CONSERVATIONISTS have fitted satellite tags to more than 30 hen harrier chicks this year – the majority of them in Scotland – as part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds and the satellite tags allow the RSPB project to follow their movements as they leave the nest, facing survival rates of around 22% in their first two years of life.

Of the birds tagged in 2017 almost 40% are known to have died from natural causes, but over a quarter of last year’s chicks disappeared in what the RSPB described as 'suspicious circumstances', where transmissions from tags suddenly stop. The charity has repeatedly suggested that these disappearances are related to grouse moor management.

An independent enquiry panel, commissioned by cabinet secretary Roseanna Cunningham, is currently looking into the issue, and the RSPB favours an outcome that would see grouse moors regulated by licence.

RSPB project manager Dr Cathleen Thomas said: “Satellite tagging technology has taught us so much about the movements of hen harriers. The tags also allow us to investigate where and in what circumstances these hen harrier chicks are lost so we can better understand how to protect them and advocate for licensing of driven grouse shooting.

"This species is only just holding on in the UK; it’s both heart-breaking and infuriating that year after year many of these chicks disappear in suspicious circumstances. The loss of birds in this way is both needless and senseless and cannot go on. We hope that the recommendations of the enquiry panel here in Scotland will give hen harriers, and other birds of prey, a fair and fighting chance at survival and help stamp out these outdated illegal persecution practices.”