This week we hear from the newest member of the Skydancer team who tells us a bit about himself and his new role, as well as giving us an update on our sat-tagged birds, Burt and Highlander.
Hello. My name is James Bray and I have just started as the RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, and my role will be to help monitor and protect Bowland’s birds of prey. As Bowland has been so important for hen harriers in England over the years, this will be very exciting and challenging work. However, I am very fortunate to be joining an incredibly dedicated and skilled team of volunteers and staff from a range of different organisations. I have been made to feel very welcome and have been really impressed with the expertise and enthusiasm that I have encountered.
I previously worked for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Scotland taking part in a varied range of research projects in a range of habitats and locations. This included monitoring the wader-filled fields of the machair on the Outer Hebrides, and carrying out bird surveys on the high tops of the Cairngorms. One thing that I will not miss is the sitka spruce plantations that we occasionally had to survey – needles is a very appropriate term. I was also responsible for BTO Scotland’s training programme, running bird identification and surveying courses for volunteers, and encouraging more people to take part in bird surveying and monitoring.
On my second day of work here, my colleague Gavin Thomas gave me a great introduction to Bowland by taking me to monitor a harrier roost on the edge of Bowland. Clear skies and calm conditions provided beautiful conditions and we were soon watching a couple of ringtail hen harriers drifting over the grassy slopes. I never tire of watching harriers, they are endlessly fascinating as they rock slowly from side to side, flying low over moorland, with bursts of acceleration or sudden stalls quickly followed by a drop to the ground.
With a Barn Owl quartering the hillside in the background, my trip out with Gavin was a sensational way to start my time in Bowland.
These two photos, taken by a nest camera at one of the successful nests on the United Utilities Bowland estate last year, provide some idea of how spectacular these birds are.
Meanwhile, Burt and Highlander, both seem to have taken a liking to their wintering grounds as they are still in the same areas that they have been in since before Christmas, with Highlander on the south-east Lancashire / Yorkshire border, and Burt in Cumbria. It is likely that the relatively mild winter has allowed good numbers of voles to survive in these areas, providing plenty of food for these two birds. It is great to see these two young birds doing so well in their first winter as it is in this period that natural mortality is usually at its greatest.
This map shows that their autumn wanderings have given way to a more sedentary period, although they do cover relatively large areas within their wintering grounds.
As we look forward a month or two, it is possible that both birds will attempt to breed this year, particularly as so much suitable habitat is available. This is in part due to the rather disgraceful fact that that there are so few hen harriers left in England. As I join the work to try to bring hen harriers back from the brink in England, let’s hope that Burt and Highlander continue to thrive and play a practical part in the species’ future.
In the meantime should you be enjoying an early spring foray into the countryside and are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please report it to the hen harrier hotline at email@example.com or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.
Suddenly it’s March (where did February go??), which means that any moment now the breeding season will begin in earnest. And of course the big question is hanging in the air is what will this year hold for hen harriers? I both love and hate this time of year – so much hope, so much possibility, and yet so much trepidation.
For the last three seasons, the award-winning Skydancer Project has funded and coordinated RSPB’s hen harrier monitoring and nest protection work in the north of England, and I’m delighted to say that this year, it’s going to be getting an extra boost.
Our new Hen Harrier LIFE Project represents an exciting and ambitious, five-year programme of hen harrier conservation, combining direct conservation action with community engagement and awareness-raising measures, to build on and extend the work of Skydancer, both into the future, to 2019, and geographically into southern and eastern Scotland.
We talk a lot about hen harriers in England but the reality is that there’s nothing separating hen harriers here from those in Scotland, Wales, or to a certain extent, Ireland or the Isle of Man. Bowland Betty showed us just how wide-ranging hen harriers can be and a few birds have even been tracked as far as France or Spain. Essentially, anything that affects hen harriers in one part of their range is likely to affect the population as a whole, and as birds don’t recognise boundaries, neither should we. The Hen Harrier LIFE Project is unique in being the first truly cross-border conservation initiative for this species.
The LIFE Project will focus on seven Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for breeding hen harriers, two in England and five in Scotland, illustrated below. Although these SPA designations constitute a legally binding government obligation to maintain favourable conservation status, it's worth noting that not one of those listed is currently meeting its designation criteria for hen harriers.
It stands to reason that to protect hen harriers inside SPAs, we need to protect them outside SPAs. By funding satellite tags, the LIFE project will enable us to follow these birds wherever they go, facilitating better understanding of their movements and helping to identify where they’re most vulnerable. A few of these tagged birds will be made public each year and you’ll be able to follow their incredible journeys through an interactive map on our project website (watch this space). By telling these stories, we hope to raise awareness and understanding of hen harriers, encouraging recognition that these magnificent birds "belong" to all of us, and we are all responsible for their protection.
Speaking of which, the LIFE project will be aiding direct protection of hen harrier nests and roosts by providing access to remote cameras and other vital monitoring equipment. We’ll also be working closely with the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) to monitor hen harriers populations throughout both breeding and wintering seasons. The project has employed two new Assistant Investigations Officers to focus on hen harriers and the uplands, who will work closely with police and statutory bodies to help address the ongoing issue of illegal persecution and disturbance.
It's a universal truth that all good things must come to an end but thanks to LIFE, Skydancer's fantastic community engagement work won’t just fade away when the project finishes in September. The LIFE Project will continue key elements of this work, working with schools, local community groups, and gamekeeping colleges to raise awareness and build support for hen harrier conservation in areas where these birds should be. We’ll particularly be looking for opportunities to work positively with landowners to champion best practice for hen harriers where it occurs.
Finally, if Hen Harrier Day last year has taught us anything, it’s that the issue of hen harrier conservation is bigger than any one organisation. So with this in mind, the LIFE project is already working to build links with other hen harrier projects such as Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, the PAWS Heads Up for Harriers scheme, and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project; not to mention the National Parks and AONBs, and other conservation organisations; to develop a coherent conservation network for hen harriers across the project areas.
Last year was a big one for hen harriers in England (see here, here, here, and here), placing this vulnerable bird of prey firmly in the political spotlight. Now, with the deadline for government pre-election shutdown only a few weeks away, it remains to be seen whether any decisions will be made on Defra's proposed Hen Harrier Action Plan (see here for RSPB's stance).
Whatever the outcome, both Skydancer and the Hen Harrier LIFE Project stand as clear demonstrations of RSPB's commitment to securing a sustainable future for hen harriers and our willingness to work positively and openly with anyone who feels the same.
So here's to 2015 and whatever the breeding season may bring - we're ready for it.
For more information on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife
If you're lucky enough to spot a hen harrier in England, let us know by contacting our Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, with a description of the bird, where and when you saw it (including date, time of day, and grid reference if possible), and what it was doing (eg flying, hunting, displaying, carrying nesting material). For Scottish sightings, please email email@example.com.