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
My reflections on my first job with the RSPB have taken a back seat over the last few days as buzzards have suddenly taken priority. Thirty years ago there weren’t any buzzards in Bowland – or at least I didn’t encounter a single one. Their recovery in recent years has been great and is, in no small part, down to a change of attitude and approach across the UK.
The public reaction to suggestions that buzzards could be taken into captivity or their nests destroyed was instrumental in forcing Defra to drop their proposals (you can read more here and here).
Back then I was still angry that the peregrine nest had been robbed.
I returned one last time to the peregrine’s cliff and scrambled up to retrieve the four hens’ eggs that had been swapped with the original clutch to fool both the parents and anyone keeping an eye on the nest.
So putting my rudimentary climbing skills to the test for one last time – I scrambled up to the nest ledge amongst the scatter of prey items brought to feed the young that never were.
As I slithered down with the eggs in my rucksack the parents had, by now, lost their connection with the nest, but the male bird was still in the area.
I was determined that this set back to my season wasn’t going to be the defining incident and with the egg box in my back pack I went off on my rounds checking the harrier territories.
A redstart singing from a stunted oak in small wind-sculpted wood lifted my spirits.
Redstart - illustration by Mike Langman
Follow me on twitter
So 74843 continued her journey back down south, stopping off in the Cairngorms for about 5 days where she ranged both east and west of the A9 around Dalwhinnie. I have to say she’s been picking some cracking spots to hang out, it’s really stunning in that area if you ever get the opportunity to visit ... I think Steve Murphy and I both have stories about staying in the Ben Alder bothy, Steve’s possibly more exciting than mine! Although I was there very early January so didn't see much in the way of bird life unfortunately.
Being in the same spot for so long seemed a little unusual for this female, was she going to be the first bird from Bowland known to breed somewhere other than Bowland?
74843 being fitted with her satelite transmitter last summer © Jude Lane, RSPB
Well not this time ... as we are now accustomed she decided she’d spent enough time in the Cairngorms (no males tempting her to stay perhaps?) and headed over to the west coast around Arisaig and Loch Sheil for a bit of a mini break. She then headed back east to Loch Tay before ... guess what?
© Stephen Murphy, Natural England
... she came back to Bowland!!!
Sadly for us she didn’t stay long enough for any of us to see her and she’s now back in the Yorkshire dales where she spent the winter.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you’ll know that a big part of the work that we’re doing with Skydancer focuses on education – visiting primary and secondary schools across the North of England and teaching the next generation all about hen harriers and how amazing they are!
Well, that’s all very well and good, I hear you say, but what about this generation? Hen harriers need our help now, not just ten years down the line.
I couldn’t agree more. That’s why on Tuesday last week, I accepted an invitation to visit Askham Bryan College, York, to talk to and run a workshop with a selection of their gamekeeping students. We had a really mixed bag of Level 2 & 3 Gamekeepers, Apprentice Gamekeepers and degree level Countryside Management students – 17 willing subjects in all, ranging in age from 16 upwards, with a wide range of shooting/gamekeeping experience (upland/lowland/none at all). Their two course-coordinators were on hand to facilitate proceedings, and we had one fully fledged upland gamekeeper to lend his professional viewpoint and round things off.
It was clear from the outset that the staff at Askham Bryan are about as “skydancer” as you can get – in favour of both hen harriers and grouse shooting in balance with each other. They are keen to ensure that their students understand that while of course the game (grouse/pheasant/deer/etc) will always be their first priority (that is the sole reason for a gamekeeper’s employment after all), there is a place for birds of prey alongside that, and their responsibility as land managers is to look after the landscape as a whole. For this, they should be applauded.
All in all, it was a highly productive session, made even better by having a professional ‘keeper there to bring some real-world experience of hen harriers and upland management to the table. While the majority of these students had heard of hen harriers, few knew much about them other than that they’re birds of prey with the potential to take red grouse. We were able to get a really good debate going, examining the pros and cons of nesting hen harriers on a driven grouse moor and by the end of the day, there was general agreement across the majority of the group on a number of key points:
The second point is, as ever, the crux of the hen harrier issue and the successes of diversionary feeding at Langholm highlight at least one very feasible way forward. Of course this discussion is not limited to the classroom and diversionary feeding is just one of the suggestions currently being mooted at a national level by a range of stakeholder groups through the ongoing Environment Council resolution process.
The third point is an interesting one and I’ve heard multiple arguments for and against the promotion of hen harrier based tourism. There are valid concerns about disturbance and trespassing, but as the students judged, if managed correctly the benefits could be marked. Osprey watches around the country are estimated to attract over 290,000 people and generate around £3.5 million for the local economies around these sites every year. Scottish Natural Heritage estimates that sea eagles on Mull are alone worth around £2 million to the island’s economy and a number of shooting estates in Scotland are already benefiting from “wildlife safaris”, eg here, here.
Plenty of food for thought in both those points, however it’s the first that really grabs my attention. To me, this first point is a shining light that (accepting all the caveats of point 2) demonstrates a clear future for hen harriers and gamekeeping. Put simply, where there’s a will, there’s a way. As it stands, I think that there’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding of hen harriers amongst the shooting community, with many simply viewing them as “vermin”, a pest species to be kept at bay. However, if the soon-to-be-gamekeepers of Askham Bryan can carry the heart of this message with them – that hen harriers have an intrinsic value and a right to exist – we may yet begin to see a change.
Contrary to popular belief, the RSPB does not seek to demonise the gamekeeping profession. It goes without saying that we strongly condemn anyone who takes the law into his own hands and persecutes birds of prey. But at the same time, we equally feel that those who strive for that balance and appreciate birds of prey as the natural and integral part of the landscape that they are, should be celebrated. Mark Avery (ex-RSPB Conservation Director) recently wrote an article in The Field magazine about a gamekeeper on Glen Tanar estate in Scotland, who has taken it upon himself to diversionary feed hen harriers for some time now – a gamekeeping hero in my eyes if ever there was one. If there are any gamekeepers or moorland managers in the North of England who feel the same way and would consider giving diversionary feeding a go, please, give me a call on 0191 2334321 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look to a future where hen harriers are seen as a badge of honour, a living indicator of the very best and most sustainable grouse moors. If you share this vision, please, let me know.