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
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