Just one breeding pair of hen harriers is left in England, warns the RSPB, which claims gamekeepers on grouse moors are being ordered by landowners to shoot the rare birds.
Tracy McVeigh investigates
Only one pair of breeding hen harriers remains in England, according to the RSPB, which blames illegal persecution for what it fears is now the near extinction of the bird of prey in the country.
"It will be a tragedy if this bird disappears. It's a scandal that such a rare and iconic species has been deliberately persecuted to this extent," said Grahame Madge of the bird conservation charity. He said Yorkshire was now a "black spot" for British birds of prey, dozens of which were being targeted by gamekeepers on the area's vast shooting estates, who were under pressure to keep grouse and pheasant numbers high for their clients.
"It's like a return to the days of the Victorians up there; the landowners think they are a law unto themselves and the gamekeepers have to do what they're told or they'll be out of a job," he said. "And it isn't just hen harriers: our team of investigators are constantly uncovering evidence of other birds of prey being illegally shot, poisoned and trapped."
Madge said that the results which emerged a few weeks ago from scientific tests carried out on the carcass of Bowland Betty, a ringed hen harrier found in 2012 on Thorny Grain Moor in the Yorkshire Dales, proved what the charity has been saying for some time. "We found traces of lead in the bird's leg which proved what we have been saying: she was deliberately targeted, illegally shot. It may not have been the shot that killed her; she may have lingered on injured for a time, we can't tell unfortunately. But it is clear evidence, if any was needed, that there is deliberate, illegal persecution of our birds of prey ongoing."
He attacked the shooting estates for overbreeding game birds and called for the introduction of "diversionary feeding" on the estates – where food left out for nesting hen harriers and other raptors diverts the birds from attacking red grouse.