Tremaine Bilham, Hen Harrier Life Project Community Engagement Officer, shares the experience of her first hen harrier sighting and tells us about the places we’re most likely to see hen harriers in Scotland.
Taking shelter from the blustery Orkney weather, I paced around a bird hide with a school group trying to keep warm. As I tried to impress upon them how lucky they were to have regular sightings of hen harriers compared to people in southern and eastern Scotland, the learning officer who was shadowing me spotted a hen harrier flying low over the peatland landscape. Not wanting to interrupt me mid-spiel, she kept this to herself until end of the school session. This would have been the first hen harrier I had ever seen so you can imagine my disappointment at this missed opportunity.
As I prepared to say goodbye to Orkney and return to Edinburgh, I thought “How did I made it to Orkney, and still not managed to see a hen harrier?!.” I have never been happier to be proven wrong. The very same day, on the drive to the ferry terminal, a female hen harrier flew across my path before disappearing into the heather to my left. Her broad wings splayed in the classic shallow V shape, she seemed to glide just overhead in slow motion. I was awestruck.
Sightings like this are frequent for Orcadians. Lindsey Taylor, Orkney Community Learning Officer describes seeing black wing tips sweeping across her garden meadow into the moor behind it as she looks out of her kitchen window, cup of tea in hand.
An abundance of small mammals and birds of prey and minimally grazed heather peatland for shelter allow hen harrier populations to thrive on these islands. In fact, while the rest of the UK’s breeding hen harrier population saw declines of around 9% between 2010 and 2016, Orkney’s hen harrier population saw an increase. Despite being one of the most threatened birds of prey in the country, hen harriers still have a small handful of places where threats such as illegal killing and habitat degradation are less prevalent. Below are two such locations where you might be lucky enough to see one these beautiful birds of prey.
Whether you come for the whisky or the wildlife, a visit to Islay is certainly one for your bucket list. RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve is a key habitat for breeding hen harrier because of the extensive heather moorland within the reserve, which provides the perfect breeding ground for these majestic skydancers. The edges of the ancient woodland provide a home for small mammals such as field voles, favoured prey of our hen harriers. The reserve’s Moorland trail begins in the Hide car park and climbs up through woodland before opening out into moorland hills where hen harrier can be seen on the hunt.
A refuge for threatened species, Arran is home to some of our rarest birds of prey. Hen harriers can be seen flying over vast areas of blanket bog and hunting in upland grassland. Heather moorland provides a cosy nesting area for females to raise chicks. Consisting of multiple twists and tumbles, the male’s unique sky dance and food pass behaviour is a sight to behold in the spring.
There are numerous locations across Scotland with suitable habitat and prey abundance to sustain hen harriers. Yet there are only 460 pairs in Scotland, largely concentrated around Orkney and the Western Isles. One key feature that hen harrier strongholds like Orkney, Islay and Arran have in common is the absence of grouse moors. With the recent Nature Communications publication confirming the link between driven grouse shooting and the illegal killing of hen harriers, it isn’t difficult to see why Orkney and the Western Isles have become safe havens for these amazing birds. It is an incredible privilege to be able to visit these places to see hen harriers, but it shouldn’t have to be. With sustainable management of grouse moors, birders in eastern Scotland and the Borders could also have the opportunity of seeing this iconic upland species on their moors in the future.
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