Satellite-tagged hen harrier ‘Highlander’ is probably still alive

Last spring, a satellite-tagged hen harrier called ‘Highlander’ joined the ranks of the ‘missing’ as her sat tag suddenly stopped transmitting over a grouse moor in Co Durham (see here).

When you consider the extraordinarily high disappearance rate of young, tagged hen harriers (78.7% as of 2014) and the absence of breeding hen harriers on almost every driven grouse moor in the country, it wasn’t unreasonable to conclude that she’d been illegally killed.

But in Highlander’s case, she just may be the one who got away and against all the odds, survived past her second birthday. According to the RSPB’s Skydancer blog (see here), Highlander may still be alive and the cause of her ‘disappearance’ is likely to have been a satellite tag technical failure.

Predictably, the usual suspects from within the grouse shooting industry have already taken to social media to use today’s news as an opportunity to pretend that hen harriers are not routinely killed on grouse moors but that the many hen harriers that have been reported as ‘missing’ over the last ten years have suffered from satellite tag technical faults. That may be plausible for one or two ‘missing’ birds, but unfortunately for the grouse shooting propagandists, these technical failures don’t happen very often, and nor do sat tag technical failures explain the absence of breeding hen harriers on most driven grouse moors.

We know from a study of Montagu’s harriers, fitted with exactly the same type of tag as the UK hen harriers, that technical failures amount to just 6% (n = 67 tagged birds). Highlander’s failed tag is the first technical failure the RSPB has recorded (n = 23 tagged birds) so this failure rate is well within the expected range.

Satellite tag failure rates will be further scrutinised in the forthcoming review of satellite tag data from hen harriers, golden eagles and red kites in Scotland, which is expected to be completed by March. We know the grouse shooting industry is extremely twitchy about this review because they know as well as we do what the results are likely to show, and it won’t be good news for them. So it’s unsurprising that they’ll use every opportunity presented in the run up to that report being published to discredit the data, discredit the researchers who fit the tags, and discredit the tag-fitting techniques. Interestingly, you don’t see them trying to discredit the data, researchers or techniques associated with the satellite-tracking of woodcock (GWCT) or cuckoos (BTO) – it’s only the upland raptors. Funny that.

Photograph of Highlander (right) and her sister Sky being satellite tagged at their nest in Bowland in 2014 (photo by Mick Demain).


5 Responses to “Satellite-tagged hen harrier ‘Highlander’ is probably still alive”

  1. January 13, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    I think what is striking here is the honesty of the RSPB about this and how it compares with the flagrant lack of the same by the grouse shooting industry and their supporters. They didn’t have to draw attention to this development (which is as yet it seems not entirely certain) and it may well have been relatively easy to suppress it. Can you imagine such openness from those organisations we have seen squirm, dissemble and, yes, blatantly lie rather than admit the reality of Hen Harrier persecution on grouse moors?

  2. January 13, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Excellent news, but “1 Harrier does not a summer make.”
    Even more twitchy times coming for the driven grouse criminals as data stacks up the evidence against them.
    Yes, Yes, I hear their cries of ” what evidence ” already !
    In future years I suspect that these datasets will be seen as having been crucial in bringing that pathetic brigade to heel.
    Every tagged raptor slaughtered is a terrible waste but their deaths are banging home those nails.
    It will take years but the killing will stop.
    If funding is limiting the deployment of tags, I hope that money floods in from the birding community & indeed from all right – thinking people.

    Keep up the pressure !

    • 3 heclasu
      January 14, 2017 at 2:10 am

      Yes, someone should organise to ‘crowd-fund’ in order that many more harriers could be tagged. I would willingly contribute………

  3. 4 Iiain Gibson
    January 14, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    The deviousness and dishonesty of the gamekeepers and grouse shooting interests gets more blatant by the day. On the one hand, they shout from the hilltops when one satellite tag fails (temporarily), proclaiming it as evidence that harriers aren’t being shot, while on the other they state that 99% of harriers missing from English grouse moors means nothing! In fact at the debate on driven grouse shooting, several of their supporters claimed that harriers on these grouse moors were “thriving.”

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