It’s the question to which everyone wants the answer – how many hen harriers bred in England this year? Answer: three successful nests, from a total of seven attempts, producing 10 fledged young. Today, the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership* have announced that five of this year’s nests, including the three successes, were under their watch, with four of these occurring on land managed by the Forestry Commission. This is the third year in a row that hen harriers have bred successfully at this site, after eight fledged from two nests in 2015, and six from two nests in 2016, clearly marking Northumberland out as the new stronghold for hen harriers in England. One of this year’s hen harrier nests in Northumberland (Image: RSPB) Representing the Partnership, Andrew Miller of the National Park said, “Hen harriers are still facing an uphill battle to re-establish themselves in the uplands of England. However with the positive support of all our partners including key landowners, ten young birds have successfully fledged. Working together and using the latest scientific techniques is also increasing our knowledge of this amazing species. We will continue to monitor our birds throughout the year and hope that this year’s youngsters will stay safe and be as successful as last year’s Finn ” This nesting success comes as a desperately needed lifeline for a breeding population currently hanging by a thread in England. The country’s former stronghold for hen harriers, the Forest of Bowland (a Special Protection Area (SPA) designated for 13 breeding pairs of these threatened birds, and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which has the hen harrier as its logo), hasn’t had a successful nest since 2015. Last year, the only other SPA designated for breeding hen harriers in England, the North Pennine Moors (designated for 11 pairs), experienced its first breeding success in a full decade after one chick fledged from a nest on the RSPB Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria. Sadly, the success wasn’t repeated this year – despite an abundance of food and habitat, the birds simply weren’t around. Bonny, the sole hen harrier chick to fledge from our Geltsdale reserve in the North Pennine Moors SPA in 2016 (Image: Mark Thomas) There were, however, two nesting attempts in the North Pennines just outside the SPA this year, both in the Cumbrian part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Unfortunately, despite sensitive monitoring and protection by National Park Authority staff and volunteers and Natural England with full support from the landowners, neither was successful. One of the attempts was in a gap in a forest plantation, while the other was in a thick rush bed, both on private land, adjacent to a managed grouse moor. In a polygamous set-up with one adult male attending to two females (one adult, one immature), both nests are believed to have failed naturally – one in the very early stages of the attempt and the other due to suspected fox predation while still on eggs. David Butterworth, CEO Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority said, “Given it had been ten years since Hen Harriers nested in the National Park, the presence of these birds was extremely welcome. It was, therefore, incredibly disappointing that the nesting attempts failed, despite the best efforts of all involved. “The Authority is fully aware of all the issues surrounding Hen Harriers in the uplands, so it was really encouraging that the birds’ presence was welcomed by all stakeholders. We would like to thank them all for their cooperation during the nesting period. We hope that the enlightened attitude towards the presence of these birds is the start of a more positive outlook for this species, which will lead to the Hen Harrier returning as a regular breeding species within the Yorkshire Dales National Park”. Male hen harrier in flight (Image: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com) Of the two failed Northumberland nests, one was also thought to be due to fox predation, while the other was lost to extensive, heavy rainfall when the chicks were at a very vulnerable stage. Natural losses such as these are of course disappointing, but far more concerning this year has been the near total absence of hen harriers from vast swathes of potentially suitable habitat elsewhere in the country. A lone male skydanced to empty skies over United Utilities’ estate in Bowland for six weeks this summer, with never a female in sight, despite an apparent abundance of food including good numbers of voles. Meanwhile, although short-eared owls enjoyed record breeding success on our Geltsdale reserve following a boom in vole numbers, hen harriers were nowhere to be seen. And sporadic reports of individual birds were all that was to be had from what should be prime hen harrier areas, such as the wider North Pennines, North York Moors, and the Peak District. This puts the 2017 total number of hen harrier nests in England on a par with last year’s three successful nests from four breeding pairs, making it the second year in a row where the hen harrier breeding population in England is no more than 1-2% of the recognised potential ( 300 pairs). Clearly as we’ve seen this year, natural factors such as predation and weather events play a part, however a healthy population should be able to withstand such fluctuations. What is utterly unacceptable is the ongoing illegal killing and disturbance of this protected bird of prey, primarily associated with intensive moorland management for driven grouse shooting. In the last 12 months alone, two hen harriers have been confirmed shot in northern England. First a female hen harrier named Rowan, satellite tagged by Natural England in 2016, was found shot dead in Cumbria last October. Then, in January, an RSPB sat-tagged female, Carroll, was found dead in Northumberland. The post-mortem showed she was in very poor condition and had been suffering from an infectious disease. Disturbingly however, it also revealed two shotgun pellets lodged in her body, indicating she had survived being shot at some earlier point in her life. Of course, if these birds had not been satellite tagged, it’s entirely possible that neither of these crimes would have ever come to light. Radiograph of Carroll, showing two shotgun pellets (Image: Zoological Society of London) Clearly something needs to change, which is why the RSPB is asking for stronger controls, including the introduction of a licensing system to stop the wildlife crime and other damaging practices linked to grouse shooting in its most intensive ‘driven’ form. We think a fair set of rules could also help put grouse shooting on a sustainable footing, whilst introducing more effective means to deter criminal activity, including in the most serious cases, the removal of their licence to operate. It is good that the overall number of nesting attempts has increased slightly this year, but whichever way you look at it – three successes, or seven attempts – it is nowhere near good enough. This weekend, I’ll be joining hundreds of people attending Hen Harrier Day events across the UK, to say “Hands off our Hen Harriers! “ and calling for safe return of these spectacular skydancers to our moors. I’ll be speaking alongside Natalie Bennett, Mark Avery, and Iolo Williams at the event in Sheffield on Saturday 5 August but there are plenty of others across both Saturday and Sunday for you to choose from, all organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime. Simply visit henharrierday.org to find out more. See you there! — * The Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership includes the Northumberland National Park Authority, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumbria Police, and Northern England Raptor Forum. For more information on what the RSPB is doing to secure a future for hen harriers in England and beyond, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife and follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
You may remember last month I blogged about our 2016 Perthshire female, DeeCee and her fantastic brood of five healthy chicks (see here ). Well, I’m now delighted to share that all five have fledged successfully from land owned and managed by Forestry Commission Scotland in Argyll – two of them sporting shiny new Hen Harrier LIFE Project satellite tags! Three of DeeCee’s five chicks, July 2017 (Image: RSPB) The two eldest and biggest chicks in the brood, one male and one female, were each fitted with the tiny transmitters just days before fledging, by a trained expert, under specialist licence. It will be fascinating to see where they go. Will they follow the same movement patterns of their mum, DeeCee, or will they go their own way entirely? Only time will tell. For now though, we need your help to choose names for them! You have from today until midnight on 3 August to submit your suggestions to our competition website here . All ideas welcome (yes, even Henny McHenFace but I’m making you zero promises on that one!) and you can submit two entries, so use your entries wisely. Eight of our favourite submitted names will be selected and put to public vote on on @RSPB_Skydancer . The public voting will run from 7-8 August, and from 9-10 August. The winning two names with the highest number of votes will be announced on this blog on 11 August 2017. See here for the terms and conditions. So what are you waiting for? Get those thinking caps on and get suggesting! In the meantime, both our as-yet-nameless young harriers have been sticking tight to their nest site, still dependent on their parents for food as they get used to their wings and gradually practice hunting for themselves. Slowly but surely though, they’re starting to venture a little bit further each day and my guess is it won’t be long before one of them makes the leap and roosts away from its nest for the very first time. Details of our full Class of 2017 will be online from the start of September, however to protect sensitive breeding sites, maps of their movements will only be added as soon as they’ve dispersed away from their nest sites. With some of the birds this might be immediately, while others may hang about home until the start of November. So if you don’t see the maps straight away, don’t panic – if anything happens to any of them, we’ll let you know! Whatever else, I have a sneaking suspicion these two are going to be the stars of the show. — If you want to do more for hen harriers, or even simply find out more, why not join hundreds of people around the country at a Hen Harrier Day event this weekend? I’ll be speaking at the event in Sheffield on Saturday 5 August, but there are plenty more to choose from, across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Simply visit henharrierday.org to find the one nearest to you. #HHday2017 #StopKillingHenHarriers To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit our website at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or follow us on Twitter @RSPB_Skydancer
We’ve received more brilliant news this week – in her first ever breeding attempt, our Northumberland female, Finn, is successfully rearing one chick at her nest in Southwest Scotland! The discovery was made by specially trained and licensed staff following up on Finn’s welfare. Finn’s offspring – a single, large but still downy chick hidden in the heather. (Image: RSPB) Hen harriers don’t always breed in their first year, in fact historical records estimate only between 8-30% of first year birds make the attempt. And often when they do, the risk of failure is greater due to inexperience or laying infertile eggs. So although a single chick may not seem like much, for our young Finn, it’s a fantastic achievement. All being well, we expect that Finn’s chick will fledge in the next 7-10 days. Finn herself was named after teenage conservationist and blogger, Findlay Wilde, who together with energy company, Ecotricity, sponsored Finn’s tag. As you can imagine, he was utterly delighted to hear the news. Findlay said: “I’m delighted to be able to shout from the roof tops about Finn’s first successful breeding attempt. She has proven to be a very determined bird since fledging last year. Successes like this are treasures for everyone to enjoy and talk about, as silence will not protect these amazing birds of prey. Hen harriers are on an incredibly difficult journey, just like the one Finn’s chick is about to set off on. There needs to be vision and foresight to ensure that more birds like Finn get the opportunity of life” Finn and her three siblings in their nest in Northumberland, July 2016. (Image: Martin Davison) Andrew Miller of the Northumberland National Park, heads up the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership*, which watched over Finn and her siblings as chicks last year. Andrew said, “It’s wonderful news and so gratifying to see one of our birds not only surviving well but contributing to the next generation of hen harriers. It’s been fascinating to watch her progress and this is further proof that hen harriers in England and Scotland aren’t isolated from one another. I wish her and her chick well and have my fingers crossed for plenty more successful breeding seasons to come.” It’s absolutely true that what happens on one side of the border has the potential to influence the population as a whole. That’s why this year, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project has been fitting satellite tags to more hen harrier chicks, across a wider geographical range than ever before. More on that to be announced in the coming weeks, so watch this space… — *the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership includes Northumberland National Park, Forestry Commission, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, RSPB, MoD, Northumbria Police, and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF). For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife, and follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
Peter Christian is a birdwatcher and photographer with a keen eye for detail. Here, he describes how he was lucky enough to capture an incredible photographic series of a hen harrier in pursuit of a meadow pipit, providing a rarely glimpsed view into lives of these extraordinary birds. All photographs are kindly reproduced with Peter’s permission and remain his copyright. As a keen birdwatcher and hobby photographer on the Isle of Man, it’s thankfully not too uncommon to encounter Hen Harriers. On a walk on an upland track recently however, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before. Initially distant in the valley below I spotted the unmistakable presence of a male Hen Harrier. A striking bird to say the least. What’s more, it was hunting a Meadow Pipit – wow! They looked to be heading my way, so I grabbed the camera and tried to capture something of it. I was surprised at the sheer agility and perseverance of the Harrier in its efforts to catch the Meadow Pipit. At one moment they were quite close to me but I found it almost impossible to focus the big telephoto lens on them. As they climbed and dived moving farther away I persevered and got a burst of frames away. I hoped these would at least capture something of this life and death pursuit. As they disappeared further out of sight I put the lens down and reflected on something special. Then, as photographers usually do, I flicked through the images and hoped I’d at least have one or two that weren’t blurry! To my surprise I’d actually managed to capture something of it. Not the best shots I’ve ever taken, but a Hen Harrier hunting, it doesn’t get much better. I have a feeling that the Pipit escaped that day, it looked like it found cover, but I’ll never know for sure. For more fantastic photography, follow Peter on Twitter @manxmannin . Such encounters are increasingly rare on mainland Britain, where last year’s National Hen Harrier Survey revealed a 14% population decline since 2010. By contrast the Isle of Man population of this threatened bird appears to have been holding steady over the last few years. Neil Morris of Manx Birdlife, explains the history and importance of hen harriers to the Isle of Man. In 1977, the first Hen Harriers bred on the Isle of Man in Glen Rushen plantation. Numbers climbed to a possible all time high of 51 pairs in 1998. More recently, breeding censuses indicate the population has fallen from this peak to a (perhaps) stable 30 ‘nesting attempts’ per annum. This represents approximately one nest per 7.4 sq miles, which compares to just four pairs in the whole England (50,000 sq miles compared to the island’s 221 sq miles). Clearly, Hen Harriers like the Isle of Man; and the island’s community likes its Hen Harriers! In a recent fundraising drive through the Groundwork Trust and Tesco’s ‘Bags of help’ scheme, Manx BirdLife received 57,000 ‘votes’ to support Hen Harriers. The second-placed charitable cause received 37,000 votes. But we must not be complacent. Research is needed to understand exactly why the island offers such a stronghold for the species, and to ensure the potential risks to its continued fortunes are understood. It’s a salutary thought that if the brood management plan proposed by Natural England were implemented in the Isle of Man, then we would be required to remove up to 27 out of our 30 nests (i.e. 90%). The island’s continued interest in its birds and other wildlife is crucial to their protection. Peter’s fantastic series of images will do much to help keep Hen Harriers uppermost in the community’s hearts and minds. Following on from the successful satellite tagging of young Manx female, Aalin, last year, two more hen harrier chicks have been tagged on the Isle of Man this summer and we can’t wait to share their journeys with you. Keep watching this space for further updates and be sure to follow us online at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or on Twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
Great news for a Friday – a recent routine check of DeeCee’s nest in Argyll, carried out by RSPB staff under full appropriate licences, has revealed a healthy brood of five chicks! Hen harrier DeeCee’s healthy brood of five chicks. Can you spot the tiny youngest in the middle? You’ll need to look really closely to spot them all. Like many birds of prey, hen harriers lay their eggs a day at a time and they hatch consecutively in the order in which they were laid. This means that the eldest of DeeCee’s chicks has at least a five day’s start on the youngest, and being bigger, is able to gobble up the lion’s share of the food that the adult male brings to the nest. Field voles are a vital food source for hen harriers throughout the breeding season but numbers of voles naturally vary widely from year to year, often showing what’s known as boom and bust cycles. This size difference in the chicks is nature’s way of ensuring that even in years of few voles when there’s a shortage of food, the eldest chicks have a good chance of surviving and fledging successfully. Fortunately, you’ll be pleased to hear that DeeCee has very sensibly chosen to nest in an area which, at the time of the visit, seemed bursting with voles and small birds like meadow pipits, so with any luck, there’ll be plenty of food to sustain all five of her young brood. DeeCee as a newly satellite-tagged chick alongside her siblings. (Image: Brian Etheridge) All being well and with permission from the landowner, we’ll be returning in a few short weeks to fit the eldest chick with a satellite tag to match its mum’s. It will be fascinating to see if this young harrier follows in the footsteps of its parent or whether it does something different entirely. Watch this space…! For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer
As I sit at my desk with every window in the office open and the sun beating through the glass, it feels as though the year has abandoned any thought of Spring and skipped straight to Summer. Long may it last! It’s also a reminder (as if I needed one) that we are rapidly approaching the thick of the hen harrier breeding season, and my thoughts are naturally with our five remaining satellite-tagged females from 2016. What will these young birds, barely even a year old, make of their first true summer and will they survive to see another autumn? The news of a hen harrier shooting allegedly witnessed in broad daylight only weeks ago, near Leadhills in Southwest Scotland, has done little to calm my nerves. For now however, I am delighted and hugely relieved to say that all five birds are alive and doing well. Not only that but against all the indications of their youth, at least three of our females are now confirmed breeding, with a fourth seemingly not far behind! Harriet – a history-making young bird as one of the first hen harriers in living memory to fledge from the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, Harriet spent all winter in the Lake District but come Spring, clearly felt the pull of home. She returned to Mar Lodge briefly in April but has since gone wandering around the East of Scotland. When the data from her tag showed she had started sticking tightly to one area of Perthshire, we sent the team to look for her on the ground and sure enough, she is now sitting on a full clutch of eggs! ( Image: Shaila Rao ) DeeCee – from a private estate in Perthshire, our DeeCee never showed much inclination to leave the familiar ground of the Cairngorms. That was until all of a sudden in April, she started yo-yoing between there and the west coast of Scotland, making day-trips to Jura and Mull and back again. This incredible behaviour serves to show just how far and how quickly hen harriers can travel, and how unpredictable those movements can be. She has now settled somewhere in the middle, in the mainland area of Argyll & Bute, and once again when our team went to look, they found her sitting on a full clutch of 5 eggs! ( Image: Brian Etheridge ) Finn – our one remaining English bird, Finn left Northumberland very shortly after fledging and has made a steady westward tour of the Scottish Borders, ultimately settling in South Ayrshire for the winter months. Unlike DeeCee and Harriet though, it would seem she didn’t need to travel quite so far to find an attractive breeding site, as in the last couple of weeks, she has been discovered sitting on a nest with eggs in an area of Southwest Scotland! ( Image: Martin Davison ) Aalin – this Manx beauty is proving a source of endless fascination as the first harrier officially to have been recorded leaving the Isle of Man for mainland Britain. She was spotted at a local nature reserve in Warrington in November, before making her way south to spend the winter over an area of farmland in Shropshire. The last of our hen harriers to forsake her wintering grounds this Spring, Aalin has only just recently moved across into North Wales. We wondered if she could be getting ready to make the leap across the water and back to her island home but it seems she may have found a reason to stay… as she’s been spotted dallying with a grey male over some very suitable looking habitat. Will she stay or will she go? Watch this space…! ( Image: Sean Gray ) Wendy – from Coulport MOD on the West Coast of Scotland, Wendy was the most sedentary of all our tagged harriers over winter, making herself very comfortable on the Isle of Mull from October right through until April. Of course she now seems to be making up for lost time and is apparently the only one of our young birds still determined to wander, though still no great distances. Most recently, she has been spending time in an area just to the west of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. ( Image: John Simpson ) Normally when people ask me about first-year hen harriers, I’d say they don’t usually breed in their first year but it can certainly happen. Donald Watson, the eminent hen harrier scholar himself, noted proportions of first year hen harriers breeding in a population ranging from 8-30%. However that three, possibly four, out of five of our tagged birds have had the opportunity to breed in their first summer does seem remarkable. Given the sensitivities of the breeding season and the need to protect the locations of both our nesting females and any other nesting hen harriers that may be in the same areas, we have temporarily stopped updating the maps on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website . I’m sure you can appreciate the need for this and rest assured, you can still get the latest updates from our tagged birds on this blog and on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer . Thanks to generous funding from LUSH cosmetics through the sales of their Skydancer bathbomb, this summer we have plans to fit satellite tags to hen harriers across a wider range of places than ever before – from Wales to Orkney, and as many places in between as possible! If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that hen harriers travel widely and unpredictably, so if we want to protect them in one area, we need to protect them wherever they may be. I look forward to resuming our usual schedule of updates in the autumn, when with any luck, we’ll have a whole new cohort of young hen harriers ready to share their exciting journeys with you. In the meantime, stay tuned to this blog and twitter – who knows what the next few months will bring? Watch this space… — To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife
Originally from London but a resident of Lancashire for 17 years with a love of the surrounding countryside and wildlife, Helen Ficorilli is the Programme Director of the Cloudspotting Music and Arts Festival, which has taken up residence in the Forest of Bowland over the last seven years. Here she tells us why a female hen harrier has this year been taken up as the emblem for this annual event. Cloudspotting Music and Arts Festival returns to Gisburn Forest within Forest of Bowland AONB for it’s 7 th outing for the last weekend of July. More pocket sized than boutique, this unique festival has captured the imagination and support of regional and national plaudits which include The Guardian, The Big Issue, Radio 6Music DJs and the high number of returning family audiences. In a location managed by the Forestry Commission England, Cloudspotting has the support from the FCE and the Arts Council to bring high level quality arts engagement into the forest, an area of traditional low arts representation. Home to some of the most stunning scenery and delicate wildlife habitats in Britain we have always encouraged our audience to explore the surrounding forest and engage with the local wildlife. This has led to us incorporating environmental issues into our activities programme to deliver important ecological messages of responsibility to an ever-increasing family audience. In 2016 Bowland AONB brought their Bowland Hay Time project to the festival and ran workshops, activities and discussions about the importance of wild meadows to support the animals and insects who inhabit our festival location. These animals include wild birds and from that our Birds of Bowland Project began to take wings… So why a Hen Harrier? We wanted to make birds that are native to Bowland a focus for our festival this year and we needed to recruit someone to help promote this. After research and discussions with the RSPB, Bowland AONB and Forestry Commission we realised that the Hen Harrier, although not alone on the endangered list, had the highest profile and its recent loss from the local area has gained the most notoriety. Just the fact that there was a national project dedicated to the survival of this extremely rare and beautiful bird of prey made their profile even more attractive. Threatened with extinction this bird has a national network of supporters who scour the skies and nesting locations hoping for a rare sighting of this bird. The Hen Harrier whose Latin name means “circus” has a magical awe surrounding it, an almost mythical existence; and a festival, a temporary world of escapism seemed like the perfect place for a Hen Harrier to be spotted. We immediately commissioned local illustrator and sculptor Kerith Ogden to bring the Hen Harrier to Cloudspotting. Our brief was to create an image which we could use throughout our promotional activities of the festival. An image we could use with our logo but with a tribal imagery all of its own. When we saw the initial drawings we were blown away by the grace and beauty of our bird and we needed to give her a name. But it had to be the right name. A few options were bounded about which included Hetty, Jen and even Rhythm (….is a sky dancer!) but the overall obvious choice was Bo. Bo after our location, the beautiful Forest of Bowland and Boudicca another formidable female warrior. Have you met Bo yet? Since then, Bo has become another member of the Cloudspotting team. Visually appealing, she has featured on all our promotional materials including flyers, posters, website, social media, banners etc. Bo will also feature at the festival where we will reveal the second commission of Kerith, Bo the parade puppet lantern. A huge 3D version of Bo with lights and a whopping flapping wingspan of 3.5m. Bo will tour the festival site leading our rhythmical bird themed parade, dance the night away to our local reggae band Jeramiah Ferrari and finally take her nesting position in the Village Green for the remainder of the festival. Learning through play Working in partnership with the RSPB and other activities/arts associates, our Birds of Bowland project has developed immensely to weave throughout our weekend activities programme. Inclusive, engaging, educational and creative our arts package includes Bo and her other feathered friends involved in a variety of activities. These include the opportunity to join the Cloudspotting Choir. Rehearse throughout the weekend to perform Three Little Birds from the main stage on Sunday afternoon. Join other crafters for regular knit’n’chirp sessions to knit your own Bo. Leave the festival for a trek through the forest on our sculpture trail where you will discover 8ft bird; or be a part in the creation of a huge piece of community art adding colour to our huge canvas Bo. These are just a few of the linked activities and workshops available; for more information please visit our activities page on our website . But our work with Bo doesn’t stop there. We are so taken with Bo she will feature on artwork for future Cloudspotting events. We have already been asked to tour Bo and the community developed artwork from the festival to regional galleries and libraries where we will produce narrative to support the images and continue to deliver the messages of the RSPB to support our local wildlife so that we can all live together, harmoniously in our modern world For more information about Cloudspotting Music and Arts Festival 2017, please have a look at our website or visit our facebook page.
This is not the news I wanted to wake up to. Just weeks after the Crown Office discontinued a high-profile case against a former gamekeeper for the alleged illegal killing of a hen harrier despite clear video evidence, another hen harrier shooting has come to light. Police Scotland issued an appeal this morning, for information relating to the lethal shooting of a hen harrier near Leadhills, South Lanarkshire. You can read the response from RSPB Scotland here . Fortunately and exceptionally, “a number of witnesses” have apparently come forward but whether that’s enough to secure a prosecution remains to be seen. After all, if video evidence , clearly showing a hen harrier being shot out of the sky and its body retrieved by a man with his face in full view of the camera, isn’t enough to secure a conviction or even a court case, it’s hard to know what burden of proof is necessary. The message seems to be that those who wish to illegally kill our protected birds of prey can continue to do so with impunity, knowing that even if their alleged crimes are caught on film, they’re unlikely to be held to account. Still of film footage taken on Cabrach Estate, Morayshire in June 2013, showing a man removing the body of a recently shot hen harrier. Despite this, police are now appealing for CCTV evidence in this latest case. Anyone with any information at all should contact Police Scotland on 101. A hen harrier illegally shot and killed in 2013 and another in 2017… It goes without saying that any hen harrier shot is one too many but with four years between them, could these just be random isolated incidents? Not when you start filling in the blanks… January 2017 – hen harrier Carroll found dead in Northumberland of natural causes having previously survived being shot October 2016 – hen harrier Rowan found shot dead in Cumbria September 2015 – hen harrier Lad found with “injuries consistent with shooting ” in the Cairngorms April 2015 – hen harrier Annie found shot dead near Leadhills, South Lanarkshire June 2013 – video evidence recorded of a hen harrier being shot dead on Cabrach Estate, Morayshire, and a man retrieving the body June 2012 – hen harrier Bowland Betty found shot dead in the Yorkshire Dales Body of a young male hen harrier, Lad, found with “injuries consistent with shooting” just months after fledging. And that’s not to mention the number of satellite tagged hen harriers which have suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared – most notably in relation to recent events, Chance , who vanished in May 2016, just a few miles from where Annie was found shot and near to where this most recent shooting has been witnessed. These are not isolated incidents. Collectively, they reveal a very clear picture of how protected birds of prey continue to be treated in some areas of our uplands, particularly where there is intensive grouse moor management. As I said in my last blog, our ability to uphold the law is only as good as our ability to enforce it and we are working hard to insist these issues be addressed by the public authorities as a matter of urgency. In the meantime, together with the Raptor Study Groups and wider conservation community, we will continue to monitor and protect our hen harriers wherever possible. Satellite tagging is providing an unprecedented window into this world and through the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, we plan to tag more hen harriers in 2017 than ever before. Whatever happens next, we will be watching. To follow the fortunes of our remaining satellite tagged hen harriers and find out more about our work to protect these stunning skydancers, visit www.rspb.org.uk or follow us @RSPB_Skydancer .
In case you missed it, RSPB have just published film footage of a former gamekeeper allegedly shooting a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate, Morayshire, in June 2013, retrieving the body, and cleaning up the feathers after himself. After almost four years of waiting, court proceedings were dropped two weeks ago by the Crown Office, who indicated that after considering all of the relevant material, they couldn’t use RSPB Scotland video evidence to support the prosecution in court. However, it’s only today that the Crown Office has explained the rationale behind this decision. Here’ s the official response from RSPB Scotland: We do not agree with the opinion from the Crown Office that we were attempting to gather evidence for a prosecution. We installed a camera to monitor a protected breeding bird’s nest site, core business for a conservation organisation. We did not share the information about the nest site with anyone, as would be the case with any rare and vulnerable breeding bird species. The fact that an individual came and allegedly shot the female harrier, and that this was captured on film, was an incidental consequence of the camera’s deployment, in the same way that it could easily have captured footage of the nest being naturally predated or failing due to bad weather. It is very disappointing that the opportunity for the court to consider the issue of the admissibility or otherwise of this evidence, as has happened in previous cases, has been removed. Until today, we have received no rationale for the decision to drop the case despite the fact that a number of our staff have provided significant time and expertise in supporting the authorities with the prosecution case. Watch the footage for yourself here . Full details in the original press release here . We have now written to the Lord Advocate and are seeking urgent meetings with the Crown Office to consider the implications. Clearly the laws that protect our wildlife are only as good as our ability to uphold them. If video footage of this quality isn’t sufficient to secure a prosecution, then the question remains… what is?
Richard Johnstone is the organiser of the Music on the Marr folk festival, which takes place in Cumbria each summer. Here he tells us why the hen harrier has been chosen as the symbol of this year’s festival and how the artistic amongst you could see your very own hen harrier design emblazoned across the chests of hundreds of this year’s festival goers. Each year in late July, the lovely North Cumbrian village of Castle Carrock, nestled under the Geltsdale fells, hosts Music on the Marr, a three-day music festival showcasing outstanding folk and roots acts from near and far. The moors above the village partly comprise the RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve, one of the very few recent breeding grounds of the hen harrier in Northern England. Each year the festival produces a new commemorative T-shirt and has on this occasion decided to feature the hen harrier, partly to raise awareness of its endangered state and partly to welcome it as a neighbour of our festival. The T-shirt design is open to public competition, and the winner will receive two weekend passes to the festival on 21-23rd July this year. The competition is only open until Thursday 20th April though, so you’d better be quick! To read all the T&Cs and find out how to submit your entry, visit the Music on the Marr website here . A female hen harrier at RSPB’s Geltsdale, in 2016. (Mark Thomas: rspb-images.com) This wonderful film shot at last year’s event gives a flavour of the intimate and friendly nature of this event. Just as our area is visited by throngs of migrating birds at this time of year so the festival welcomes performers from such far flung places as the Congo, Zimbabwe and Senegal not to mention all parts of the UK. The festival’s motto, which the village’s road signs helpfully reflect is “Please Dance”, but this year we’ll be changing it to “Please Sky Dance” for obvious reasons! So please visit the festival website and, even if no designs spring to mind take a look at the impressive array of acts lined up and perhaps plan a visit combining the joys of fine folk music with the beauty of RSPB Geltsdale, and who knows? Maybe even a glimpse of an elusive hen harrier…
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.
Andrew Armstrong is a wildlife photographer local to RSPB’s Wallasea Wetlands reserve. Andrew’s stunning hen harrier photographs first came to our attention on Twitter where he posts under @drumon25. Impressed by his passion for the birds which clearly shines through his photography, we invited him to share what it feels like to capture these rare glimpses into the private life of one of our most spectacular birds of prey. As a wildlife photographer I have been visiting RSPB Wallasea Island for three years, predominantly in the winter when the raptors congregate over the site. Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Peregrine, Merlin and especially Short Eared Owls show really well during the winter, making for wonderful photography opportunities. The real prize is getting the opportunity to watch, and hopefully photograph, the Hen Harriers as they overwinter here. Over the two previous years I have had infrequent sightings of this marvellous raptor (both male and female) and was only able to get distant images. This year has been incredible on the island as there has been up to three female Hen Harriers and one male all quartering. I have had success with getting images of the female Hen Harriers but the male has proven more cautious, quartering away from the newly opened footpaths. The habitat dynamics on the island offer excellent overwintering feeding options for a whole host of passerines. The winter bird crop cover areas have proved more than useful quartering locations for the Hen Harriers and I have been fortunate enough to witness several successful hunts. There is nothing quite like watching a Hen Harrier gliding just above the top of the winter bird crop cover, constantly adjusting and occasionally suddenly diving onto prey. I have seen the females predating mostly small mammals until recently whilst the male looks to be working the passerine flocks. On the occasion I took the images of the male Hen Harrier, he had been quartering the wild bird cover as usual. He is incredibly methodical in his approach and would periodically hover over areas in an attempt to flush any prey. Large flocks of passerines, mostly Corn Buntings, would scatter in panic as he quartered past. As he moved through an area he suddenly re-positioned and dropped onto prey. He remained on the ground for about 15 minutes, which tends to suggest he may have been successful. It was a real privilege to have this fleeting insight into the lives of these incredible birds. If you’re lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please let us know by contacting the Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on the date, time, location (6-figure grid reference if possible), description of the bird, and what it was doing (eg hunting, flying over, skydancing, roosting) will help us to keep track of these birds and direct our on the ground conservation efforts.
As far as positive starts to the New Year go; the news of the possible rediscovery of our missing 2014 female, Highlander, was a pretty fantastic way to kick off 2017. This was shortly followed by a phone call from a farmer in Cumbria who was only too delighted to tell me about the hen harriers roosting in his rushy fields. The palpable excitement and pride in his voice was a wonderful reminder of the power of these graceful birds to captivate and inspire – a welcome sign of hope for the future of hen harriers in our hillsides. Hen Harrier over rushy pasture. Photo: Lin Lyon For the most part, our remaining birds continue to fare well and seem to have settled down for the winter in their favoured roosts – Wendy on Ulva, just off the coast of Mull, Finn in Ayrshire, Carroll in Northumberland, DeeCee in the Cairngorms, and Harriet in the Lake District, while our Manx Bird Aalin seems determined to continue her slow but steady progress south and is currently residing in Shropshire. Finn’s gradual path west from Northumberland to South Ayrshire. Unfortunately, the good news wasn’t to last and it’s with a heavy heart that I have to tell you our young Geltsdale male, Bonny, is now missing and is presumed to have died. The first hen harrier chick to fledge from our Geltsdale reserve in 10 years and the only one in the whole of the North Pennines SPA last year, Bonny’s nest was sensitively and remotely monitored round the clock by a 24/7 watch of dedicated RSPB staff and volunteers from throughout the local community. The support of Geltsdale’s joint owners, the Weir Trust, in this work is something for which we were also very grateful. In a year that saw just seven hen harrier chicks fledge from three nests in England, Bonny quickly became a celebrity, featuring on both BBC’s Autumnwatch and the national BBC Six News. His name was selected by Chris Packham from over 2,000 entries into LUSH Cosmetics’ hen harrier naming competition; a partnership which has seen a fantastic contribution made to hen harrier conservation by funds raised through sales of LUSH’s Skydancer bathbomb. You can read more about Bonny’s story here . Bonny with his newly fitted satellite tag being held by RSPB’s Guy Anderson. Photo: Mark Thomas Unusually for a male hen harrier, Bonny remained faithfully close to his nest site after fledging, never venturing further than 10 km or so from our Geltsdale reserve. Sadly, no data has been received from his tag since 14 th December and while we have no information to suggest what might have happened to him, we now believe it most likely that Bonny has died. His last known location was on an area of moorland a few kilometres to the east of Geltsdale but despite a search of the area, no body was found, so unfortunately it’s unlikely that we will ever know the cause of death. I realise this news may come as a real blow to those who have told me they see Bonny as a symbol of hope for hen harriers in England but I would argue that his death doesn’t detract from this. Despite his short life, the media attention generated by this young harrier probably did more for raising awareness about these birds than all of our other 2016 birds combined (did I mention he was on the national Six o’clock news??). Not only that, the fact of Bonny’s successful fledging against the odds was a testament to the hard graft of so many staff, and especially volunteers, dedicating hour after hour in a midge-infested hide simply to watch over him. If that doesn’t perfectly encapsulate the passion that exists for these spectacular birds and the determination to see them restored to our hills, then I don’t know what does. Paul Morton from Lush campaigns had this to say: “We’re really sad to hear about the loss of Bonny, his short life was an inspiration to so many people and a credit to all those that worked so hard to protect him before and after fledging. The future of Hen Harriers still hangs in the balance and with so many others already going missing in the last 12 months the vital satellite tagging work the RSPB do to monitor these birds is now more important than ever.” Hen harriers are known to return to successful breeding sites year after year and if they do come back to Geltsdale, we’ll be ready and waiting for them with open arms. The 2017 breeding season is just around the corner…
It’s a rare delight in the world of hen harriers to be able to start the New Year with some good news, but I am utterly astonished and elated to report that Highlander, a female hen harrier which fledged from United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland in 2014, and who suddenly and unexpectedly went missing in County Durham in April 2016, has possibly been found alive! Highlander and her sibling, Sky, just after having their satellite tags fitted, in Bowland, 2014. (Image: Jude Lane) To most people, Highlander is the eponymous lead character, played by Christopher Lambert, in the classic 1986 British-American action fantasy film, about an immortal Scottish swordsman on an epic quest. As our own Highlander was “adopted” by children from the local Brennand’s Endowed Primary School however, I’m going to hazard a guess it’s unlikely they had that particular kilt-wearing protagonist in mind when choosing a name for our young female. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a more fitting name for a bird that apparently against all expectation, seems to keep surviving. The classic 1986 film, Highlander. The full story of Highlander’s tenacity can be read in the blog we posted in early June 2016, around the time of her disappearance. However, here’s a quick reminder of this exceptional bird’s life story: June 2014 : Four hen harrier chicks from two nests are ringed and satellite tagged by Natural England in partnership with RSPB on the United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland. Two of these are “adopted” by children from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School, who name the young females, Sky and Highlander. September 2014 : Highlander starts to explore areas to the south of Bowland but her sister, Sky, and a tagged female from the other Bowland nest, Hope, suddenly disappear within days of each other in suspicious circumstances. They are never found. Winter 2014/15 : Highlander spends the winter months favouring a few particular roost sites within 30 miles of Bowland. March 2015 : She returns to Bowland April 2015 : She pairs up with a third-year adult male and they start the process of nest-building and egg-laying. May 2015: Highlander’s mate is the first of four adult males with active nests in Bowland to inexplicably and suspiciously vanish while hunting away from their nest sites that summer. Having been forced to abandon her nest to hunt, Highlander quickly pairs with a young male and resumes her nesting attempt, laying a record total of nine eggs between both mates. Highlander’s new mate is discovered to be polygamous and, struggling to provide for his two females, he abandons Highlander to fend for herself, resulting in the failure of her nest. June 2015: She leaves Bowland for southern Scotland but returns a week later and pairs with a third male. July 2015 : Highlander’s first chick hatches but just five days later, the nest is predated and all young are lost. Autumn/Winter 2015/16 : She returns to her favoured roosts from the previous winter. March 2016 : Highlander returns to Bowland for several short visits but doesn’t stay. April 2016 : Highlander’s tag stops transmitting. Her last known location is in County Durham. Highlander’s second nesting attempt with an incredible 9 eggs. (Image: James Bray, 2015) Here’s what we said about her disappearance at the time: 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. …until now (maybe)! In October 2016, an unknown satellite-tagged hen harrier was seen at roost near to where Highlander spent her two previous winters. Initially it had us stumped – neither we, nor Stephen Murphy at Natural England, had birds registering as being in that area and the BTO confirmed that no one else has been fitting tags to hen harriers in the UK. We contacted the only other hen harrier tracking projects in Europe, one in Ireland and one in Germany, but neither of them could claim this mystery bird either. With the dedicated help of local raptor workers, we’ve since confirmed the bird as an adult female, with no colour rings, a single BTO ring on the correct leg, but the real clincher… a tag aerial which bends very slightly to the left – all of which match with this bird being Highlander. Of course with no signal coming from the tag, it’s impossible to be 100% certain of the ID but the facts available are certainly very suggestive that this is more than just coincidence. So if it is actually Highlander, where did she go? And what happened to her tag? The bend in the aerial had been there from the start, so it can’t be to blame for the loss of signal. The short answer to both of these questions is we will probably never know. Satellite tags of this type are designed to last for up to 5 years (though sadly, hen harriers rarely seem to live that long). Highlander’s tag was two years old and is the only confirmed failure out of 23 RSPB-monitored hen harrier satellite tags deployed in the last 3 years (ie a 4% failure rate). Researchers at the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation have previously recorded a 6% technical failure rate (out of 67 birds tagged) using exactly the same make and model of satellite tag, with all failures occurring on tags older than at least one year. This puts the failure of this bird’s tag well within the realms of expected normality, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that something like this would happen sooner or later. Whatever the reason for her tag failure and indeed, whether this bird is actually Highlander or not, her rediscovery is undeniably a cause for celebration. The tricky business now will be keeping track of her without a functioning tag. And of course if this is Highlander, the big question is… will she return to Bowland to breed this summer? We’ll be watching and waiting… If you’re lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please help us keep track by submit your sightings ( description of the bird, time, date, location with grid reference if possible) to our Hen Harrier Hotline on 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email email@example.com. Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer
Keith, As far as we’re aware, the Scottish Government’s satellite-tagging review is already collecting a significant amount of data and information on the fitting, operation and reliability of transmitters. To quote from their website: “The review will investigate a massive data set on satellite tagged raptors, much of it funded and held by RSPB, Highland Foundation for Wildlife and Natural Research. The review will report on the fate of tagged birds, the distribution of losses and known and adjudged causes of loss. It will attempt to determine the significance of these losses nationally and regionally, and factors associated with these. Drawing on international research, the review will comment on the reliability of tags, any effects of tags on raptors, and any inferences on the value of the techniques employed in Scotland.” The Scottish Government review is rightly an independent process and as such, we will not be commenting on its methods other than to say that we have, and will continue to, submit information to the Review as and when we are asked to do so.
As the cold weather sets in and Christmas approaches, it’s clear that winter is truly upon us. My thoughts at this time of year, as ever, turn to our young harriers out on the hills. Over the last two months, the number of hen harrier sightings at roosts and hunting grounds in southern and coastal areas has increased dramatically, as many of these birds seek to escape the harsh upland weather. Hen harriers have been spotted at a number of RSPB reserves across the country including Saltholme, Burton Mere Wetlands, Blacktoft Sands, Wallasea, and Rainham Marshes, not to mention the National Trust’s Wicken Fen reserve in Cambridgeshire and the Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve in Worcestershire, amongst others. Several birders and photographers have been kind enough to share some of their incredible photographs of these birds with us, and stunning shots they are too! Male hen harrier at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee Estuary. Image ©Andy Davis ( flickr.com/photos/twodees ) Female hen harrier at Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve, Nov 2016. Image © Martin Clay ( @ClayGaseous ) Male hen harrier at RSPB Wallasea reserve, Essex. Image © Andrew Armstrong ( @drumon25 ) Some of our satellite-tagged harriers are clearly following this trend with Aalin , Harriet both on a mission south, while Finn moves ever closer to the Ayrshire coast. However DeeCee , Carroll , and Bonny seem to be sticking resolutely to the upland ground they’ve come to know, while Wendy has made herself at home with island life over on Mull. Unfortunately, it saddens me to report that our young male, Beater, has gone missing and is presumed to have died. Beater fledged from land owned by Wildland Ltd, on their Glen Feshie, Glen Tromie, and Gaick property in the western Cairngorms. He was named by children, Lejla and Cuillin, after their mother, and was the second chick to be tagged on this estate after another young male, Lad , was tagged and fledged from the same location in 2015. Beater as a chick, shortly before fledging in July. Image © Ewan Weston After spending his early months sticking close to home in the Cairngorms, Beater spread his wings at the end of September and headed south towards England, stopping just short of crossing the border. He spent October and most of November in the central Scottish Borders. Sadly, no data has been received from Beater since his tag last transmitted on 14 th November. His last known location was on an area upland pasture in the central Scottish Borders. We have no information to suggest anything illegal has happened, the transmissions did not stop abruptly as in other recent cases, but we do now think it most likely that he has died. Beater’s last known location is highlighted by the large red circle. As we head deeper into the winter, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project team will be working closely with the raptor study groups NERF and SRSG, to monitor and protect important hen harrier winter roosts throughout the north of England and southern and eastern Scotland. The data from our satellite tags is helping with that but there are so many more birds without tags, we need your help to keep track of where these birds are spending their time. If you’re lucky enough to see a hen harrier in England, please report it to our dedicated Hen Harrier Hotline, with information on the time, date, and location of the sighting (six-figure grid reference if possible), a description of the bird and it’s activity (eg hunting, roosting, flying over). Tel. 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) Email. firstname.lastname@example.org If you tried to report sightings in the last month and had problems with the phone line, please accept our apologies. This was down to some technical issues which have now been resolved, so it would be great if you could try resubmitting the information. If you still experience problems, please use the hotline email address and include a description of the issue encountered. For sightings in Scotland, please report these to the Heads Up for Harriers hotline on: Tel: 07767 671973 Email: email@example.com The more eyes we have keeping a watch over these birds, the better the future will be for them.
Katy Saulite is the Hen Harrier LIFE Project’s Community Engagement Officer for Scotland, working with local schools and community groups in areas where hen harriers should be, to raise awareness and promote the conservation of these spectacular skydancers. At the beginning of September I had my fingers and toes crossed for good weather in the weeks ahead. Two school groups were all set to venture out onto the moorland with the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and I feared the unhelpful presence of that all too familiar horizontal precipitation we’re often blessed with. Thankfully September has been lovely up here in Scotland, and the pupils who took part in our moorland field trips were more than happy to be out and about, exploring and engaging with the outdoor classroom. The primary 5-7 class of Kirkmichael Primary School spent an afternoon on Moulin Moor, in the heart of the Forest of Clunie SPA. A small road, shared with sheep, runs across the moor, and although having seen the moorland from the car, only two of the pupils had stepped onto the landscape which lies only two or three miles from their school. Binoculars at the ready, we saw only a handful of birds, but armed with a moorland bingo activity we looked up high, and down low amongst the heather for ‘sphagnum moss’, ‘a carnivorous plant’, or ‘something you’ve never seen before’. We explored the moorland as a habitat through activities centred around vegetation, insect life and, of course, hen harriers. Kirkmichael Primary School pupils creatively forming front page pictures for genuine newspaper headlines ‘Sharing the Planet: Hen harrier conservation and grouse shooting’ Within the same week, I journeyed to RSPB Airds Moss, within the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA to meet with biology students from Sanquhar Academy. In the first part of the session we got our hands dirty and socks wet as we sampled moorland vegetation. We then considered the place of the hen harrier within this landscape; geosquishing (think Taj Mahal tourist pictures!) features of the landscape that we thought benefitted or hindered the hen harrier’s survival. We debated what the future of the uplands and hen harrier should be, from the perspective of different upland stakeholders. A talk on the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and an introduction to some of the other great work of the RSPB concluded an extremely enjoyable afternoon. Biology students from Sanquhar Academy dramatically representing the newspaper headline ‘The mystery of the missing hen harriers’ Once again I have been so pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which children of all ages take to outdoor learning. Often a little shy at the beginning, it does not take long for laughter, learning and a little silliness to begin. Being in the midst of a beautiful moorland landscape truly brings learning to life. We did not see any hen harriers but I could certainly picture them soaring above, and found myself hoping that one day soon I’d be out on one of these moors with a group, in equally agreeable weather, admiring a hen harrier or two through the binoculars. To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or folllow us @RSPB_Skydancer .
Alex – thank you for the kind words. I’ve been working on hen harriers for over five years and every lost bird stays with me. It doesn’t get easier but the way I see it, we have a choice – either to despair, our to let it harden our resolve to make a …
Thanks Alan. I do too! Satellite tagging is brilliant but for the majority of hen harriers, we rely on sightings from people on the ground to help us keep track. It would be a huge help to us if you could share any sightings via our Hen Harrier Hotlin…
The recent recovery of Rowan, a Langholm hen harrier tagged by the Hawk & Owl Trust and Natural England, who appears to have been illegally shot in Cumbria, highlights the vital role that satellite tagging has to play in the conservation of this threatened species. These tiny devices, barely 2 cm long and weighing only 9-12g do not, of course, confer protection in and of themselves (the bodies of Rowan , Lad , Annie , and Betty are all testament to that). However they do shine a light on what is happening to these birds, helping us to better understand their movements – where they go when they leave their nests, which roosts they favour over winter, where they attempt to breed and build their nests, and ultimately, where they stop. That final piece of information is the bit that gets most publicity – whether the birds die naturally, are illegally killed, or simply “disappear” – but the journeys these birds undertake to get them to that final point are often fascinating and of equal relevance to their conservation. Hen harriers in particular are captivatingly unpredictable in their movements and I’d like to take a moment to share with you some of the stories of this year’s birds that are unfolding, even as I type. M ar Lodge hen harrier, Harriet, receiving her satellite tag. (Image: Shaila Rao) Harriet One of four chicks from the first successful hen harrier nest on National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire in living memory, Harriet has resolutely stuck to her home ground since fledging in mid-July. Just over a month ago, she briefly ventured south but almost immediately returned to familiar territory, where we assumed she would stay. Without warning however, she suddenly upped sticks and jumped from the Cairngorms, to the Firth of Forth, to Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, and on to Cumbria in the space of just a few days Harriet’s journey south (Image: RSPB) Isle of Man hen harrier, Aalin. (Image: Sean Gray) Aalin Named by the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment, who sponsored her tag, Aalin was satellite tagged on the Isle of Man in partnership with Manx Birdlife and the Manx Ringing Group. The Manx hen harrier population declined by a whopping 49% between the 2004 and 2010 national surveys and no one is entirely sure why. One long-held theory is that Manx birds are emigrating to the UK mainland and failing to return, but although several hen harriers have been tagged on the Isle of Man over the years, none of them have ever been recorded as leaving the island. Like Harriet, Aalin stuck close to her natal site for several months after fledging until suddenly one day flying to the north of the Island, before heading straight out to sea, over Blackpool, and ending up at Woolston Eyes SSSI reserve in Warrington, where she was spotted and photographed by local birder, John Tymon. Manx hen harrier, Aalin, photographed at Woolston Eyes SSSI. (Image: John Tymon) Wendy Wendy, one of two hen harriers to be satellite tagged at the Coulport MOD base, in Argyll, this year has done the reverse of Aalin and forsaken the mainland for the joys of island life over on Mull. However it’s Wendy’s sibling, Donald (named after renowned hen harrier expert Donald Watson, not the US President Elect!), who’s made the most significant journey of all. Coulport hen harrier, Donald, before fledging. (Photo: John Simpson) Donald If Aalin’s recent travels have suggested the real likelihood of population exchange between the Isle of Man and the UK mainland, Donald has further confirmed it. Having spent some time exploring the west coast of Argyll, Donald crossed the water from the Mull of Galloway to the Isle of Man. Not content to stay there however, he almost immediately took a hop, skip, and a jump across Wales, all the way to Northern France, mirroring the journey of our 2014 female, Chance. Donald is the third satellite tagged hen harrier we have recorded making this journey after Northumberland bird, Nile , in 2015. Sadly, not long after his arrival, the data from Donald’s tag showed that he had stopped moving, indicating that he had died. He was traced to an area of scrubby farmland but due to international logistics, by the time our team could reach him, the battery in his tag had run down, meaning the signal had stopped. Despite a thorough search of the area, his body couldn’t be found, so sadly, we will never know the cause of his death. Hen harrier conservation is full of challenges (understatement of the century?) and these remarkable journeys highlight the crucial point that anything which affects hen harriers in one part of their range, is likely to affect their population as a whole. Regardless of where illegal killing or disturbance takes place, birds from the Isle of Man, Orkney, the Cairngorms, Wales, Yorkshire, and the Western Isles, probably even Ireland, are all potentially vulnerable and a few bad estates can have a disproportionate impact. To truly secure a future for these birds, we need to see them protected wherever they go. This is why the RSPB will keep pushing for the introduction of a system of grouse moor licensing, to support those who operate within the law and effectively enact a targeted ban on those who don’t. By enabling us to satellite tag and follow the movements of more hen harriers than ever before, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project and the funding raised through sales of the LUSH Skydancer bathbomb, are helping us to better understand where hen harriers go and identify where they’re most at risk. Regardless of where in the British Isles they originate, we all have a stake in the future of these birds and we want to see them protected. Join us in following the fortunes of all our remaining satellite tagged hen harriers on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .