ILLEGAL killing is leading to survival rates of a rare bird species in Scotland becoming "unusually low" with birds typically surviving just four months after fledging.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has raised concerns about the future of hen harriers which are on the red list of birds of conservation concern as their number are so scarce are legally protected.

Scotland has been the species’ UK stronghold with about 70-80% of the UK breeding population of hen harriers here, mostly found in Orkney and the Hebrides.

But the new results of an RSPB-backed survey tracking 148 birds between 2014 and 2020 with 86 in Scotland found that just 17 survived. The hen harrier's lifespan is typically eight years.

It believes that 49 of the deaths were due to illegal killing with six definitively identified as shot.

The RSPB analysis identified hotspots for illegal killing in the central and eastern highlands of Scotland and northern England.

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The RSPB in Scotland is now to produce the evidence to ministers considering a draft Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill saying that the illegal killing of hen harriers and other birds of prey "has no place in the nature and climate emergency and must end".

It proposes a new licensing scheme for the killing or taking of certain birds - but initially red grouse only. It will also further regulate or even ban the use of certain wildlife traps.

The RSPB scientists analysed the data and looked at survival rates, causes of death whether natural or through illegal killing, and associations between mortality and land managed for grouse shooting.

The authors discovered that individuals tracked by the project were typically living just 121 days after fledging.

The Herald: A hen harrier in flight by Paul Wilson

A hen harrier in flight

The study says that the risk of dying as a result of illegal killing increased significantly as hen harriers spent more time on areas managed for grouse shooting.

It found that just 14% of the male birds and 30% of the females survived beyond one year.

As many as 75% died between the ages of one and two years.

The authors found multiple strands of "compelling evidence" that illegal killing is associated with land management for grouse shooting.

The analysis found that 10% increase in grouse moor use by the birds was associated with a 43% increase in the rate of deaths.

The RSPB say that the estimate 460 breeding hen harrier pairs in a 2016 national survey is just a third of the estimated population size that habitat in Scotland could support.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said: “This study reinforces the devastating impact that illegal killing is having on our hen harrier population, how strongly it is associated with grouse moors, and why urgent changes are needed to bring this to an end. There should be three times as many breeding pairs of hen harriers in Scotland than we currently have.”

“Thankfully the Scottish Government has undertaken an independent review of the evidence and is now taking action. It is proposing to licence grouse shooting with sanctions including the removal of the right to shoot grouse where wildlife crimes are confirmed, and to provide a meaningful deterrent to wildlife crime."

One example of many incidents recorded as part of the study was Rannoch, a young female Hen Harrier, who fledged from a Perthshire nest in July 2017.

The Herald:

The remains of Rannoch

Her remains were recovered in May 2019 on a Perthshire grouse moor – she had been caught in an illegally set spring trap, and died what the RSPB said was "an agonising death".

Mr Orr-Ewing said: "We cannot have more of our precious hen harriers being killed in such a way. This study is a crucial piece of evidence in helping to secure them a better future."

Hen harriers are described by the RSPB as "the most intensively persecuted" UK bird of prey.

According to conservationists, during the 19th century, the hen harriers were eradicated on mainland Scotland due to the expansion of game hunting estates.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust says that despite the best efforts of changing legislation to protect the species and the decline of game estates, "this relationship remains tumultuous leading to illegal persecution" of the hen harrier.

Measuring 44-52cm long and with a wingspan of 100-120cm, they mainly eat small birds and mammals.

Males are a pale grey colour, females and young birds are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail which give them the name ‘ringtail’.

They fly with wings held in a shallow ‘V’, gliding low in search of food.

Mark Tennant, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Estates play a vital role in encouraging raptors to flourish, including through the recent Heads Up for Harriers project which saw 28 estates participate and the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project where 90% of translocated chicks have come from grouse moors.

“Any persecution of hen harriers – and any form of wildlife crime generally – is abhorrent and our members are committed to assisting Government and police in this area.

“In this regard, we recognise the official statistics published by the Scottish Government in its annual wildlife crime report, with the most recent report released last month confirming that offences against birds of prey are at historically low levels with 12 offences recorded in 2020-21.”

He raised concerns around the transparency and interpretation of the tag data, adding: “RSPB Scotland has not provided the data it is using for this latest report to partners and this lack of co-operation undermines a collective effort to tackle raptor crime.”

He said there are “different reasons why tags stop transmitting, not only persecution” and that it is “well established that there is a high natural mortality rate for hen harriers in their first year”, with the weather, fox and bird attacks and prey availability all playing a part.