Hen harrier disappears in South Lanarkshire ‘black hole’

A young hen harrier fitted with a satellite transmitter has been declared missing after disappearing in an area of South Lanarkshire described as a “black hole”.

The female named Skylar was being monitored by nature conservation charity RSPB Scotland as part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project.

She suddenly disappeared on February 7 after roosting overnight in an area of rough grassland a few miles south of the village of Elvanfoot for several days.

The charity is now appealing for information about Skylar though there are fears they will not find out what happened to the creature.

Project manager Dr Cathleen Thomas said: “Skylar has been a fascinating bird to follow; we were amazed to see her make a brief, week-long sojourn to Ireland in autumn 2017 before she returned to winter in South Lanarkshire in 2017/18.

“She spent much of summer 2018 in Highland Perthshire, before returning to South Lanarkshire for the winter 2018/19, where she remained until she disappeared.

“Her tag was working as expected, then suddenly stopped. There have been no further transmissions, and the bird’s body has not been located.

“Had she died of natural causes, we would have expected the transmitter to continue working allowing us to recover her body.

“Sadly, we’ll probably never know exactly what has happened to Skylar.”

Dr Thomas also said the disappearance “follows a depressingly familiar pattern” with the area having a history of similar cases and illegal bird of prey killings.

Two birds, a hen harrier and short-eared owl, were shot dead on a grouse moor in 2017 a few miles away from Skylar’s last known location.

Another tagged hen harrier was also found shot nearby in April 2015 with two other tagged hen harriers vanishing in the area – one in June 2014 and another in May 2016.

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said: “Yet again, a young harrier has disappeared close to a driven grouse moor, never to be seen or heard of again.

“This area of South Lanarkshire has been notorious for some years as a black hole into which protected birds of prey simply disappear.

“Skylar’s disappearance comes at a time when the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent enquiry into grouse shooting, including looking at options for greater regulation.

“A step change is now urgently required, as current laws and enforcement measures are proving inadequate to deal with such systematic criminality, and the negative cultural attitudes towards birds of prey that remains in many grouse moor areas.

“The most intensively managed ‘driven’ grouse moors should be licenced, with sanctions to remove licences to operate, where the public authorities are satisfied that wildlife protection laws are being routinely flouted.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, Scottish Land & Estates executive director, said it was “disappointing that it has taken three months for the alarm to be raised about Skylar”.

She added: “Landowners in the area are surprised that this is the first that they have heard of any issues and stand ready to assist the police in any investigation that they may undertake.

“Our view is the sooner concern is raised the more assistance can be given to find the bird, and where a crime has been committed then it would surely help increase detection and prosecution.

“This is why a more independent and transparent system of monitoring satellite-tagged birds should be established.

“We support the appeal for information about the hen harrier, Skylar. Any missing protected species is a cause for concern and anyone with information should contact the police immediately.

“We also question the presumption that grouse moor management is responsible without evidence to support it. That is a matter for any police investigation.”

Information about Skylar, or any illegal killing of birds of prey, can be reported to Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s Raptor Crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.