I'm afraid that anyone questioning the reliability of satellite tags needs to pay attention to one fact - the location where the tracking ceased. Grouse moors relentlessly raise their ugly heads when this question is asked. The truth is that Calluna will be far from the last bird to be lost unless something drastic is done to consign the hideous world of driven grouse shooting into history.
I’m very sad to have to report that one of the hen harrier’s satellite tagged as part of the LIFE project this year, has already disappeared. “Calluna”, a female harrier, was tagged this summer at a nest on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, near Braemar. We were monitoring her transmitter’s data which showed that she fledged from the nest in July. She left the area in early August, and gradually headed east over the Deeside moors. However, while the tag data showed it to be working perfectly, transmissions abruptly ended on 12 th August, with no further data transmitted. Calluna’s last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park. For regular followers of our hen harriers, this will be a depressingly familiar story. I’m sure some will focus on the date transmissions ended – the 12 th August, the traditional start of the grouse shooting season. Bluntly, the date isn’t really the point. The disappearance of one of our hen harriers is a major loss whenever it occurs. While we will likely never know for certain what happened to Calluna, it fits a pattern of disappearances where perfectly functioning tags suddenly stop transmitting and are never recovered. She joins the growing list of satellite-tagged birds of prey that have disappeared, in highly suspicious circumstances, almost exclusively in areas intensively managed for grouse shooting. The transmitters we use are incredibly reliable and the sudden halt in data being received from it, with no hint of a malfunction, is very concerning. I started working on hen harriers for the RSPB 10 years ago next month. One of the first documents I helped produce discusses how terrible it was that there were only 14 successful hen harrier nests in the whole of England that year. This year there were three. It’s appalling to me now that those historic 14 successful nests in one year would be treated like a breeding bonanza today! But despite that lack of progress and the continued disappearance of hen harriers like Calluna, I remain optimistic. More people know more about the plight of these amazing birds than ever before. In Scotland the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment has commissioned an independent group to look at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. And there are still lots of other young hen harriers out there with satellite tags on, thanks to the LIFE project. The team has fitted a significant number this year, with the very welcome help from landowners, including the National Trust for Scotland, who value these magnificent birds breeding on their property. You will be able to follow the trials and tribulations of some of those birds very soon. Check back here for more news. These tags help us not only better understand and protect hen harrier, but also bring new voices into the fight to save them. Hopefully no more of our hen harriers go the way of Calluna. If anyone has any information about the disappearance of Calluna we urge them to contact Police Scotland as quickly as possible.
Here are a selection of photos from last weekend's Hen Harrier Day events at RSPB Arne, RSPB Rainham Marshes, Sheffield, Boat of Garten and Vane Farm Tayside. Hen Harrier Day South - RSPB Arne - (photos by Terry Bagley) Hen Harrier Day Highlands - Boat of Garten (photos by Guy Shorrock) Hen Harrier Day Sheffield Hen Harrier Day - RSPB Rainham Marshes Hen Harrier Day - Vane Farm, Tayside (photos Guy Shorrock)
The speakers at the rally
Sorry Blanaid, but as we have previously discussed, the RSPB must accept some responsibility for this result. Far too much time and patience has been shown by the RSPB towards the law-breakers, who simply take advantage of the weak position of the RSPB on this issue. I appreciate many people at the RSPB are trying hard and doing the right things, but quite simply the law-breakers are laughing at the stance of the RSPB and many of your members are getting increasingly frustrated.It really is time for concerted, determined, effective action to protect these glorious birds.
It’s the question to which everyone wants the answer – how many hen harriers bred in England this year? Answer: three successful nests, from a total of seven attempts, producing 10 fledged young. Today, the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership* have announced that five of this year’s nests, including the three successes, were under their watch, with four of these occurring on land managed by the Forestry Commission. This is the third year in a row that hen harriers have bred successfully at this site, after eight fledged from two nests in 2015, and six from two nests in 2016, clearly marking Northumberland out as the new stronghold for hen harriers in England. One of this year's hen harrier nests in Northumberland (Image: RSPB) Representing the Partnership, Andrew Miller of the National Park said, “Hen harriers are still facing an uphill battle to re-establish themselves in the uplands of England. However with the positive support of all our partners including key landowners, ten young birds have successfully fledged. Working together and using the latest scientific techniques is also increasing our knowledge of this amazing species. We will continue to monitor our birds throughout the year and hope that this year’s youngsters will stay safe and be as successful as last year’s Finn ” This nesting success comes as a desperately needed lifeline for a breeding population currently hanging by a thread in England. The country’s former stronghold for hen harriers, the Forest of Bowland (a Special Protection Area (SPA) designated for 13 breeding pairs of these threatened birds, and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which has the hen harrier as its logo), hasn’t had a successful nest since 2015. Last year, the only other SPA designated for breeding hen harriers in England, the North Pennine Moors (designated for 11 pairs), experienced its first breeding success in a full decade after one chick fledged from a nest on the RSPB Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria. Sadly, the success wasn’t repeated this year - despite an abundance of food and habitat, the birds simply weren’t around. Bonny, the sole hen harrier chick to fledge from our Geltsdale reserve in the North Pennine Moors SPA in 2016 (Image: Mark Thomas) There were, however, two nesting attempts in the North Pennines just outside the SPA this year, both in the Cumbrian part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Unfortunately, despite sensitive monitoring and protection by National Park Authority staff and volunteers and Natural England with full support from the landowners, neither was successful. One of the attempts was in a gap in a forest plantation, while the other was in a thick rush bed, both on private land, adjacent to a managed grouse moor. In a polygamous set-up with one adult male attending to two females (one adult, one immature), both nests are believed to have failed naturally – one in the very early stages of the attempt and the other due to suspected fox predation while still on eggs. David Butterworth, CEO Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority said, “Given it had been ten years since Hen Harriers nested in the National Park, the presence of these birds was extremely welcome. It was, therefore, incredibly disappointing that the nesting attempts failed, despite the best efforts of all involved. “The Authority is fully aware of all the issues surrounding Hen Harriers in the uplands, so it was really encouraging that the birds’ presence was welcomed by all stakeholders. We would like to thank them all for their cooperation during the nesting period. We hope that the enlightened attitude towards the presence of these birds is the start of a more positive outlook for this species, which will lead to the Hen Harrier returning as a regular breeding species within the Yorkshire Dales National Park”. Male hen harrier in flight (Image: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com) Of the two failed Northumberland nests, one was also thought to be due to fox predation, while the other was lost to extensive, heavy rainfall when the chicks were at a very vulnerable stage. Natural losses such as these are of course disappointing, but far more concerning this year has been the near total absence of hen harriers from vast swathes of potentially suitable habitat elsewhere in the country. A lone male skydanced to empty skies over United Utilities’ estate in Bowland for six weeks this summer, with never a female in sight, despite an apparent abundance of food including good numbers of voles. Meanwhile, although short-eared owls enjoyed record breeding success on our Geltsdale reserve following a boom in vole numbers, hen harriers were nowhere to be seen. And sporadic reports of individual birds were all that was to be had from what should be prime hen harrier areas, such as the wider North Pennines, North York Moors, and the Peak District. This puts the 2017 total number of hen harrier nests in England on a par with last year’s three successful nests from four breeding pairs, making it the second year in a row where the hen harrier breeding population in England is no more than 1-2% of the recognised potential ( 300 pairs). Clearly as we’ve seen this year, natural factors such as predation and weather events play a part, however a healthy population should be able to withstand such fluctuations. What is utterly unacceptable is the ongoing illegal killing and disturbance of this protected bird of prey, primarily associated with intensive moorland management for driven grouse shooting. In the last 12 months alone, two hen harriers have been confirmed shot in northern England. First a female hen harrier named Rowan, satellite tagged by Natural England in 2016, was found shot dead in Cumbria last October. Then, in January, an RSPB sat-tagged female, Carroll, was found dead in Northumberland. The post-mortem showed she was in very poor condition and had been suffering from an infectious disease. Disturbingly however, it also revealed two shotgun pellets lodged in her body, indicating she had survived being shot at some earlier point in her life. Of course, if these birds had not been satellite tagged, it’s entirely possible that neither of these crimes would have ever come to light. Radiograph of Carroll, showing two shotgun pellets (Image: Zoological Society of London) Clearly something needs to change, which is why the RSPB is asking for stronger controls, including the introduction of a licensing system to stop the wildlife crime and other damaging practices linked to grouse shooting in its most intensive ‘driven’ form. We think a fair set of rules could also help put grouse shooting on a sustainable footing, whilst introducing more effective means to deter criminal activity, including in the most serious cases, the removal of their licence to operate. It is good that the overall number of nesting attempts has increased slightly this year, but whichever way you look at it – three successes, or seven attempts – it is nowhere near good enough. This weekend, I’ll be joining hundreds of people attending Hen Harrier Day events across the UK, to say “Hands off our Hen Harriers! “ and calling for safe return of these spectacular skydancers to our moors. I’ll be speaking alongside Natalie Bennett, Mark Avery, and Iolo Williams at the event in Sheffield on Saturday 5 August but there are plenty of others across both Saturday and Sunday for you to choose from, all organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime. Simply visit henharrierday.org to find out more. See you there! --- * The Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership includes the Northumberland National Park Authority, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumbria Police, and Northern England Raptor Forum. For more information on what the RSPB is doing to secure a future for hen harriers in England and beyond, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife and follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
You may remember last month I blogged about our 2016 Perthshire female, DeeCee and her fantastic brood of five healthy chicks (see here ). Well, I’m now delighted to share that all five have fledged successfully from land owned and managed by Forestry Commission Scotland in Argyll – two of them sporting shiny new Hen Harrier LIFE Project satellite tags! Three of DeeCee's five chicks, July 2017 (Image: RSPB) The two eldest and biggest chicks in the brood, one male and one female, were each fitted with the tiny transmitters just days before fledging, by a trained expert, under specialist licence. It will be fascinating to see where they go. Will they follow the same movement patterns of their mum, DeeCee, or will they go their own way entirely? Only time will tell. For now though, we need your help to choose names for them! You have from today until midnight on 3 August to submit your suggestions to our competition website here . All ideas welcome (yes, even Henny McHenFace but I’m making you zero promises on that one!) and you can submit two entries, so use your entries wisely. Eight of our favourite submitted names will be selected and put to public vote on on @RSPB_Skydancer . The public voting will run from 7-8 August, and from 9-10 August. The winning two names with the highest number of votes will be announced on this blog on 11 August 2017. See here for the terms and conditions. So what are you waiting for? Get those thinking caps on and get suggesting! In the meantime, both our as-yet-nameless young harriers have been sticking tight to their nest site, still dependent on their parents for food as they get used to their wings and gradually practice hunting for themselves. Slowly but surely though, they’re starting to venture a little bit further each day and my guess is it won’t be long before one of them makes the leap and roosts away from its nest for the very first time. Details of our full Class of 2017 will be online from the start of September, however to protect sensitive breeding sites, maps of their movements will only be added as soon as they’ve dispersed away from their nest sites. With some of the birds this might be immediately, while others may hang about home until the start of November. So if you don’t see the maps straight away, don’t panic - if anything happens to any of them, we’ll let you know! Whatever else, I have a sneaking suspicion these two are going to be the stars of the show. --- If you want to do more for hen harriers, or even simply find out more, why not join hundreds of people around the country at a Hen Harrier Day event this weekend? I'll be speaking at the event in Sheffield on Saturday 5 August, but there are plenty more to choose from, across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Simply visit henharrierday.org to find the one nearest to you. #HHday2017 #StopKillingHenHarriers To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit our website at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or follow us on Twitter @RSPB_Skydancer
We've received more brilliant news this week - in her first ever breeding attempt, our Northumberland female, Finn, is successfully rearing one chick at her nest in Southwest Scotland! The discovery was made by specially trained and licensed staff following up on Finn's welfare. Finn's offspring - a single, large but still downy chick hidden in the heather. (Image: RSPB) Hen harriers don't always breed in their first year, in fact historical records estimate only between 8-30% of first year birds make the attempt. And often when they do, the risk of failure is greater due to inexperience or laying infertile eggs. So although a single chick may not seem like much, for our young Finn, it's a fantastic achievement. All being well, we expect that Finn's chick will fledge in the next 7-10 days. Finn herself was named after teenage conservationist and blogger, Findlay Wilde, who together with energy company, Ecotricity, sponsored Finn's tag. As you can imagine, he was utterly delighted to hear the news. Findlay said: "I'm delighted to be able to shout from the roof tops about Finn's first successful breeding attempt. She has proven to be a very determined bird since fledging last year. Successes like this are treasures for everyone to enjoy and talk about, as silence will not protect these amazing birds of prey. Hen harriers are on an incredibly difficult journey, just like the one Finn's chick is about to set off on. There needs to be vision and foresight to ensure that more birds like Finn get the opportunity of life" Finn and her three siblings in their nest in Northumberland, July 2016. (Image: Martin Davison) Andrew Miller of the Northumberland National Park, heads up the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership*, which watched over Finn and her siblings as chicks last year. Andrew said, "It's wonderful news and so gratifying to see one of our birds not only surviving well but contributing to the next generation of hen harriers. It's been fascinating to watch her progress and this is further proof that hen harriers in England and Scotland aren't isolated from one another. I wish her and her chick well and have my fingers crossed for plenty more successful breeding seasons to come." It's absolutely true that what happens on one side of the border has the potential to influence the population as a whole. That's why this year, the Hen Harrier LIFE Project has been fitting satellite tags to more hen harrier chicks, across a wider geographical range than ever before. More on that to be announced in the coming weeks, so watch this space... --- *the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership includes Northumberland National Park, Forestry Commission, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, RSPB, MoD, Northumbria Police, and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF). For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife, and follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
Peter Christian is a birdwatcher and photographer with a keen eye for detail. Here, he describes how he was lucky enough to capture an incredible photographic series of a hen harrier in pursuit of a meadow pipit, providing a rarely glimpsed view into lives of these extraordinary birds. All photographs are kindly reproduced with Peter's permission and remain his copyright. As a keen birdwatcher and hobby photographer on the Isle of Man, it's thankfully not too uncommon to encounter Hen Harriers. On a walk on an upland track recently however, I witnessed something I've never seen before. Initially distant in the valley below I spotted the unmistakable presence of a male Hen Harrier. A striking bird to say the least. What's more, it was hunting a Meadow Pipit - wow! They looked to be heading my way, so I grabbed the camera and tried to capture something of it. I was surprised at the sheer agility and perseverance of the Harrier in its efforts to catch the Meadow Pipit. At one moment they were quite close to me but I found it almost impossible to focus the big telephoto lens on them. As they climbed and dived moving farther away I persevered and got a burst of frames away. I hoped these would at least capture something of this life and death pursuit. As they disappeared further out of sight I put the lens down and reflected on something special. Then, as photographers usually do, I flicked through the images and hoped I'd at least have one or two that weren't blurry! To my surprise I'd actually managed to capture something of it. Not the best shots I've ever taken, but a Hen Harrier hunting, it doesn't get much better. I have a feeling that the Pipit escaped that day, it looked like it found cover, but I'll never know for sure. For more fantastic photography, follow Peter on Twitter @manxmannin . Such encounters are increasingly rare on mainland Britain, where last year’s National Hen Harrier Survey revealed a 14% population decline since 2010. By contrast the Isle of Man population of this threatened bird appears to have been holding steady over the last few years. Neil Morris of Manx Birdlife, explains the history and importance of hen harriers to the Isle of Man. In 1977, the first Hen Harriers bred on the Isle of Man in Glen Rushen plantation. Numbers climbed to a possible all time high of 51 pairs in 1998. More recently, breeding censuses indicate the population has fallen from this peak to a (perhaps) stable 30 'nesting attempts' per annum. This represents approximately one nest per 7.4 sq miles, which compares to just four pairs in the whole England (50,000 sq miles compared to the island's 221 sq miles). Clearly, Hen Harriers like the Isle of Man; and the island's community likes its Hen Harriers! In a recent fundraising drive through the Groundwork Trust and Tesco's 'Bags of help' scheme, Manx BirdLife received 57,000 'votes' to support Hen Harriers. The second-placed charitable cause received 37,000 votes. But we must not be complacent. Research is needed to understand exactly why the island offers such a stronghold for the species, and to ensure the potential risks to its continued fortunes are understood. It's a salutary thought that if the brood management plan proposed by Natural England were implemented in the Isle of Man, then we would be required to remove up to 27 out of our 30 nests (i.e. 90%). The island’s continued interest in its birds and other wildlife is crucial to their protection. Peter’s fantastic series of images will do much to help keep Hen Harriers uppermost in the community’s hearts and minds. Following on from the successful satellite tagging of young Manx female, Aalin, last year, two more hen harrier chicks have been tagged on the Isle of Man this summer and we can’t wait to share their journeys with you. Keep watching this space for further updates and be sure to follow us online at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or on Twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .
What a busy few weeks it has been! Darting around the country, playing with puppets, constructing moorlands from playdough, refereeing Skydance Olympic competitions... Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Popping into primary schools to deliver hen harrier workshops and assemblies is a lot of fun. Occasionally, though, I feel especially lucky to have my job. I’m speaking about those days when the sun shines on a moorland field trip. Towards the end of May the primary 4/5 class from Finzean School joined me in an upland area of the Forest of Birse in Aberdeenshire to find out more about the hen harrier and the moorland as a habitat after my visit to their primary school earlier in the month. And what an excellent day it was too. We scoured the skies with our binoculars, and the moorland vegetation below for invertebrate life and interesting plant species... ... and made recordings of a variety of living creatures with varying numbers of legs, investigating the unusual that we encountered along the way, including animal skulls and insect cocoons... We enjoyed creating some mini moorlands to take home... ... and concocted moorland healing potions with magical properties in an attempt to help the hen harrier thrive in this habitat again. Sometimes going about my day just doesn’t feel like work at all! The only thing that could have added to the trip would have been to see the hen harrier above, going about it’s day too. To find out more about our work to raise awareness and secure a future for hen harriers in our hills, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer .