It's a turbulent and uncertain time for nature conservation (and everything else) in the wake of last week's EU referendum result. The hen harrier is just one of the schedule 1 species currently afforded protection under the European Birds Directive. What will replace this and other vital pieces of European conservation legislation in the wake of Brexit is yet unknown, however you can read our Chief Executive, Mike Clarke's reaction to the referendum result here.
One thing is certain, referendum or no, the emotional rollercoaster that is the hen harrier breeding season rolls on.
The Bad News:
It is with a heavy heart that only weeks after our beloved Highlander vanished over a moor in Durham, I have to share the news that our one remaining satellite-tagged hen harrier, Chance, has now also disappeared.
Satellite-tagged hen harrier, Chance, photographed here at RSPB's Wallasea reserve, in 2014 by Tony Orwell.
For those who haven't been following this blog, Chance was a female hen harrier, named by RSPB Scotland, who was tagged in June 2014 by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group before the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project began. However, the project followed her movements closely. RSPB staff who were monitoring Chance became concerned when her tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting at the end of May. A search of her last known location, on a South Lanarkshire grouse moor, was carried out by RSPB Investigations staff, but there was no sign of her. It is possible that she could have moved some distance from here before going offline. We don’t know what caused the satellite tag to fail but as with Highlander, transmission up to that point had been strong and there was no indication of battery failure.
She has not been found.
Needless to say, we are deeply saddened, disappointed and frustrated at the disappearance of Chance. We were looking forward to following her movements, monitoring any nesting attempts, and sharing them on the LIFE+ project website. We had high hopes that now in her second year, this would be the summer she raised a brood of her own.
We appeal to anyone who can provide any information about Chance’s disappearance to contact the RSPB in the first instance, or if the circumstances appear suspicious, Police Scotland on 101. You can also read a full statement on Chance's life on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website here.
The Good News:
Around the same time that Chance disappeared, RSPB staff at our Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria became aware of a female hen harrier hanging around and displaying over the reserve. She was shortly after joined by an immature male, yet we didn't dare hope that anything could come of it so late in the season. I have never been so delighted to be proved wrong.
As of late last week, I can now confirm that we have a hen harrier nest with five eggs on Geltsdale, being watched round-the-clock by a team of dedicated wardens, overnight protection staff, and volunteers, armed with the latest remote monitoring technology.
This is one of only three active nests in England this year and if successful, these will be the first hen harrier chicks to have fledged from Geltsdale since 2006 - exactly 10 years. A similar nesting attempt last year resulted in failure when the male hen harrier suddenly and inexplicably disappeared while hunting away from the nest. Faced with the prospect of starvation, the female had little choice but to abandon her eggs. With the Government and landowners now officially committed to the recovery of the species through the DEFRA Hen Harrier Action Plan, we have spoken to our neighbouring estates so they can play their part in helping to ensure that this year's birds are safe when they leave our reserve to hunt.
So what next?
We have everything crossed for successful hatching and fledging from all three nests and we are doing everything in our power to make that happen. However, with the recent sudden and unexplained disappearances of not one but two satellite tagged hen harriers, it is difficult to feel positive about the prospects of this year's fledgelings once they take off. If this is happening to the satellite tagged birds, what can be said for all those hen harriers that haven't been tagged?
Through the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project and with huge support from cosmetics company, LUSH, via the sales of their hen harrier bathbombs, RSPB will be fitting more satellite tags on hen harriers across a wider area this year than ever before. We will also continue to work closely with Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, and dedicated volunteers in the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG), together with other organisations and individuals to monitor and protect these birds on the ground wherever possible.
A wise person once said, "There is more that unites us, than divides us."
We all want our hen harriers back.
Just over a week ago, I shared with you the incredible story of Chance, a young female hen harrier who surprised us all with her continental winter migrations. Today however, I have another story to share – another female hen harrier, fledged in 2014, the same year as Chance, this time from the Forest of Bowland, where the RSPB have been working in partnership with the water company, United Utilities, local raptor workers and others to protect and monitor hen harriers since the 1980s. Satellite-tagged and “adopted” by children from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School alongside her sister, Sky, the name Highlander is one that long-time readers of this blog might recognise. However in April this year, while Chance was in France readying herself to cross the Channel again, Highlander’s satellite tag suddenly stopped transmitting and she joined her sister in the ranks of the "disappeared".
Those closest to Highlander’s journey over the last two years have endured both incredible highs and crushing lows in the process, and it feels only right that you should hear her story from them.
Steve Downing is a long-time member of the voluntary Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and has been working with hen harriers for over a decade.
I started working with hen harriers in 2004 so 2014 was my 10th anniversary monitoring and protecting hen harriers, England most persecuted bird of prey. Fellow raptor workers often say that they wish that they had hen harriers in their study area and I always caution ‘be careful for what you wish for’. The emotional rollercoaster associated with monitoring this species is intense and the rewards are few and very far between. Harrier nest protection can be soul destroying with the watchers sitting about a kilometre away from the nest, in all weathers, recording adult activity in minute detail. The effort from all of the volunteers, day shift and night crew is truly monumental.
Following two years without a single nest in Bowland, Spring 2014 got off to a good start with a phone call to say that birds were back on territory; great but would they breed? Several days later a text arrived from Mick, RSPB Assistant Warden and Bowland Raptor Study Group member. A female was down incubating eggs and we arranged to meet on the United Utilities estate a few days later.
Being one of only a handful of people licensed to do so in England, it is both a tremendous privilege to fit BTO leg rings on the young of this iconic species and a great responsibility. At 11 am on the 23 June Mick and I visited the nest under licence. It contained five healthy looking chicks and after sharing a smile we set to work, preparing the way for Stephen Murphy, Natural England Hen Harrier Project Officer, to fit the satellite tags to two of the chicks.
Sisters Sky (left) and Highlander (right) having their satellite tags fitted, July 2014. (Image: Mick Demain)
By the time the satellite tags were fitted the chicks were almost ready to fly free and local school children had given the tagged birds names. They had named a female from nest one Sky and her sister was named Highlander. What a fantastic names for birds whose home was 380m high in the Forest of Bowland. Two more satellite-tagged birds from the only other nest in Bowland that year were given the equally inspirational names of Hope and Burt.
By late summer all of the Bowland chicks were flying free and hunting for their own food. It was good news that they had got so far. Unfortunately on the 10 September 2014 the satellite tag fitted to Sky, Highlander’s sister, inexplicably stopped working. The emotional rollercoaster had taken a dive but things got worse when Hope, from the neighbouring nest suffered the same fate on the same moor just three days later. I had held those birds, weighed them, measured them and ringed them a few weeks earlier and now they had joined the "disappeared". The other two sat-tagged birds, Burt and Highlander, were still alive but how many of the untagged birds were also dead?
The full story of Sky and Hope can be found here and here. Despite an extensive search and appeals for information, they were never found. As autumn turned to winter, the signal from Burt's satellite tag became gradually less frequent, indicating a likely problem with the battery. His last confirmed transmission was received on 26th December from a location in Exmoor National Park where he was wintering. Sadly, he hasn't been seen since.
James Bray started as RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer in February 2015. Working in partnership with United Utilities, monitoring and protecting hen harriers on their estate in the Forest of Bowland is a key part of James’ role.
Following her first winter, Highlander was first seen back in Bowland in late March on the slopes where she was born. With four pairs having settled down and with Highlander having found a mate, the team were incredibly excited.
Highlander was paired with a bird that was in its third year. It was a grey bird that still retained some brown feathers on its back, so we were able to identify it from the other males present on the estate. The pair settled in a small valley and began making a nest, bringing dead heather stems in to make a flimsy platform on the ground amidst a stand of deep heather. Soon after she had begun incubating her eggs disaster struck – her mate suddenly disappeared.
He was the first of four male hen harriers that had females incubating eggs on the United Utilities estate to disappear. The female hen harrier does all the egg incubation and relies on the male to feed her. If he disappears she must leave the nest to hunt and the eggs will chill and die.
Showing great determination to breed, Highlander stayed in her chosen valley and within a few days of her first mate disappearing she had managed to attract the attentions of another younger male. Highlander was soon back in her original nest and following a licensed nest visit, fieldworkers found that she had laid nine eggs. This was incredible as historically, only a tiny number of harriers have ever laid nine eggs in one nest. Not all the eggs would have hatched but this demonstrated how strong Highlander was.
Highlander's second nesting attempt with an incredible 9 eggs. (Image: James Bray, 2015)
As the days of her second attempt passed it became clear that her mate was struggling to provide for her. Hen harriers can be polygamous, and this male was already paired with another female who was on eggs. The strain proved too much and Highlander, being the secondary female, was deserted and she had to leave her eggs to feed herself. Her second nesting attempt had failed.
Obviously fed up of Bowland, Highlander headed off to southern Scotland and following two failed breeding attempts, we really thought that that would be the end of her first breeding season. A week later I received a very excited call from my colleague Mick who was monitoring a lone male harrier; he had attracted a female! This young male, in his first breeding season, had been skydancing on his own for over a week, and Mick told me that he had not seen a male displaying so vigorously before.
The first day that the female was in his valley he brought her six items of food over the course of the day but she completely ignored his advances. Over the next couple of day the two birds began to bond and were soon showing signs of nesting. We were obviously ecstatic that he had attracted a potential mate, and even more so when we saw that the female was carrying a satellite tag, and that its transmission confirmed that it was Highlander. The birds settled down, Highlander laid her third clutch of the season, and we all held our breaths.
Monitoring nesting hen harriers is often a game of hope and patience. Hope that ground predators do not find the nest, hope that bad weather does not have an effect on food supplies, and hope that the male returns after each hunting expedition. Patience is also required as it takes nearly a month for the eggs to hatch. And so as that month passed with no problems for the birds and with the male regularly bringing in food we began to count down the days. 6 July was the special day, as this was the day that food was first seen being carried into the nest, a sure sign that Highlander’s first chicks had hatched. That next week was very special as the male was proving to be a very good provider of food and many of our volunteers and staff took turns watching the valley and looking out for food passes as the male returned.
Five days later, on the day that the last egg would have hatched, disaster struck. Highlander and her mate were seen flying low over the nest diving at something on the ground. Mick and a colleague checked the nest to find that it had been cleaned out, most probably by a small ground predator such as a stoat or weasel. Heartbreakingly despite all her efforts, Highlander’s first breeding season had ended in failure, thwarted by her first male “disappearing”, then by a lack of food, and finally by nest predation.
Highlander's third nesting attempt ended in predation. (Image: James Bray, 2015)
Highlander spent the autumn and winter of 2015 and early 2016 within 30 miles of Bowland. As spring approached she returned to Bowland for brief visits but the vole population is at a very low level unfortunately, and harriers that have visited have not stayed long. Highlander was no different. I was with three visitors to Bowland when she paid her last visit to the valley in which she was born. We watched a female harrier quartering the hillside, and as she came closer I saw the satellite tag – Highlander was here. We hoped that she’d stay but that was the last time that she was seen in Bowland.
Sister to a missing sibling, partner to a missing mate, and three nest failures in the space of two months, our Highlander endured through it all. However, on 16 April 2016, Highlander’s satellite tag suddenly and unaccountably ceased transmission. The last signal received placed her in County Durham but it's possible she may have moved on from the area before going offline. We don’t know what caused the satellite tag to fail but transmission up to that point had been strong and there was no indication of battery failure. She has not been found.
A final word from Steve...
2014 was my 10th anniversary working with hen harriers and was supposed to be celebration of success. It was not. In 2014 I ringed nine birds in Bowland. Four were sat-tagged and all stopped transmitting, long before the sat tags reached their anticipated ‘end of life’. Male hen harriers are often called ‘ghosts of the hills’ because of the colour of their plumage and the way the fly. It is supposed to be a compliment but in reality it is not; they are ghosts. It makes me very sad, it should make every reasonable person sad.
A final word from James...
All the staff and volunteers here feel great anger that Sky, Hope, Burt, and Highlander are no longer quartering the English uplands, anger that there is only a tiny handful of hen harriers nesting in England in 2016, and anger at the persecution on some grouse shooting estates which results in there being no skydancing harriers over our hills.
We must turn that anger into a determination to stop persecution of birds of prey. We can find hope in the knowledge that the RSPB is doing all it can to protect hen harriers and that a rapidly growing coalition of groups and individuals are fighting to change the way that the uplands are being managed and to stop the persecution of birds of prey.
And we must hold on to the hope that hen harriers, as they have proved before, are more than capable of returning to the English uplands – our job is to ensure that the habitat conditions are right for them and that persecution is stopped.
Find out more about our work to monitor and protect hen harriers through Hen Harrier LIFE Project, and follow the fortunes of our satellite tagged birds by visiting our website rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or following us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer.