Spring is suddenly upon us and as the breeding season gets underway in earnest, so too do our efforts to identify, monitor and protect any hen harrier nesting attempts in England. I'm delighted to welcome back Stephen Temperley as our Species Protection Coordinatior for Northumberland, and I bring you his determined, yet hopeful, first blog of the season.
I’ll begin my first blog of the season by referring you to a fascinating and important peer-reviewed scientific paper published last November in the Journal Bird Study (Hayhow, et al 2013). Using data from the fourth national survey of hen harriers, carried out in 2010, the authors have determined that the UK and Isle of Man population declined by 18% between 2004 and 2010. The hen harrier population of Scotland declined by 20%, whereas the welsh population increased by 33%. They conclude that illegal persecution limits the size of the English population to very low levels. Hard to argue with, particularly when we take into account the conclusions of Fielding et al (2011), that there exists sufficient habitat to support 323-340 pairs across England.
The last few years have been desperately bad for hen harriers in England: in 2010 there were 7 successful hen harrier nests, from which 23 young fledged. These paltry numbers declined progressively in subsequent years, so that in 2012 England had only a single successful nest. It couldn’t get worse I hear you say – well it could, and it did. We had such high hopes in 2013 when a nest attempt got underway in Northumberland. For a more detailed account of this attempt and our protection program, you can read my final blog from last year here.
From the point of view of protection the RSPB monitoring operation set up in response to the 2013 Northumberland attempt was an unmitigated success; the birds remained undisturbed during a 24/7 monitoring scheme that RSPB staff and volunteers kept up for eleven weeks. During that time the poor female incubated her two eggs for almost fifty days (average for this species 29-31 days), with the male providing her with food items every day without fail throughout that time. Unfortunately the eggs did not hatch, with a full forensic analysis revealing they were infertile. So - in case you were not aware, it came to pass that in 2013 there were no successful breeding attempts in England.
With Circus cyaneus on the cusp of extinction in England, every breeding attempt, every egg and every fledgling this year will be precious. While the breeding failures of recent years have been very hard for all of us to bear, I am encouraged by the fact that the 2013-2014 winter hen harrier numbers across Northern England have been particularly buoyant, indeed the best I have known for almost ten years. This has to be good sign with respect to breeding potential. During the earliest stages of this year's breeding cycle (up to the beginning of egg-laying), myself and a few highly experienced workers will be monitoring extenstively but watching keenly from a distance to avoid any potential disturbance.
Thus, while the birds are only just beginning to emerge from winter habits and habitats, we prepare and we watch with a combination of wide-eyed enthusiasm and hard-headed pragmatism. And, believe me, when it comes to the fate of hen harriers in England that combination is not a contradiction in terms. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said (and I paraphrase): an artist is a person who can hold two fundamentally opposing viewpoints and still function. For artist, read hen harrier worker.
Here’s to a successful 2014.