Up­land jew­els

The much-per­se­cuted Hen Har­rier is a bird to be cel­e­brated and en­joyed – and we all need to do our bit to help pro­tect this won­der­ful species, says

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Ruth Miller

Ruth Miller on the plight of our lovely Hen Har­rier

Have you ever seen a Hen Har­rier? It’s a very spe­cial bird and your life is im­me­di­ately im­proved when you see one. The fe­male is larger, rich brown above and streaky-buff below, with a white rump vis­i­ble when she flies, and a striped tail, lead­ing to the name ‘ring­tail’ (like a Ring-tailed Le­mur). She’s cam­ou­flaged for in­cu­bat­ing eggs and rear­ing chicks in their nest hid­den on the ground among the cover of heather and bracken on their moor­land home. But it’s the male that you re­ally want to see: the ‘ghost bird’. He is a glo­ri­ous, spec­tral pale grey, with a white rump, a white belly and black wingtips, and if you see him quar­ter­ing over the heather in his dis­tinc­tive floaty way, he looks al­most lu­mi­nous against this back­drop. In spring, he comes into his own as he per­forms his mag­i­cal ‘sky­dance’ to pro­claim his ter­ri­tory and at­tract a mate, ris­ing high in the sky be­fore plum­met­ing down to the ground like a stone, al­most as though he has been shot out of the sky. At the last minute, he pulls up sharply and beat­ing his wings hard, he climbs up to do it again, and again, and again. The more he can fling him­self around in the sky in this im­pres­sive man­ner, the bet­ter prospect he is as a mate. It’s a glo­ri­ous sight and one I’ve been lucky enough to see in North Wales sev­eral times, but I’m in the tiny mi­nor­ity of peo­ple in this coun­try who’ve ever wit­nessed this up­lift­ing spec­ta­cle. Hen Har­ri­ers are slightly eas­ier to see in win­ter. That’s when they come to find com­mu­nal roosts in open ar­eas such as ex­pan­sive marshes, a habi­tat they share with other rap­tors such as Pere­grine, Mer­lin and Short-eared Owl. If you’d like to try and catch a glimpse of one, go in win­ter to some­where like the Dee Es­tu­ary or the North Nor­folk coast at dusk and scan hard. But it’s when they breed in the up­lands that the Hen Har­ri­ers’ prob­lems re­ally start, as this brings them into di­rect con­flict with hu­mans in a uniquely Bri­tish phe­nom­e­non, ironic for a na­tion of an­i­mal-lovers. There’s no deny­ing it, a Hen Har­rier’s diet does in­clude the Red Grouse also liv­ing in th­ese up­lands. Un­for­tu­nately for the Hen Har­rier, most of the UK’S heather moor­land is owned by a wealthy mi­nor­ity who en­joy grouse shoot­ing here, par­tic­u­larly driven grouse shoot­ing. This in­volves mas­sive num­bers of Red Grouse be­ing driven for­wards by a con­sid­er­able num­ber of peo­ple on foot known as ‘beaters’, to­wards a small num­ber of peo­ple known as ‘guns’, wait­ing in shel­ters, called butts, to shoot the birds. For fun, or sport as they pre­fer to call it. At the end of the day, a few birds are eaten but the ma­jor­ity are sim­ply dis­posed of. What a waste! How­ever, the num­ber of grouse shot is a mea­sure of suc­cess for the es­tate, so th­ese heather moors are pop­u­lated by a huge head-count of Red Grouse ahead of the shoot­ing sea­son. This ar­ti­fi­cially high pop­u­la­tion can only be sus­tained through ac­tive land man­age­ment specif­i­cally to achieve this. This in­cludes erad­i­cat­ing most po­ten­tial preda­tors of Red Grouse, at­tracted by such a bounty of food. It’s remarkable how Hen Har­ri­ers keep dis­ap­pear­ing over grouse moors, com­pared to else­where in the coun­try. Our up­lands should sup­port a healthy Hen Har­rier pop­u­la­tion, some 300 pairs in Eng­land alone, but in re­cent years fewer than 10 pairs have bred. This year we cel­e­brate the news that nine Hen Har­rier chicks fledged suc­cess­fully in the rap­tor-per­se­cu­tion hotspot of the For­est of Bow­land Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty (AONB). Th­ese pre­cious birds were on land owned by United Util­i­ties and given round-the-clock pro­tec­tion by the RSPB. How­ever, no chicks fledged in the sur­round­ing area, which was just as suit­able for Hen Har­ri­ers but ac­tively

man­aged for grouse shoot­ing. You can draw your own con­clu­sions. Life for a young Hen Har­rier is even more per­ilous once they leave the nest and start to wan­der to find their own ter­ri­to­ries. Satel­lite-tag­ging in­di­vid­u­als al­lows us to mon­i­tor where they go, but doesn’t of­fer any pro­tec­tion as an alarm­ing num­ber of satel­lite-tagged birds are ‘dis­ap­peared’. Au­tumn, also known as the shoot­ing sea­son, is a dan­ger­ous time to be a Hen Har­rier. Killing any species of rap­tor is against the law, and has been for more than 60 years, but some­how Hen Har­rier per­se­cu­tion slips through the net time and again de­spite hard ev­i­dence to prove the case. In fact, we have fewer Hen Har­ri­ers in Eng­land now than we did 60 years ago. Now, if a thief was caught steal­ing your jew­ellery, you’d ex­pect the law to be up­held and the thief to be pun­ished, ac­cord­ingly. How­ever, the jew­els of our up­lands are be­ing stolen ev­ery breed­ing sea­son and the law seems to turn a blind eye. But now some peo­ple are mak­ing them­selves heard in the fight against this il­le­gal per­se­cu­tion, and I’m proud to be one of them. We’re not ‘eco-zealots’, as the shoot­ing fra­ter­nity like to call us, we’re sim­ply bird­watch­ers who are ask­ing for the law to be up­held and il­le­gal rap­tor per­se­cu­tion to stop. And our num­bers are grow­ing. From the first Hen Har­rier Day in 2014, or­gan­ised by Bird­ers Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) when a hardy group of 570 peo­ple gath­ered in tor­ren­tial rain in the Der­went Val­ley to take the first stand, the ini­tia­tive has grown with an­nual Hen Har­rier Day events across the coun­try. We love our na­tive wildlife and we hate wildlife crime. We sim­ply want the law of the land to be up­held. What started as a rum­ble is grow­ing to a roar which will con­tinue un­til we win this bat­tle, un­til the sight of Hen Har­ri­ers sky­danc­ing over ev­ery moor be­comes an an­nual part of ev­ery­one’s bird­watch­ing cal­en­dar.

Male Hen Har­rier

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