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RSPB Embroiled in Feud with Landowners and Grouse Shooters

A rare hen harrier which went missing in County Durham sparked an unpleasant feud between landowners, grouse shooters and conservationists last year. The bird in question, Highlander, had been fitted with a tracking device but this stopped transmitting in April. It was feared that the harrier had been deliberately killed to protect lucrative grouse moors.

Rare Species

The hen harrier is one of Britain’s rarest species and, unfortunately, several of the birds had mysteriously gone missing. Fearing that Highlander had been illegally killed, conservationists including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), became caught up in a war of words. The charity went as far as withdrawing from the Hen Harrier Action Plan, a scheme to protect the species, because it mistrusted the shooting industry.

Impressive Reward

The RSPB offered a £10,000 reward for information regarding the fate of Highlander. But, 10 months after disappearing, a bird which is thought to be Highlander has been spotted about 30 miles from its original nesting site! It is now believed that the tracking device simply stopped transmitting. The reappearance of Highlander has caused great embarrassment for the RSPB.

Celebrity Backing

Sir Ian Botham, former cricketer and grouse shooting enthusiast, has said that the sighting of highlander has rather undermined the credibility of the RSPB’s allegations.
"The reappearance of this supposedly long dead bird is the latest example of the RSPB’s shoot from the hip campaigning on hen harriers which contrasts with the balanced approach of the government and industry," said Sir Ian.

He believes that the rallying of activists had detracted from the RSPB’s ability to focus on conservation efforts.

Raising Suspicions

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation had been sceptical about the use of tracking devices. They had long feared that technical failures would result in the shooting community being vilified.

Has Highlander Been Found?

The hen harrier which has been discovered is thought to be Highlander as it is an adult female with no colour rings, a single BTO ring on the correct leg and a tag aerial which bends slighting to the left. All of these features match the appearance of the missing bird.


The RSPB has said that it is delighted that Highlander has been found but that it remains extremely concerned for the future of the species. Only 600 breeding pairs survive in the UK and the organisation insists that five male harriers have been poached.

Jeff Knott, RSPB’s head of nature policy said, "It’s great news that Highlander has been found again. It’s not a big embarrassment for us at all. We have been entirely open about the whole thing. There’s no grand conspiracy here. Of course it’s possible that the tags have failed but I would still say it is very unlikely. Even if one bird was killed, that is too many. We always said it was impossible to say for certain that they had been shot. We walked away from the hen harrier plan for a number of reasons, not just the missing birds."

Moving Forward

We think that the warring factions need to address their issues and work together to protect the hen harrier population from further decline.


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