RSPB Scotland has issued an appeal for information after a young hen harrier, fitted with a satellite tag as part of the charity’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project, disappeared on an Aberdeenshire grouse moor.
“Calluna”, a female harrier, was tagged this summer at a nest on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, near Braemar. Her transmitter’s data was being monitored by RSPB Scotland and showed that the bird fledged from the nest in July. She left the area in early August, with the data showing her gradually heading east over the Deeside moors. However, while the tag data showed it to be working perfectly, transmissions abruptly ended on 12th August, with no further data transmitted. Calluna’s last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park.
Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest raptors and the 2016 national survey results released earlier this year showed that even in Scotland, the species’ stronghold, these birds are struggling. The number of breeding pairs in Scotland now stands at 460, a fall of 27 per cent since 2004, with illegal killing in areas managed for driven grouse shooting identified as one of the main drivers of this decline.
David Frew, Operations Manager for the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge Estate, said: “It is deeply saddening to learn that Calluna appears to have been lost, so soon after fledging from Mar Lodge Estate. Hen harriers were persecuted on Deeside for a great many years, and we had hoped that the first successful breeding attempt on Mar Lodge Estate in 2016 would signal the start of a recovery for these magnificent birds in the area.
“Only one month after fledging, and having travelled only a relatively short distance, it appears that we will no longer be able to follow the progress of our 2017 chick. We hope however that the data her tag has provided will help to inform a wider understanding of the lives and threats faced by hen harriers.”
Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland said: “This bird joins the lengthening list of satellite-tagged birds of prey that have disappeared, in highly suspicious circumstances, almost exclusively in areas in areas intensively managed for grouse shooting. We are pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment has commissioned an independent group to look at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. We look forward to a further announcement shortly on the membership of this group, and we are committed to assist the work of this enquiry in any way that we can.
“The LIFE project team has fitted a significant number of tags to young hen harriers this year, with the very welcome help from landowners, including the National Trust for Scotland, who value these magnificent birds breeding on their property. The transmitters used in this project are incredibly reliable and the sudden halt in data being received from it, with no hint of a malfunction, is very concerning. We ask that if anyone has any information about the disappearance of this bird we urge them to contact Police Scotland as quickly as possible.”
Susan Davies, Director of Conservation, Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “It’s extremely disappointing to learn that yet another hen harrier has disappeared over a grouse moor. The most recent surveys show that hen harrier numbers are declining in most parts of Scotland and that illegal persecution is a factor in this decline. Anyone who has information on this bird’s disappearance should contact Police Scotland immediately.
“The Trust has repeatedly called on the Scottish Government to be tougher on wildlife crime and introduce a system of licensing for grouse moor management to encourage sustainable practices. We welcome the recent announcement that a working group will be formed to look at the environmental impact of grouse moors and options for better regulation, and we stand ready to assist this group in any way possible.”
The National Trust for Scotland’s Head of Conservation Policy, Stuart Brooks said: “If Calluna has been lost, as we fear, it is a sad day for us and Scotland.
“We have worked so hard over recent years to help nature return to the hills and glens of Mar Lodge, affirmed by its recent designation as the British Isles’ largest National Nature Reserve.
“If Calluna’s fate adds to the body of evidence that raptors are being killed we need the Scottish Parliament to act swiftly and decisively to minimise the risk of this happening again at Mar Lodge and elsewhere.”