Wildlife charity RSPB has fitted a record number of hen harrier chicks with satellite tags in the UK this year as the fight against their decline continues.
More than 24 birds have been tagged so far, the majority of them in Scotland.
The aim of the exercise – part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier Life Project – is to track the movements of the birds of prey, which are threatened due to illegal killing and disturbance associated with the increasingly intensive management of driven grouse moors.
In doing so, the RSPB hopes to build up a clearer picture of where they are most at risk.
Project manager Blánaid Denman said it was “infuriating and utterly heartbreaking” to see the birds disappear off the radar year after year.
He added: “Something needs to change. A system of grouse moor licensing would not only protect hen harriers but also tackle wider damaging grouse moor management practices, such as heather burning on deep peat and inappropriate drainage.”
The Scottish Government recently set up an independent inquiry into gamebird shoot licensing after an independent scientific review of golden eagle satellite tracking data revealed that approximately a third of them are being illegally killed.
It is the third consecutive year that hen harriers have been tagged as part of the project.
And conservationists hope the class of 2017 will fare better than last year’s cohort.
Of the 12 fitted with tags by the RSPB in 2016, only five are still alive.
One, named Carroll, was found dead having suffered from an infectious disease.
A post mortem later revealed lead pellets, however, indicating she had survived being shot at an earlier point.
Two of the other birds disappeared in suspicious circumstances when their tags suddenly stopped transmitting.
According to the recently published National Hen Harrier Survey, in the last 12 years, the number of breeding pairs has declined by more than a quarter (27%) in Scotland and by over a third (39%) in the UK as a whole.
Anecdotal reports suggest the situation in Scotland does not appear to have improved this breeding season with hen harriers notably absent or in very low numbers in areas of suitable habitat, particularly in the south and east.
From September, it will be possible to follow the travels of a selection of this year’s tagged hen harriers, together with last year’s surviving birds at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife