The success stories of birds of prey such as the Red Kite or White-tailed Eagle may make you think that the days of persecution and population struggles have gone. But you would be wrong, for there is a bird, the Hen Harrier, whose current situation casts a shadow of dismay and frustration over the conservation community.
The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) is a bird of prey which dwells on the open heather clad uplands of the UK during the summer, moving to lowland areas in the winter. Their predominant food sources are small birds and mammals such as Meadow Pipit and Vole but gamebirds such as Red Grouse will also be eaten. This is where the problem begins.
Hen Harrier populations and breeding success are affected by factors such as vole populations and weather, but the undeniable factor that is preventing the successful comeback of the English population is that of persecution. During the 19th century, the species was restricted to the outskirts of the UK in places like the Hebrides and Orkney, this was thought to be due to changes in agricultural practice as well as persecution.
After the Second World War the species made a comeback and they were once again seen gliding low over the mountain sides. During the 1960’s the uplands of Northern England were recolonised and recovery was predicted, but his did not happen. In the UK breeding pairs are restricted to uplands where they nest on the ground and use heather as cover. This means that they live in an area that is intensively managed so that Red Grouse populations are high enough to be shot by those who enjoy the sport. Although the Hen Harrier population is dismally small, they are often blamed for the decline of Red Grouse numbers.
This conflict has resulted in brutal persecution. In 2012, Bowland Betty was found shot dead on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales. In 2014, Sky, Hope and Burt all disappeared and their satellite tags stopped transmitting. In 2015 an individual named Lad was found dead with injuries ‘consistent with shooting’ in the Cairngorms of Scotland. A female named Holly disappeared in central Scotland in 2015. In 2016, Highlander and Chance disappeared and they satellite tags have stopped transmitting. The use of pole traps and Hen Harrier decoys have also been discovered in the Peak District. This year there has only been three breeding attempts in England and none of them are on moors that are used for driven grouse shoots, despite these being extremely suitable habitat for them.
On Saturday the 6th of August I went to the Hen Harrier day at RSPB Rainham Marsh in Essex. This gathering of people passionate about our Hen Harrier has truly inspired me to try my best to contribute to its conservation and that of other birds of prey in the UK. After listening to talks from the RSPB CEO Mike Clarke and the well-known naturalist Chris Packham, I managed to weave my way through the crowds of people carrying ‘We want our Hen Harriers back’ banners and got to speak to Chris. I asked him what he thought young people could do to help Hen Harrier in the UK, this was his reply:
“If you are old enough then sign the petition to ban driven grouse shooting. If not old enough then help by raising awareness and spreading the word.
When I was younger Hen Harriers were a common sight, I would often see them wintering in areas where I lived down South. In other countries they aren’t isolated to breeding on uplands as they are in this country- they’ve been pushed there by people.
You know what one of my most hated words is? Tradition. Because what is tradition and just because something is a tradition does that mean that it should carry on without question? Driven Grouse shooting has only been going on a hundred years or so, so should it be called a tradition? Slavery and homophobia were once a tradition but thankfully both of those are illegal and have greatly decreased. Where we are now in Essex, burning people for witchcraft was once a tradition, but that’s been left in the past. We’ve got to move with the times and look at the evidence of the damage that is being done.
It deeply saddens me that young people may never see a Hen Harrier. This campaign is not just about one bird, the Hen harrier is also a flagship bird, it is a symbol that we cannot carry on mistreating other living things, whether it’s killing birds of prey or being racist and homophobic, especially when there is widespread support for it to end. This is a lot bigger than protecting one species, it is also about creating a world where we respect all living things and are considerate of their needs, so that we can live alongside them and lead a more fulfilling existence because of it.”
Me speaking with Chris Packham
The crowd at Rainham was united in its condemnation of the loss of our hen harriers, Chris and others are calling for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/125003 which I've signed and hope others do too. The RSPB is now campaigning for licensing which would ban bad practice especially when hen harriers or other birds of prey are missing.
Unfortunately I have never seen one these iconic birds. I have never seen the males pale blue silhouette (hence its Latin name Circus cyaneus- meaning blue) flying above our mountainsides. I have never seen its enchanting skydance, or its owl like face scanning the earth for a morsel to eat. I am often told by people older than myself about the good old days when the Hen harrier was a common sight. These days will not come again unless something changes. With hope and determination, change will come, and one day I and the readers of this blog may also be able to say that the Hen Harrier is a common sight.
Ben Rees, Phoenix Forum
Great post. I hope you will one day see one of these stunning birds - not just occasionally but regularly.
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