Hen Harriers: Ghost Of Moorlands Past, by Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

In current times, when we think of our biggest conservation issues in the UK, there are no doubt many that would come to mind. Badgers and TB, fox hunting and the preservation of the red squirrel will be on the lips of many. For me however, there is another, which springs to mind: the plight and the constant struggle that is faced by the hen harrier. We have released, tagged, tracked and ultimately lost too many of the harriers that we had pinned our hopes on, not only to breed, but to survive and conquer. We are endlessly looking for a glimmer a hope, for a silver lining in one big black cloud, but so far, such hopes have evaded us. The struggle faced by the hen harrier has now been once again reinforced, as we hear the news that another hen harrier, named ‘Lad’ who was found dead in the Cairngorms National Park, was most likely shot.


Lad was a hen harrier fledgling of 2015 and he was satellite tagged as part of the RSPB’s ‘Life and Hen Harrier Project’. Successfully tracked until September 2015, Lad’s trail then went ominously cold. Not long after, he was found dead on the moorlands. Since then, a post-mortem has been completed. Although the report lacks a conclusive cause of death, as there were no metallic fragments consistent with a gun pellet found in Lad’s body, the damage to the harriers wing feathers is consistent with those that are typical of a shooting. In addition, the jugular groove of the neck was split, which could be (and most likely is) explained by a gun pellet passing through the soft tissue of the harriers neck.

So, the post mortem is not entirely conclusive in its identification as shooting as the cause of death. However, the available evidence would strongly suggest that it was indeed the cause, as is stated in the report itself. Unfortunately and as we are aware, this is not the first and is unlikely to be the last illegal killing of a hen harrier on moorland. Lad joins a long list of other harriers who have lost their lives due to illegal persecution. In addition, a particularly poignant fact about this case, is that this killing happened within a National Park, an area where arguably, our hen harriers should be considered ‘safe.’ Or at least, as safe as a hen harrier in the UK can be.

A male hen harrier perched on dead branch

Male Hen Harrier

This news also comes not long after we heard about the increase in bird of prey crimes across Scotland. The number of crimes recorded in 2015 was 20 incidents, an increase from the 2014 number of 18. Ok, so an increase of 2 may not sound so shocking, but an increase is an increase no matter how small, and when we are focusing on such a negative issue, any increase should be considered a cause of concern. Of course, it is not only hen harriers being persecuted, with many, in fact most, of our birds of prey species facing the constant threat of illegal persecution. When we consider the hen harrier, it would seem that their greatest ally, the moorland habitat, is also their greatest enemy. This habitat that is fundamental to their survival as both their breeding and feeding grounds, has been their downfall purely because it is a habitat that we humans like to claim as our own. A habitat that we use for red grouse.


Hen Harrier “Lad” found dead on Speyside, photographed by Dave Pullan 16 July 2015

Too many times have we seen the miserable pictures of hen harriers lying dead amongst the heather. Too many times have we seen countless bird of prey specimens dead in their own habitats. It is a sight caused not by natural causes or unfortunate freak accidents, but caused by humans. Caused by yes a small minority, but a minority that are having a damning effect on our birds of prey and our hen harriers in particular.

I am never one to give in or indeed admit defeat, but there is always an uncomfortable shadow of doubt in my mind when it comes to the fate of our hen harriers. Because on the moorlands of the UK, hen harriers are losing their constant and unrelenting battle. So, what can we do? Get involved.  Keep your eyes peeled for illegal activities and please do not be afraid to report it. Sign the petitions, support the hen harrier campaigns, write to the environment minister, because if something does not change and change quickly, hen harriers will slowly become little but a ghost of our moorlands past.

Eleanor has been a bird enthusiast since a child and has just completed her MSc at Newcastle University on ‘Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.’
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1 comment to Hen Harriers: Ghost Of Moorlands Past, by Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

  • Dales Dale.

    Terry Pickford is well known by both the gamekeepers and the birdwatchers alike. The gamekeepers hate him and will resort to dirty tactics and any way they can to prevent Terry from protecting the raptors he loves so much and that he has made it a lifetime mission to do so.

    Most birdwatchers truly have no idea just how much work Terry has done behind the scenes, both day and night in some horrendous weather conditions and even when not in good health. He has always put the birds first, whereas the gamekeeper has always put raptor persecution first and see the apex bird of prey, particularly the peregrine falcon and the hen harrier as no different to a stoat or a fox.

    In their blinkered eyes, they are all the same. Simply vermin. In my opinion, for the way they have treated many raptor workers, most of whom gave up, and particularly for the systematic destruction of these beautiful birds, these gamekeepers are pure vile scum.

    Whereas the gamekeepers in question deserve to be shot themselves, for the vile scum they are, Terry deserves a medal, or lifetime achievement award for all the raptors he in particular and his co-workers have saved and enabled so many birdwatchers to have that glimpse of, or perhaps better, to be able to watch for a while themselves and admire their beauty.

    I salute you Terry.