A female hen harrierPolice fear the Yorkshire Dales’ only pair of breeding hen harriers may have been killed.

Despite regular monitoring, the birds disappeared two weeks ago in an area known in the past for persecution of the birds of prey. They left an unhatched clutch of five eggs.

Left: a female hen harrier 

PC Mark Rasbeary, a wildlife-crime officer with North Yorkshire Police, and Steve Downing from the National Wildlife Crime Unit in Scotland spent a full afternoon searching moorland for signs of the birds but only found the abandoned nest containing the eggs.

The site had been monitored by Natural England and Yorkshire Dales Upland Bird Study Group volunteers since mid-March. The alarm was raised when neither bird could be found. 

PC Mark RasbearyPC Rasbeary (pictured right) said the police treat the offence extremely seriously and said action will be taken against those who break the law. He urged people with information or evidence to help catch any suspected offenders to contact the police immediately so they can be brought to justice.

He said: “We simply cannot sit back while this senseless persecution against hen harriers appears to be happening.

“If something isn’t done soon, North Yorkshire is in danger of becoming labelled as the ‘killing fields’ for hen harriers and other raptors. To lose these magnificent birds of prey forever would be a conservation disaster for our area.”

Steve Downing, who recovered the five eggs from the heather-based nest, is the national co-ordinator of Operation Artemis, the police campaign set up in 2004 to combat the illegal killing of hen harriers.

The five abandoned eggsHe said: “This area of the Yorkshire Dales is perfect habitat for a wide range of birds of prey, particularly hen harriers.

Left: the five abandoned eggs 

“Unfortunately, historical data indicates that persecution is also widespread. Hen harriers in England are hanging on by a thread. This failure, coupled with another failure in Northumbria last year when eggs were taken from a site after the female was shot, represents 20 per cent of this year’s known nests.

“It is a national scandal that persecution continues in the 21st century. The eggs I recovered have been delivered to the scientists undertaking research to identify hen harrier DNA in our efforts to use forensic science to aid our investigations. I look forward to the day when those involved in the persecution of hen harriers are put in jail, where they clearly belong.”

Peter Robertson, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ northern England conservation manager, said it was unusual for hen harriers to abandon a nest and said illegal human activity was the probable cause.

Paul Burgess, of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, (AONB) and Ian Court for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), issued a joint statement: “We are very concerned to hear about the disappearance of this pair of hen harriers that had been nesting close to the boundary between the national park and Nidderdale AONB, and we hope the police will be able to find out exactly what has happened to them.

“Conserving wildlife is both one of the YDNPA’s main purposes, and one of the foundations of AONB designation. The hen harrier is one of the highest priorities for conservation action across the two areas.

“It would be a sad day for the Dales and everyone who cares about them if it is proved, as the police and RSPB suspect, that these birds have disappeared as a result of illegal activity.

“We will do everything we can to help the police in their inquiries.”

Anyone with information or evidence to help catch suspected offenders should contact PC Rasbeary, via 0845 606 0247.