Author: Emily Neville, Fen Drayton Lakes nature reserve

Marsh harriers are fast becoming my favourite birds. I had never even seen a marsh harrier before working at Fen Drayton Lakes but having spent so much time watching them from the welcome shelter this year, I am now fascinated by these incredible creatures.

Over the past six months I have seen our large rust brown birds of prey elegantly sky dancing, making impressive food passes (where the male passes food to the female when they are both in flight) and searching for the perfect materials to build their nest. And now, after months of baited breath and crossed fingers and toes throughout their breeding season, we are all delighted to be watching two young marsh harriers soaring around the reserve as they find their wings.

These days, breeding marsh harriers aren’t all that uncommon, especially in this area. However, this is the first successful nest at Fen Drayton Lakes in eight years, which is something to celebrate! This pair adds to nearly 400 breeding pairs found in Britain, which is an incredible success story considering that the outlook for this majestic species hasn’t always been so positive.

In 1971 there was just one breeding pair in the UK, found at RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, largely as a result of loss of habitat and persecution during the 18th and 19th centuries and impacts of chemical pesticides in the 1950’s and 60’s. Thanks to the banning of these chemicals, the creation of new habitat and better legal protection, marsh harrier numbers are recovering well.

Much of the new habitat creation has taken place in the East, something we can all be really proud of. As Lakenheath Fen’s reedbed turns twenty years old, it has become perfect for marsh harriers and other species including bitterns and bearded tits. Even more impressive is our work at Ouse Fen, where we’re working with Hanson UK to transform a working sand and gravel quarry into a vast nature reserve with open water, grassland and, when complete, the biggest reedbed in the UK.

So, thanks in part to conservation work in Cambridgeshire, the future is now looking much brighter for our wonderful marsh harriers, and what a treat it is to see one! For a chance to spot our young marsh harriers, there are great views from Fen Drayton’s welcome shelter – just look across Holywell Lake, they are easily distinguished from the adults by the dark colour and bronze head – and (for the moment at least) their rather ungainly landings!

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