Hen harriers, hope and heartbreak – three things that go hand in hand each year. The simultaneous sense of nervous excitement and intense trepidation kills me every breeding season, and suffice it to say, the emotional rollercoaster that is 2014 has been no different.

At one point this year, we had three skydancing males in three different locations in Northern England, performing their little hearts out to empty skies without a female in sight. It got so desperate that they were skydancing at pretty much anything that moved and even took to building cock’s nests and bringing in food to feed imaginary chicks. How could anyone watch that and not have their heart break for the lack of hen harriers in England to provide them with mates?

I’m not going to lie, I was half tempted to drive up to North Scotland, shove a few females in the back of the van and set up my own hen harrier speed-dating service!

Though two of these particular males were ultimately unlucky in love, the good news that I’m delighted now to be able to share with you is that we currently have three hen harrier nests in England this year, two of which are on the United Utilities Estate in the Forest of Bowland.

Hen harrier chicks in the nest. (c) Pete Wilson, Forest of Bowland, 2007

It all started back in April when I got a call from Jude Lane, our Bowland Project Officer, to say that a young male harrier (still so young in fact that he was almost completely brown) had been seen skydancing over the Bowland fells. An adult female was in the area and despite some initial interaction, his over-eagerness seemed to irritate rather than entice her. Fortunately, youth and enthusiasm must have trumped age and experience because by May, she was sitting on a bumper clutch of eggs.

Any worries we might have had about our young male’s ability to provide for his family were soon swept aside as, aided by a bumper vole year, he’s proved an incredibly efficient provider.  Then last week, our female’s behaviour changed and instead of taking his gifts of food some distance away to be eaten, she started bringing them straight back into the nest – a strong sign that she suddenly had hungry mouths to feed!

First thing this morning, our staff undertook a licensed nest visit to check on the size of our harrier family and carefully pushing back the heather revealed five little faces staring back at them. Our second Bowland nest, to an older and seemingly more experienced pair, appeared much later and is still only just at the egg stage. With such a late nest, there is always a worry that the eggs could be infertile (as happened last year), especially if the female was moved on from a previous nest, but we’re keeping all fingers and toes crossed that it turns out alright. Keep watching this space for more info and updates in the near future.

The return of hen harriers to the Forest of Bowland – an area which has the hen harrier as its logo, no less – after a two-year absence is something to be celebrated. But not ones to count our hen harriers before they’re hatched – or better yet, fledged – we are doing absolutely everything in our power to make sure those nests have every possible chance of success.

Dedicated nest protection staff and volunteers man the hen harrier hide and watch-point in the Forest of Bowland, around the clock. (c) Steve Ormerod, 2014

Both nests are being guarded by a 24/7 watch of RSPB staff and volunteers, and remote cameras, supported by Natural England, United Utilities, the Forest of Bowland AONB, and Ribble Valley Borough Council, and with full cooperation from UU’s shooting and farming tenants.  This monitoring is overt in the sense of deterring any potential human interference while being carefully and sensitively undertaken from a safe distance, strictly adhering to agreed protocols and guidelines to ensure the birds themselves are not disturbed.

With the help and cooperation of the local shooting tenant and a licence from Natural England, a diversionary feeding post went in next to the first nest last Tuesday and we’ll be keeping a close eye to see how the parent birds take to the day-old poultry chicks on offer.  Diversionary feeding can reduce harrier predation of red grouse by up to 86% and we’ll be taking advantage of the best practice and experience gained from the last seven years of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project to implement this technique in Bowland.

After the disaster that was the 2013 breeding season, in which not a single hen harrier chick was raised in England for the first time since the 1960’s, the potential success of not one, but three nests, feels to me like blessed drops of rain after a harsh drought. But any sense relief must also be tempered by the knowledge that three pairs is only a tentative and slight step back from the brink, when there’s cited potential for over 300.

This is not a ray of sunshine beaming through the dark clouds but it is an important glimmer of hope. Watch this space.

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