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Another harrier goes missing in the Cairngorms

By Tom Ramage

RSPB Scotland are appealing for information following the sudden disappearance of a young hen harrier in an area "notorious for bird of prey persecution."


The female harrier, named Marci, was satellite tagged as a chick in 2018 as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project.

She fledged from a nest on National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, and the project had been tracking her movements until the tag stopped transmitting on 22nd April 2019.

In August 2018, another young satellite tagged hen harrier named Margot vanished on a grouse moor just a few miles from Marci’s last recorded position.

Like Margot, Marci’s tag was functioning normally until it suddenly stopped transmitting.

Marci had been exploring a wide area of north east Scotland with her last recorded position in an area managed intensively for driven grouse shooting near Strathdon, west Aberdeenshire. Marci had been in the area for the previous three weeks with no indication of any technical issues with the tag. Follow-up searches by Police Scotland and RSPB Scotland uncovered no trace of the bird or her tag.

It comes just weeks after Skylar, another hen harrier tagged by the project, disappeared – on February 7. Her last recorded position showed she was close to a South Lanarkshire grouse moor.

The most recent UK hen harrier population survey revealed a "worrying" decline of 13 percent between 2010 and 2016 to an estimated 545 pairs. While Scotland is the UK stronghold for the population with 460 of these, numbers here were down by nine percent since 2010, and 29 percent since 2004.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, RSPB’s hen harrier LIFE project manager said: “These sudden disappearances of our satellite tagged hen harriers are depressingly frequent; Marci didn’t even get to make it through her first year before vanishing. The satellite tags are highly reliable so a sudden stop in transmitting gives us immediate cause for concern.

"If Marci had died of natural causes the tag should have continued to transmit, allowing our team to find her.

“A recent published study indicates that 72% of hen harriers are being illegally killed on Britain’s grouse moors, while another study found 31% of tagged golden eagles in Scotland were illegally killed. Something has to change in the way our countryside is looked after, to help protect our iconic birds of prey in Scotland.”

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations said: “This is the latest in a string of similar incidents in western Aberdeenshire, and is further strong evidence of the systematic targeting of protected birds of prey on Scotland’s driven grouse moors. In just the last few years, the illegal killing of a buzzard, three goshawks and a hen harrier have been witnessed within a few miles of where Marci vanished.

"There have also been several confirmed poisonings; the filming of the illegal setting of traps; and the suspicious disappearances of several satellite-tagged eagles and other hen harriers.

"It is abundantly clear that current legislation is completely failing to protect our birds of prey, and robust regulation of the driven grouse shooting industry is both vital and long overdue.”

Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg said: "The SGA condemns persecution and we act accordingly in proven cases. There is no grounds to say this is what has happened here.

"Satellite tags fail, some are poorly fitted, some are never found - whether persecution is suspected or not - and some tags signal hours apart. This can make final signal locations meaningless.

"RSPB itself admitted, when hen harrier Brian's tag last pinged on one of its own nature reserves, that final signals are only an indication of where a bird has been.

"We also know, scientifically, that a significant percentage of hen harriers die in their first year.

"In Orkney, where there are no grouse moors, almost 70 percent of harriers die in year one. Until these tags are monitored independently and not by campaign organisations, the public are only getting an interpretation. As far as we can see, there is no evidence for the claims being made."

Solicitors Levy & McRae – who are representing the estate where the last recorded transmission was identified – issued a statement this afternoon (Wednesday May 22).

David McKie, partner, said: “My clients have fully co-operated with the inquiry and will continue to help in any way that they can.

“I have written on my client’s behalf to RSPB to protest at what they consider to be a grave and unwarranted attack on them by the press release.

“The estate can categorically say that if anything has happened to Marci, for which there is very little evidence at present, if at all, it has nothing to do with management of sporting on the estate and it strongly resents the inference by RSPB.The estate has a long and proud history of conservation and operates a zero tolerance approach to any form of persecution. The estate supports fully any inquiry to establish what has happened to the bird but it completely respects the process of law and keeps a completely open mind on a range of possible alternative explanations.”

A spokesperson for the estate, which did not wish to be named, said: “We were contacted on May 1 by the police and were pleased to accompany them on a search around the two last known coordinates of the tagged bird.Together they searched intensively over a 100m radius around the last two known coordinates but nothing was found.

“A hen harrier was seen by the Wildlife Liaison Officer flying around in the vicinity at that time although it was not possible to see if it was the bird in question or whether it had a satellite tag fitted. Those factors were brought to the attention of the RSPB before their media release was issued but curiously no reference was made to that in their statement.”

If anyone can provide information about Marci or any illegal killing of birds of prey please contact Police Scotland on 101, or the RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.

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