The enigmatic vanishing of Mo
Friday 19th September 2014
Peter Frost plays sleuth in the out of character disappearance of BBC One Show’s illustrious winged guest
Over five million viewers watched Mo, an adult female Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus) being fitted with a satellite tracking device on the BBC One Show.
Mo’s very public tagging was part of a scientific project to track bird of prey migration routes.
Now Mo and her tiny satellite tracker, which was to reveal her migration routes to Africa, has vanished under unexplained, mysterious and disturbing circumstances.
The Montagu’s harrier is one of our rarest birds of prey. Only seven pairs bred in England this year. It is a slim, long-winged raptor. The male is pale grey with black wingtips and females — like the missing Mo — are dark brown.
As an extremely rare breeding bird in Britain it needs special protection — the nesting sites are kept secret and guarded to prevent theft by egg collectors, or disturbance by those who would harm the birds.
The three-year-old Mo hatched four young this season. She was last tracked at dawn in Great Bircham in north Norfolk. The location is in a part of Britain densely packed with commercial pheasant shoots.
Ben Koks of the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation, who fitted Mo’s tag, told us: “Since 2005 we have tagged 58 Montagu’s harriers, and a sudden loss of signal is exceedingly rare.”
The spot where the bird disappeared is less than 10 miles from the royal estate at Sandringham and only a mile or two more from Viscount Coke’s Holkham Hall estate.
Both of these estates, and many others in the area, have extensive and very profitable pheasant shoots at several thousand pounds a day. Many shoot owners and their staff see all birds of prey as an expensive nuisance.
Every year many birds of prey are illegally shot, trapped or poisoned in a cynically cruel attempt to make pheasant shoots even more profitable.
Over the years many local shoots and gamekeepers have been brought to court for the persecution of wildlife including rare birds of prey.
Holkham gamekeeper Martin Joyce, for instance, was found guilty of killing three kestrels. He shot two and poisoned a third. In his defence he claimed they were killing young game birds.
More recently Nicholas Parker, the estate’s head gamekeeper, was charged with killing a Schedule One bird — such a bird is protected by special penalties — and a number of other wildlife offences. His initial conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper on the Stody Estate at Melton Constable, has pleaded guilty to storing illegal poisons.
Further charges concerning the killing of 14 buzzards, a sparrowhawk and a tawny owl will be heard next month.
It isn’t always the servants. In October 2007 Prince Harry and a close friend were interviewed by police after two rare and legally protected hen harriers were seen to be shot in flight on the royal Sandringham estate.
The prince and his friend were reported to be the only people out shooting that evening but they denied they had shot the birds and police took no further action.
So how did Mo, the Montagu’s harrier, disappear? By far the most likely explanation is that she was killed by an overenthusiastic gamekeeper and her tag destroyed. Exactly who and on what shoot it is impossible to say.
Finding the guilty person will be difficult but police have launched an investigation. Contact Crimestoppers on (0800) 555-111 if you can help.
Mark Constantine, the sponsor of Mo’s tag, has offered a reward of £5,000 for information on the missing bird.
Two other harriers, Madge and Mark, tagged at the same time as Mo, set off on their migration and a month later, on September 15, reached Senegal.
You can follow the epic journey these Montague’s harriers make to their winter quarters at rspb.org.uk/montytracking, or by following the Twitter handle @UKmontagus.