In Jersey we are rightly excited by the colonisation and spread of marsh harriers. First breeding on the Island in 2002 they have become a well-loved and much photographed member of our bird fauna. Marsh harrier numbers have increased right across the UK while, sadly, and totally unrelated to their relative’s success, the smaller hen harrier has undergone alarming declines.
Hen harriers have never been very common in the Channel Islands but small numbers have been seen each year as birds pass through on migration or come to spend the winter here.
The cause of the declines may be obvious. Of all the UK’s birds of prey, the hen harrier is the most intensively persecuted. Once predating free-range fowl, earning its common name, its effect on the number of grouse available to shoot is the cause of modern conflict and threatens its survival in some parts of the UK, particularly on the driven grouse moors of England and Scotland.
The hen harrier lives in open areas with low vegetation. In the breeding season UK birds are to be found on the upland heather moorlands of Wales, Northern England, N Ireland and Scotland (as well as the Isle of Man). In winter they move to lowland farmland, heathland, coastal marshes, fenland and river valleys. Those found in eastern and south-east England are probably mostly visitors from mainland Europe. Birds in the Channel Islands may be from the UK or from Europe.
Once present throughout the UK, hen harriers fell from grace with the rise of driven grouse shooting in the 19th century.
A ground-nesting bird, hen harriers mainly eat small birds and mammals like meadow pipits and field voles, though they will occasionally take red grouse chicks. This made them unpopular with Victorian gamekeepers and estate managers, who were keen to get rid of any predators that might reduce the number of grouse available for shooting.
The resulting persecution, coupled with lowland habitat loss, drove breeding hen harriers to extinction on mainland Britain by 1900.
Recolonisation and return to the brink
Land-use changes following World War II and new wildlife protection laws helped hen harriers to naturally re-colonise England by 1958, but they now face an uncertain future yet again. A 2011 UK Government-commissioned report, the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework (download here), shows that although there is enough suitable habitat for over 320 breeding pairs in England, ongoing illegal killing and disturbance continue to keep hen harrier numbers perilously low.
The situation is so critical that in 2011, there were only four successful breeding attempts in the whole of England, all on a single estate in the Forest of Bowland owned by the water company, United Utilities and co-managed by the RSPB.
It is time to redress the balance and save the hen harrier in the UK.
Hen harriers are graceful birds, best known for their aerobatic spring courtship displays, known as ‘skydancing’, and the spectacular passing of food from males to females while in flight.
Skydancer is a four-year RSPB project – running from October 2011 to October 2015 – with the aim of protecting and promoting the conservation of hen harriers across their remaining breeding stronghold in northern England. Visit the project’s website here and follow them on Twitter at @RSPB_Skydancer
Throughout this project the RSPB will be working hard to:
•safeguard hen harriers and their habitat with nest protection schemes
•continue to work closely with landowners, managers and game organisations to find solutions to conflict, so that hen harriers and grouse moors can thrive alongside one another
•Work with local communities to educate and enthuse them about hen harriers.
The concept of Hen Harrier Day was inspired last year by Alan Tilmouth basically for conservationists to take back the so-called ‘Glorious 12th’ (the opening of the grouse- shooting season) and celebrate this beautiful bird that has virtually been ‘cleansed’ from the grouse moors of northern England (and most grouse moors in Scotland, too).
Last year, Hen Harrier Day was celebrated by hundreds of people using the #HenHarrier hash tag on Twitter and other social media. This year, the campaign is going to be even more visible with a series of planned public protests in the northern uplands.
The newly-formed campaign group Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC – of whom Alan Tilmouth is a founding member) has joined forces with Mark Avery to organise four legal, peaceful and media-friendly public protests in four counties where grouse-shooting is a dominant force: Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland (see news here).
The date for the protests has been set as Sunday 10th August 2014. This date was chosen in preference to the inglorious 12th (which falls on a Tues this year) to enable more people to attend.
According to Mark Avery, so far over 200 people have emailed to say they’d like to be involved. This is a fantastic opportunity to make a lot of noise about a subject that has received relatively little media attention in relation to the severity of the situation.
Enough is enough – it’s time to fight back.
For further information, check out the Hen Harrier Day campaign on the BAWC website here