Blog Post: A new season & hopes for the class of 2017

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It’s that time of year... hope and trepidation playing on my mind in equal measure. The breeding season just beginning, and with it, all the excitement and uncertainty of what lies ahead for our hen harriers. Often it feels as though little has changed from year to year, but our recent adventures in satellite tagging have given my reflections this year a new focus. For months now, our remaining satellite tagged birds have been sticking tightly to their chosen wintering grounds – Aalin in Shropshire, DeeCee in the Cairngorms, Finn in Ayrshire, Harriet in the Lake District, and Wendy on Mull. Who knows, perhaps that immobility has been the secret of their success? Being young and immature, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that any of our young harriers will attempt to breed this year. But experience shows that won’t stop them seeking out and exploring potential breeding sites. It goes without saying we’ll be monitoring their every move, watching closely, and waiting... For my part, I’m simply grateful that they’ve managed to make it this far. Five hen harriers remaining out of 12 – I’m not going to lie, it’s been a rough six months... August 2016 - young Banffshire male, Elwood, the first of our hen harriers to be tagged last year disappeared in the Monadhliaths in August when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting – the same area that had recently become notorious for the disappearances of a number of satellite tracked golden eagles. Hearteningly, Elwood’s disappearance prompted the Scottish Minister for the Environment to include hen harriers in the Scottish Government’s review of satellite tracking data, alongside golden eagles and red kites. Young hen harrier, Elwood, shortly after having his satellite tag fitted. Image credit: Adam Fraser September 2016 - Brian, a young male from Perthshire, disappeared in the Cairngorms in when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting. His body was never found. October 2016 - Hermione, a young female from a late nest on the Isle of Mull, was sadly found dead of natural causes not far from her natal site. Her remains and satellite tag were both recovered. October 2016 – easily the most adventurous of all our harriers last year, Donald died of unknown causes in northern France after travelling there from West Argyll via the Isle of Man and Wales. It was not possible to recover his body. October 2016 – an adult female hen harrier is spotted at roost with a non-functioning tag and process of elimination suggests this could be 2014 Bowland bird, Highlander . November 2016 - Beater, another young male, who fledged from Wildlands Estate in the Cairngorms, disappeared in the central Scottish Borders and is thought to have died of unknown causes. His body hasn’t been found. Geltsdale hen harrier, Bonny, having his satellite tag fitted.   Image credit: Mark Thomas December 2016 – Bonny, our most famous hen harrier, who fledged from our Geltsdale reserve, had his name chosen by Chris Packham from a LUSH cosmetics competition, and featured on BBC’s Autumnwatch and Six News, disappeared and is thought to have died of unknown causes on moorland to the east of Geltsdale in December 2016. His body hasn’t been found. January 2017 – the body of young female, Carroll, named after raptor worker Mick Carroll, was reported to the police by a Northumberland estate after being found dead of a natural causes (full post-mortem report awaited). Both body and tag were recovered and it was later discovered that she had survived being shot at a young age. Radiograph of hen harrier, Carroll, showing two pieces of lead shot lodged in her knee and head. Image credit: Zoological Society of London Add to that list the outcome of Natural England’s 2016 hen harriers – the confirmed shooting of Rowan in Cumbria, and the unexplained disappearances of Tarras in the Peak District and Mick in the Yorkshire Dales, (the remaining two, John and Sorrell, are still alive) and it becomes increasingly difficult not to despair. The confirmed shootings of Rowan and Carroll, in 2016, add to the shooting of Lad , in September 2015, and Annie in April 2015, to make four hen harriers confirmed shot in separate incidents (two in England, two in Scotland), in less than two years, with zero prosecutions or hope of prosecution. The illegal killing of our protected birds of prey is not a conspiracy theory, nor a cynical attempt to blacken the name of a certain group of people. It is a documented fact. Hen harrier, Lad, found shot dead in the Cairngorms National Park in 2015. Image credit: RSPB And it is thanks to satellite tagging that we are able to document this fact and shine a light on what is happening to our hen harriers. As the possible rediscovery of Highlander shows, satellite tagging is not a perfect technology (I challenge you to name one that is) but for those wishing to discredit it, I suggest you read this excellent blog by my colleague and experienced satellite tagger, Duncan Orr-Ewing. From natural deaths, to incredible journeys, breeding successes and failures, suspicious disappearances, and illegal killings, satellite tagging is helping us to build a picture of our hen harrier population, which otherwise would remain hidden from view. And the more tags we fit, the more rounded that picture will become. When we started the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, we anticipated fitting around 6 tags per year to hen harriers in England and Scotland – 24 or so in total. In the first year of the project, that is what we did. What we couldn’t have predicted, however, was the subsequent groundswell of public support for this sort of work and thanks to the generosity of LUSH cosmetics and their customers through sales of the Skydancer bathbomb, we were able to double the number of tags fitted last year to 12, and plan to more than double this again for 2017. I titled this blog “A new season and hope for the class of 2017” and I meant it. In the face of everything, I am hopeful for 2017. I am hopeful for every year that passes but I am especially hopeful, this year, for the stories that I know are lying in wait for so many satellite tagged hen harriers to reveal to us. So here's to the breeding season - we're ready for all that it may bring.  --- In the meantime, what can you do?  Last chance to join this Thunderclap started by Findlay Wilde ( @WildeAboutBirds) , before 11am today and add your voice to thousands on social media calling for an end to hen harrier persecution. You can also join Fin's campaign by including the hashtag #henharriers in all your tweets today. What better way to mark the start of the hen harrier breeding season than to get #henharriers trending on Twitter?  If you see a hen harrier in England , phone our Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email henharriers@rspb.org.uk. Details of the date, time, location (six-figure grid reference if possible), and activity of the bird (eg flying, hunting, skydancing) could help us pinpoint an early breeding attempt.  If you see a hen harrier in Scotland , phone the Partnership Against Wildlife crime (PAW) Scotland's   Heads Up for Harriers hotline on 07767 671973 (calls charged at standard network rates) or email henharrier@snh.gov.uk. 

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Hotline relaunched

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  As spring has now almost sprung, we’ve relaunched our Hen Harrier Hotline with the hope of finding out where these seriously threatened birds of prey might be breeding in England’s moorland.   If you are out hiking or cycling in the hills, please keep an eye out for one. If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please get in touch.    The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate) .  Reports can also be e-mailed to henharriers@rspb.org.uk.  Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.   Many of you will be able to spot a hen harrier half a mile away in poor weather conditions. But for those of you who are less familiar with the bird of prey, here is a reminder of what they look like.   Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.   Male hen harrier - RSPB Images Female hen harriers are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.   Female hen harrier - Dave Dimmock

Blog Post: Making bath bombs with Chris Packham

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Hen Harrier Life Project Community Engagement Officer Aimée Nicholson reports on recent the LUSH summit   Since joining the Hen Harrier Life Project back in October of last year, I have spent many a happy day telling people about the wonderful birds we are working so hard to protect. Last Thursday was no different but there was a slight twist to this event; this time it was live streamed across the internet for the world to see. The event I attended was the LUSH Summit, a two-day event organised by the ethical cosmetics company, which showcased the causes that they support through the campaigns in their shops. The Hen Harrier Life Project is very lucky to be one of those causes and since 2015 the sales from the Skydancer bath bomb has raised over £100,000 to fund the purchase of satellite tags. Thanks to this support from Lush we are able to tag double the amount of birds this year than we did last year, all due to people buying bath bombs. My day started at 6am as I got on the train to head to the trendy Tobacco Dock in London’s thriving enterprise zone.  I am not usually an early morning person but the excitement of attending this event and talking about hen harriers alongside my colleague Mark Thomas and Chris Packham had me wide awake and prepared for the day. I arrived in London just as is started to snow, battled the rush hour tube (how do people do this?) and made it to the event with half an hour to spare, and time to warm up ready for our rehearsal. We were hosted in the conservation room which was filled with trees, plants and cosy bean bags for people to relax in during the talks. The talks in this room were enough to keep you busy for the day never mind the numerous other rooms which were available to explore.  The LUSH Summit I met with Chris and Mark at rehearsal ready to be briefed about what we were doing that afternoon, the session we were taking part in was done in the LUSH Kitchen style (think Saturday Kitchen with cosmetics) so we were told that we would be talking about hen harriers whilst making the Skydancer bath bomb.  For someone who loves the bath bomb, this sounded great fun. Aimée with Mark Thomas and Chris Packham The summit was just as I had imagined, very LUSH! The place smelled incredible; you could actually smell it on the way to the venue and we were entertained with dancing flowers, ladybirds and unicorns whilst exploring all the new and exclusive products that were scattered throughout the venue. This was the only LUSH Kitchen talk to be live streamed throughout the whole event which highlights the importance of this campaign. We sat awaiting the countdown and looked around at the crowded room of expectant faces and then we were live! The LUSH kitchen format was great fun to take part in; there was time for us to tell people about hen harriers, the problems they face,  the work, which LUSH has done to support the Hen Harrier Life Project, all whilst getting messy making  Skydancer bath bombs. Making hen harrier bath bombs The 40 minutes whizzed by and it all went incredibly well, which what you always hope for as a Community Engagement Officer, and the feedback in the room was that of a very caring audience who hope for the best future for hen harriers. Here’s to hoping that the people in audience, and those watching online, went away and told others about these beautiful Skydancers and what they can do to help. After saying my goodbyes to the team I headed back to Kings Cross, Skydancers in hand, backpack full of goodies and smelling like I had been rolling in essential oils. I felt content that now even more people were aware of the work of the Hen Harrier Life Project, the amazing support we have received from LUSH and hoping for a successful breeding season in 2017.          

Blog Post: Introducing Aimée

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New(ish) RSPB recruit Aimée Nicholson talks about her work as Community Engagement Officer in England for the Hen Harrier Life Project. I have been working for the Hen Harrier Life Project for a little while now so I thought it was about time I introduced myself to you all. My role involves working with communities in and around the Special Protection Areas in England that are designated to have breeding hen harriers living in them. These are the North Pennine Moors and the Forest of Bowland. This work involves school outreach sessions in primary and secondary schools, as well as working with game keeping students, giving community talks and attending country shows in the summer. The role has me travelling around a lot and last week took me across to the University of Cumbria in Ambleside where I was giving a seminar on hen harriers and the uplands. I presented to a group of current students, prospective students, parents and the local University of the Third Age group so there was a large audience of keen listeners. The engagement with the seminar was excellent and there were some very insightful and thoughtful issues raised, as well as a real willingness by a number of the students to get further involved in hen harrier conservation. This is the part of the job that is so rewarding; inspiring young naturalists is so important for the future of conservation. This was our second visit to the University of Cumbria in a number of months and hopefully all the enthusiasm of those I spoke to is currently spreading its way across the Lake District. If you live in and around the hen harrier Special Protection Areas and are interested in booking a community talk, school outreach session, lecture, seminar or workshop please get in touch by emailing me at aimee.nicholson@rspb.org.uk .  

Comment on Chilling out on winter roost watch duty in Bowland

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There may be little or no nesting Hen Harriers or Peregrines in Bowland any more but I don't suppose that will bother the senior people in Natural England, DEFRA or the moor owners in the area, as it is all part of the masterplan for conserving Hen Harriers by removing them from the North. It is just a pity that NE have not told the Hen Harriers of the plan, because they will keep coming from the rest of the country to the Bowland killing fields. I trust the RSPB will keep satellite tagging them in Scotland and England to keep embarrassing the government and the Hawk and Owl Trust.

Blog Post: Chilling out on winter roost watch duty in Bowland

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The RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer James Bray reports on the highs and lows of monitoring hen harrier winter roosts  I’m back home now with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fire and I can reflect on a lovely evening sitting on top of a cold hill somewhere in the Forest of Bowland. In the background Ingleborough (a hill on the west side of the Yorkshire Dales National Park) was snow-capped and glowed beautiful shades of apricot and pink as the sun set, and to top it all off I picked up a lone hen harrier coming in to roost. The Forest of Bowland is probably best known for the healthy population of breeding hen harriers that used to breed here. This importance is recognised by national and international legal protection with the Bowland Fells, designated as a Special Protection Area for 13 pairs of hen harriers. The breeding population has declined dramatically, to the point where only three pairs have bred successfully in the last five years, and this is reflected in the very low numbers of harriers that roost around Bowland in the winter now. There is still plentiful habitat for wintering (and breeding) hen harriers around Bowland. They hunt over rough grassland and moorland for voles and small birds (they can catch birds up to the size of snipe and fieldfare), and in winter spend the night roosting in large dense patches of rushes where they find shelter from the weather and can hide from foxes. However, illegal persecution has driven the population of hen harriers in England to near oblivion and if we are to protect our breeding population we also need to protect the wintering birds locally.  The satellite tagging of hen harriers has revealed that female harriers winter very close to where they were born and breed, so I spend much of the winter months monitoring winter roosts, helped by a very dedicated team of volunteers. Friends who have monitored birds of prey in Bowland for decades tell me stories of watching up to a dozen harriers using a single roost, back when hen harriers were more common in Bowland and the rest of northern England. With the crash in numbers in Bowland our roosts are very quiet now, and I am lucky if I see more than a lone bird. When I arrive at the position where I’m going to watch from I will find a sheltered spot out of the wind and out of sight of inquisitive eyes and will then spend over two hours watching the roost. I find that I quickly get very cold so often and end up wearing close to ten layers in an effort to keep warm. This can make standing up at the end of the roost watch rather challenging but at least it provides lots of opportunity for colleagues to tease me about my soft southern roots. Whatever the temperature it is a magical time of day to be out, as I get the chance to watch the change over between the day shift and the night shift. Shy or nocturnal species are waking up and emerging to forage and daytime species are heading to roost. Distant wisps of smoke turn into huge flocks of starlings flying to roost somewhere to the west of Bowland, and my attention will be drawn by chacking calls to flocks of fieldfares flying in to the rush beds to roost for the night. I sometimes see sika and roe deer emerge from cover, as well as woodcock flying out from woodland onto the pastures to forage overnight. If I’m very lucky the ghostly form of a barn owl will float silently past. As the winter months have passed my thoughts are turning increasingly towards the upcoming breeding season. With hen harriers, peregrines and other large birds of prey still being illegally killed in northern England and southern Scotland, we have our work cut out for us trying to protect these fantastic species from local extinction.

Comment on Carroll – a Northumberland bird to the very end

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I'd like to add my thanks the estate which reported the bird. Clearly there are estates which are prepared to act responsibly. If their voices could be heard in the organisations who represent estates, then perhaps we could start to get somewhere. It is so sad that the 2016 English reared harriers are having such a torrid time, but it makes it harder to conceal the truth.

Blog Post: Carroll – a Northumberland bird to the very end

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RSPB Investigations Officer David Hunt reports on the death of Carroll, another satellite-tagged hen harrier Being tasked with monitoring the whereabouts of the RSPB’s English satellite-tagged hen harriers, you never know what drama might be lurking around the corner. Only in December, I had remarked to a colleague about how settled the English class of 2016 seemed to be in their respective wintering grounds. I clearly spoke too soon. Shortly after came the cessation of data in the North Pennines from Bonny, the RSPB Geltsdale bird now presumed to have died . And now unfortunately, Carroll, one of our young Northumberland females from 2016 has also died. The world of hen harrier conservation does certainly involve some low moments. Carroll was a Northumberland hen harrier through and through. One of two to fledge the nest on land managed by the Forestry Commission, she was named in July 2016 after the much-loved and dearly missed hen harrier champion, Mick Carroll, whom the dedicated raptor community sadly lost in 2015. Aside from a single night jaunt across the border to Scotland in the Cheviots and once down to Hadrian’s Wall country in September, Carroll was firmly at home in the uplands of north Northumberland. Much to everyone’s delight, she was often sighted by raptor workers at a regular roost location in the county, whilst her tag data also unlocked details on previously unknown upland roost spots that she frequented. Having personally witnessed her as a day-old chick in the nest, I followed her journey into the wider world and despite not seeing her, myself and a colleague made the considerable hike to one of her favoured upland roost locations in the Cheviots in September. A wild and at times, inhospitable environment, but one that she was clearly happy to call home temporarily. Carroll in the nest, Northumberland 2016 (Credit: Forestry Commission) Carroll was found dead in a farmer’s field near Alnwick, Northumberland in late January, by a member of an organised pheasant shoot. Encouragingly, the estate contacted the Northumbria Police. Simultaneously, having studied Carroll’s recent satellite tag data, I became increasingly concerned that there may be problem with her and began to make a few frantic phone calls to colleagues. We then received the news that she had indeed been found dead a short while later prompting some even more frantic phone calls. Thankfully, Wildlife Crime Officer PC Paul Sykes swiftly attended on 26 th January to retrieve the body of Carroll with the full assistance and cooperation of the estate. She was then sent to the renowned Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for a post-mortem examination, expertly conducted within 24 hours of the retrieval in the field. This found that Carroll was in very poor condition and was suffering an infectious disease.  More tests are being undertaken. However the story does not end there. The post-mortem examination also detected the presence of two shotgun pellets lodged in Carroll’s body, one in the leg and one in the neck. The pellets were not attributed to any visible injury, indicating that her wounds had healed and against the odds, Carroll had remarkably survived being shot. Radiograph of Carroll showing two pieces of shot (Credit: Zoological Society of London) When and where she was shot at we will never know, but given how well the wounds had healed, it is likely to have been sometime in 2016. The shot in her body makes it clear that within just a few months from  leaving her natal area in Northumberland in August 2016, she had been a victim at the hand of man. This sad news follows that of the satellite tagged harrier Rowan, whose body was recovered in October last year by Natural England in Cumbria. A ZSL post mortem examination confirmed she had been shot, the radiograph showing the fractured left leg. Carroll and Rowan graphically illustrate why the state of hen harriers in our English uplands remains so fragile. Radiograph of Rowan, showing fractured left leg (Credit: Zoological Society of London) In addition to Carroll, we have recently had the potential re-appearance of Highlander and the presumed death of the famed RSPB Geltsdale male, Bonny. So Carroll’s death is yet another twist in the rollercoaster that is England’s hen harriers. Based on the events of recent years, it is impossible to predict how the 2017 breeding season will unfold, but hopefully Northumberland will host more of this regrettably rare, bird of prey. Special thanks must go to Northumbria Police and ZSL for their critical work in the investigation and to the estate and the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership in reporting the discovery of Carroll and aiding the recovery of her body. If you're lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please help us keep track by submit your sightings (description of the bird, time, date, location with grid reference if possible) to our Hen Harrier Hotline on 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email henharriers@rspb.org.uk.  Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife   or   @RSPB_Skydancer  on Twitter.