Thirty years ago I started working for the RSPB on a six month upland bird surveying contract – with the additional challenge of helping to protect England’s only regular nesting hen harriers. The Forest of Bowland was the only stronghold for hen harriers in England in 1982 – it still is. I’ll be contributing a series of guest blogs over the spring and summer and tweeting in real time on @andrefarrar
June thirty years ago started wet - not as wet as this year – but at least it gave me an excuse to catch up with the season’s paperwork, nest sights transferred to maps and transect results extracted from my note book.
The rain didn’t last long and I was soon off on my rounds. One of the ring ouzel pairs on my route now had four young – looking good.
As I skirted a peaty pool a bird suddenly flopped out of the rushes, a female teal with wing hanging uselessly by her side as she made a pathetic spectacle of herself. I think I said out load ‘I know what you’re doing!’ Working a lot of time on your own in remote places does, I’ve found, encourage talking to yourself – or ducks.
I struck off the path up hill and settled down in the heather to the duck. She quickly regained her composure and returned to the pool, as she swam out eight tiny ducklings. Her distraction display explained.
As I approached one of the harrier nests – the behaviour of the pair had changed. I settled down to watch and soon saw the male heading purposefully for the nest location. He suddenly rose up and stalled and I noticed the female had come off the nest calling, in moment he dropped some food and she rolled in flight to catch it before wheeling and quickly dropping down to the nest.
A few days later I visited the nest (under licence) to check on numbers, and the picture below is of those very birds. Long way to go, but a great moment in my spring with the harriers. The size difference is really obvious as harriers start incubating with the first egg - this is a survival mechanism if food is in short supply the biggest and most strong survive ... I'll let you know how they got on.
Spring was now rapidly moving into summer, but still not too late for a new migrant, a spotted flycatcher was now in residence in a small wood near my cottage. I don’t think I’d overlooked them, though they can tuck themselves away.
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What a week it's been! The announcement of Defra's proposals to (amongst other things) destroy unoccupied buzzard nests and remove "problem" adults into captivity, as part of a trial management project to protect young pheasants at their release pens, caused national uproar on a scale that few could have anticipated. So much so that only a few days later, Minister for Wildlife, Mr Richard Benyon, issued a statement announcing that Defra had "listened to public concerns" and were withdrawing the project in its current format, in what was to be the third or fourth government U-turn of the week (I don't know about you but I've lost count!). He said that he recognised a need "to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock."
It is certainly very true that while projects such as the Joint Raptor Study and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project have done much to further our understanding of the issues, there's still a lot we don't really know about the true impacts, economic or otherwise, of birds of prey on sport shooting. We all have our gut-feelings but I'm talking about hard scientific fact. For instance, we know that on Langholm, a dramatic increase in hen harrier numbers, following protection, impacted on autumn grouse numbers (though not the breeding population) to such an extent that driven shooting had to stop. However none of the other five moors in the same study experienced the same exponential increase in hen harriers nor the same decline in grouse. These other moors were not studied closely enough at the time for us to be able to draw any conclusions from this, however as any gamekeeper will tell you, no two grouse moors are the same.
These gaps in our knowledge have previously led to assumptions being made on both sides of the debate and I think the complexity of the issue is summed up nicely by the BBC in what could possibly be the most sensible article I have ever seen written on the subject: BBC Nature - Are birds of prey being unfairly persecuted?
Whatever new research proposals Mr Benyon and his team come up with, one thing is for certain - "buzzardgate" has served to thrust the complex issue of birds of prey and sport shooting firmly into the spotlight of the public eye. Wherever we go from here, the world will be watching.