With the appalling news published today that hen harriers have failed to breed successfully in England for the first time since the 1960's, Stephen Temperley, North Tynedale Species Protection Officer, reveals the heartbreak of looking after one of only two known failed nesting attempts this year.

I don’t have that much self-regard that I expected an outcry when my blogs ceased suddenly last April. But I do believe you are entitled to an explanation with respect to just what’s been going on in Northumberland this summer. Before that, however, let us just stop and reflect on what a desperately bad season it has been for hen harriers in England. One stark, shocking statement sums it up: no known successful breeding pairs in 2013.

That’s right – a big....fat....ZERO.

Of the two attempts that came to light, I think it safe to say the one that came closest to a happy ending (for all but the most un-reconstituted of individuals) took place in Northumberland. Sadly, this nest has only recently failed, most likely from natural causes and despite the hard work and dedication of the birds and their protectors. As excited as we were to have a nest, we took the decision not to make the attempt public, until such time as its safety and success could be guaranteed. As I’m sure you’ll understand, the location must remain a secret even now.

The birds were monitored for eleven weeks, from the time of display, copulation and nest building, through laying and incubation, until we were sure they were no longer bound to the breeding site and had dispersed, following failure of the eggs to hatch. As a professional and coordinator of 24/7 nest-watch projects, I try to remain detached from the species I monitor and study. Nevertheless it is almost impossible to remain unemotional through the trials and travails of the nesting attempt of an iconic breeding species on the cusp of extinction in England.

The birds probably paired up towards the end of April, when the weather was unseasonably grim, but when there was no-one there to watch. Daytime monitoring began in May by a small team of RSPB and Natural England workers. We noted that, while the male was a gleamingly pale, mature specimen, the female had the appearance of a second calendar year immature bird, that had herself fledged only last summer. This was by no means unprecedented though, and so no particular cause for concern. Sure enough, by the end of May the female had begun to sit tight, a sure sign that she was incubating. A first, two-minute nest visit at the beginning of June, when a security camera was installed, confirmed the presence of two eggs.

The team, unsurprisingly, were overjoyed, although a clutch of two is low for hen harriers, where four to seven eggs is more like the norm. Phase two of the project could now get underway with 24/7 monitoring. Twelve-hour night-watches were undertaken by dedicated RSPB contract staff. Day-watches (08.00-14.00 and 14.00-20.00) were mostly covered by a team of RSPB volunteers, although RSPB staff from our Newcastle Office and from the Geltsdale (Cumbria) and Bowland (Lancashire) reserves also provided invaluable assistance. We cannot thank them enough for their commitment to the project.

It must be emphasised that the dedication shown by all who contributed was quite remarkable, especially considering that the location was remote, elevated and exposed. What shelter and other aids the watchers required had to be taken up there by hand and on foot, and the walk-in was strenuous.

At the very end of June a change in behaviour of the female was noted by myself and several watchers. In one or two examples per day the female would take prey back to the nest following the characteristic male-to-female food pass. Surely this was the sign we had been waiting for – that at least one of the eggs had hatched. I was as nervous as a father-to-be but she continued to take food back and our expectations rose accordingly.

A second nest visit was made in early July, to change the power and memory units of the camera, and to check on what we all by now assumed were chicks. I simply cannot describe our disappointment to see two eggs still there. On the basis of both timing and the female’s behaviour there should have been chicks – it just goes to show that, no matter what expertise and experience us hen harrier watchers have, we don’t always get it right. After that, we watched and we waited for as long as the birds continued to behave as if this was a normal breeding attempt, with the female sitting tight and the male providing her with food.

Eventually, the signs were that the male was losing interest, with less food provision and more time away, so that the female was compelled to spend more and more time off the nest. By mid-July the eggs could no longer be viable, so were taken from the nest under licence and sent off for forensic analysis. Within two days of removing the eggs the birds had dispersed from the site and have not been seen since. If I could give them a message it would be thus: you provided all of us with innumerable golden moments, so safe journey to both of you and good luck, you’ll need it.......

I cannot sign off without expressing gratitude to the other stakeholders in this project. Firstly, the landowners, tenants and keepers within the breeding territory, with the latter prepared to instigate a program of diversionary feeding had the eggs hatched. Equally we are indebted to Natural England, the Ministry of Defence, The Forestry Commission and the Northumberland National Park Authority. Without the goodwill and assistance of such enthusiastic and conscientious partners this project would not even have got off the ground.

One final observation: a Council Leader in Southern Ireland has stated that, if restrictions on Special Protection Areas designated for hen harriers are not lifted then “open season on the hen harrier should be declared”. What can I say? The hen harrier is already one of the most persecuted species in British history. If in the face of ignorance, anthropocentric hubris, vested interests and a disregard for the well-being of our special natural places the price we must pay is eternal vigilance, then so be it.

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