When I first met with performance maker Louise Ann-Wilson last February (2012) she was wanting to know more about the ‘home’ of the hen harrier, its ecology and its history as a breeding bird in the UK. Bowland obviously plays an important part in the story of English hen harriers and has long been known as the stronghold for the species in this country – you are probably well aware that the bird is also the logo for the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even though it was only February, I was slightly optimistic that Louise and I might be treated to an early sighting of a male, back in the fells scoping out a potential territory.    

As part of the Lancashire Witches 400 Programme, Louise put on an art installation on the United Utilities estate called Ghost Bird, the name giving duel reference to the “ghostly grey feathers of the male hen harrier” and its increasing absence in Bowland due to persecution taking place on a national scale. Louise used the hen harrier as a means to reflect on the final journey, between Pendle and Lancaster, made by the persecuted Pendle Witches.

How ironic then that 2012 was the first year, certainly since 1982, that harriers failed to breed in the Forest of Bowland.

Maybe it was just a gut feeling but, heading out into the hills the first few weeks of the breeding season this year, wrapped up in waterproofs and fleece trying to keep out of what felt like an incessant wind, I already sensed this wasn’t going to be a good year for harriers. It almost made my head hurt constantly willing the unmistakable silhouette of a male harrier to appear over the horizon or trying to listen out for the ‘chek-ek-ek-ek’ of a female across the valley calling to her mate. My watches were always in vain. I was beginning to think I’d forgotten what they looked like.

At the beginning of the year I had been feeling optimistic, you have to right? Yet the weeks with only individual birds being seen slowly turned into months; a single consorting pair in mid April resulted in nothing. By the beginning of May I was fully resigned to the fact that we were not going to have harriers breeding on the United Utilities estate. That resignation is a sad and empty feeling.

It turned out my gut feeling was correct, no hen harriers bred in Bowland again this year.

Back in January, as I sat in the office planning for this season, my phone rang and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that I nearly fell over when the voice at the other end of the phone introduced itself as Mr Richard Benyon, Minister for the Environment. It turned out that Mr Benyon had read my blog about the death of Bowland Betty and wanted to assure me that he and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were committed to taking the issue of hen harrier persecution very seriously and that he wanted to ensure that I and other colleagues on the ‘front line’ had the support and resources necessary to do our job.

I was encouraged; perhaps the message about the appalling plight of England’s hen harriers had hit home. Betty’s death had had the effect I had hoped for, the government had sat up and taken notice.

Unfortunately, I have been left disappointed. So far this commitment hasn’t translated into anything on the ground yet. Not only have no harriers bred in Bowland this year there were no successful breeding attempts in England.

A year and a half ago the Scottish Government introduced Vicarious Liability making landowners , managers and senior staff on estates potentially responsible for the criminal activities of their staff. Last year the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that this piece of legislation be introduced in England. The Government’s response to this was to state that they wished to see how it worked in Scotland before considering it here.

Although, as I have stated before, the introduction of Vicarious Liability here would not mean ‘problem solved’ for our hen harrier population it could certainly help. Landowners may well think twice about condoning their employees to shoot a hen harrier if there is a chance that harrier is satellite tagged and could be linked to their estate. Progressing this piece of legislation as a priority must be a major step in not only demonstrating the government’s commitment to, but actually working towards, ending bird of prey persecution.

The RSPB will continue to work with other stakeholders through the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Group to establish a long term recovery plan but this needs to be coupled with urgent action by the Government whilst we still have the chance to save England’s hen harriers.