Charity raises concerns as hen harrier disappears in Cairngorms

By Douglas Barrie, Press Association Scotland
Marci's satellite tag stopped transmitting on April 22 near Strathdon, west Aberdeenshire.

A hen harrier has disappeared in the Cairngorms National Park.

Marci was satellite-tagged as a chick in 2018 as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life project.

The tag stopped transmitting on April 22 near Strathdon, west Aberdeenshire.

Searches by the charity and Police Scotland have found no trace of the bird or tag, despite her being recorded in the area for the previous three weeks.

The female harrier’s last recorded position was in an area known for driven grouse shooting, which has led to criticism of current legislation that aims to protect birds of prey.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, 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.”

She added: “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.”

Marci’s disappearance comes just a few weeks after another harrier in the project vanished in an area of South Lanarkshire considered a “black hole” with similar incidents.

A further bird was lost in Aberdeenshire last August.

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.

“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.”

A recent UK hen harrier population survey revealed a 13% decline between 2010 and 2016, with Scotland being home to 460 of 545 pairs.

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.”

He added: “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% 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.”

David McKie, a partner at Levy & McRae, the solicitors representing the estate where the last recorded transmission was identified, said the estate has co-operated fully with the inquiry.

He said he has written to the RSPB to protest over what his clients consider to be “a grave and unwarranted attack” on them.

Mr McKie said: “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.”

Information about Marci or any illegal killing of birds of prey can be given to Police Scotland on 101, or the RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.