Author: Cathleen Thomas

Blog Post: Meet the class of 2019

After a long summer, Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project Manager for the Hen Harrier LIFE project is delighted to introduce you to the hen harrier class of 2019! It’s been a busy time for the project team this summer, protecting and monitoring hen harrier nests across England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. We’ve tentatively watched as our tagged birds have taken flight and once they leave their nesting area, we’ll be adding twelve of them to our website, so you can follow their progress. Keep watching for updates to the map at RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE and see how they’re doing. But for now, here’s your first glimpse of this year’s hen harriers! Apollo Apollo is a male hen harrier, tagged in the Forest of Bowland, one of 22 chicks to fledge from five nests in this area in 2019. Our team worked round the clock to protect the young birds. Cyan Cyan is a female bird, tagged in the Forest of Bowland. She and her siblings fledged from the United Utilities estate, who strive to achieve a balance between encouraging public access and protecting water quality, wildlife and habitats. We have been working in successful partnership with UU for years. Tornado Tornado is a young male tagged in Northumberland. He fledged from a nest in a national nature reserve, on land owned and managed by Forestry England. We’re very grateful for the support of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, who helped us to protect and monitor Tornado’s nest, particularly those at Forestry England and Natural England. Ada Ada is a young female who fledged from a nest in the Scottish borders along with her two brothers. We look forward to seeing her journey unfold as she leaves the national nature reserve and heads out into the world. Oscar Oscar is a male hen harrier who, along with his brother, fledged from a nest that is part of the small hen harrier population remaining in the Scottish borders. We are very grateful to the Lothian & Borders raptor study group who monitored the nest and arranged for us to tag the chicks. Marko Marko is a male hen harrier who fledged from a nest on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate. This is the fourth summer that we’ve tagged young birds at Mar Lodge, and we’re incredibly grateful for the team’s support. Sheba Sheba is a female hen harrier tagged on a privately owned estate in Argyll. It’s the first time the landowners have seen hen harriers, and they’re just as excited as we are to follow her progress. Mary Mary is a female hen harrier who fledged alongside her sister from a nest on the Isle of Man. We’re very grateful to the staff at Manx Birdlife and the Isle of Man government for helping to monitor the nest and allowing us to visit it. Maye Maye is a female bird tagged on the Isle of Man. We’re worried because the Manx population of hen harriers is declining and we’re not sure why. We hope that by tagging Maye and other Manx birds we can better understand what’s happening to them and help the government and Manx Birdlife to protect them. Gryf Gryf is a male hen harrier who fledged from a nest in North Wales. His name means ‘strong’ in Welsh. Angharad Angharad is a female bird who fledged from a Welsh nest. We’re incredibly grateful to our colleagues and volunteers at RSPB Cymru who kept an eye on the nests for us, as well as the landowners who allowed us access. We hope to understand more about the lives of these birds.

Blog Post: Tagging success in Scotland this summer!

Our project team have fitted more than 10 young hen harriers with satellite tags this summer in Scotland. We have worked hard this summer to tag birds from the Scottish Borders up to the Scottish Highlands, with the generous support and assistance from of a variety of partners, volunteers, landowners, their managers and staff, and licenced taggers from the raptor conservation community. One of this year’s Scottish youngsters (image courtesy of Steve Downing) Hen harriers are one of our rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. The satellite tags allow us to follow the lives of the young birds as they strike out on their own. The last British Isles hen harrier population survey in 2016 put their numbers at just 575 territorial pairs, an overall significant decline of 24 percent since 2004. Estimates suggest there should be over 1,500 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland alone, yet only 460 pairs were recorded in 2016. Before tagging could take place, we monitored hen harrier nests across the country to understand more about how their breeding success varies year to year and why nests sometimes fail. The information gathered from birds tagged in previous years has revealed important information about how they spend their first few years of their lives. Two of the birds tagged in Scotland last summer headed over to Ireland for the winter before returning this spring, and one of the chicks tagged this year is the offspring of a female tagged in a previous year by the project, providing an opportunity to follow the species through two generations. Tagging also reveals some worrying turns of events, with some birds either suddenly or inexplicably disappearing or being illegally killed – almost always on or close to grouse moors. Earlier this year RSPB Scotland appealed for information on the disappearances in areas managed for grouse shooting of two birds tagged by the project – Marci, tagged in 2018 at Mar Lodge and last recorded in the Cairngorms National Park near Strathdon, and Skylar, tagged in 2017 in Argyll who disappeared close to Elvanfoot. In May this year, Rannoch, tagged in 2018, was found dead in an illegally set spring trap on a Perthshire grouse moor. Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project Manager for Hen Harrier LIFE, said: “It’s a real privilege to work with and follow the journeys of these incredible birds of prey and the sight of one of them skydancing never fails to take my breath away. “However, very few people get to experience such a spectacle as the British Isles are missing 80 percent of the breeding hen harriers they could support. These birds face enough natural challenges in their first few years of life trying to avoid predators and learn how to hunt without the added pressure of illegal killing, shooting and trapping by humans. “With Scotland being the stronghold for the British hen harrier population, tagging these young birds here and understanding what is happening to them is crucial for our efforts to create a more secure long-term future for the species.” An independent enquiry commissioned by the Scottish Government is currently undertaking a review of the environmental impact of grouse moor management and possible options for regulation. RSPB Scotland is calling for licencing of the industry to be introduced to bring an end to the continued illegal killing of birds of prey, including hen harriers as well as golden eagles, red kites and others, which is threatening some of the country’s most iconic species.

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day 2019

If you’re wondering how you can support hen harriers, why not pop along to a Hen Harrier Day event? Hen Harrier Day returns this month for the fifth year running with one main event taking place on 11 August at Carsington Water in Derbyshire, hosted by Wild Justice. There will be a range of speakers including Chris Packham and Iolo Williams, as well as members of the Hen Harrier LIFE project team. The event is family friendly and open to everyone, with lots of different activities planned to keep you entertained, including storytelling and puppet making. You can find out more information here . In support of Hen Harrier Day, there are also three other events planned, all of which will be attended by the project team, so do come along and say hello. Tomorrow, 3 August, in Perth, Scotland, the Revive Coalition will be hosting a one-day public conference to explore the impacts that grouse moors have on birds of prey and animal welfare, our environment and natural landscape. The event is free to attend, but please do book a ticket here if you’d like to go. On 10 August, there will be a Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Day hosted by the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) at Goathland Community Hub in North Yorkshire. The event will be attend by the volunteer raptor workers from NERF, North Yorkshire Police, Operation Owl and the RSPB, who are happy to chat to you about the issues affecting birds of prey and their commitment to bring illegal persecution to an end. You can find more details here . Also on 10 August, the RSPB will be hosting a Birds of Prey Day at our Saltholme reserve, where lucky visitors recently got to spot a hen harrier for themselves. This will be a family friendly day, with activities and talks from those passionate about protecting our birds of prey. If you want to know more about what we’re doing, you can find details here . The aim of these events is to highlight the plight of hen harriers and other birds of prey, with a show of public support for ending their illegal persecution, which is largely linked to management of moorland for grouse shooting. Hen harriers are a key species in our moorlands, but sadly, they are becoming an increasingly rare sight in the UK as hen harriers are continuing to decline. A wealth of evidence including Government reports show illegal killing as the primary reason the population remains in trouble. A recent study concluded that 72% of tagged hen harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed on British grouse moors and that the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. There is enough habitat for over 2,500 pairs of hen harriers in the British Isles but the 2016 hen harrier breeding survey revealed that there are only 575 territorial pairs left, down by 87 pairs from the last UK survey in 2010. Just four of these were in England, where the population remains on the brink of local extinction. It’s not just hen harriers which are facing threats on intensively managed grouse moors. Many protected birds of prey and other species are being killed illegally and other damaging practices are widespread, such as the burning of internationally important carbon-rich peatlands. As a result of the ongoing managed burning of peatland habitats in the uplands, carbon is being lost into the atmosphere, making the UK Government’s ambition of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 ever more challenging. Why not come along and support us and our partners to spend a day with like-minded people, raise awareness of these problems and find out what we’re doing to address them?

Blog Post: Five nests and first flights at Bowland

RSPB Bowland’s Project Officer, James Bray, talks us through Bowland’s 2019 breeding season, the excitement of 5 rare hen harrier nests, and conditions for the volunteer team as they brave the hills! For decades the Forest of Bowland was the most important site for breeding Hen Harriers in England. So much so, they were formally adopted as the logo of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In some years it was the only place in England that Hen Harriers bred, so their recent temporary loss as a breeding species* was particularly keenly felt by those with an interest in bird of prey conservation. 2018 was the best breeding season for Hen Harriers since the population crashed in 2012. We waited with baited breath for how 2019 would pan out, particularly as we know that a high percentage of young Hen Harriers disappear on driven grouse shooting estates across the country each winter ( see here ). My team of staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities staff and tenants, put everything into monitoring and protecting the birds when they’re here, but hen harriers travel widely and we can’t control what happens when they leave. Many of the chicks that fledged and left Bowland in 2018 did not survive the winter. It is therefore tremendously exciting to announce that we now have chicks in five nests , and some those chicks have already taken their first flights . Photo credit: Young hen harrier chicks in nest – Mick Demain. As we have done in every year since the RSPB started working in Bowland at the start of the 1980s, our team of volunteers and staff have been monitoring and protecting the birds on the estate since the start of Spring, in partnership with the landowner United Utilities and their farming and sporting tenants. In 2018 we had to deal with baking hot conditions (some members of the team took to lying in streams to cool down), whereas this year the weather has been a bit different. Warm calm spells have been rudely interrupted by spells of rain and cold wind, but our staff and volunteers have coped very well with the conditions. Left: Keeping out of the rain and wind – Paul Thomas. Right: The United Utilities estate is also important for a range of other red-listed species such as Ring Ouzel, Cuckoo and Curlew – Mick Demain. The harriers don’t appear to have been affected unduly by the weather either. We have been lucky that whilst there has been heavy rain, the downpours have been relatively short-lived, allowing the males plenty of time to hunt and feed their mates and chicks. It is amazing how quickly the season passes. It does not seem long ago that the beautiful grey males were skydancing over the hills in successful attempts to attract mates. Now, some of the chicks are taking their first flights. For people who have spent every day of the last few months watching over the harriers, this is such a special moment. We still have plenty of work to do to get through to the end of the season as well as to work to ensure that this year is the continuation of a recovery back to the population levels of the 2000s (over a dozen pairs nesting each year) and the population level that the Forest of Bowland Special Protection Area is designated for. Photo credit: One of the nesting females – Jack Ashton Booth I would like to say a huge thank you to the RSPB’s team of staff and volunteers who have put in a huge amount of work to monitor and protect the harriers so far, as well as to United Utilities staff, and their tenants for their amazing support for Hen Harriers and the RSPB’s work to protect them. A final word – we would implore people who are visiting Bowland to look for its amazing wildlife to stay on the paths and tracks during the breeding season to avoid disturbing nesting birds. All of Bowland’s wonderful wildlife can be seen without stepping off a track. * Harriers failed to breed in 2012, for the first time since they recolonised Bowland in the 1950s and didn’t return until 2015 when only a single chick was successfully reared from 7 nesting attempts. Hen Harriers then remained absent as a breeding species for a further two years until 2018.

Blog Post: Forsinard Flows flies the flag for hen harriers!

Tremaine Bilham is the Hen Harrier LIFE Project’s Community Engagement Officer for Scotland, working to raise awareness and promote the conservation of these spectacular skydancers. In this blog, she tells us about her education work with a group from Brora Primary at Forsinard Flows. Early spring brings new life and warmer weather… or so I hoped as I prepared to take a primary 5 class on a peatland field trip in Forsinard. Fortunately, wind and rain are no match for the hardy children of Brora Primary. We kept warm with a skydance-off, with half the class imitating male hen harriers, twirling and swooping to compete for the attention of the female hen harrier judges who huddled shoulder to shoulder to stave off the brisk weather. This field trip was the first of what we hope will be many more delivered in partnership with the Flows to the Future Project, led by RSPB Scotland. RSPB Forsinard Flows is a National Nature Reserve that sits at the centre of this project, in the heart of Flow Country, an area within the Caithness and Sutherland peatlands characterised by deep peat interspersed with bog pools. This unique landscape covers an area of around 200,000 hectares – more than twice the size of Orkney. Flow Country sits within the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe, measuring around 400,000 hectares. This incredible landscape is home to several birds of prey, including merlin, short-eared owl and hen harrier. The vastness of the bogs and sparseness of paths across them have kept this environment relatively undisturbed and wild. This makes the Flow Country a perfect breeding site for hen harriers. The Flow Country is unaffected by intense livestock grazing or burning of heather seen in other areas of moorland. As a result, the deep heather and surrounding forest make for a perfect resting place for female hen harriers and their chicks, providing much needed shelter from the elements. This also has led to increased abundance of small mammals and birds which make a great food source for growing chicks as they prepare to fledge. Unlike their counterparts in southern Scotland and northern England, hen harriers in the Flow Country are relatively unaffected by illegal killing – many of the hen harriers tagged further south have disappeared mysteriously over moorland managed for driven grouse shooting. Young people living on the edges of the Flow Country have the unique opportunity of regular hen harrier sightings in the summer as the males elegantly dance across the skies and complete food passes to their mates. Hilary Wilson, Learning Officer at Forsinard Flows, will be using resources developed through the Skydancer and Hen Harrier LIFE projects to teach school children about the importance of this habitat for hen harriers. Through a combination of workshops, assemblies and field trips, pupils will learn about peatland plants, food chains and the importance of balance within ecosystems. Lucky enough to live in an area with 14 hen harrier breeding pairs, these young people will understand the role these birds of prey play within the Flow Country ecosystem and the need for their protection. Sources: www.theflowcountry.org.uk http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/pdf/jncc441.pdf http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/flowcountry_tcm9-286460.pdf Images: Hilary Wilson

Blog Post: The Hen Harrier Hotline is open!

As spring arrives we’re asking you to keep your eyes to the skies and you may even spot some skydancing! Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas tells us how you can help us to protect hen harriers. For anyone new to the blog, hen harriers are a bird of prey that breed in the uplands, principally on hills with heather moorland. They are the UK’s most threatened bird of prey and on the brink of extinction as breeding bird in England, with just 9 successful nests in the whole of England in 2018 despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 pairs. So, the population size is a very long way from where it should be for a healthy, self-sustaining population. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that the main reason for the decline of our hen harriers is illegal killing by criminals in areas associated with intensive management of moorlands for grouse shooting. Just two weeks ago, the English government contributed to published research that found hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or disappear in areas of grouse moor, relative to areas with no grouse moor. This paper also found that 72% of their tagged birds were either definitely, or very likely to have been, illegally killed on grouse moors. Here at the RSPB, the staff working on our Hen Harrier LIFE project carry out direct conservation action on the ground to protect and monitor nests. We work alongside local raptor workers, including those that are part of the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG). To be able to protect the birds we need to know where they are and that’s why we’re asking for your help. As the weather is slowly warming up, the birds are becoming more visible as they start long journeys moving away from their winter roosting grounds and towards their summer breeding grounds. They will be moving into areas of heather moorlands in places like the North Pennines and the Forest of Bowland. Hen harrier are birds of prey with strong talons and a curved beak. They are a medium-sized bird of prey, smaller than an eagle and similar in size to a buzzard. Female hen harriers have brown and white feathers that camouflage them when they nest on the ground amongst the heather. They have horizontal stripes on their tails and a patch of white just above it. Males are slightly smaller and ash grey with black wing tips. Both have a round, owl-like face and a wingspan of just under a metre. A female hen harrier with mottled brown feathers and a barred tail (photo by Steve Knell, RSPB-IMAGES) In the spring, the male hen harrier performs a spectacular courtship display to attract a female, known as skydancing. The bird sweeps and somersaults, climbing high in the air before plunging to the ground and then pulling up just before he hits it! He twists and turns, all to impress the female and it should be a common sight on our hills and moorland in the spring. A grey male hen harrier (photo by Andy Hay, RSPB-IMAGES) If anyone spots a hen harrier, skydancing or otherwise, please make a note of the date, time and location with a 6-figure grid reference if possible. A description of what the bird was doing is also helpful. Sightings can be reported to henharriers@rspb.org.uk or you can call us on 0845 460 0121. Please help us to keep these birds safe this summer.