Rare hen harrier goes missing in north Northumberland

Hilda, a hen harrier. Picture by Steve Downing.
Hilda, a hen harrier. Picture by Steve Downing.

A rare hen harrier has disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Northumberland, the second one to vanish in the county in the past year.

The harrier, named Hilma, was tagged this year at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders. She was fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and her movements were tracked by the nature conservation charity.

After departing her nest, Hilma moved across into Northumberland. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on August 8 showed she was near Wooler, over land managed for driven grouse shooting.

The RSPB reported the sudden disappearance of Hilma to Northumbria Police who are conducting enquiries.

Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds and tags continue to transmit regularly, even when the bird dies, and until the tag reaches the end of its lifespan. The tag was providing regular updates on the bird’s location, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmission is suspicious and could suggest criminal interference.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite enough habitat for over 300 pairs. It is widely understood that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors.

Over the past four years Northumberland has become a stronghold for England’s breeding hen harriers. This season, through the efforts of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, there were three successful nests in the county, producing a total of 11 chicks. However, there are growing concerns that the birds are not safe in the area with Hilma’s disappearance following the loss of Manu whose tag stopped functioning in similar circumstances in Northumberland last October.

Northumberland is not the only place where hen harriers are disappearing in suspicious circumstances. In recent weeks satellite-tagged hen harriers have also vanished suddenly in the Peak District and north Wales.

Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project said: “Just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in Northumberland and the rest of the UK, but already these young chicks are disappearing in suspicious circumstances when they are just a few months old. It’s devastating not only for those of us involved in watching and protecting these chicks, but also to the local environment, as the numbers of one of our rarest birds of prey continues to decline.

“While we don’t know yet what has happened to Hilma, we do know that the main factor limiting the hen harrier population in England is illegal killing associated with intensive management of grouse moors.”

If anyone has any information relating to this incident, please call Northumbria Police on 101. Alternatively call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline confidentially on 0300 999 0101.