TV wildlife celebrity Chris Packham will speak out against the illegal persecution of hen harriers and other birds of prey in the UK at a special event hosted by the RSPB at its flagship Arne Nature Reserve in Dorset. Hen Harrier Day South 2017 is one of a series of events being held around the UK on 5/6 August. Organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime the events will bring attention to the near extinction of English hen harriers brought about by decades of persecution on and around intensively managed grouse moors.
The event will also raise awareness of the illegal killing of birds of prey (also known as 'raptors') in general. In the south west the RSPB has over the past decade has investigated numerous crimes against buzzards, goshawk and peregrine falcons.
Chris Packham said: “Raptor persecution is a crime pure and simple and it robs the UK of some of its greatest natural treasures. Well , we’ve all had enough of it so please join us at Arne to be counted amongst the increasing number of people who are peacefully demanding action to end it . And at the same time have a great day out on one of the RSPB’s finest reserves!”Speaking alongside Chris Packham will be Chris Corrigan, Director of RSPB England: “I grew up in East Lancashire and the unforgettable sight of displaying hen harriers is a happy memory of my childhood on the moors. Yet today those same moors are missing their “skydancing” crown jewels, a story reflected across northern England. The reason for these absences is as clear as it is shocking –decades of persecution on some of their most important moorland breeding sites. It is both shocking and sad that children today are being denied the chance to see hen harriers as I did in my youth. This weekend’s Hen Harrier Day events are an opportunity for people to call for the return of the hen harrier to the skies over England, securing their future for generations to come.”
The event has been organised voluntarily by a group of keen birdwatchers in and around Dorset.
Luke Philips, one of the organisers, said: “Hen harriers are largely responsible for my interest in wildlife. I’ve been lucky enough to have watched hen harriers since I started my interest in wildlife as a teenager wandering over the welsh uplands. The thought of future generations not being able to enjoy this magnificent bird as I did, is not a thought I want to consider and that’s why I’m involved with organising Hen Harrier Day South. “The fact we have to organise Hen Harrier day is a clear demonstration of the huge problem hen harriers are facing. I honestly wish there wasn’t a need to be highlighting the persecution of a spectacular predator but sadly number are so low we have no choice. This simply shouldn’t be happening and should not be losing these birds.” Hen Harrier South will also be attended by award winning children's author Gill Lewis who has recently completed a book about the plight of Hen Harriers. Gill Lewis said: "I’m looking forward to being a part of Hen Harrier Day at Arne to show my support for these incredible birds, and to read from my forthcoming novel, Sky Dancer, a story for children inspired by the campaign to save the hen harrier. In the story, Joe, a gamekeeper’s son, finds himself in a community divided over the fate of hen harriers that nest on the moors, and he is stuck in the middle, with a choice to make and a huge secret to keep. Hen Harrier Day South starts at 11am on 8 August at RSPB Arne Nature Resrve, near Wareham. Luke added: “Problems the natural world affect all of us and we’re hoping to attract people from all walks of life to come along and find out about the problems Hen Harriers and our other wildlife is facing. Alongside speeches from Chris Packham and Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s England Director, there’ll be displays from Dorset Police and all sorts of other activities, including for young people.”
Stuart Croft – RSPB research assistant – describes some of the work of an ongoing project investigating the diet of cuckoos on Dartmoor.
All photos by Stuart Croft
There can be few sounds in nature as unmistakeable as that of the cuckoo. However, such familiarity does not disguise the fact that cuckoos are in trouble in the UK - their population having declined by 65% since the early 1980s and their range shrinking alarmingly to the point where they have been lost from many areas of lowland farmland, where they were once widespread. Luckily in many of the uplands they can still be found in reasonably good numbers and so these areas can be productive places to study them to find out more about their dietary requirements and foraging habits.
(Photo 1: Male cuckoo)
Dartmoor is currently hosting the field work for a PhD project focusing on the cuckoo’s diet, which should help contribute valuable information to what we already know about what cuckoos eat when they arrive in the UK. The RSPB is contributing to this study by funding a research assistant to help with the collection of data from the Dartmoor study plots - this is where I come in!
As research assistant for this project, the third and final field-season, one of my key roles has been collecting faecal samples of the returning cuckoos. Though not the most glamourous of tasks, the study of such samples, using the most recent advances in DNA analysis techniques, is enabling identification of the prey items that the cuckoos have consumed. However, collecting samples from a bird as wary and ranging as a cuckoo can be a challenging and frustrating process. Once a perched cuckoo is under observation, it needs to be watched closely and patiently to see when it produces a dropping so that prompt collection can be made, as only fresh droppings will do.
(Photo 2: Faecal sample collecting)
Successful location and collection of the sample can be hindered by several factors – the distance of observation, the height of the perch from where the dropping is deposited, the vegetation type and structure where the dropping falls and the weather all affect the chances of securing a viable sample. I soon realised that droppings from the tops of high perches, particularly above complex substrates like heather or tall grasses were often best given up as a lost cause, in favour of those ideally deposited near ground level on short swards.
Overcoming the challenge of collecting from free-flying cuckoos is one thing, finding cuckoo chicks to obtain samples from, is a whole different ball game and one that requires a far greater level of effort and dedication. Fortunately, the project has been hugely supported in this pursuit by the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group – a group of skilled volunteers, scientists and bird enthusiasts dedicated to studying the breeding of moorland birds on Dartmoor.
(Photo 3: Faecal samples)
The host species on Dartmoor targeted by cuckoos is the meadow pipit, so to find a good sample of cuckoo chicks requires finding the nests of these small, streaky brown birds – and plenty of them! Meadow pipits, which are common breeders on Dartmoor, like to hide their nests at ground level within the heather and long grasses, sometimes tunnelling them well out of sight in tussocks and clumps. To find a nest requires a lot of patience and skill – to find one with a cuckoo in it usually requires additional tenacity and optimism, as well as a degree of luck!
A strike rate of about 1 in 25 nests containing a cuckoo is typical. Once a cuckoo chick has been found a faecal sample is collected (under licence from Natural England) and observations of provisioning by the foster parent pipits are undertaken at a safe distance from within a portable hide so as not to interfere with their natural behaviour.
(Photo 4: Meadow pipit nest)
With all the adult cuckoos now well on their way to their wintering grounds in Africa, after their brief residence in this country, their surviving offspring are left to find their way south alone. Our cuckoo egg/chick sample size this year was five and it can only be hoped that the dietary information obtained throughout the project may contribute to the conservation of this rapidly-declining and eternally-fascinating species.
(Photo 5: part of the cuckoo's diet)
A consortium led by Natural England is currently looking at the feasibility of re-introducing hen harrier to southern England. The species is red listed, and has declined markedly over the past few decades with it's continuing rarity due to ongoing illegal persecution on and around intensively managed grouse moors in northern England.
The current NE feasibility project aims to assess the opportunity of re-establishing a viable population away from the moors, and thus improve the bird’s prospects. Areas being looked at include Dartmoor, Exmoor and Wessex. The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is NOT supporting the project. Firstly, the RSPB only advocates reintroduction in situations where natural re-colonisation is not possible through other measures. At present, we believe that this could be achieved if persecution in the uplands was stopped. Secondly, the RSPB is concerned that if hen harriers were to be re-introduced to southern England, birds that disperse from their natal areas would be threatened by ongoing illegal persecution in the uplands. Therefore, again, persecution would need to stop entirely before any re-introduction would be viable. However, the re-introduction project is still at the feasibility stage, and we have yet to see detailed proposals. Although we have serious doubts, to be fair, if the project can address these concerns, which we believe it would need to do in order to comply with IUCN re-introduction guidelines, then the RSPB would wish it every success. Currently we don’t see how it can do this.
If you'd like to show your support for birds of prey, and help raise awareness of their ongoing illegal persecution, join us at Hen Harrier Day South at RSPB Arne on Sunday 6 August. Speeches by Chris Packham and RSPB Director England Chris Corrigan plus author Gill Lewis reading from her new children's book Sky Dancer.