While the unseasonable, windless heat of late has been just the ticket for us watchers in Northumberland, it hasn't exactly been conducive to the peregrinations of Circus cyaneus in prospecting for breeding territory. Hen harriers are creatures of the wind, able to efficiently cover vast amounts of ground when house-hunting, and skilfully utilising every gust and turbulent eddy when food-hunting. Conditions for the last ten days have been energy-sapping for bird and man alike, but the news is better than expected.
One of the key challenges in tracking pre-paired hen harriers in Northumberland over the last few years arises from the fact that, on the one hand, there are so few individual birds across the county while, on the other hand, there are so many potentially suitable breeding territories to choose from (persecution notwithstanding). Nevertheless, I am happy to report that, already this year after five weeks of careful, covert monitoring, we have had more sightings in North Tynedale than throughout the whole of last year's unsuccessful breeding season.
Over the last eight days alone we have had an adult male and two adult females each making several appearances on site, with one of the females very obviously distinguished by the absence of two adjoining primaries on her right wing. On two successive days both the male and a female were clocked on site but did not overlap in time so, somewhat perversely, despite all the action, we haven't yet had the interaction that could help seal the deal. The male has been seen soaring high over previous nest localities but remains unpaired and is not yet in the mood to dance. Plenty of time yet though.
Our volunteers remain conscientious, disciplined and enthusiastic. We have stirling support from the Forestry Commission and the SITA trust, while we are now part of a larger, HLF-supported hen harrier project across the North of England (the RSPB "Skydancer Project"). Our hopes are up, our spirits indomitable and March is not yet out, so watch this space......
Stephen Temperley, RSPB Species Protection Coordinator for Northumberland
The Skydancer project may just be getting started but as many of us know, the need to conserve and protect hen harriers in England is nothing new. Though their diet mainly comprises meadow pipits and field voles, hen harriers will occasionally take red grouse and it is recognised that in certain situations, when hen harriers are numerous, this has the potential to impact on the “shootable surplus” or the number of grouse available to shoot in the autumn. The resulting perceived conflict between hen harriers and driven grouse shooting has been the focus of intense debate and research for over 30 years now and efforts to devise practical solutions through projects such as the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project are ongoing.
Despite knowing all this, I never fail to be amazed at the depth of emotion, both negative and positive, that the simple words “hen harrier” can evoke in people. This was captured perfectly by the results of the community consultation we carried out during the development phase of Skydancer, where very strong and polarised opinions were expressed...
“Hen harriers are vermin.”
“All gamekeepers are evil.”
It is a regrettable fact that illegal persecution of hen harriers through deliberate killing and disturbance is an ongoing and serious issue, and it goes without saying that we will continue campaigning for stronger laws and harsher penalties for those who commit wildlife crimes. However, if the community consultation showed us anything, it’s that to truly make a difference for hen harriers in England, we need to go beyond that.
For these birds to survive and thrive, we need to get away from this idea that hen harriers and driven grouse shooting are mutually exclusive, that it’s one or the other, that it’s “us” or “them”. We need to address the misconceptions (“the skies are full of hen harriers and they’re eating all the small birds”) and combat entrenched viewpoints (“conservationists just want to ban shooting,” “gamekeepers just want to kill everything”) and get people on both sides of the debate to walk a mile in each others shoes.
Whatever your personal feelings on the subject, it is clear that driven grouse shooting is very important to a lot of people, for a whole range of reasons and it is not something that is going to fade quietly into the night. That being the case, those that own and manage driven grouse moors are, and will continue to be, important custodians of our countryside who have an inherent responsibility to protect and enhance all of the biodiversity that depends on their land, including birds of prey, including hen harriers.
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) have a “conservation through wise use” policy which states:
“over intensive game management can reduce some biodiversity if, for example, rare carnivores and birds of prey are exterminated. Hunting and game management is only conservation through wise use if these species are conserved too.”
This is a position that we whole-heartedly agree with and through Skydancer, we will be asking local moorland owners, managers, gamekeepers and the shooting community at large, to step-up for hen harriers and become true examples of conservation through wise use. The United Utilities estate in Bowland is a great example of this – where hen harriers are doing well and driven shooting continues successfully.
Over the course of the next four years, we will be working hard to inspire, educate and enthuse people across northern England about hen harriers and their upland habitat. We want to tell the hen harrier story and spread the message that hen harriers are a beautiful, natural and integral part of our upland heritage, deserving and very much in need of our protection and support. Only by coming together and attempting to listen and understand each other’s viewpoints, will we be able to secure a sustainable future for both hen harriers and grouse shooting in the English uplands.
Jude’s already keeping you posted about the brilliant on-the-ground conservation work that’s happening on the United Utilities Estate in Bowland and I’ll be posting regular blogs to let you know about all the exciting community engagement work we’ll be doing through Skydancer with primary and secondary schools, community groups, guided walks, events and so much more. I’ll also be posting information on how you can get involved and support Skydancer through various events and volunteering opportunities as the project continues, so watch this space!
Thirty years ago I started working for the RSPB on a six month upland bird surveying contract – with the additional challenge of helping to protect England’s only regular nesting hen harriers. The Forest of Bowland was the only stronghold for hen harriers in England in 1982 – it still is. I’ll be contributing a series of guest blogs over the spring and summer and tweeting in real time on @andrefarrar
A few days of endless walking was making quite a difference to my levels of fitness – but pacing the hills was only one part of my role. The Forest of Bowland was then and still is a tight-knit rural community and arriving as newcomer I had a lot of introductions to make. I’d had had an early lucky break in rescuing a trapped ewe and thus making a good impression with my farming neighbours and now I started my round of visits to North West Water Authority (NWWA) staff (my job covered the NWWA estate), volunteers, game keepers, farmers, the local police and the pub.
Walking the hills of Bowland was doing wonders for my fitness and I was learning about its role in our water supply in tandem with farming, grouse and forestry - photo RSPB Images
Growing up in rural Kent and having an agricultural science background was useful in many conversations (I most obviously wasn’t a townie, and that was clearly seen as a good thing) – though there was a measure of curiosity as to why I I’d given all that up and was now surveying birds! Curiosity driven, in part, by the question why the ‘normal’ birds of Bowland needed surveying and some suspicion about what I was actually here to do.
But over lots of tea and not a little cake, I was made to feel welcome. I was learning a lot. Conversation would flow until I brought up the subject of hen harriers (and it was invariably me that dare mention their name).
Rare, threatened and glorious or unmentionable vermin.
The fracture in perception that saw them once persecuted and able to survive only on remote islands of the UK, has maintained a pressure of intolerance that I was discovering for myself in 1982 and continues to this day (with the important caveat that Bowland was then and is still the only regular breeding site for hen harriers in England).
I was struck by the widely different perception of peregrines and hen harriers – both predators of red grouse as one ‘keeper described it ‘you can respect peregrines, comes in the front door, takes a grouse a goes, harriers sneak about and creep in the back door’.
Between the socialising I was still pacing the hills and getting to grips with the place, finding more harriers, marvelling at the numbers of curlews and starting to keep notes of cars parked in odd places and logging suspicious incidents. Egg collecting was a major risk to a number of birds in Bowland – and developing the neighbourhood watch approach to the issue was a big part of my role.
The outside world was largely passing me by (as was sleep) – my only occasional update was via the car radio in my dashing Talbot Horizon. So it came as some surprise to hear that the foreign secretary, Peter Carrington had resigned and that we at war with Argentina.
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