Hen Harrier Task Force launched to tackle illegal persecution

A new task force has been launched to tackle the illegal persecution of hen harriers, one of the rarest bird of prey species in the UK.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) will use innovative technology and strategic partnerships to detect, deter and disrupt offenders.

Given the rarity of hen harriers, significant resource is invested in their conservation. Satellite tags are fitted to the birds to research their ecology, but these tags have also revealed a concerning amount of illegal killing.

Criminals are intent on targeting this vulnerable species and operate with impunity. There have been no successful prosecutions in recent years despite the efforts of the police and partners.

In response, the launch of the Hen Harrier Task Force, led by Detective Inspector Mark Harrison of the NWCU, represents a pivotal shift in combating wildlife crime.

“The persecution of birds of prey is not just a wildlife issue; it’s serious crime blighting our countryside,” said DI Harrison. “With the launch of the Hen Harrier Task Force, we are determined to disrupt illegal activity and protect this vulnerable species.”

Central to the bird of prey task force’s approach is standardising reporting practices and improving the police response to incidents. Police and partners will work together to ensure resources are deployed swiftly and investigative opportunities are maximised. The task force will also bring together partners to engage with local communities and raise the profile of hen harrier persecution in a unified effort against wildlife crime.

“We cannot tackle this problem alone,” emphasised DI Harrison. “Through proactive partnerships and community engagement, we can strengthen our response and hold perpetrators to account.”

The task force will tackle crimes involving satellite tagged birds of prey. It is data-led, relying on analysis of police data and hotspot mapping. The NWCU has identified crime hot spots where they can focus enforcement efforts, as well as other areas of historic vulnerabilities where they will be seeking to revisit and raise their presence with landowners and land users. These meetings are an opportunity to highlight the issues/risks and identify ways to prevent further incidents from occurring.

Rather than purely focusing on the wildlife aspect of the crime, DI Harrison has tasked his team with taking a holistic view of the criminality and considering all types of offences. Criminals will often steal and destroy the satellite tags to conceal their offending. This could constitute criminal damage, theft and fraud. In the last few years alone, £100,000 worth of satellite tags have been lost in circumstances suspected to be criminal. The apparent use of firearms adds a further level of seriousness to these cases.

Recent examples of this include Anu, a hen harrier in South Yorkshire, which had its satellite tag deliberately cut off by someone possibly using scissors or a knife. Asta, a hen harrier in North Yorkshire, is another example. Although the dead bird was not found, its tag was recovered from a dead crow. The NWCU suspect that fitting the tag to a crow was an attempt to make it look like the hen harrier was still alive and hide the fact that it had been illegally killed. Unfortunately, the crow also died from unknown causes.

The task force’s multifaceted approach includes:

  1. Improved incident response: Standardised reporting processes enable rapid response to suspicious incidents, ensuring investigative opportunities are maximised.
  2. Innovative technology: From tracking drones to specialised detection dogs, the task force uses innovative tools to overcome logistical challenges and enhance evidence collection in remote areas.
  3. Strategic partnerships: The taskforce brings together law enforcement, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, landowners and communities to tackle crime in hotspot areas.
  4. Community awareness Initiatives: Building on successful models like Operation Owl, the task force seeks to boost public support and encourage vigilance against wildlife crime.

As the task force gains momentum, the team will be dedicated to protecting the UK’s hen harriers. Through collaboration and innovation, it is set to make a lasting impact in the fight against wildlife crime.

About the Hen Harrier Task Force

The Hen Harrier Task Force is an initiative led by the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit and supported by seven police forces (Cumbria, Derbyshire, Durham, Northumbria, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire), DEFRA, the RSPB, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), The Wildlife Trusts, GWCT, national parks, Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Natural England and The Moorland Association to combat the persecution of hen harriers in the UK. The taskforce aims to detect, deter, and disrupt offenders involved in wildlife crime by using technology and improving partnership working.

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