Latest RSPB Birdcrime Report Reveals Continuing Relentless Persecution of Hen Harriers and Raptors in the UK

Two of the worst counties for raptor persecution last year were North Yorkshire (12 incidents) and Norfolk (6 incidents), both areas dominated by gamebird shooting. The report links to an interactive Raptor Persecution Map Hub, which shows persecution hotspots geographically using data for the last 16 years.

The whole report makes compelling reading, but it is the six case studies included that really bring to life the sheer horror of illegal raptor persecution. Three of the six case studies feature Hen Harriers, and all are brutal, depressing, and senseless stories.

Susie’s Chicks

The story of the stamping to death on the nest of four young Hen Harrier chicks, the second brood by a Natural England-tagged bird called Susie, on a driven grouse moor at Whernside in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, is devastating.

Natural England set up a motion-activated camera to monitor the nest, and at 9.59pm on 15th June, when the chicks were no more than 15 days old, the camera experienced a ‘white-out’ which prevented the nest from being viewed. The next morning, camera footage showed four dead chicks. Susie remained in the area for the next five days before abandoning the nest.

Quadbike tracks were found near the nest, and the post-mortem showed extensive and violent injuries to the chicks, including multiple fractures, broken bones, and crushed skulls.

The incident was later the subject of an excellent three-part Guardian podcast by Phoebe Weston, ‘Killing the Skydancer’.

Young Hen Harrier chicks on the nest


Dagda, a male Hen Harrier, satellite-tagged by the RSPB in the Forest of Bowland, was a very welcome visitor to RPSB Geltsdale, a nature reserve in Cumbria. In April 2023 he found a mate and established a nest, the first satellite-tagged Hen Harrier to breed in Geltsdale. Sadly, little more than a month after the nest was formed and while the female was incubating eggs, he was shot dead on neighbouring Knarsdale Moor, his body being recovered on the 12th of May using the last known satellite position.

The post-mortem also revealed that he had recovered from an earlier shooting incident. RSPB Geltsdale is surrounded by driven grouse moors. Since 2020 alone, six Hen Harrier nests have failed at Geltsdale following the sudden and suspicious disappearance of the male birds.


Two-year-old male Hen Harrier Free had been satellite-tagged as a chick in Cumbria by Natural England in 2020. On the 12th April 2022, satellite data showed him as static, away from his regular roost site, near a driven grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This unusual stop led staff from Natural England to investigate, and his headless body was recovered in an area of moorland above Outhgill near Kirkby Stephen in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The post-mortem showed that Free died as a result of his head and leg being pulled from his body whilst still alive, concluding that this could only have been carried out by a person, not the result of natural predation.

Hen Harriers are still facing relentless persecution

The report devotes four pages to the plight of Hen Harriers, concluding that ‘Despite being fully protected by law, and a UK Red Listed species, they are being persecuted on a relentless scale.’

Between January 2022 and October 2023, 39 Hen Harriers are suspected or proven to have been persecuted across the UK. And the report tells us that this number is likely to rise, as some known incidents cannot be disclosed yet as they form part of on-going investigations.

As a rare protected species with an estimated fewer than 600 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK, this chronic level of persecution, if it continues, will severely hamper the chance of any recovery for this charismatic raptor.

The RSPB is calling for the immediate licensing of driven grouse shooting, a measure which is already close to becoming law in Scotland.

And there is a clear case for more comprehensive and active investigation by the police, along with tougher sentencing for those convicted of these heinous crimes.

A male Hen Harrier in flight, courtesy of Keith Offord
Male Hen Harrier © Keith Offord

As the RSPB’s Head of Species, England, Mike Shurmer, says in the report “If Hen Harriers are to recover to their rightful breeding numbers in England, and the rest of the UK, we need to see more action on tackling illegal persecution.”