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Future of Hen harriers in the UK hangs in the balance

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

I'm sitting within touching distance of a hen harrier. And even though she's in that scruffy-feathered phase between fluffy hatchling and fully-fledged raptor, it's a truly awe-inspiring moment.

Because in England, hen harriers are as rare as their namesake's teeth.

Last year, just nine pairs bred successfully in England. And of the 37 hen harrier fledglings tagged by the RSPB last year, ten vanished over grouse shooting estates. Natural mortality is high in wild birds, but what's happening to hen harriers across the UK is very far from natural.

Two of last year's fledglings from the nest we're filming in England's Peak District were satellite tagged. Both disappeared in suspicious circumstances over a neighbouring moor. A moor which is managed for grouse shooting.

Hen harriers are disappearing over grouse shooting estates. Credit: ITV News

A study by the government conservation watchdog Natural England published this year suggested a hen harrier is ten times more likely to die on a British grouse moor than anywhere else.

Why? Conservationists say the reason is clear. Hen harriers eat grouse, and grouse moor owners and/or the gamekeepers who work for them kill the legally protected birds to protect their businesses.

And there's certainly overwhelming evidence of that going on. Not just evidence from satellite tagged hen harriers but also proof of the birds being illegally shot or trapped.

  • Footage from RSPB Scotland captures the moment a hen harrier is shot on a Scottish grouse shooting estate

And the killing continues. Today, TV-presenter and campaigner Chris Packham highlighted the plight of a pair of golden eagles he helped to fit with a satellite tag last year.

His video provides further compelling evidence these birds of prey were also illegally killed.

A satellite tagged hen harrier caught in a spring trap on a Scottish shooting estate. Credit: RSPB Scotland

Yet despite more than 60 reports of illegal killing of birds of prey in 2017, there was only one prosecution. The police struggle to gather physical evidence of a crime, and video evidence can be ruled inadmissible due to privacy laws.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners in England and Wales told us:

“We condemn any wildlife crime and have worked for years with the police where wrongdoing has been suspected. The lack of harriers is a complex issue and cannot be blamed solely on grouse moors. The population has declined in areas where there are no grouse moors.”

'Xena' is being fitted with a tag by the RSPB so she can be tracked. Credit: ITV News

This year the police launched the aptly named "Operation Owl" to try and improve the rate of prosecutions for crimes where birds of prey are persecuted.

And there is hope. The hen harrier I am sitting next to has been reared on a grouse shooting estate. This success, and that of last year's nest, is down to a collaboration between the National Trust, which owns the land, its tenant and their gamekeepers which are members of the Moorland Association, and the RSPB.

"This estate gives us hope," says Mark Thomas, Head of Investigations at the RSPB. "We want that to be rolled out everywhere else. Unfortunately, once these harriers leave this area their future is in doubt."

The National Trust has nicknamed the fledgling that we are watching "Xena". She has been fitted with a satellite tag, allowing the RSPB to track her for at least the next three years.

We'll keep you posted on her highly uncertain future.