It’s that time of year... hope and trepidation playing on my mind in equal measure. The breeding season just beginning, and with it, all the excitement and uncertainty of what lies ahead for our hen harriers. Often it feels as though little has changed from year to year, but our recent adventures in satellite tagging have given my reflections this year a new focus.
For months now, our remaining satellite tagged birds have been sticking tightly to their chosen wintering grounds – Aalin in Shropshire, DeeCee in the Cairngorms, Finn in Ayrshire, Harriet in the Lake District, and Wendy on Mull. Who knows, perhaps that immobility has been the secret of their success? Being young and immature, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that any of our young harriers will attempt to breed this year. But experience shows that won’t stop them seeking out and exploring potential breeding sites. It goes without saying we’ll be monitoring their every move, watching closely, and waiting...
For my part, I’m simply grateful that they’ve managed to make it this far. Five hen harriers remaining out of 12 – I’m not going to lie, it’s been a rough six months...
August 2016 - young Banffshire male, Elwood, the first of our hen harriers to be tagged last year disappeared in the Monadhliaths in August when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting – the same area that had recently become notorious for the disappearances of a number of satellite tracked golden eagles. Hearteningly, Elwood’s disappearance prompted the Scottish Minister for the Environment to include hen harriers in the Scottish Government’s review of satellite tracking data, alongside golden eagles and red kites.
Young hen harrier, Elwood, shortly after having his satellite tag fitted. Image credit: Adam Fraser
September 2016 - Brian, a young male from Perthshire, disappeared in the Cairngorms in when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting. His body was never found.
October 2016 - Hermione, a young female from a late nest on the Isle of Mull, was sadly found dead of natural causes not far from her natal site. Her remains and satellite tag were both recovered.
October 2016 – easily the most adventurous of all our harriers last year, Donald died of unknown causes in northern France after travelling there from West Argyll via the Isle of Man and Wales. It was not possible to recover his body.
October 2016 – an adult female hen harrier is spotted at roost with a non-functioning tag and process of elimination suggests this could be 2014 Bowland bird, Highlander.
November 2016 - Beater, another young male, who fledged from Wildlands Estate in the Cairngorms, disappeared in the central Scottish Borders and is thought to have died of unknown causes. His body hasn’t been found.
Geltsdale hen harrier, Bonny, having his satellite tag fitted. Image credit: Mark Thomas
December 2016 – Bonny, our most famous hen harrier, who fledged from our Geltsdale reserve, had his name chosen by Chris Packham from a LUSH cosmetics competition, and featured on BBC’s Autumnwatch and Six News, disappeared and is thought to have died of unknown causes on moorland to the east of Geltsdale in December 2016. His body hasn’t been found.
January 2017 – the body of young female, Carroll, named after raptor worker Mick Carroll, was reported to the police by a Northumberland estate after being found dead of a natural causes (full post-mortem report awaited). Both body and tag were recovered and it was later discovered that she had survived being shot at a young age.
Radiograph of hen harrier, Carroll, showing two pieces of lead shot lodged in her knee and head. Image credit: Zoological Society of London
Add to that list the outcome of Natural England’s 2016 hen harriers – the confirmed shooting of Rowan in Cumbria, and the unexplained disappearances of Tarras in the Peak District and Mick in the Yorkshire Dales, (the remaining two, John and Sorrell, are still alive) and it becomes increasingly difficult not to despair.
The confirmed shootings of Rowan and Carroll, in 2016, add to the shooting of Lad, in September 2015, and Annie in April 2015, to make four hen harriers confirmed shot in separate incidents (two in England, two in Scotland), in less than two years, with zero prosecutions or hope of prosecution.
The illegal killing of our protected birds of prey is not a conspiracy theory, nor a cynical attempt to blacken the name of a certain group of people.
It is a documented fact.
Hen harrier, Lad, found shot dead in the Cairngorms National Park in 2015. Image credit: RSPB
And it is thanks to satellite tagging that we are able to document this fact and shine a light on what is happening to our hen harriers. As the possible rediscovery of Highlander shows, satellite tagging is not a perfect technology (I challenge you to name one that is) but for those wishing to discredit it, I suggest you read this excellent blog by my colleague and experienced satellite tagger, Duncan Orr-Ewing.
From natural deaths, to incredible journeys, breeding successes and failures, suspicious disappearances, and illegal killings, satellite tagging is helping us to build a picture of our hen harrier population, which otherwise would remain hidden from view. And the more tags we fit, the more rounded that picture will become.
When we started the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, we anticipated fitting around 6 tags per year to hen harriers in England and Scotland – 24 or so in total. In the first year of the project, that is what we did. What we couldn’t have predicted, however, was the subsequent groundswell of public support for this sort of work and thanks to the generosity of LUSH cosmetics and their customers through sales of the Skydancer bathbomb, we were able to double the number of tags fitted last year to 12, and plan to more than double this again for 2017.
I titled this blog “A new season and hope for the class of 2017” and I meant it.
In the face of everything, I am hopeful for 2017. I am hopeful for every year that passes but I am especially hopeful, this year, for the stories that I know are lying in wait for so many satellite tagged hen harriers to reveal to us. So here's to the breeding season - we're ready for all that it may bring.
In the meantime, what can you do?
Last chance to join this Thunderclap started by Findlay Wilde (@WildeAboutBirds), before 11am today and add your voice to thousands on social media calling for an end to hen harrier persecution. You can also join Fin's campaign by including the hashtag #henharriers in all your tweets today. What better way to mark the start of the hen harrier breeding season than to get #henharriers trending on Twitter?
If you see a hen harrier in England, phone our Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Details of the date, time, location (six-figure grid reference if possible), and activity of the bird (eg flying, hunting, skydancing) could help us pinpoint an early breeding attempt.
If you see a hen harrier in Scotland, phone the Partnership Against Wildlife crime (PAW) Scotland's Heads Up for Harriers hotline on 07767 671973 (calls charged at standard network rates) or email email@example.com.
As spring has now almost sprung, we’ve relaunched our Hen Harrier Hotline with the hope of finding out where these seriously threatened birds of prey might be breeding in England’s moorland.
If you are out hiking or cycling in the hills, please keep an eye out for one. If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please get in touch.
The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.
Many of you will be able to spot a hen harrier half a mile away in poor weather conditions. But for those of you who are less familiar with the bird of prey, here is a reminder of what they look like.
Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.
Male hen harrier - RSPB Images
Female hen harriers are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.
Female hen harrier - Dave Dimmock