A reward of £10,000 is being offered in a hunt for suspected bird killers after three rare hen harriers vanished in the Ribble Valley.
Lancashire Police and the RSPB are appealing for any information that could uncover the fate of the birds of prey, which disappeared “in unexplained circumstances” on the United Utilities Bowland Estate.
The RSPB is putting up the £10,000 offer for any information which leads to a conviction.
The first of the birds, a nesting male, disappeared from its nest three weeks ago and a further two males on active nests have not been seen for two weeks.
In the case of the first nest, a young male arrived almost immediately and took the place of the vanished bird, securing the safety of the eggs.
At the other two nests, in the absence of males to provide them with food the females were forced to abandon their eggs, resulting in the failure of both nests.
“Hen harriers are hanging on by a thread in England, and the disappearances of the past few weeks have made a desperate situation even worse,” said Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director.
“We don’t know what has happened to these three birds, but we will find out and we will save our hen harriers. This is an awful setback, but it will not stop us.
“I’ve spoken to numerous staff and volunteers who are devastated by what has happened. But these events only strengthen our resolve to save this beautiful bird.”
Lorraine Ellwood, Lancashire Police Rural Policing and Wildlife Co-ordinator, said: “We are working very closely with the RSPB, United Utilities and the private estates within Lancashire and were hopeful for a successful breeding season.
We don’t know what has happened to these three birds, but we will find out and we will save our hen harriers. This is an awful setback, but it will not stop usMartin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director
“We are all disappointed with what has happened but will continue to work together despite this setback.”
In the past, hen harriers have been illegally poisoned or shot on grouse moors, where they prey on young birds, but the RSPB has been working to develop a partnership that involves Bowland’s shooting and farming tenants.
Hen harriers are England’s most threatened breeding bird of prey. There were only four successful nests in the whole country last year, two of which were on the United Utilities Bowland Estate.
With the number of breeding birds so low, and with just one active nest remaining in the Bowland Estate, the future of hen harriers – official symbol of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – is placed even further in jeopardy.
Anyone with information about the birds’ disappearance should contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0845 466 3636.
by Eric Beardsworth
Male hen harrier, an endangered bird of prey
Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB