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RSPB Media Release

The battle to save England’s most threatened nesting bird of prey from illegal persecution is going increasingly high-tech as a technique used for the first time in the UK confirms that a female hen harrier which was found dead in the Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire, had been shot.

Image courtesy RSPB

Conservationists were monitoring the bird remotely – which had been fitted with a satellite tag – as it ranged across the uplands of Scotland and northern England earlier this year.  Concern for the bird was raised in late June when satellite data indicated the bird was stationary. The bird’s body was recovered from a moorland area managed for grouse shooting in the Yorkshire Dales by Stephen Murphy of Natural England on 5 July 2012.

Image courtesy RSPB

The bird’s death is being investigated by North Yorkshire Police. RSPB data and government poisoning data shows the Yorkshire Dales is a national black spot for persecution, with at least 20 birds of prey having been illegally poisoned, shot or trapped between 2007 and 2011.

Image courtesy RSPB

The hen harrier is a rare nesting bird in England with only one pair nesting successfully in 2012. Government studies have shown that the uplands of England could support over 300 pairs and that the principal reason for the bird’s perilous state is illegal persecution associated with grouse shooting. [note]

Scientific breakthrough

The post mortem by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) showed the bird had a fractured left leg and would have died as a result of these injuries. An X-ray showed the presence of three tiny metallic fragments at the fracture site, and it was suspected the bird had been shot, but this could not be confirmed. However, using a scientific technique never before deployed in a UK wildlife crime case, scientists from UCL, Stanmore, were able to photograph a cross-section of the leg bone and analyse one of the fragments. This analysis confirmed the particle had entered the leg bone and that it was composed primarily of lead.

X-ray of the hen harrier’s fractured leg showing the presence of three tiny metallic fragments at the fracture site. Image courtesy RSPB

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. Commenting on this case, he said: “Information from a satellite transmitter, a detailed post mortem – supported by cutting-edge scientific analysis – adds weight to our belief that hen harriers continue to be subject to determined effort to eradicate them from our countryside.

“We need the Government, its conservation and enforcement agencies to step up to the challenge of securing the future of hen harriers in England. The problem of persecution is well understood – we need Government to bring solutions to the table via an emergency recovery plan. The first step is for ministers to confirm long-term funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit – it is essential that the UK maintains a national centre of expertise in tackling wildlife crime.”

A female hen harrier – one of the last individuals from the tiny English population – came from a nest last year in the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire. The bird – christened ‘Bowland Betty’ – had been fitted with a satellite tag to record its movements. Data from the tag revealed that the bird had wandered widely in England and Scotland, before being gunned down in North Yorkshire.

After fitting satellite tag to this female hen harrier in the Forest of Bowland last summer, the bird was then found dead in July 2012 in the Yorkshire Dales on moorland used to shoot red grouse. Cause of death starvation after being shot in the leg. Image courtesy RSPB

The RSPB’s Jude Lane works with hen harriers in the Forest of Bowland. Commenting on the news, she said: “Devastated! That’s how I feel about this news. I was privileged to have been present when she had her satellite tag fitted. I also had the honour of placing her back in the nest once the job had been done. As I placed her back in the nest with her siblings that day, I made sure to wish her luck: it’s tragic that her luck ran out. I feel privileged to have known Betty in her short life. She must not be allowed to have died in vain.”

Fitting a BTO ring prior to fledging. Image courtesy RSPB

Bob Elliot, the RSPB’s head of investigations, said: “The hen harrier has become so rare that obtaining evidence of persecution has become very difficult, demonstrating the importance of cutting-edge techniques. The person who shot this bird must have realised they would be bringing the hen harrier one step closer to oblivion as a breeding bird in England.”

The RSPB is offering a reward of £1000 for anyone with information leading to a conviction. People with information can contact the North Yorkshire police or a confidential hotline: 0845 4663636.

Editor’s notes:

1              Between 2007 and 2011 (inclusive), figures compiled by the RSPB confirm the illegal poisoning, shooting or trapping of at least 20 birds of prey in the Yorkshire Dales.  These incidents include: 10 poisoned red kites; four poisoned buzzards; two shot red kites; two shot buzzards; a shot kestrel; and a trapped sparrowhawk. In addition there were four incidents involving the discovery of poisoned baits and a number of dogs were also poisoned.

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2              The hen harrier is a Schedule 1 species on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  Offences carry a sentence of up to £5000 and/or six months in jail.  About 650 pairs breed in the UK and Isle of Man, with most of the population in Scotland. They typically breed on heather moorland and young woodland with a heather floor. Hen Harriers were once a widespread bird in England and their name originates from when they hunted free-range fowl. This bird hunts small mammals and birds, including red grouse which has led to conflict with shooting estates.

3              Research indicates there is habitat for over 300 pairs in England.  In the last ten years there have been only 11 recorded hen harrier breeding attempts in North Yorkshire. All of these have been within just a few miles of where this bird was found and only three of these nesting attempts were successful. Of the eight attempts that failed, seven were in circumstances suggesting human persecution was the most likely cause of failure.

4              A report produced by Natural England in 2008 has identified persecution as the reason for critically low breeding numbers in England.

5              Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research in the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation in over 50 countries worldwide. For further information please visit

6              The post-mortem examination by ZSL showed the hen harrier had a fractured left leg. This would have lead to death of the bird either through blood loss or inability to hunt. Detailed radiographs taken of the fracture fragments showed three small radio-dense foreign bodies embedded in the bone. These foreign bodies were of a radio-density consistent with metal and it was suspected that they may have originated from a metal projectile. In trying to investigate the origins of these foreign bodies, ZSL pathologists were alerted to recently published work in forensic science on the detection of the chemical composition of residues on bones through scanning electron microscopy (SEM) equipped with an energy dispersive x-ray analyser (EDX).

In co-operation with Professors Allen Goodship and Gordon Blunn at the UCL Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, Stanmore it was decided to attempt a new forensic approach in birds by using SEM-EDX, to visually and compositionally examine the bone and the suspect foreign radio-dense material at the site of fracture.

By fixing the bone fragment in a block of resin and incrementally grind and polish the block to go down layer by layer, just a few microns at a time, until the one of the particles was reached. The attached image shows how the particle had entered the exterior surface of the leg bone, and was deformed by impact; also that its composition was primarily lead. Scientists are satisfied the results confirm the bird was shot and that this lead to the death of the bird. This is believed to the first time this technique has been used in the UK.

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  • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Group

    This sad incident shows that if any successful hen harrier nests are found in England in the future, all chicks must be satellite tagged at nests before fledging. Second, if the RSPB hen harrier initiative is to have any chance of success the government must change the law relating to access by professional field workers, including paid wardens to private estates, which is illegal at the moment under CRoW legislation, unless land owner approval has been obtained. The BTO must also change their own rules regarding ringing Schedule 1 species on CRoW access land in England, regardless of who may own the land. Under BTO rules, not applicable to Scotland or National Parks in England, unless approval is first obtained to ring nestlings from the respective landowner the BTO rules are clear, ringing is not allowed, and may even infringe licence conditions.

    If all these conditions are applied it still does not guarantee fledged hen harriers will be any more successful in the future than they are now. What is really required is to address the root cause of raptor persecution, more experienced unpaid licensed field workers on the ground together with improved enforcement of existing legislation where it counts. This will be particularly important throughout England’s moorland uplands as demonstrated by systematic persecution which has eliminated the hen harrier as a breeding bird from all but one location in northern England. If none of this works the only alternative must be for a licensing scheme to be put in place covering all moorland in England used to shoot red grouse as proposed by the RSPB. This scheme must be supported by adequate funding to pay for staff to monitor the success of the project throughout the whole year. The removal of licenses by Natural England from England’s most experienced raptor group preventing members from monitoring vulnerable nests on private estates at their own expense in the Forest of Bowland has not helped the current situation there, playing into the hands of the raptor persecutors.

  • The cynic in me wonders if this information was withheld until after the consultation on wildlife law expired on the 30th of November.

    • nirofo

      Mike, you should know the information is always witheld whether there’s a reason or not! This is to ensure that any evidence that may have been immediately available, and which may have resulted in a prosecution of the persecutors, will have long since diappeared by the time it’s made public.

  • Ewan Miles

    The downward spiral continues with Peregrine Falcon extinct as a breeding bird in most of its former haunts in the North Pennines. Until the tax man takes account of the way money is moved around the Red Grouse moor nothing will change.