RSPB Scotland has issued an appeal for information after a young hen harrier disappeared on an Aberdeenshire grouse moor.
“Calluna”, a female harrier was fitted with a satellite tag as part of the charity’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project this summer at a nest on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, near Braemar.
Her transmitter’s data was being monitored by RSPB Scotland and showed that the bird fledged from the nest in July.
She left the area in early August, with the data showing her gradually heading east over the Deeside moors. However, while the tag data showed it to be working perfectly, transmissions abruptly ended on August 12, with no further data transmitted.
Calluna’s last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park.
Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest raptors and the 2016 national survey results released earlier this year showed that even in Scotland, the species’ stronghold, these birds are struggling.
The number of breeding pairs in Scotland now stands at 460, a fall of 27 per cent since 2004, with illegal killing in areas managed for driven grouse shooting identified as one of the main drivers of this decline.
David Frew, operations manager for the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge Estate, said: “It is deeply saddening to learn that Calluna appears to have been lost, so soon after fledging from Mar Lodge Estate.
“Hen harriers were persecuted on Deeside for a great many years, and we had hoped that the first successful breeding attempt on Mar Lodge Estate in 2016 would signal the start of a recovery for these magnificent birds in the area.
“Only one month after fledging, and having travelled only a relatively short distance, it appears that we will no longer be able to follow the progress of our 2017 chick. We hope however that the data her tag has provided will help to inform a wider understanding of the lives and threats faced by hen harriers.”
Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland said: “This bird joins the lengthening list of satellite-tagged birds of prey that have disappeared, in highly suspicious circumstances, almost exclusively in areas in areas intensively managed for grouse shooting.
“We are pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment has commissioned an independent group to look at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. We look forward to a further announcement shortly on the membership of this group, and we are committed to assist the work of this enquiry in any way that we can.
“The LIFE project team has fitted a significant number of tags to young hen harriers this year, with the very welcome help from landowners, including the National Trust for Scotland, who value these magnificent birds breeding on their property.
“The transmitters used in this project are incredibly reliable and the sudden halt in data being received from it, with no hint of a malfunction, is very concerning.”
A spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “The SGA would urge anyone who saw the bird or knows anything about it to contact Police Scotland. This is the first we have heard of this.
“Obviously any news like this is very disappointing. The SGA condemns raptor persecution and if any of our members are convicted of a wildlife crime they are removed from our organisation. We have learned from those monitoring tags that birds can move some distance away from where they were last recorded so it is important that, if people know anything, they alert the police immediately.”
David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Scottish Land & Estates members who manage land in north Deeside wholeheartedly join this appeal for information.
“Estates in the area have welcomed a number of hen harriers to the area during August and only today one moor reported three harriers.
“Local land managers reject the inference that the loss of signal from this tag is connected to grouse moor management and are now offering every assistance in searching the area where the last transmission was recorded. They are dismayed that they were not informed earlier that the tag had stopped transmitting nearly three weeks ago as this would have assisted the search.”
He added: “All members of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime, including ourselves, agree that this is the recommended way of dealing with such incidents.”
Anyone with any information about the disappearance of this bird is being urged to contact Police Scotland as quickly as possible.