The Great English Hen Harrier Conspiracy.

Scientific research constantly reminds people of the fact their is sufficient suitable heather habitat in England to support between 220 -320 pairs of Hen Harriers. Yet, the bulk of England’s citizens are unaware that in 2012 only a single successful Hen Harrier nest was recorded throughout the whole of our country. Why are Hen Harriers in such a plight many of our citizens might ask? The answer is really very simple, complacency, a lack of experienced licensed field workers on the ground to counter what has been allowed to take place. An industry which to all intent and purposes is out of control with no effective regulation on moorland where shooting takes place. The  failure of one Government after another to tackle persecution on moorland where red grouse are shot for sport. The game shooting industry in England has been master and manager of it’s own destiny for far too long in the northern uplands of England. Fauna and flora, in particular raptors, dependent upon these important heather ecosystems for their survival have played second fiddle for centuries ensuring game numbers are maintained at artificially high levels. Last but not least, politics is perhaps the worst feature diluting enforcement of existing legislation, because of this so called  ‘protected raptors’ do not receive the legal protection to which they are entitled. Because of these issues we are now paying the price resulting in the disappearance of the Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Short-eared owl and Goshawk from the upland regions of England due to persecution.


For the first time in 60 years the Hen Harrier no longer breeds in England

In respect to the Hen Harrier the warnings signs were always there, and yet national conservation organisations failed to act early enough to make any difference. Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project was one important initiative which we all hoped would succeed. With the advantage of hind sight, we now know the project was doomed to failure from the beginning. The facts are really very simple, the bulk of red grouse moor estate owners were not prepared to change their opinion of the Hen Harrier or accept their presence on the moorland they own.

Unless fundamental changes to wildlife legislation are introduced in England forcing grouse moor owners to accept Hen Harriers via a well thought out and regulated licensing scheme, the Hen Harrier will never be allowed to return to England’s uplands in any useful number in the foreseeable future, if at all. Sadly the few birds that may turn up are likely to disappear following the hundreds, if not thousands, that have all vanished before them unless given adequate protection resulting from a regulated licensing scheme applicable for all estates. Without such a scheme there would be no guarantee any fledglings produced would survive very long after leaving the nest.

We must now accept those few Hen Harriers that frequented England’s northern uplands within just the last three decades are likely to have all met the same fate at the end of a loaded shot gun, with unknown numbers of clutches of eggs and chicks destroyed in the nest and then placed down a rabbit hole. Talks hosted by the Environment Council between shooting representatives and raptor conservation organisations as part of the Hen Harrier Recovery Project held over a number of years importantly failed to deliver any benefit for the Harrier. The years spent talking did however provide the game shooting industry with an opportunity to stall for time resulting in Hen Harriers being exterminated as a breeding species from the northern uplands of England.


 Members of the Hen Harrier Recovery Project hosted by the Environment Council meeting at Abbeystead moor October 2007

The warning signs were clearly verified following the disappearance of Harriers from the northern Pennines in 2006 which should have been a wake up call. In 2012 the Harrier finally became extinct as a breeding species from England’s core breeding area in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland on estates owned by United Utilities. Significantly a prediction made in 2007 by the then United Utilities Bowland Estate Manager, warned that if gamekeepers were ever returned to their Bowland estate the Harrier would disappear within one year. The fact that it took a little longer is immaterial, because shortly after making this statement the company approved the return of gamekeepers together with several shooting syndicates onto their Bowland estate in Lancashire. Currently there are no breeding Hen Harriers in Bowland, and significantly since 2010 Peregrine densities throughout the whole of the Forest of Bowland began to decline. By 2013 at least fifteen historic peregrine territories had been abandoned together with the disappearance of thirty adult falcons from these nesting locations. In 2013 the three Eagle Owl territories established on the United Utilities estate, two nests containing eggs a third site containing small owlets, were each found abandoned. A fourth nest containing eggs located on a second estate together with one adult owl disappeared. Curiously this important detail was conveniently swept under the carpet.

As subsequent events have now revealed, where expensive satellite tags were fitted to Hen Harrier nestling’s to track their movements after fledging,  much of this expensive and high tech effort was wasted. Not because this state of the art equipment didn’t function correctly; in fact the equipment worked too well providing invaluable details of the precise locations where all these birds disappeared off the radar. There is now a distinct possibility that all satellite tagged Hen Harriers met their untimely end on unnamed moorland used to shoot red grouse.

What is difficult to understand or accept, why has Natural England consistently refused all requests to make public this vitally important information? After all, each of the satellite units were purchased using tax payer’s money with the purpose of understanding the reasons why so many Hen Harriers were disappearing and identifying those  locations where these birds were being lost.  Who would stand to benefit from keeping such damaging information censored and out of the public domain? Certainly not the Hen Harrier because this is one species now facing imminent extinction on England’s uplands, a result of persecution. On the other hand, by making public those locations where Harriers had been disappearing, this crucial detail could have been used to identify those individuals responsible. If Natural England had nothing to hide or no one to protect, why have they been so consistently unwilling to make this vitally important scientific data public? There is no doubt had they done so the Hen Harrier would have been the beneficiary.


Satellite Transmitter being fitted the Hen Harrier at nest.

There has been some speculation that a high percentage of the expensive satellite tracking units may have developed mysterious faults once the Harrier chicks had fledged moving out of their natal territories onto other moorland regions. This hypothesis is most unlikely according to the American satellite manufacturer who have confirmed their units are almost 100% reliable and are being used world wide to track bird migration very successfully and without faults. There is a second school of thought which seems more plausible under the circumstances. Are Natural England choosing to conceal this important information to avert embarrassment away from moorland estate owners on who’s properties most if not all of the tagged Harriers where shown to have disappeared?

It is very important to keep in mind these satellite transmitters are so technically advanced and reliable they are able to transmit their exact location 24-7, and importantly the precise spot where they stop transmitting anywhere on the planet. The units are also able to provide the time, the date and routes followed by Harriers after leaving the nest, and which tree they roost in at night.  Bowland Betty being a classic example of where a single tagged Harrier was tracked and then subsequently found dead on an unnamed red grouse moor in Yorkshire. The story can be followed here.

There is little disagreement among conservationists, the bulk of  Harriers lost after being fitted with a satellite tag which then  mysteriously stopped transmitting, appear to have been illegally killed. Almost certainly these birds being shot out of the sky because they were never recorded or seen alive again. Strong rumours also persist indicating many of the tagged Harriers may have vanished on a single grouse moor, no other details are known.

The distinct possibility also exists indicating that the disappearance of so many satellite tagged Hen Harriers, possibly as many as thirty, was the result of criminal activity. Did Natural England ask the police to investigate the disappearance of so many Harriers together with the lost satellite transmitters each costing between £2500 to £3000? If the police were never alerted or asked to investigate any possible criminal association resulting from these unusual disappearances, the important question on everyone’s mind is why not?

What are your feelings, we would like to hear from you, because no one appears to be listening?

  • Was Natural England correct in their decision to withhold the details of those locations where so many Hen Harriers have been lost?
  • Why did Natural England take the decision to censor such important information?
  • If the police were not asked to investigate the circumstances of these disappearances, should Natural England have asked them to do so?
  • What are your views, please send your comments.


Terry R. Pickford

North West Raptor Protection Group


11 comments to The Great English Hen Harrier Conspiracy.

  • Betty Workman

    Yet again it is about this Governments appalling track regarding British Wildlife. Their sole concern seems to be shooting estates and the interests of the landed rich.

    Editor’s Comment. Thanks Betty your support is much appreciated. Terry Pickford forgot to add that politics is playing a significant role in the disappearance of the Hen Harrier from England’s moorlands. Why for example were licenses with held by Natural England from the North West Raptor Protection Group who for 46 years have worked diligently to protect the peregrine and hen harrier in the Forest of Bowland?

  • paul williams

    There is an old saying… “If it aint broke don’t fix it” So I say to the RSPB and Natural England…It is broke…so fix it!!!

    • skydancer

      Natural England and the RSPB will do nothing as usual apart from repeat the same old lines like,”we are working with our partners (gamekeepers) to change things” “lack of food on the moors and the weather are to blame” and the old favourite “a few rogue gamekeepers”, both NE and the RSPB need to hang their heads in shame over what they have allowed to happen on the grouse moors of Northern England. Not only have they sat back and let these wonderful birds be slaughtered by the gamekeepers gun they have robbed future generations of birdwatchers from visiting these moorlands and observing these magnificent birds in their natural habitats, so thank you RSPB and Natural England.

  • paul williams

    What is worth more…A Grouse?…or a beautiful iconic raptor ever to grace the skies of the Forest of Bowland?….Our beautiful Skydancer……Answer…Grouse ….Not that hard to equate.

  • David Le Mesurier

    As Natural England are a government body can a FOA request not force them to give the data out ?

    Also a FAO request to police forces in the area would force them to reveal if they have had request to investigate these.

    Editor’s Comment. David, there have been a number of Freedom of Information requests submitted to Natural England asking for this information, all have been refuses for some reason, possibly State Security!

    It would be difficult without this information to ask any police force to investigate because only Natural England knows which locations the birds were lost.

    • David Le Mesurier

      You could just ask the police forces if they have been asked to investigate ANY hen harrier incidents, or bird of prey incidents. Would not need details at that point. Then based on the response request details of any form them, or do that in the initial request. You would not have to mention any specific moors etc, just a general request for raptors.

      So get ALL incident requests.

      Were the requests done though the what do they know web site so anyone can see ?

  • nirofo

    You can’t really lay the blame but you can possibly understand up to a point why the gamekeepers are doing what their lords and masters pay them to do, even though their predator controlling activities are so utterly disgusting and in many many cases criminal. However you can lay the blame on NE, SNH and the RSPB for not doing what they are paid to do, it’s so simple really, I just can’t understand how they can have forgotten, after all the clue is in their titles, you know, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds??? It can’t be that difficult to remember that their role is basically to protect the environment and the wildlife it contains, oh yes, and by the way, that also includes birds of prey.

  • Kevin moore

    Nirofo, you are right all 3 organisations have allowed gamekeepers and land owners to get away with killing these iconic birds of prey, they are no better than the scum bags that do the killing,by sitting back and doing nothing they are condoning the actions of the gamekeepers,they all have the blood of the dead birds on their hands.

    Kevin moore,
    North West Raptor Protection Group

  • skydancer

    Decided to make the trip into the Forest of Bowland this weekend to try and see a hen harrier, turned out to have been another fruitless trip. In fact the only birds which I did see were a few kestrels, one cock merlin and the odd buzzard, and plagues of pheasants everywhere. Disappointingly, no harriers or short eared owls either, and for the first time not a single peregrine anywhere. What has been allowed to happened in Bowland is nothing short of genocide by gamekeepers. This once wonderful area for watching birds of prey in good numbers has virtually become a raptor free area. What I find difficult to understand why have the RSPB and their warden, who know what is going on, not spoken out about what has taken place? Despite what I read in the latest Lancashire Life Magazine, it can be no coincidence that all these raptor disappearances took place shortly following the removal of licenses from the local raptor group.

  • tweedler

    It is well known that the authority in the Forest of Bowland is….The Landowner, the gamekeepers and the gamekeepers adviser.

  • Whoever

    Most of the Forest of Bowland is right to roam area in which you can go anywhere anytime with few exceptions. Why not just find out when the birds are laying eggs then go rambling and crush the eggs. How could the land owner know?

    Editor’s Comment. The landowners would just love that we are sure. There are however specific exceptions on access, for example the RSPB and Natural England staff must first obtain estate approval to enter this area before they go looking for any nests/ Your proposal falls down because there are very few raptor nests left now in the Forest of Bowland.