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.