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.
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