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.
Images: Hilary Wilson
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