Hi. I'm Henry. In July 2019, supported by several friends, I ran 200km across northern England's grouse moors to visit the last known locations of Hen Harriers that have disappeared in the past decade. I wore a satellite tag to see if I too would vanish. Do you know what? I didn't.
In May 2020 I am embarking on a tougher challenge: to run 250km between the last known locations of Golden Eagles that have disappeared in suspicious circumstances in the Cairngorms.
According to the Scottish Government, 41 of 131 satellite-tagged golden eagles have vanished, predominantly on or near to driven grouse moors. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, grouse moor managers deny any wrongdoing. So out of curiosity, I am going to don a satellite tag and visit all the last known transmission sites of the vanished birds, just to see if I disappear myself. Or, as is more likely - because I'm not a raptor, badger, fox, stoat or anything else which threatens grouse moor viability - I'll just get tired running up and down a lot of hills in our intensively managed and increasingly ecologically bereft uplands.
The UK Golden Eagle population began to decline in the 18th century as a result of killing by sheep farmers. In the 19th century killings were intensified by gamekeepers. By 1850, the Golden Eagle had been exterminated in England and Wales. In Ireland it was gone by 1912.
Despite widespread persecution, it managed to hang on in in Scotland. Today, somewhere in the region of 400 pairs of Golden Eagles in Scotland survive. But despite there being suitable breeding habitat in south east Scotland and northern England, they have not recolonized. Why? Because persecution continues today.
Take, for example, the Auchnafree Estate in the Strathbraan area of Perthshire where on an April morning in 2019, the tags of two birds, nicknamed Adam and Charlie, stopped working just 3.4km apart. Both tags had worked perfectly up to that point, for one and two years, respectively, providing researchers with accurate and frequent GPS locations.
Another case: the Black Hill Grouse Moor near Balerno where the tag of Fred, who had been roosting overnight in a shelter belt, suddenly and inexplicably stopped working at 10am on 21 January 2018. In following days intermittent transmissions from Fred's tag moved eastwards, tracing a route strikingly similar to that of the Edinburgh City Bypass and the A1. Three and a half days later it began transmitting again, now some 16km (10 miles) out in the North Sea.
The list of such stories is long. Eagles are tagged responsibly and safely, so that their behaviour may be studied and existential threats to their survival identified. And of the existential threats, few are greater than being on a moor used for driven grouse shooting. This could be because grouse moors are kryptonite for sat-tags attached to raptors and by some weird alchemy the tags' state of the art technology goes haywire when it comes in proximity to regressive land-use. More probably, and considering the history of the subject, it is because persecution continues unabated. The bird and its transmitter always vanish together. If the two were separated, you’d find the transmitter. And if the bird was dead, you’d find the bird. But remarkably, on or near driven grouse moors, both disappear.
The persecution of birds of prey is tragic, and criminal. The fact that a nation of almost 70 million people is being deprived of the sight and sound of its own natural history for the pleasure of a handful is vexing. A YouGov poll published on 28 January found that eighty-three per cent of British people would like to see the reintroduction of extinct birds of prey. If only they knew that an industry inside our National Parks is busy working to achieve the opposite.
Last year the RSPB Investigations Team took me to see a Hen Harrier nest that was under constant supervision. (Yes, even in National Parks the RSPB has to assign people to protect nests from gamekeepers.) The brilliant colleagues who took me mentioned that they had been told off the record by a gamekeeper that there were too many buzzards this year. I asked: how did he know that he was not repeatedly seeing the same birds? The answer was easy: because they kill every buzzard that flies across their patch. Another member of the team told me that the hundred or so persecution events that are formally reported to them each year are but a fraction of what actually goes on.
This persistent and flagrant assault on our natural history is shameful. It has to stop. By supporting us today and spreading our message, you will be helping Wild Justice to campaign against driven grouse shooting; you will spread awareness of the scandal that epitomizes the saying 'Out of sight, out of mind. 'And you never know: one day, you could see a Golden Eagle soaring overhead.