Author: Chris Collett

Blog Post: What is the RSPB doing to protect hen harriers?

Earlier this week, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas took a look at how the UK’s hen harriers had fared in 2018. Now she gives an overview of some of things that the RSPB is doing to help them. Here at the RSPB, we’re doing everything we can to protect hen harriers. Coming into the final year of the Hen Harrier LIFE project in 2019, our project team have already spoken with almost 12,000 members of the public about hen harriers. During these conversations, I’m always asked: ‘What are the RSPB actually DOING about this?’. The aim of our Hen Harrier LIFE project is to catalogue the incidents of persecution and suspicious disappearances of the birds, which our team works hard to do, and until the project started, we had no idea of the scale of hen harrier persecution in the UK. Fitting tags to birds has given us unprecedented insight into the journeys and fates of individual birds. Importantly, this evidence is used to underpin the core work of our organisation. Thor hatched in Bowland in summer 2018 and disappeared on 3 October (photo by Steve Downing) The data gathered from the satellite tagging we’re doing is being analysed by our conservation science experts, to learn about the fates of the birds, and how this relates to land use patterns, investigating the habitat use of the birds and their dispersal patterns. We’re already seeing that some of our birds are travelling long distances, including visits to Ireland, France and Spain. The location data we receive from the tags shows us the population is moving across the UK and beyond, so we need to protect it by working alongside colleagues in other countries too. The Hen Harrier LIFE project also involves working with college students studying gamekeeping and countryside management. We discuss the hen harriers and the broader issues around grouse moors to instigate an open debate about what the options are for future moorland management practices and what our moorlands could and should look like. Although some groups enter into discussion tentatively, it soon becomes clear that things cannot continue as they are. We hope that these students will enter employment at the end of their course more prepared for what the working world has to offer and their important role in ensuring the survival of some of our rarest species through legal and sustainable management of our countryside. Beyond the LIFE project the RSPB is doing a wide range of other work to secure a future for the UK’s hen harriers. We’re managing our reserves in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of hen harriers, using heather cutting techniques to promote highly diverse moorlands that are home to a range of species. Having successfully used these techniques for decades in some places and seeing flourishing habitats, we’re now advocating management practices to neighbouring landowners and statutory bodies with responsibilities around land management practices. As a wildlife conservation charity, we have no powers to arrest criminals or take them to court, but our Investigations team share the intelligence we collect and work closely alongside the Police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) and the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) across the UK, to ensure the scale of persecution is understood. We fear we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg and our evidence is informing policy and actions taken on by these groups. Our dedicated teams fight for hen harrier protection, push for wildlife criminals to be brought before the courts, and advocate for stronger sentencing for those convicted. We also train colleagues in the police forces and in the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to better understand wildlife law, and what kinds of trapping methods are commonly used by criminals. Raising awareness of what to look for in the countryside is a really important task. The community can help to be our eyes and ears and report wildlife crime. RSPB Investigations officer Howard Jones raising awareness of trapping methods with police officers and national park staff (photo by Bob Smith). We also work hard on policy and advocacy work with local and national governments, raising awareness of raptor persecution and calling for action to prevent it. We are calling for the licensing of grouse moors, to ensure they are managed in a sustainable and legal way. Our work has contributed to the instigation of the Scottish government’s review of sustainable and legal grouse moor management and we continually work with Westminster MPs to raise awareness and call for action. We are also in the process of a judicial review of the Natural England licence for a trial of a brood management scheme for hen harriers, which is a decision we have not taken lightly. When red lines are crossed, we will act. There are certainly interesting times ahead for hen harrier conservation. With Chief Inspector Louise Hubble OBE and Superintendent Nick Lyall taking on new leading roles as Chair of the NWCU and RPPDG respectively, growing evidence of the scale of hen harrier persecution and a growing awareness across Europe of the scale of the hen harrier population decline, there are calls for immediate action. Scottish and Welsh governments also seem to be taking positive steps to protect birds of prey. Seemingly, they are starting to realise that the evidence cannot be ignored. 2019 is the fifth anniversary of Hen Harrier Day in the UK, and the tenth anniversary of raptor crime becoming a police priority. Momentum is certainly growing and pressure continues to mount for moorlands to be managed sustainably and criminals to be held to account. We are cautiously optimistic that positive change is coming. In the new year, we’ll be blogging in more detail about the different ways we are tackling the plight of the hen harrier and working to secure its future in the UK.

Blog Post: Reflections on 2018 – part 1

As we reach the end of 2018, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, looks back over the year. Working on the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project is a rollercoaster of emotions. Scientific studies estimate that here in the UK we have enough suitable habitat to sustain a thriving hen harrier population of around 5,000 birds, yet the 2016 hen harrier survey found there are only around 1,000 birds left in the wild. The main reason for this is the continued illegal killing of birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and mainland Scotland. 2018 started out as a promising year for hen harriers. Reports from raptor workers and local RSPB colleagues suggested winter roosts around the country had higher numbers of hen harriers than usual, and in some areas of the UK this coincided with higher numbers of voles. Our tagged birds had done well to survive the cold winter, so we were hopeful. Our first loss was the natural death of Eric on 27 January, who was tagged in Orkney in the summer of 2017. Eric spent his life on Orkney, but data from his tag, which continued to transmit as expected, showed that he made an unexpected journey eastwards, away from the islands and out into the North Sea. Data from later that day then showed that he had gone down in the water, and shortly afterwards the tag ceased transmitting. Eric’s loss coincided with a period of bad weather on Orkney, so it appears likely the strong south westerly winds blew this young bird off course and all the evidence suggests that he drowned. On 5 February, Marc disappeared in suspicious circumstances on a grouse moor near Middleton-in-Teesdale. Marc’s tag was transmitting regularly and showed him moving to the grouse moor at the end of January, where he spent his final week before his tag suddenly stopped transmitting, with no indication of any technical problems. This was particularly sad given that Marc’s brother Manu disappeared in suspicious circumstances just months earlier. To this day, we have not heard from either of the brothers’ tags, their bodies have not been found and no one has been held to account for their disappearances. Marc and Manu as youngsters on the nest in 2017 (photo by Steve Downing) Marc’s loss was closely followed by the apparent loss of several more birds. On 9 February, we lost Aalin, who had almost made it to two years old, having been tagged in the summer of 2016 on the Isle of Man. Aalin disappeared in suspicious circumstances in an area of Ruabon moor in Wales where grouse shooting takes place. A further three birds then disappeared in suspicious circumstances, Saorsa, Finn and Blue . On 16 February, Saorsa disappeared in the Angus Glens, Finn disappeared on 25 March near Moffat and Blue disappeared on 31 March near Longsleddale in Cumbria. Losing five birds in seven weeks in suspicious circumstances across Scotland, England and Wales was a harsh reminder of the challenges these birds face. More bad news followed. Lia ’s tag stopped suddenly on 18 April over an area of lowland farmland near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes and an initial search of the area yielded nothing. On 17 May, a final transmission confirmed she was dead, and RSPB Investigations staff found her lying face up in short grass in a sheep field. Her body was sent for an independent post mortem, where the vet’s main finding of interest was a fractured tail feather. The report stated that fractures of this type “have previously been found in a hen harrier proven to have been shot with ammunition (Hopkins et al., 2015). No other signs of shooting were detected in this bird.” Sadly we’ll never know for sure what happened to Lia, due to her state of decomposition. During this time, we were also getting reports from areas where birds were skydancing, pairing up and building nests, and our project team worked alongside raptor workers and volunteers to monitor and protect these birds. Most of the UK’s hen harrier breeding population is found in Scotland. Here, we were getting reports of pairs of hen harriers settling and building nests in known nesting areas, and were excited to see that numbers had increased on last year, for example at NTS Mar Lodge, with an increase from one successful nest in both 2016 and 2017, to seven successful nests in 2018. However, amongst this good news, on 17 July we received the last transmission from Harriet, a bird tagged at Mar Lodge in 2017. Harriet’s body was recovered on the Mar Lodge estate in July this year. An independent post mortem could not identify a cause of death, due to the state of decomposition. In England, the species is of highest concern as it has teetered on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird for several years now and the 2016 survey revealed it had declined by 64% since 2004. In 2018, there were nine successful hen harrier nests, and the project team were very proud to be directly involved in protecting and monitoring seven of these nests. We worked closely with landowners and gamekeepers, and were pleased to see four successful nests on grouse moors for the first time in a while, on land owned by our partners at the National Trust and United Utilities. This showed that it is possible to have grouse shooting and hen harriers side by side. In September, we were overjoyed to have 34 chicks fledging in England and our expert team had fitted tags to around a third of these birds, representing the biggest and strongest chicks in the nests. Our project team also fitted tags to hen harriers in Wales, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, representing an unprecedented number of tagged birds, and we would like to thank all concerned for their support and hard work over a very hot summer. Sadly, our joy was short-lived when we then lost Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in suspicious circumstances. We hadn’t even had chance to introduce the tagged cohort of birds for 2018, when these birds disappeared. These young chicks were just weeks old, making their first journeys away from their nesting sites when they disappeared over land managed for grouse shooting in England and Wales. None of these birds have been heard from since their disappearance, and no one had been held to account. Sadly, this downhill trajectory continued. Over a period of 12 weeks, we lost a total of nine tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances, with the further loss of Thor , the first hen harrier chick to hatch in Bowland for three years, who disappeared in Lancashire on 3 October, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. Athena, Margot, Stelmaria and Heather then disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Scotland, over land managed for grouse shooting between 16 August and 24 September. Finally, we lost Arthur in suspicious circumstances on 26 October. None of these birds have been heard from or seen since their disappearance, and once again no one has been held to account for this. We also lost birds due to natural causes. Keen died on 9 October. His body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. The diagnosis was starvation/failure to thrive. Nyx died on 16 October, and his body was recovered and sent for an independent post mortem. He appeared to have died of natural causes, and received a puncture wound to his chest, that may have affected his ability to fly and hunt for prey. The examination suggested he appears to have died of starvation. These natural losses are felt all the more strongly with the high level of persecution these birds experience. We’re particularly worried about the English population. Whilst having 34 chicks successfully fledge is more than the 10 chicks that fledged last year, it’s still a long way from the 600 birds we should have in England. As for the fates of the chicks we tagged this summer in England, to date, just under half of the birds are still alive. Just under a fifth have died, were recovered and sent for post mortem with cause of death identified as natural or undetermined due to state of decomposition, while over a third have disappeared in suspicious circumstances. It’s difficult to put into words the feelings of frustration, disappointment and anger that this continues to happen. Losing nine birds in 12 weeks during the grouse shooting season over or adjacent to land managed for grouse shooting tells a damning tale, and is an average of one bird disappearing in suspicious circumstances every nine days. Independent scientific research and government-commissioned studies continue to identify illegal killing associated with land managed for driven grouse shooting as the main factor causing the decline of this species. It’s clear that if this situation continues, hen harriers will become extinct as a species in the UK. This cannot be allowed to happen, and we are working hard to make sure it doesn’t. In our next blog, we’ll be talking about some of the things we are doing to help save the UK’s hen harriers.

Blog Post: Mannin’s failed sea-crossing

RSPB Scotland’s Investigation Intelligence Officer Jenni Burrell provides an update on Mannin, the Isle of Man sat-tagged hen harrier.   Monitoring satellite-tagged hen harriers can bring many positives – following an individual bird from the day it was fitted with a transmitter until its first flights away from the nest area, its travels through the UK (and beyond in some cases ) or even hopefully until its own first nesting attempt. Unfortunately, however, it can also bring some negatives. Sadly, here, we report on the death of another of our 2017 birds.  Mannin, along with his sister Grayse, was tagged on the Isle of Man on 3 rd July 2017 by trained & licensed members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and Manx Ringing Group in partnership with Manx Birdlife. After fledging in July, Mannin explored his home island until 14 th August, when the tag data showed he had departed the island and headed north towards the Galloway coast in SW Scotland. Sadly he never completed this journey, and the data showed that he had gone down in the sea, approximately 5km off the Scottish coast. Mannin and sister Grayse – image by James Leonard   We have not lost one of our tagged birds at sea before, and while we were almost certain he had died, we were unsure if the tag would continue to function or when we would eventually lose track of Mannin, if the voltage in the tag’s battery declined or if his body sank to the bottom of the sea? A few days later, on 24 th August we had our answer. The satellite tag had continued transmitting, and the data showed that Mannin was now located on the shoreline. After a brief search of the area, near Kirkcudbright, my colleagues soon found Mannin’s remains and the tag. As with all recovered birds we submitted his body for examination, at the SRUC Veterinary Laboratory. Their subsequent post mortem report said that there was no evidence of trauma or health problems and that Mannin had eaten a small mammal recently. We’ll never know what caused Mannin to go down in the sea. Maybe he was caught in heavy rain, and with nowhere to land, became waterlogged and was unable to complete the sea crossing? Whatever the cause, it was a sad end to his short life.   Map of Mannin’s movements  Sadly, Grayse has also died, also just a few weeks after fledging. She was recovered on the island on 9 th August after her tag showed that she had died. Her body was examined by ZSL whose interim diagnosis did not implicate human interference as a cause of death. Neil Morris from Manx Birdlife said “Obviously, everyone involved in the project here in the Isle of Man is desperately sad that Grayse and Mannin have perished. Their early demise highlights the vulnerability of young birds learning to fend for themselves once they have fledged the nest. It also underlines the need for a large healthy population that can withstand such losses. “At the same time, it’s wonderful to see Aalin coming through her first year so well, and to get such an insight to her behaviour. We need to know so much more about these wonderful birds of prey in order to formulate ever better conservation strategies. We shall continue the work to study Hen Harriers on the Isle of Man.” Whilst the deaths of both of these birds through natural causes is disappointing, the finding of their bodies and recovery of them and their tags was straightforward. As you would expect, their transmitters continued to provide us with good location data, even after one of them had spent ten days in the sea. This is, however, in marked contrast to the disappearance of “ Calluna ”, whose perfectly-functioning tag’s transmissions ended very abruptly on 12 th August. Her last recorded position was on a grouse moor, a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park, and her disappearance can rightly be regarded as highly suspicious. Here’s hoping that the ten remaining birds from the Class of 2017 continue to thrive and provide us with many more positive stories. You can follow them here .            

Blog Post: Meet the Hen Harrier Class of 2017

RSPB Scotland’s Investigations Intelligence Officer Jenni Burrell introduces the new class. This year the Hen Harrier Life Project website has been improved to provide a more interactive experience for visitors. You can choose to look at individual birds, track their journey and look at any points of interests that appear. The profiles of twelve of this year’s satellite-tag hen harriers are now online and what a brilliant bunch they are. Take a look on the website to learn more about their stories and meet: Calluna (image by RSPB) Eric (image by Alan Leitch) Heather  (i mage by Brian Etheridge)   Lia  (i mage by Guy Anderson)   Mairie  (i mage by Paul Howarth)   Mannin  (i mage by James Leonard)   Manu  (image by Tim Jones)   Rannoch  (i mage by Brian Etheridge)     Saorsa (i mage by Brian Etheridge)   Skylar  (image by RSPB)     Sirius  (image by RSPB)     Tony  (i mage by Dave Anderson)   Sadly Calluna is no longer with us. Calluna’s sat tag transmissions abruptly ended on 12 th August, with no further data transmitted. Her last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park – Jeff Knott has written this blog about her. You’ll be able to follow the progress of the other birds as we map their movements online. To protect sensitive breeding sites, maps of their movements will only be added as soon as they’ve dispersed away from their nest sites. We have already been able to share the first movements of Heather, Eric, Skylar, Sirius and Saorsa who have already proved to be adventurous and spread their wings. We’ll add the remaining birds as soon as we can.  You may notice that only one of last year’s birds is back on the website. After a very successful breeding season, DeeCee has moved away from the nest site so we are able to share her movements again. Don’t worry, the other four are safe and well, but have yet to move away from breeding areas. We will keep you updated and will begin to map their movements in due course. In the meantime, see what they have been up to in a previous blog . It’s going to be an exciting year following these birds and seeing what they get up to and we can’t wait to share it with you.  

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day 2017 – in pictures

Here are a selection of photos from last weekend’s Hen Harrier Day events at RSPB Arne, RSPB Rainham Marshes, Sheffield, Boat of Garten and Vane Farm Tayside. Hen Harrier Day South – RSPB Arne – (photos by Terry Bagley) Hen Harrier Day Highlands – Boat of Garten (photos by Guy Shorrock)       Hen Harrier Day Sheffield       Hen Harrier Day – RSPB Rainham Marshes       Hen Harrier Day – Vane Farm, Tayside (photos Guy Shorrock)  

Blog Post: Skydancer from Russia with love

The RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer James Bray gives the lowdown on Bowland’s special new visitor. RSPB staff and volunteers on the United Utilities estate in Bowland are out in the hills monitoring and protecting birds of prey every day of the week in all types of weather. We have been spending much of our time looking for returning hen harriers over the past few weeks in some rather un-spring-like weather so yesterday I was elated when I looked up and saw a mature male harrier skydancing low over my head. The bird disappeared out of sight down a gulley very quickly so I headed to a different position for a different view, happy that another male hen harrier was back on the estate. Over the next few hours the harrier was skydancing and hunting the slopes, mostly at very long range in a welcome bit of heat haze. I gradually got better and better views, and as the sun dropped a bit I began to strongly suspect that it was actually a pallid harrier. I called a good friend who was nearby and as we returned to the site the harrier flew low along the opposite hill giving superb views for the first time, allowing us to confirm that it was a mature male pallid harrier . Pallid harriers are rare visitors to the UK, most recently juvenile birds in the autumn. Adult males are exceptionally rare in the UK but one was seen near Hornsea in East Yorkshire early last Sunday morning and this is likely to be the same bird. Thanks must go to Mark Breaks for the photographs of this stunning bird. It’s not a hen harrier (the focus of my work), but I didn’t allow that to temper my excitement at having found a very beautiful and rare bird. We would like other birders to see this bird but must ask that people strictly follow the access arrangements as detailed below.   Access arrangements Please be aware that the pallid harrier is in a valley that is a four km walk from the nearest public parking. The walk is on a private road and vehicle access is only permitted for estate workers and the tenants that live and work here. BIRDERS MUST NOT  drive along this road, and will be asked to leave if they do.     Cars must only be parked in the pay and display car park in Dunsop Village at SD662502. The road to walk on is then accessed by walking west through the village (toward Lancaster and the Trough) over the river and take the first right. Follow this road north for approximately 3.5 kms up the Dunsop Valley until the road splits. Take the right hand split and walk for another 500 metres. The harrier has been hunting the slopes below the cairn on the hill on the other side of the river. Best views have been had from around the first cattle grid that you reach on this road after the split (approximately SD659543).   There are schedule 1 species nesting on the estate so it is vital that people coming to watch the harrier stick to the tracks so as not to cause disturbance at what is a really sensitive time in the breeding season. Please feel free to ask anyone that you see off the road to stick to the road!   We must also respect the goodwill of United Utilities, the land owner, as well as their tenants, who are incredibly supportive of our work so please stick rigorously to these access arrangements. There is a very nice cafe in Dunsop Village (Puddleducks) and there are toilets by the pay and display car park. Thank you, and good birding!

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Hotline relaunched

  As spring has now almost sprung, we’ve relaunched our Hen Harrier Hotline with the hope of finding out where these seriously threatened birds of prey might be breeding in England’s moorland.   If you are out hiking or cycling in the hills, please keep an eye out for one. If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please get in touch.    The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate) .  Reports can also be e-mailed to henharriers@rspb.org.uk.  Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.   Many of you will be able to spot a hen harrier half a mile away in poor weather conditions. But for those of you who are less familiar with the bird of prey, here is a reminder of what they look like.   Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.   Male hen harrier – RSPB Images Female hen harriers are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.   Female hen harrier – Dave Dimmock

Blog Post: Making bath bombs with Chris Packham

Hen Harrier Life Project Community Engagement Officer Aimée Nicholson reports on recent the LUSH summit   Since joining the Hen Harrier Life Project back in October of last year, I have spent many a happy day telling people about the wonderful birds we are working so hard to protect. Last Thursday was no different but there was a slight twist to this event; this time it was live streamed across the internet for the world to see. The event I attended was the LUSH Summit, a two-day event organised by the ethical cosmetics company, which showcased the causes that they support through the campaigns in their shops. The Hen Harrier Life Project is very lucky to be one of those causes and since 2015 the sales from the Skydancer bath bomb has raised over £100,000 to fund the purchase of satellite tags. Thanks to this support from Lush we are able to tag double the amount of birds this year than we did last year, all due to people buying bath bombs. My day started at 6am as I got on the train to head to the trendy Tobacco Dock in London’s thriving enterprise zone.  I am not usually an early morning person but the excitement of attending this event and talking about hen harriers alongside my colleague Mark Thomas and Chris Packham had me wide awake and prepared for the day. I arrived in London just as is started to snow, battled the rush hour tube (how do people do this?) and made it to the event with half an hour to spare, and time to warm up ready for our rehearsal. We were hosted in the conservation room which was filled with trees, plants and cosy bean bags for people to relax in during the talks. The talks in this room were enough to keep you busy for the day never mind the numerous other rooms which were available to explore.  The LUSH Summit I met with Chris and Mark at rehearsal ready to be briefed about what we were doing that afternoon, the session we were taking part in was done in the LUSH Kitchen style (think Saturday Kitchen with cosmetics) so we were told that we would be talking about hen harriers whilst making the Skydancer bath bomb.  For someone who loves the bath bomb, this sounded great fun. Aimée with Mark Thomas and Chris Packham The summit was just as I had imagined, very LUSH! The place smelled incredible; you could actually smell it on the way to the venue and we were entertained with dancing flowers, ladybirds and unicorns whilst exploring all the new and exclusive products that were scattered throughout the venue. This was the only LUSH Kitchen talk to be live streamed throughout the whole event which highlights the importance of this campaign. We sat awaiting the countdown and looked around at the crowded room of expectant faces and then we were live! The LUSH kitchen format was great fun to take part in; there was time for us to tell people about hen harriers, the problems they face,  the work, which LUSH has done to support the Hen Harrier Life Project, all whilst getting messy making  Skydancer bath bombs. Making hen harrier bath bombs The 40 minutes whizzed by and it all went incredibly well, which what you always hope for as a Community Engagement Officer, and the feedback in the room was that of a very caring audience who hope for the best future for hen harriers. Here’s to hoping that the people in audience, and those watching online, went away and told others about these beautiful Skydancers and what they can do to help. After saying my goodbyes to the team I headed back to Kings Cross, Skydancers in hand, backpack full of goodies and smelling like I had been rolling in essential oils. I felt content that now even more people were aware of the work of the Hen Harrier Life Project, the amazing support we have received from LUSH and hoping for a successful breeding season in 2017.          

Blog Post: Introducing Aimée

New(ish) RSPB recruit Aimée Nicholson talks about her work as Community Engagement Officer in England for the Hen Harrier Life Project. I have been working for the Hen Harrier Life Project for a little while now so I thought it was about time I introduced myself to you all. My role involves working with communities in and around the Special Protection Areas in England that are designated to have breeding hen harriers living in them. These are the North Pennine Moors and the Forest of Bowland. This work involves school outreach sessions in primary and secondary schools, as well as working with game keeping students, giving community talks and attending country shows in the summer. The role has me travelling around a lot and last week took me across to the University of Cumbria in Ambleside where I was giving a seminar on hen harriers and the uplands. I presented to a group of current students, prospective students, parents and the local University of the Third Age group so there was a large audience of keen listeners. The engagement with the seminar was excellent and there were some very insightful and thoughtful issues raised, as well as a real willingness by a number of the students to get further involved in hen harrier conservation. This is the part of the job that is so rewarding; inspiring young naturalists is so important for the future of conservation. This was our second visit to the University of Cumbria in a number of months and hopefully all the enthusiasm of those I spoke to is currently spreading its way across the Lake District. If you live in and around the hen harrier Special Protection Areas and are interested in booking a community talk, school outreach session, lecture, seminar or workshop please get in touch by emailing me at aimee.nicholson@rspb.org.uk .  

Blog Post: Chilling out on winter roost watch duty in Bowland

The RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer James Bray reports on the highs and lows of monitoring hen harrier winter roosts  I’m back home now with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fire and I can reflect on a lovely evening sitting on top of a cold hill somewhere in the Forest of Bowland. In the background Ingleborough (a hill on the west side of the Yorkshire Dales National Park) was snow-capped and glowed beautiful shades of apricot and pink as the sun set, and to top it all off I picked up a lone hen harrier coming in to roost. The Forest of Bowland is probably best known for the healthy population of breeding hen harriers that used to breed here. This importance is recognised by national and international legal protection with the Bowland Fells, designated as a Special Protection Area for 13 pairs of hen harriers. The breeding population has declined dramatically, to the point where only three pairs have bred successfully in the last five years, and this is reflected in the very low numbers of harriers that roost around Bowland in the winter now. There is still plentiful habitat for wintering (and breeding) hen harriers around Bowland. They hunt over rough grassland and moorland for voles and small birds (they can catch birds up to the size of snipe and fieldfare), and in winter spend the night roosting in large dense patches of rushes where they find shelter from the weather and can hide from foxes. However, illegal persecution has driven the population of hen harriers in England to near oblivion and if we are to protect our breeding population we also need to protect the wintering birds locally.  The satellite tagging of hen harriers has revealed that female harriers winter very close to where they were born and breed, so I spend much of the winter months monitoring winter roosts, helped by a very dedicated team of volunteers. Friends who have monitored birds of prey in Bowland for decades tell me stories of watching up to a dozen harriers using a single roost, back when hen harriers were more common in Bowland and the rest of northern England. With the crash in numbers in Bowland our roosts are very quiet now, and I am lucky if I see more than a lone bird. When I arrive at the position where I’m going to watch from I will find a sheltered spot out of the wind and out of sight of inquisitive eyes and will then spend over two hours watching the roost. I find that I quickly get very cold so often and end up wearing close to ten layers in an effort to keep warm. This can make standing up at the end of the roost watch rather challenging but at least it provides lots of opportunity for colleagues to tease me about my soft southern roots. Whatever the temperature it is a magical time of day to be out, as I get the chance to watch the change over between the day shift and the night shift. Shy or nocturnal species are waking up and emerging to forage and daytime species are heading to roost. Distant wisps of smoke turn into huge flocks of starlings flying to roost somewhere to the west of Bowland, and my attention will be drawn by chacking calls to flocks of fieldfares flying in to the rush beds to roost for the night. I sometimes see sika and roe deer emerge from cover, as well as woodcock flying out from woodland onto the pastures to forage overnight. If I’m very lucky the ghostly form of a barn owl will float silently past. As the winter months have passed my thoughts are turning increasingly towards the upcoming breeding season. With hen harriers, peregrines and other large birds of prey still being illegally killed in northern England and southern Scotland, we have our work cut out for us trying to protect these fantastic species from local extinction.

Blog Post: Carroll – a Northumberland bird to the very end

RSPB Investigations Officer David Hunt reports on the death of Carroll, another satellite-tagged hen harrier Being tasked with monitoring the whereabouts of the RSPB’s English satellite-tagged hen harriers, you never know what drama might be lurking around the corner. Only in December, I had remarked to a colleague about how settled the English class of 2016 seemed to be in their respective wintering grounds. I clearly spoke too soon. Shortly after came the cessation of data in the North Pennines from Bonny, the RSPB Geltsdale bird now presumed to have died . And now unfortunately, Carroll, one of our young Northumberland females from 2016 has also died. The world of hen harrier conservation does certainly involve some low moments. Carroll was a Northumberland hen harrier through and through. One of two to fledge the nest on land managed by the Forestry Commission, she was named in July 2016 after the much-loved and dearly missed hen harrier champion, Mick Carroll, whom the dedicated raptor community sadly lost in 2015. Aside from a single night jaunt across the border to Scotland in the Cheviots and once down to Hadrian’s Wall country in September, Carroll was firmly at home in the uplands of north Northumberland. Much to everyone’s delight, she was often sighted by raptor workers at a regular roost location in the county, whilst her tag data also unlocked details on previously unknown upland roost spots that she frequented. Having personally witnessed her as a day-old chick in the nest, I followed her journey into the wider world and despite not seeing her, myself and a colleague made the considerable hike to one of her favoured upland roost locations in the Cheviots in September. A wild and at times, inhospitable environment, but one that she was clearly happy to call home temporarily. Carroll in the nest, Northumberland 2016 (Credit: Forestry Commission) Carroll was found dead in a farmer’s field near Alnwick, Northumberland in late January, by a member of an organised pheasant shoot. Encouragingly, the estate contacted the Northumbria Police. Simultaneously, having studied Carroll’s recent satellite tag data, I became increasingly concerned that there may be problem with her and began to make a few frantic phone calls to colleagues. We then received the news that she had indeed been found dead a short while later prompting some even more frantic phone calls. Thankfully, Wildlife Crime Officer PC Paul Sykes swiftly attended on 26 th January to retrieve the body of Carroll with the full assistance and cooperation of the estate. She was then sent to the renowned Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for a post-mortem examination, expertly conducted within 24 hours of the retrieval in the field. This found that Carroll was in very poor condition and was suffering an infectious disease.  More tests are being undertaken. However the story does not end there. The post-mortem examination also detected the presence of two shotgun pellets lodged in Carroll’s body, one in the leg and one in the neck. The pellets were not attributed to any visible injury, indicating that her wounds had healed and against the odds, Carroll had remarkably survived being shot. Radiograph of Carroll showing two pieces of shot (Credit: Zoological Society of London) When and where she was shot at we will never know, but given how well the wounds had healed, it is likely to have been sometime in 2016. The shot in her body makes it clear that within just a few months from  leaving her natal area in Northumberland in August 2016, she had been a victim at the hand of man. This sad news follows that of the satellite tagged harrier Rowan, whose body was recovered in October last year by Natural England in Cumbria. A ZSL post mortem examination confirmed she had been shot, the radiograph showing the fractured left leg. Carroll and Rowan graphically illustrate why the state of hen harriers in our English uplands remains so fragile. Radiograph of Rowan, showing fractured left leg (Credit: Zoological Society of London) In addition to Carroll, we have recently had the potential re-appearance of Highlander and the presumed death of the famed RSPB Geltsdale male, Bonny. So Carroll’s death is yet another twist in the rollercoaster that is England’s hen harriers. Based on the events of recent years, it is impossible to predict how the 2017 breeding season will unfold, but hopefully Northumberland will host more of this regrettably rare, bird of prey. Special thanks must go to Northumbria Police and ZSL for their critical work in the investigation and to the estate and the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership in reporting the discovery of Carroll and aiding the recovery of her body. 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 henharriers@rspb.org.uk.  Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife   or   @RSPB_Skydancer  on Twitter.    

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.  

Blog Post: First hen harriers tagged as part of the LIFE+ project

  Bea Ayling (Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project Manager) In June and July, a number of hen harrier chicks across England and Scotland were satellite tagged as part of the RSPB’s new Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project. The project seeks to better understand the movements of these magnificent birds to help identify areas where they are most at risk.. This need became particularly pertinent in the 2015 breeding season when 5 nests failed in northern England due to the well-publicised, unexplained disappearances of the healthy male adult birds. As the new Project Manager (covering for Blánaid while she is off enjoying her own brood), I am on tenterhooks to see how the 2015 breeding season pans out having started the role smack bang in the middle. I am particularly excited about being able to track our birds online!  A couple of the project’s satellite tagged birds will be made public here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife/ . The latest tag went on a female chick on the Isle of Man, named Hetty. It’ll be fascinating to see where she disperses to for the winter as hen harriers are known to range far and wide. Maybe she will encounter some of our other tagged birds across the sea in England and Scotland! Maps of her movements should be available on the website in the next few weeks. Hetty and her brother prior to ringing and tagging. Photo credit: John Hellowell I really hope that allowing the public to follow our tagged birds’ helps raise awareness and understanding of hen harriers, encouraging recognition that hen harriers are an intrinsic part of the UK’s uplands, and that we’re all responsible for their protection.