We ask Mark Constantine OBE, a keen birder and co-founder of cosmetics company Lush, why he’s so passionate about Montagu’s harriers.
The co-founder of beauty brand Lush discusses his passion for Montagu’s harriers
Why the Montagu’s harrier?
In the early 1990s, there were 15 pairs breeding in Britain. Five years ago, there were five. Now there’s only one pair, making this graceful raptor one of the rarest of all British breeding birds. Habitat loss is often blamed for the decline but, through research using satellite-tracking technology, it’s now known that these beautiful birds of prey are ‘disappearing’ on rogue shooting estates in the same way that hen harriers, goshawks, red kites and golden eagles do.
Tell us about your best ‘ Monty’ sighting…
While travelling in Spain with the expert Finnish ornithologist Dick Forsman, we came across a field with no fewer than seven Montagu’s harriers performing the species’ stunning courtship display. I set up my recording equipment, and Dick photographed them. Afterwards, when listening to my recording of a ‘male’ bird, he explained to me that it was actually an older female – as some females age, they adopt male-like plumage and become greyer. There I was, trying to be all scientific with my recordings, and I’m deceived by plumage!
Why are Montagu’s harriers so rare in the UK?
As a breeding bird, they’re right on the edge of their range here – most Montagu’s harriers nest across Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. My wife
Mo and I paid for several individuals to be satellite-tagged as part of a UK research programme, so that their movements could be monitored. The researchers named one of them Mark, and another Mo. Sadly, Mo disappeared on a shooting estate – probably shot, in the way that many hen harriers are. Killing any bird of prey is illegal in Britain, but Montagu’s harriers look very similar to hen harriers. So, it’s assumed that they are killed by accident by some gamekeepers.
There I was, trying to be all scientific with recordings, and I’m deceived by plumage!
Will raptor persecution ever end?
Yes. Many landowners are now far more forward thinking, as they see bird numbers collapsing. Today’s more thoughtful landowners quite rightly understand that they don’t own the life of everything that passes over their land. Rewilding and ‘re-birding’ are landscape-scale conservation concepts that are fast gaining respect.
You’ve amassed one of the largest archives of birdsong and calls. Tell us more.
Visually, bird identification has come along in leaps and bounds – but that’s not been the case with sound. Modern visual bird ID often separates male from female, young from old. Books like the Collins Bird Guide explain in detail who is what and what is who. When it comes to sounds, however, a bird is assumed to have one song, one call. I wanted to collect the full variety of vocalisations and make it available so that people could enjoy it all.
Which birdsong do you particularly like?
Blackbird. It’s infinitely variable, and the bird will even sing it through your bedroom window on a spring morning – the perfect way to start the day. MARK CONSTANTINE is an entrepreneur who co-founded The Sound Approach – a major collection of birdsong: soundapproach.co.uk