Neil Morris is the Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. Here he shares his thoughts and hopes for Aalin, the second hen harrier to be satellite tagged on the Isle of Man as part of a partnership between Manx BirdLife and RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project.
I’m a complete convert to Manx culture and the beauty and character of the Manx countryside, having relatively recently exchanged the blistering heat of the Qatari desert for the cool climes of the Isle of Man..
On just my third day on the island while tidying up the garden, I looked up to see a Hen Harrier drifting over the hills behind our house. This was my introduction to ‘Manx’ Hen Harriers.
Roll forward eighteen months and my family loves the place. To the south, rugged heather moorlands drop spectacularly to dramatic granite cliffs. While to the north, rolling green hills akin to the Malverns give way gently to low sandstone cliffs and long pebble and sand stretches of coast.
With a healthy Manx population of Hen Harriers, it’s possible to see them on the way to work, on the school run and even while doing the shopping. The rural, compact nature of the island gives an omnipotence to the Hen Harrier and other ‘high value’ species such as Peregrine, Hooded Crow and Chough. They are always just around the next corner.
And so it was that I was delighted to swap my marketing career, with all the thrills and spills of a London commute, for my new role as Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. I have always been passionate about birds and wildlife. Indeed, the formative years of my career were spent at RSPB HQ in Sandy and I have been itching to ‘get back to my roots’ ever since.
Aalin with her newly fitted satellite tag. Photo credit: Sean Gray
This year’s satellite tagging of a young female Hen Harrier offers the chance to make up the ground lost when last year’s tagged Hen Harrier, Hetty, suffered an early demise. Like Hetty before her, Aalin has been named by the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment, sponsors of the Manx Hen Harrier tagging project (part of RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE programme). Fittingly, Aalin means ‘beauty’ in the revived Manx language. She was tagged in July and has since left the nest, though appears reluctant to stray too far. We await with baited breath her first forays farther afield – perhaps down to the coast like many other local Harriers, or perhaps she might attempt to cross the Irish Sea to England, Wales, Scotland or even Ireland. On a clear day, we can see all four countries from that same hill behind our house.
Whatever she decides to do, Aalin’s wanderings will provide valuable data which will add to the overall understanding of Hen Harrier behaviour across the British Isles. Our local community is excited by the project and eagerly awaits updates on the satellite data. But like everywhere, the Manx countryside is threatened by over-population, development and disturbance, though thankfully wilful persecution appears to be rare.
Aalin - the future of Manx hen harriers. Photo credit: James Leonard
Keeping Aalin in the public eye and maintaining the islanders’ desire to look after the precious Manx countryside and the wild birds to which it provides a home is so important. While it’s tempting to dream that the island might get back to the heady days of 60 Hen Harrier nests each season, it’s vital we focus our energies on the 30 or so nesting attempts we have had this year. We must do all we can to learn about Aalin’s needs and vulnerabilities. That way we can devise conservation plans to protect her and future generations of this magnificent ‘sky dancer’.
My thanks are due to the RSPB LIFE team, the Manx Ringing Group, the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment and James Leonard. Fingers crossed, Aalin will be digitally signing in for a long while to come!