This week's blog is brought to you by Dan Trotman, who runs the Skydancer roost watch event at RSPB Dee Estuary reserves. Hen harriers can travel great distances, often to coastal areas, in the winter to escape the harsh upland weather. Many Scottish birds will come south to England, spending time at traditional roost sites in areas like the Dee and across in Eastern England. We don't yet know exactly which birds go where but ongoing research with satellite tagging by Natural England and others is gradually helping us to better understand their movements.
As Blanaid mentioned in her first blog of 2013, the RSPB Dee Estuary reserve is a top wintering site for hen harriers, and since I’ve been leading the monthly Skydancer events at Parkgate, I thought I’d tempt you all with an insight.
For those who don’t know Parkgate, its vast saltmarsh makes up the oldest and wildest part of the Dee Estuary reserve, whilst its ice cream, fish & chips and numerous pubs make it a popular spot with the public. What better place, then, to combine the two and have the Skydancer momentum follow the birds down from their upland breeding grounds.
Blessed with fine weather on the launch weekend in October, we spoke to a couple of hundred people each day and sure enough, got reasonable views of an early-arriving ringtail twisting and turning low over the marsh, plunging suddenly onto a luckless meadow pipit or dawdling field vole.
A month later and we were excited at the regular reports of two grey males on the reserve, a bird I hadn’t seen for almost two years having had none on the Dee last winter. Blanaid joined me for the Skydancer event, though our luck was out and we had to settle yet again for a ringtail hunting mid-afternoon, and two dropping in to their favoured roosting spot as dusk loomed.
With December’s event a near-washout, we returned in January, thrilled by the news of a third grey male, and three ringtails in the area; six Skydancers in total, the highest wintering population on the Dee for several years. Without a doubt the best event yet, on several occasions we watched a ringtail flush flocks of skylark, goldfinch and even teal from the cover of the marsh, at one point even tussling with a short-eared owl over possession of a meaty rat. A cold yet clear day meant a lot of passers-by, many of whom, moved by our tales of the species’ decline, delighted in having the mysterious raptors being pointed out, including in late afternoon, the ghostly figure of a grey male floating by.
Bringing the Skydancer project to the Dee Estuary has allowed us to engage with hundreds of people who otherwise would have remained unaware of the desperate plight of this enchanting bird; the events also inspired nine people to become members of the RSPB to allow us to continue and further our conservation efforts for the hen harrier and beyond. Join us on the first Sunday of February and March, come rain or shine (preferably the latter!) for your chance to share this wonderful experience.
Dan Trotman, RSPB Dee Estuary
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That is the million-dollar question posed by Tony in response to last week’s Skydancer blog. And boy is it a good one – so good in fact, that I felt it deserved its own blog post. This could be a long one, so for those of you in a hurry, the short answer is:
Yes. Of course hen harriers and grouse shooting can coexist!
For the long answer, read on.
To start with, I think we need to qualify the term “coexistence”. Hen harriers on a grouse moor eat grouse. It is not the main component of their diet. Research has shown that the number of hen harriers an area can support is influenced by the number of meadow pipits and field voles available, not the number of grouse (see here and here). However, to expect a hen harrier not to take a single grouse from a moor that’s choc-full of them is nonsense. Like any predator, if the food is easy, they’ll take what they can get. So there will inevitably be some degree of loss – that, I’m afraid, is just nature.
The next point to make is that we are not talking about reintroducing a long-extinct species. In places like the Forest of Bowland and the Northeast of Scotland, hen harriers have existed in reasonable numbers alongside driven grouse shooting as recently as 20-30 years ago. In 1991, there were 18 breeding pairs in Bowland (not just on United Utlities land), and the viability of shooting on local estates did not collapse. The idea that a single pair of hen harriers, or even two or three, would automatically bring an end to grouse shooting on any estate is an overstatement in the extreme. That said, it is entirely understandable that estate managers would want to minimise any impact the birds do have.
Fortunately, diversionary feeding, or the provision of supplementary food during the nesting period, works. It is not the only answer, and the effect of hen harriers on the number of grouse available to shoot will vary from moor to moor, but early trials of diversionary feeding have shown it can reduce the number of grouse taken by up to 86%. More recently at Langholm, only a single grouse chick has been recorded being taken as prey between a total of seven hen harrier nests in five years – those are pretty good odds.
Regardless of where you stand on the Langholm project, you should know they’re not the only ones at it. Glen Tanar estate in Aberdeenshire took up diversionary feeding of hen harriers in 2010 using scraps of unsalable venison from deer culled on the estate. In that same year, driven grouse shooting became viable on the estate for the first time in over a decade and has continued since, reporting "very satisfactory" grouse bags (yeilds). If you’re interested, this example of coexistence was the subject of the winning entry in the documentary category of the British Wildlife Photographer Award 2012. Sadly, despite producing two very healthy broods in 2010 and 2011, the declining hen harrier population meant there simply weren't enough birds around to breed in 2012. Diversionary feeding may not be the only answer but it’s certainly a good start.
The bigger issue here lies in the sustainability of intenstive management for rearing grouse. Red grouse in the UK have been experiencing a steady population decline for most of the last century, for reasons entirely unconnected with birds of prey (see here). Despite this, there is an apparent tendency within parts of the shooting community to continually strive for bigger and better grouse bags. In order to achieve this, management has become more and more intensive and legal (and in some cases, illegal) predator control, near absolute. It is in this context that there are those who feel that the loss of even one grouse to a bird of prey is unacceptable (an ambition that, as previously discussed, is entirely unrealistic). Which begs the question – how sustainable is the current level of intensive management?
And sustainability really is the magic word because a well-managed and sustainable grouse moor can have benefits for conservation. Research has shown that appropriate, legal predator control carried out by gamekeepers does have benefits for a number of wader species when combined with sensitive moorland management. Historically speaking, it is also true that grouse shooting estates have maintained large areas of our moorland landscape that may otherwise have been lost to afforestation or overgrazing, preserving not just wildlife but vital carbon stores and water catchments.
Until this year, hen harriers and the grouse shooting community have successfully coexisted on the United Utilities estate in Bowland for decades (the absence of breeding harriers in 2012 being attributed to factors outwith the estate). Granted their habitat management is considerably more extensive than many other estates might be prepared entertain but that’s not to say that there isn’t a middle ground. The key to a sustainable system of driven grouse shooting has to be the application of management practices that are, in themselves, legal and sustainable (see here again).
Some estate managers would argue that the pressure to produce larger and larger grouse bags stems from a real need to cover the considerable costs of managing the estate in the first place. However, hen harriers could actually help with this. Consider the fact that white-tailed eagles on Mull bring in around £5 million a year to the local economy in wildlife tourism. You can read an RSPB report on the value of such nature tourism here – the figures are a little out of date now but it gives a good picture of just how valuable a natural spectacle like a skydancing hen harrier could be to an estate.
A number of estates in Scotland already run wildlife “safaris” in the spring/summer and shooting in the autumn with great success (here, here, here). Such trips could also be used to help educate people about the moorland landscape and show the managers of these estates for what they truly are – custodians of the countryside. I’ve said it before, but I envision a future where hen harriers are seen as a badge of honour, a symbol of the best and most sustainable grouse moors.
Finally, the last point to make is that like it or lump it, hen harriers are legally protected. To intentionally or recklessly harm or disturb these birds for any reason is against the law. Whether or not you agree with that law is irrelevant. You can complain about the top speed limit being set at 70mph but that is not going to change it. The law is there because these birds are an integral part of our natural heritage and deserving of protection. However, the potential shown by estates like Glen Tanar demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be a case of “putting up with” hen harriers just because the law says so, that hen harriers and driven grouse shooting don’t have to simply “coexist” – they could thrive together in mutual benefit.
Running with the theme of positivity for 2013, if one were to try and find some sliver of good in the tragedy of Bowland Betty, it's that the circumstances of her untimely demise have finally brought the hen harrier issue to national attention. In the last week alone, there has been a strong article in The Observer and a BBC Radio4 piece featuring Martin Harper and Adrian Blackmore from the Countryside Alliance on Monday's Today programme. There are also feature articles on hen harriers in the January editions of both Lancashire Life magazine (they even made the cover) and the Shooting Gazette. Regional and local news stories about hen harriers are one thing but to get national media coverage like this is rare enough.
We now have an opportunity here, you and I, to focus this attention and not let it slip away. We need to build on it and in doing so, connect the wider public with these beautiful birds and the moorland landscape in which they live. Tell the hen harrier story to your neighbour over the garden fence, or your friend next time you go for coffee. Point people to this blog, tell your friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter. Write to your local paper and let them know that this is important to you, to us all.
Remember buzzardgate? Public outrage can be a powerful thing, and we should be outraged. That people (however many or few) are intentionally and illegally killing hen harriers or discouraging them from nesting is outrageous. However in the midst of this I ask you to please remember that not all people who shoot hate hen harriers, and not all people who want to see hen harriers protected are against grouse shooting. The two interests are not mutually exclusive. We don't need scaremongering or demonizing - these things are not helpful and indeed, they only set people against eachother and deepen the problem. This is an opportunity to get away from all that and to help people to really understand the issues. We all want a world richer in wildlife.
We need to encourage everyone, whatever their background, to speak out in the name of hen harriers and send a clear message that these are our birds. They belong in our shared landscape. And illegal persecution will not be tolerated.
This is our chance, and your voice matters.