approaching their nests and this could be to blame for the disappearances.
Out on the hillside in Geltsdale, Mr Garnett said the comments were “exasperating” and vigorously denied claims of “bird bothering”, while the British Trust of Ornithology said it was “not aware” of the phenomenon.
Others in the countryside back the former England cricketer though. At Bowland, Duncan Thomas, a former wildlife police officer and the north west regional officer for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said: “I can give anecdotal direct experience evidence of so many example of horrendous practise [by RSPB volunteers]. I genuinely think there is some sort of psychological phenomenon that surrounds the power of having access to control over a nest.”
For its part the RSPB says its volunteers don’t bother birds and only rarely come closer than 400m from a nest (usually they monitor for 900m away), while Jean Roberts, an RSPB volunteer, who had been keeping watch at Bowland, said the recent disappearances left her feeling “sick”.
She said: “After all of the time everyone has spent watching and hoping, and you know in your heart that something doesn’t feel right, that something is wrong. And even though you feel powerless, you just want to do what you can to put things right. But we’ll keep doing what we can, watching the harriers, until things do change.”
The spate of disappearance has prompted wildlife campaigner Mark Avery to renew his call for a ban on driven grouse shooting, amid suggestions that illegal raptor persecution is linked to intensively managed grouse moors. The former RSPB conservation chief said: “The loss of birds will sadden the RSPB’s volunteers, but it was also make them even more determined. I think many of them will think that it is utterly pathetic. These birds have been fully protected by law for more than 60 years and the rate at which they disappear across grouse moors across the UK is just unacceptable and is taking us back to Victorian lack of values.”
Like many conservationists, Mr Avery points to statistics which show that 20 gamekeepers have been found guilty of “raptor persecution” since 2002 and that in 2013 alone the RSPB logged 238 reports of birds of prey being poisoned, shot or beaten to death, though evidence of crime is hard to gather in vast rural area and convictions are very rare.
On the other side of the fierce debate, which is dividing vast swathes of rural England, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), which campaigns for a “thriving countryside rich in game other wildlife”, says that there has been “no evidence” presented of illegal behaviour by gamekeepers at Geltsdale or Bowland and has called for “those on the ground” to gather more evidence.
The charity is also calling on the RSPB to agree to the government’s draft hen harrier recovery plan, including the temporary movement of hen harrier young to aviaries, also known as brood management. This would, it says, allow chicks to be reared in captivity and be released in lowland areas, reducing hen harriers’ predation on grouse.
However the RSPB is against implementing brood management, and points to studies which it claims prove there is a relationship between intensive grouse shoots and the illegal persecution of birds of prey, including the hen harrier. Instead it wants the grouse industry to first prove it is not breaking the law.
Sir Ian Botham again insisted that “the RSPB bears at least some of the responsibility for the low numbers of hen harriers.”
It’s a charge that will likely upset Jeff Knott, head of policy at the RSPB. Speaking to him after I visited Bowland he told me: “The logo for the Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty features a hen harrier, but sadly that’s the only place you are likely to see one now. And that’s not because of our volunteers. I can only feel for them having to listen to some ex-cricketer telling them that it’s their fault the hen harriers are disappearing, but they won’t give up. We are going to win this.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies