Category: RSPB Hen Harrier Project

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

Comment on Four hen harrier nests in Bowland.

I hope that the RSPB will ensure that tags are fitted if at all possible to the chicks. This will provide both excellent scientific data as well as confirm the continued health (or not) of the 2019 cohort. I wish to applaud all those monitoring the nests.I’m sure that we will hear of the RSPB results. I assume that the brood meddled Hen Harrier data will not be used for the same purpose.

Comment on Four hen harrier nests in Bowland.

I hope that the RSPB will ensure that tags are fitted if at all possible to the chicks. This will provide both excellent scientific data as well as confirm the continued health (or not) of the 2019 cohort. I wish to applaud all those monitoring the nests.I’m sure that we will hear of the RSPB results. I assume that the brood meddled Hen Harrier data will not be used for the same purpose.

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.

Blog Post: Hen harrier ‘River’ disappears in suspicious circumstances

Yet another of 2018’s hen harrier chicks has disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Today the RSPB issued the following press release: River, who hatched from a nest in Bowland in 2018 The police and the RSPB are investigating the sudden disappearance of yet another satellite tagged hen harrier in North Yorkshire, the county with the worst reputation for bird of prey persecution. The bird, named River, was one of several hen harrier chicks in England fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project last summer (2018). These lightweight tags allow the RSPB to monitor the birds after they fledge. Her tag’s last known transmission came from a driven grouse moor between Colsterdale and Nidderdale – an area with a history of bird of prey persecution – on 14 November. She was known to have been hunting and roosting in the area for several weeks. RSPB Investigations staff and North Yorkshire Police searched the area, but there was no sign of the bird or the tag. She has not been heard from since. All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. North Yorkshire Police investigated the disappearance, but no information has been forthcoming. Hen harriers are rare birds which nest in moorland, especially in the uplands of Northern England and Scotland. However just nine nests were recorded in England last year, despite enough prey and habitat to support over 300 pairs. They have not successfully bred in North Yorkshire since 2007. Over 30 hen harriers were tagged last summer in the UK. Between August and November 2018, nine of these, including a 10 th bird tagged in 2017, disappeared at different locations in the UK. Police and RSPB officers search for River Mark Thomas, Head of RSPB Investigations UK, said: “Again we have news of a disappeared harrier, again in North Yorkshire, and again last known to be on a grouse moor. Hen harriers are barely clinging on as a breeding species in England. They should be a common and joyful sight over the moorlands of North Yorkshire, however the reality is most people only know them as being rare and persecuted. “The idea that this bird may have been deliberately targeted is incredibly worrying, especially in the context of eight others which have vanished in similar circumstances. When a tagged hen harrier dies naturally, we expect the tag to continue transmitting, enabling us to find the body. This was not the case here. Instead, there was no trace of the tag or the bird, which is highly suspicious. When hen harriers disappear like this over an area with a history of raptor persecution, it’s hard not to draw conclusions.” The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. In 2012, hen harrier ‘Bowland Betty’ was found shot at nearby Colsterdale. A reward was offered but no culprit was identified. If you have any information relating to this incident, call North Yorkshire Police on 101. If you know about raptor persecution occurring in your area and wish to speak out in confidence, call the confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101. If you find a wild bird of prey which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/wildbirdslaw/reportform.aspx

Comment on What is the RSPB doing to protect hen harriers?

I think that it is essential the The RSPB keeps up it’s work in this area. Clearly, at present, it is not showing huge results, which must be hugely disappointing to those investigators and volunteers who have put so much effort into this. I live in Scotland, where the work of government is being frustrated by the actions of Crown Counsel, whose decisions directly impact on the ability of the RSPB investigators to work effectively. Let us hope for better results in 2019. The number of ‘good’ estates prepared to work with the RSPB are to be congratulated on their opposition to the actions of other ‘not so good’ estates. I look forward to future blogs, and wish they had greater coverage and advertisement as to their existence among members.

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.