As regular readers of this blog will know, hen harriers have always been an iconic feature of the Bowland landscape. So much so in fact, that as the logo of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), they have become a literal symbol of the area, appearing on signs and fence posts throughout the landscape.
Driving through said landscape last week, it dawned on me that these signs have recently been transformed in my mind from cheery way-markers, to poignant reminders that all is not as it should be. For the first time in almost half a century, there were no successful hen harrier nests in Bowland this year, but more than that, there were hardly any hen harriers. It’s not that the birds were there and not breeding – they simply weren’t around. Sure a female would turn up one week, a male a few weeks later, but nothing even close to what there should be for a site awarded international designation on the basis of its importance for breeding hen harriers. And that is deeply worrying. What’s even more worrying though is how few people are aware of just how bad the situation is.
Not ones to take a bad situation lying down, I was delighted when RSPB Education colleagues in the Northwest decided to call attention to the absence of breeding hen harriers in Bowland this year, by working together with local primary schools to spread the message in the local community and raise awareness of the hen harriers plight.
Independent research estimates that there is enough suitable habitat in the North of England to support over 320 pairs of hen harriers. So with this in mind, and playing on the idea of a white dove of peace, RSPB staff worked with over 300 pupils from six schools to create 320 small white hen harriers out of recycled materials. These were then brought together last Saturday in a fantastic event to create one giant image of a white hen harrier on the playing fields of Hornby St Margaret’s CE Primary School, symbolizing a call for people from all walks of Bowland life, be they conservationists, school teachers, members of the shooting community, or anyone else, to come together to save this beautiful part of our natural heritage and ensure that hen harriers remain a living icon of Bowland for generations to come.
Thanks to the combined efforts of all involved, the event was a big success and I think demonstrates the importance of these birds to many people in the local community. Often in conservation, when communicating the value of a species, we tend to focus on their biological importance in the landscape and their intrinsic value or right to exist. However their cultural significance should never be underestimated.
White-tailed eagles and golden eagles feature on stone carvings going back to pre-Celtic times and it's only by looking at where these images have been found, that we can fully understand the original range and extent of these birds. Will the same ultimately be true of the familiar hen harrier symbols dotted around the Bowland landscape? With your help, and more initiatives like this, I sincerely hope not.
UPDATE - keep an eye out for an article on this and Bowland hen harriers in the January 2013 edition of Lancashire Life!