What a busy couple of weeks I’ve had! Bouncing here there and everywhere, colouring-in and cutting out, painting, gluing, sticking and crafting... and that was just the prep work! Part of the fun of working with primary schools has to be that you get to be a kid again yourself. I sometimes have to remind myself that yes, playing with puppets, story-telling, make-believing, dressing-up and all those messy, sticky arts and crafts do actually count as “work”! Honestly, it’s a tough life.
Of course, despite the appearance of frivolity, at the core of all the fun and games we are still delivering some key educational messages: hen harriers are beautiful, amazing birds; the moorland landscape is a unique and special place; hen harriers are an integral part of that landscape and while moorland has many uses, we all have a responsibility to look after it for people and for wildlife.
Just last week, I visited a school in North Tynedale which we had previously engaged with in 2008, the last time that hen harriers nested successfully in the local area. The school still had their “adoption” certificate hanging on the wall from when the children named all the chicks and followed their progress from hatching to fledging. Four years later, one boy, who had been in the Reception class at the time and had now reached the grand old age of eight and one quarter, was enthusiastically telling me almost everything there is to know about hen harriers, without so much as a prompt! The information had obviously stuck.
Now this boy clearly had a particular interest in birds and wildlife, and it’s fair to say that every child we work with won’t grow up to be the next David Attenborough. But whether they grow up to be teachers, gamekeepers, business owners, conservationists or even IT consultants, as long as they carry with them the knowledge that hen harriers are a beautiful and integral part of our upland heritage, deserving and in need of our protection, then perhaps we’ll have a future for these birds after all.
Sitting out on the fells in Bowland these last few weeks has been a strange experience. By now, in all the years that staff and volunteers monitoring hen harriers on the United Utilities estate can remember, we would have been able to head up onto the fell knowing we would be able to watch harriers. Indeed we would already have nests established by now. This year that is not the case. Despite the best efforts of Mick and our volunteers, sightings have been very few and far between.
I had already started to formulate this blog before I went out on the hill today but just after mid-day I realised I would be able to change what I was going to write - for the better!
We new that 74843 had been back in Bowland since last weekend (more about her adventures later) but today Mick watched her displaying on part of the estate whilst I caught sight of a second female elsewhere ... hurrah! Has this bit of warmer weather drawn them back in? Are we just experiencing an anomaly of a year with birds just being much later than usual?
So it's eyes to the skies folks ... if you see any birds anywhere please let us know and hopefully I can bring you some more positive news over the next week, it's a male we really want to see now!
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
Suddenly a very familiar sound was part of the upland chorus. The cuckoos had arrived. Trouble ahead for the ubiquitous meadow pipits that had been displaying for weeks.
Cuckoos were arriving in the hills. Photo John Bridges, RSPB Images
One was calling from a clough while I was watching a skirmish between two merlins confirming a suspicion that I’d been watching two pairs. Clough, by the way, is pronounced ‘cloo’ in Lancashire, not ‘cluff’ I’d made that mistake early on!
The peregrines could only be a few days from hatching – I was feeling more anxious than the pair appeared to be, on this visit the female was sitting on the nest and the male on his regular sentinel heather clump overlooking the nesting valley. He’d long ago stopped bothering to check me out as I scanned the nest from a vantage point opposite his.
My focus on the heather-dominated parts of the hills (the bits the harriers preferred) meant that I’d spent less time visiting areas that were more grass-dominated. Here the plaintive calls of golden plovers were an introduction to another bird that I’d only known previously in its winter flocks.
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