I am pleased to present a guest blog from Mick Demain, the RSPB's seasonal assistant warden in Bowland for the last few years, reflecting on his last few years monitoring harriers
Being the seasonal warden for the RSPB in Bowland means I am privileged to be working with raptors every day and undoubtedly the hen harrier is the star species.
Over the years there have been many highs and lows. The 2011 season had been just like many others with success and some failure so as the 2012 season got under way I had no reason to think that this would be any different, but as the weeks passed I realised that the unthinkable was about to happen, we were to have no breeding harriers since they returned in the 1960s.
You’ll probably know that 2013 was even worse with not a single successful breeding attempt in England. The species was now on the brink, the next step was to become extinct as a breeding species.
So as the 2014 season got underway I had little reason to be optimistic as I drove up the estate tracks into the hills, however it soon became apparent that we may have a chance. The winter had been mild and the voles were in very high numbers, the grouse count had been the highest for twenty years and the pipits would soon be flooding in.
In early March I had my first sighting of a harrier at a known site, this was a female and although she stayed only for a few minutes it was a start. By mid April she was back with a male and we were delighted when it soon became apparent that there would be a breeding attempt at this site. By the end of the month we had identified seven individual harriers at three sites including two adult males in their beautiful silver grey plumage. One of these then settled with a female one mile distant from the first pair.
The remaining birds never paired up and eventually left the area but had someone offered me two pairs at the start of the season I would have gladly taken it!
2014 has been a great success with two pairs in Bowland and a third at another site, we can all bask in the glory of a good job done but we must not become complacent for this is only the start. This is where the recovery begins.
What better way to inspire the next generation about hen harriers than to take them out and actually show them hen harriers!
Luckily for me, I was privileged to be able to do just that when Siobhan McGuigan, the RSPB’s Youth Development Officer brought children from our local school, Brennand’s Endowed Primary in Slaidburn, onto the United Utilities estate earlier this month. The children aged 5-10 were brimming with excitement as they travelled in a land rover across the moor, then negotiated a heard of fluffy black and white four legged teddy bears (or Belted Galloway cattle) before making the final short walk to the viewing point passing heather, meadow pipits and cotton grass blowing in the wind.
As soon as I met them they were all super keen to tell me what they’d learnt about these majestic raptors during previous visits made to the school as part of the RSPB’s Skydancer Project, explaining the food pass and where they like to nest.
The children were given the opportunity to come up to see the birds after they ‘adopted’ the chicks and ran a competition to name them all.
The four females have been named Sky, Highlander, Fern and Heather their only brother is now Flash. You’ll be able to follow the exploits of Sky and Highlander (pictured below) on this blog over the weeks, months and hopefully years to come.
(c) RSPB. Highlander (left) and Sky (right) as named by pupils at Brennand's Endowed Primary School in Slaidburn.
It has to be said, I was a little nervous about how I was going to show a 5 year old a hen harrier from a distance of about a kilometre, but the timing of the visit was just perfect. With the spotting scopes set up on the diversionary feeding post, just a few seconds of looking down them rewarded all the children with views of the young hen harriers flying about and landing on the post – magical.
“I felt really excited and happy because they are a really rare bird. There isn’t many of them in the UK. It is a privilege to go and see them.”
The ten year old who said that, sadly, hit the nail on the head with all three of those sentences. I almost couldn't have put it better myself.
So whilst it is a real privilage to be able to show adults and children their first hen harrier I would far rather there were enough birds out there that people could just go and discover them for themselves. These birds should be gracing our skies over all the upland areas in England and be there for everyone to enjoy.
Pupils from Brennand's Endowed Primary School see what it's like to be a member of the Hen harrier overnight protection staff.
I was recently delighted to be invited to record a podcast about hen harriers with campaign group, Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC), as part of their series of podcasts leading up to Hen Harrier Day.
If you've not come across them before, BAWC are a group definitely worth checking out - concerned, knowledgeable birders promoting awareness, and appropriate recording and reporting of wildlife crimes. Have a look at their brilliant website here and I definitely recommend having a read of their FAQ for a fuller explanation of what they're all about.
BAWC are the instigators of Hen Harrier Day and alongside Mark Avery in the Peak District and the North West Raptor Group in the Forest of Bowland, will be running a Hen Harrier event in Northumberland on August 10th. More information on all three events can be found on their website here.
To listen to me describing the beauty of a skydancing hen harrier in full flight or indeed any of the other excellent podcasts, simply visit their soundcloud page here or the podcast page of their website here.
I'll be at the Hen Harrier Day in the Peak District - hope to see you there!