RSPB images

It was a gloomy day in November and I was running a tedious errand that took me towards the Norfolk coast. Driving along, I wondered if I would see any pink-footed geese munching on the harvested sugar beet tops. ‘That would brighten my journey’, I thought to myself, ‘otherwise I really will have to eat the whole of that family sized chocolate bar calling my name from the passenger seat’.

I pulled over to scan the field next to me and, on seeing no geese, was about to give up and eat the chocolate when, whoosh, a hen harrier glided serenely past, just metres from my car. My spirits rose at that miraculous combination of effortless grace and masterful presence possessed only by birds of prey. Soft, pale and grey in colour, it was almost invisible against the misty backdrop of dusk. It dropped low, searching for mice or voles, and then vanished from sight into long grass.

As I drove on, the euphoria of my unexpected sighting began to fall away as I recalled the details of a report I’d read only the day before. It warned that this stunning creature could soon be extinct as a breeding bird in England.

Last year, only seven pairs of hen harriers nested successfully in England. Indeed, for our fair county, baby hen harriers are not even a distant memory – they haven’t hatched in Norfolk for 150 years. The bird that uplifted my grey journey was a winter visitor from Europe. He’ll be gone again by April.

I like to think I’m a positive kind of person, always seeing the best in a situation, but on that drive, the hen harrier glided through my mind like a sad messenger of human error. The facts are stark; it is quite simply because of persecution that these birds are struggling. Even with the full protection of the law, the killing of hen harriers remains devastatingly common.

In February this year, the RSPB delivered a 210,000-strong petition to the former Wildlife Minister, calling for the greater protection of birds of prey. Public support is there, the law is there; why is it that a tiny misguided minority can get away with destroying something that is so beautiful and such a part of our nation’s heritage?

We may occasionally turn to the chocolate, but here at the RSPB, we certainly don’t give up without a fight. Right now, we are asking the Coalition Government to confirm that the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit is secure and we’re challenging them to provide the leadership and enforcement necessary to turn this situation around.

Meanwhile, let’s brave the gloom to savour our winter visitors and our resident birds of prey, such as the magnificent marsh harrier or the soaring buzzard, and hope that 2011 brings a happier year for them.