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February 6th, 2016


Comment on An update on Holly the hen harrier

Very sad to hear of the loss of one of the few,if it can be proved her death was natural at least it will be one crime less to an ever growing list.

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February 5th, 2016

Bea Ayling

Blog Post: An update on Holly the hen harrier

If you have been following the movements of our satellite tagged birds on our website, you will have noticed that we lost Holly in mid-October 2015, quite soon after she was featured. Needless to say, the project team were gutted as we were looking forward to following her travels and sharing them with you. You can read about her story here:   Photo credit: John Simpson As soon as her satellite tag data showed us she had died, we went to the site– an area of upland farmland and forestry to the north east of Glasgow – to look for her. We searched the area thoroughly but, unfortunately, we were unable to locate her. This is disappointing as we would have wished to submit the body to a government laboratory for a post mortem examination to try to establish how she died.  Survival rates for young harriers like Holly are low, with only around 1 in 3 surviving to a year old.  These youngsters will often die of natural causes such as starvation, but we cannot speculate as to the cause of death in her case.  We will of course provide an update if any further information comes to light.

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February 4th, 2016

Chris Collett

Blog Post: The decline of the hen harrier in NE Scotland

By Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland There is no denying that the hen harrier is one of our most spectacular and enigmatic birds of prey. It breeds in remote, out-of-the-way locations, often in the uplands, miles away from the biggest centres of human population. For me, it’s a bird that never fails to lift my spirits, one that always brightens a day out birding or hill-walking. I’ve been lucky. I was brought up in Aberdeen, and as a teenager going through my birding formative years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, was fortunate to be there at a time when the North-east Scotland Raptor Study Group (NERSG) was in the process of being created. The hills and glens of Deeside became a second home to me for several springs, with the chance of seeing golden eagles, merlins and peregrines. But, the monitoring of breeding hen harriers was always one of the highlights. My dominant memory of those days was being invited along one day to help with ringing the chicks at three nests in one of the glens that went off to the south of the main Dee valley. I’d never been to a harrier nest before, and could barely contain my excitement! I’d watched the adults on several occasions from a mile or so away, so the opportunity to see these birds up close was brilliant. But, at every nest, there were no chicks. There were no adult birds around. There were cold, dead eggs. “They’ve been done.” said one of my colleagues. At that time, I suppose, on reflection, I’d little concept of what that really meant. But fast-forward 35 years, and I now lead the RSPB Investigations team in Scotland, I know exactly what it meant, and days like that are why I do this job. A paper that I’m sure will be of great interest to many, but is particularly so to me personally, has just been published in the journal British Birds .“The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriers in North-east Scotland” [1] is a testament to the incredible efforts of a number of people in the NERSG in monitoring the fortunes of this species over the last 35 years. Several of the authors had been undertaking harrier monitoring before my first forays into the Aberdeenshire hills, and they continue to do so. It is however a depressing story that this paper tells. A peak population of 28 pairs in the area in the early 1990’s had declined to only one confirmed breeding pair by 2014.  Year after year, raptor workers carry out hundreds of hours of unpaid fieldwork, driven on solely by their commitment to the conservation of their chosen species. And every year, raptor nests fail and adult birds disappear. It’s widely acknowledged that bad weather, food shortage and predation are factors in breeding attempts being unsuccessful. But we also all know that places like the moors of north-east Scotland, the southern uplands around the Borders, and the Peak District of northern England are areas where food for harriers is abundant. These are also the areas where we’re told that upland breeding waders are thriving because of the intensive predator control regimes undertaken by sporting estates. So, if there’s plenty of available food, abundant nesting habitat, very low numbers of predators and other ground-nesting species like waders (and grouse!) are doing well, why are hen harriers doing so badly in these areas? The answer is pretty simple – persecution. What proof is there of this? There have been very few proven recent cases of illegal killing of hen harriers…  This is indeed true. But when you have a very small population, you’re not likely to get many proven cases of persecution. The damage has already been done. Raptor populations cannot withstand a level of attrition where year after year, adults are killed or nests destroyed. Suffice to say that in 2013, when the population of hen harriers in NE Scotland, as listed in this study, was only four confirmed pairs, by sheer luck, birds were witnessed being shot at two nest sites. In both cases, the perpetrators removed the dead harrier. That’s no surprise as why would a criminal want to leave evidence of their crime lying around to be found?  But, many birds are being killed out of sight of witnesses? Population studies such as this give you a good idea. From 2004 to 2010, the population of hen harriers in Scotland fell by 22% to 525 pairs. In 2011, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee published “A conservation framework for hen harriers” [2] . The conclusions of this piece of work were that the potential hen harrier population of Scotland was estimated to be within the range 1467–1790 pairs, but that there was strong evidence that, in the uplands of eastern and southern Scotland, illegal persecution was causing the failure of the majority of breeding attempts, leading to fewer breeding birds and/or fewer successful nests. It was depressingly predictable that certain organisations that claim to represent land management interests dismissed the conclusions of this report, in part by claiming the findings were out of date. The good news for them is that the Hen Harrier framework has been revised, and is due for publication, hopefully very soon. I wonder if this revised version will elicit different conclusions?  Or will this latest piece of work, monitoring and documenting the hen harrier population of NE Scotland be similarly disputed by those who are part of the denial culture that seemingly pervades much of the game bird shooting industry? But, I have news for those that seek to undermine the efforts of those who are out in all weathers monitoring Scotland’s birds of prey, and bringing the decline of these magnificent birds to the public’s attention. This report’s findings are the reality. I know. I’ve been there.   [1] Rebecca, G., Cosnette, B., Craib, J., Duncan, A., Etheridge, B., Francis, I., Hardey, J., Pout, A., and Steele, L. (2016) The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriersin North-east Scotland. British Birds 109: 77– 95 [2] Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. (2011) A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.  

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February 4th, 2016

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Signs of Spring

Its a bit wild and windy up here but the little bit of extra warmth in the greenhouse and in the hotbed is making all the difference. The crocuses are putting out their lovely golden yellow flowers and the salads have all started to sprout. I went to s…

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February 1st, 2016

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Happy New Year !!!

Ok its a bit late, but never mind. The weather has been all over the place one minute warm as spring the next gales and snow.  We have made hot beds in the greenhouse to get early salads going. in the garden primroses, red campion and daffs are ou…

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January 29th, 2016

Backsbottom Farm

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River Roeburn and Peat Restoration by Rod Everett

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January 28th, 2016

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The look of a happy healthy river

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January 28th, 2016

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A Play for the Flooding Victims of Calder Valley courtesy of Treshnish Wildlife blog


The UK government petitions website has recently added a  feature whereby you can open a map and see the numbers of people who signed the petition in each constituency. The map for Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse moors had a bright red patch in the centre of mainland Britain. That constituency, Calder Valley, had nearly three times the signatures of the next highest constituency High Peak. The other constituencies were clustered below High Peak.
To illustrate how tightly clustered below High Peak they were, the next highest was Isle of Wight with only 3 signatures less and Argyll and Bute which was 31st in the league table and only 58 signatures less than High Peak.

Calder Valley, you might think, isn’t that the Hebden Bridge area which was flooded at least 4 times in the last 4 years? You would be right, that Calder valley.
So why this massive surge in support from this one constituency?
It’s a complicated story especially because it involves the law and the shroud of mystery which surround government (no one can seriously consider Natural England an independent wildlife watchdog any more) (see here).

Walshaw Moor
A political thriller / tragedy / black comedy / political satire / Dickensesque / Kafkaesque / Futuristic science fiction (accidentally transported through a time warp into the here and now). Oh, I don’t know you decide.

The stage is set on Walshaw Moor, a 6,500-acre grouse shooting estate upstream of Hebden Bridge and is part of the South Pennine Moors SAC, SPA and SSSI conservation sites. In conservation terms a Royal Flush.
Principal players: [All characters are fictitious and any similarity with persons living or dead is purely co-incidental, except of course our intrepid reporter Hassein and his grandfather.]
1) Richard Bannister, landowner of Walshaw Estate and retail tycoon
2) Natural England
3) Richard Benyon, Minister for the Environment and grouse moor owner.
Minor players of no worth:
a) the residents of the Calder Valley
b) Moorland habitat
c) Democracy
d) Global Warming
Act I, Scene 1
In 2005, Walshaw Moor Estate was successfully prosecuted by English Nature for building a track and dumping spoil on protected habitat, and the Court ordered the Estate to restore the damage.’ (1)
Act I Scene 2
‘In 2010 Natural England were investigating unconsented damage, and had started separate legal proceedings against Walshaw Moor Estate to modify old, ambiguous consents which allowed damaging activities such as intensive burning on blanket bog. Natural England also decided to prosecute the Estate on no less than 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to European and national protected sites. The sheer number of alleged breaches (track construction across moors including converting a stream to a track, drainage of peat bog, installing grouse butts, damage to habitats from vehicle use), together with the Estate’s previous conviction and lack of a voluntary offer to restore or mitigate the damage, demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.’ (1)
[The Audience is on tenterhooks. The suspense is palpable, is this the final nail in the coffin for intensive grouse moors?]

Act II, Scene 1
‘In March 2012, Natural England and the Walshaw Moor Estate announced that all legal actions had ceased and that they had come to a settlement. The settlement included dropping all the prosecutions without any restoration and agreeing to a new consent that allows existing infrastructure (including the tracks, butts and some of the drainage that were the subject of the prosecution) to be maintained, and permits burning of blanket bog to continue. Natural England is due to revisit around 100 management consents for moorland habitats over the coming years, and the Walshaw Moor settlement will set an unavoidable precedent to aim low.’ (1)

As the audience enters the foyer, the back slapping of the grouse shooting lobby can hardly be heard over the silent hum of shock emanating from the RSPB and conservation bodies.
As the shocked and celebrants alike swill back their doubles at the bar an announcement comes over the tannoy.
Acts III and 1V have been cancelled’. No explanation is given.
Mutterings from the bar are over-heard by our intrepid reporter Hassein, who has been sent on an urgent fact finding mission by his grandfather.
‘I hate these French surrealistic endings’
”Is there going to be a sequel?’
‘Yes but who done it?’
‘Was it a parody of a banana republic?’
Delegates of the Republic of Banana were overheard to say ”We could learn a thing or two here. Now we can cut down the rain forest ‘legally”
Mafia dons were also stunned into dumb admiration. The only words overheard heard amongst all the kissing were ‘Forget About It’
Later that year the script rights were bought up by another company and the sequel did in fact occur but with different players. It was rumoured that actors from original play had been institutionalized but whether to a mental hospital, prison or the deepest dungeons of DEFRA, only a FOI request can tell.

Son of Walshaw Moor
A Farce

Principal players:
2) Natural England
3) European Commission
4) Richard Benyon, Minister for the Environment and grouse moor owner.
6) Mark Avery
7) The Guardian
8) George Monbiot
Same Minor players really still not worth mentioning (who were they again?).
With additional minor players of no consequence including.
1) European Habitats Directive
2) European Birds Directive
Act I, Scene 1
Oct 2012 the RSPB submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission regarding Natural England’s dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate. (1)

Act I, Scene 2
In 2012 Hebden Bridge resident’s campaign Ban the Burn wrote
Natural England invest[ed] over £1 million pounds in the case….To add insult to injury, it is now in the public domain that the landowner will receive “Higher Level Stewardship” totalling £2,504,668.08. (That’s about 5 times as much as is in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!). ‘
[‘Anarchists’ heckles a famous unnamed cricketer from the balcony]
Act II, Scene 1
Inglorious by Mark Avery published which includes Freedom of Information requests showing the heavy lobbying of Benyon by his mates in the Moorland Association and their ludicrous but hilarious claims. Buy It! With umpteen FOI requests we are no further forward in knowing why DEFRA / NE made a complete about turn and even a reversal of policy on Walshaw.
Act III, Scene 1
Repeat of Act I, Scene 2, same location, Hebden Bridge, rolled forward to 2015.
Act III, Scene 2
Drainage ditch damage on Walshaw Moor were supposed to be restored and paid for by who, not the culprits but the taxpayer. In 2016, some at least, are still there.
Act III, Scene 3
The shooting lobby suffer from collective amnesia regarding The Heather and Grass Burning Code of 2007 agreed on by DEFRA, NE, Moorland Association, Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the National Farmers Union, the Heather Trust and the National Gamekeepers’ to restrict burning on peatland with The Heather and Grass Burning Code of 2007
There should be a strong presumption against burning sensitive areas. Doing so may permanently damage the environmental interest of the land and may be unlawful. In special circumstances, the advantages of burning on sensitive areas may outweigh the disadvantages. If you feel a sensitive area on your land falls into this category, you may wish to contact Natural England for advice.’
Mark Avery continues ‘The code goes on to make it clear that peat bogs, including blanket bogs, raised bogs etc should not be burned unless in line with a management plan agreed with Natural England‘.
Act III, Scene 4
Richard Benyon, DEFRA and NE are shown to have amnesia regarding his previous statements on moorland carbon storage. On the value of peat bogs for carbon storage.
RSPB on burning and peat moorland protection here and several here.
Act IV, scene 1
Walshaw is not an isolated case. NE gave consent to burn on 127 English bogs which the taxpayer is paying for through Higher Level Schemes (HLS), 11 of which are on highly protected habitats (SACs and SPAs).
Act V, Scene 1
Large screen behind stage projects psychedelic image of Cathy running across the moors. Then director shouting ‘cut’ as Cathy shouts ‘Oh Heathcliffe’ and falls into a drainage ditch or is it a grouse butt (Walshaw Moor  and here, and here).
The End.
Critics were lukewarm verging on icy.
‘Hang about what kind of ending is that? I want my money back’.
‘Oh not another French ending.’
‘Pah, obviously not an Agatha Christie.’
‘Why did DEFRA, NE drop the case? It is very unclear and full of poor story lines and unsolved threads or were they red herrings? Was it a poor legal case? That seems illogical since £1 million had already been spent on the case and NE must have known all the possibilities before the case. Nothing changed regarding the case itself. So it couldn’t have been legal.’
‘Looks like a case for the The Girl with a Red Grouse Tattoo’.
Others were more positive.
‘That Richard Benyon chap deserves an Olivier Award. What else has he been in, I’d never heard of him?’
That view was challenged by an anonymous source with only one knee cap who claimed ‘Benyon just played Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects.’ The source, later seen in a wheelchair, mysteriously withdrew his claim.
Hassein faithfully reported these events back to his grandfather. After listening carefully, with tears running down his face, his grandfather embraced his Hassein fondly and then they both broke into a good belly-laugh and headed off to a new planet to see if anyone else was doing better.
They promised to each other to return in 10,000 years to see if these beings has learnt anything by then.

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January 26th, 2016

Height Top Farm

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height top farm 2016-01-26 10:41:00

HEIGHT TOP FARM HOLIDAY COTTAGESAfter a struggle and a lot of help from Barrie tyrer I’m now able to blog again!Thanks Barrie.

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January 14th, 2016

Bea Ayling

Blog Post: Running for Hen Harrier LIFE

This week, we have a very special guest blog from Tristan Reid who is undertaking a challenge of epic proportions, all for hen harriers. Please support him in his effort! ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… My name is Tristan Reid and I am a very passionate conservationist. I have been raising funds for wildlife conservation projects both in the UK and abroad for a good few years now. I am about to embark on a two year project to raise funds and awareness for the Hen Harrier LIFE Project. The hen harrier is a species that is very close to my heart as it is a bird I used to see frequently during my early adult life on the uplands of Perthshire. I now live in Cumbria and spend a lot of time in the Lake District National Park and the North Pennines in what should be prime breeding habitat for hen harriers. Sadly seeing one of these species in the breeding season has become a very rare sight indeed. The plight of the hen harrier is a sad story in its own right; but it is also indicative of the unnecessary negative impacts caused my man on an ever growing list of wildlife species. I decided that I had to do something significant to raise awareness of the hen harrier’s plight in England. My plan is to run all 268 miles of the Pennine Way non-stop! As if this mileage wasn’t a big enough ask; the 268 mile route includes over 30,000 ft of ascent over some of the toughest terrain in the country! This is going to be a very tough adventure which is the main reason I will be giving myself two years to train for it! The choice of using this route as my challenge rests in its relevance to the cause. The Pennines should be home to hundreds of pairs of breeding hen harriers; but unfortunately only a handful are still extant (and often sporadic in their occurrence). As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said ‘If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough’. This challenge certainly terrifies me; and it is most certainly big enough! I will spend the next two years training hard by entering many tough ultra-marathons of increasing distances (you can see my 2016 schedule here: ) as well as training with sleep deprivation and tired legs! This is going to be a very tough challenge; but one worth doing for such a necessary cause. You can keep track of my progress via my facebook page (here: ) and via my twitter feed (here: ). You can also show support by donating to the Hen Harrier LIFE project via my Just Giving page here: Photo credit: James Kirby

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January 7th, 2016

Bea Ayling

Blog Post: Findlay is Wilde about Hen Harriers – Ecotricity guest blog

Happy new year everyone! I’m happy to say that we’re starting 2016 with some exciting news. Young wildlife campaigner Findlay Wilde has kindly donated his Ecotricity Young Green Britain Award winnings to fund a satellite tag for the Hen Harrier LIFE Project. You can read a guest blog by Ecotricity on Finn’s own blog (Wilde About Birds) here:

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January 5th, 2016

Backsbottom Farm

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Old Tools Being Renovated

  It’s amazing what you can find in the farm’s toolshed–presently being sorted and catalogued by Rod 

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December 27th, 2015

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Happy Christmas

 Had a lovely quiet Christmas and thankfully not flooded out like lots of other poor people in Lancashire. A vegetarian Christmas dinner was a potato and leek bake topped with tomatoes and a smoked cheese sauce along with customary sprouts, roast …

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December 17th, 2015

Bea Ayling

Blog Post: All I want for Christmas…

What with all the storms passing through recently, I can’t help but think of how hard it must be for our wintering hen harriers to survive out there. Luckily we know our hen harrier Chance is safe in France and data from her satellite tag shows that she has settled for the winter, north-east of Le Mans. It’s likely she’s found an area with a good supply of food. You can follow her movements here: Photo: Chance’s wintering location in France Some of our other satellite tagged birds in 2015 were not so lucky. In Bowland this year, one of our satellite tagged birds died along with two of its siblings before fledging the nest. The post-mortems and other tests on the three chicks, including the satellite tagged bird, were inconclusive – they had been partially eaten but we don’t know whether they were predated or scavenged. Our camera footage shows that the juveniles were alive at least two days after tagging and the weather was fair. The close proximity of the three bodies doesn’t suggest predation. We therefore suspect that they succumbed to either disease or starvation and were subsequently scavenged. Happily the fourth chick in the nest did survive and fledged successfully. Some of you may also remember Hetty, a young female satellite tagged on the Isle of Man in July. Sadly she died about a month later and her body was found by our Investigations Team, 2km from her nest site. Again, post mortem results were inconclusive but she likely died of natural causes. Young harriers do find it hard to survive and we know the added threat of illegal persecution makes reaching adulthood even harder. This is why satellite tagging birds is necessary, so that we are able to retrieve bodies and send them for testing to work out the cause of death. Sat tags also allow us to identify important areas for hen harriers when they are alive and track the birds’ movements to understand their ecology. If you agree satellite tagging is important and want to do something to help, Lush are still selling their hen harrier bath bombs over the Christmas period, proceeds of which directly fund our satellite tagging work! Pop along to your local store for some stocking fillers – or just go online: Wishing you a very merry Christmas and a hen harrier-filled 2016!  Ps you can listen to the RSPB’s Graham Jones on the Talking Naturally podcast about the plight of hen harriers and the RSPB’s commitment to help save the species about 34 minutes in here:    

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November 23rd, 2015

Backsbottom Farm

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Rod’s Film on Biodiversity

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November 19th, 2015

Bea Ayling

Blog Post: Why do hen harriers skydance?

Watch one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles — the hen harrier’s skydance — and learn more about their breeding behaviour in this short video. Keep your eyes peeled when visiting the British uplands in the spring and you could be lucky enough to see this for yourself! (Please visit the site to view this video)

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November 13th, 2015

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Nostoc commune

On paths and lawns you might notice something that looks like a green jelly fungus. It loves warm wet weather, paths and poorly drained compacted lawns. I think my photograph is of Nostoc commune, a type of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria have been around…

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November 11th, 2015

Elizabeth Louise Mills

For Armistice Day

In Remembrance.

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November 5th, 2015

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Fungi foraging

Even though I’m too wussy to ever eat any fungi I find, I still love going out in autumn looking for them. I think it’s their weird shapes and strange habits that I like, seeing something growing straight out of a decaying tree or a bright spot amongst…

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November 2nd, 2015

Elizabeth Louise Mills

Foggy November 1st

Beautiful evening walk and treated to an amazing natural spectacle as the fog rolled in to fill the valley below us creating an almost primeval scene. Felt like we were stood on the edge of a giant sea loch. Unforgettable. Even the sheep were quiet.

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