It's true what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So how many words, or indeed how many pictures, are worth a single first-hand experience?
It's a good question and I honestly have no idea what the answer is but I'd hazard a guess that it's a heck of a lot. Anyone with any experience of the countryside will know that listening to a description of the moorland landscape and looking at photos of a heathery hillside, pale in the face of actually getting out there and being hands-on with the habitat. So following on from our Skydancing School outreach visits, we decided to give pupils from two Northumbrian and Lancashire primary schools the chance to do just that.
Up to a certain age, all children have an innate curiosity about the natural world around them and little or no encouragement is needed for them to become completely absorbed in their exploration, be it of a scuttling ant, an unusual flower, or simply a muddy puddle. In my experience, that "certain age" averages out at around 9-10, and while for some, it may come a bit earlier, for others, it may never happen at all (I myself, am still waiting). The more opportunities we can provide to foster that curiosity, the more we can push back that threshold age and I'd like to think that for some, perhaps we can even suspend it altogether.
Take for example two initially contrasting groups on Skydancer moorland visits. No sooner were we off the bus with the first, slightly younger group, than they were excitedly chattering away asking, "what's this? What's this?" We could hardly go twenty feet without having to pause to examine a new plant, or peer into the undergrowth to investigate where one child swore he could see [insert animal here]. Names were invented for anything that I couldn't readily identify (honestly they were asking about individual blades of grass!) and for a short while the world revolved around lichens, as despite the teacher's best efforts, every child suddenly became utterly determined to fill their pockets full of stones!
Curiosity in the natural world was alive and well.
The second group were slightly older and although somewhat bemused to find themselves disembarking the bus "in the middle of nowhere", conversation along the path tended less to the landscape around them (excepting a lengthy discussion about cow pats) and more to the subject of video game zombies and how best to keep them out of your video game house. As the low cloud began to clear and the visibility improved, one seemingly awestruck child remarked of the view, "it looks really like CGI, like on a computer screen." I attempted to explain that CGI is meant to look like real life, not the other way around but I'm not entirely sure he got what I meant...
When we reached our destination, the group waited patiently for instruction and having been handed magnifying glasses, were encouraged to get in amongst the heather and have a really good look at things. Any initial disinterest was soon outstripped by excited cries of, "Over here, look at this!" and even, believe it or not, "I've found some cool moss!" Some hide-and-seek in the heather to demonstrate camouflage and a temporary obsession with cuckoo-spit later, and they were as giddy as the first group with the excitement of it all!
With both these groups, as with others, it was a privilege to be able to guide them through an entirely new habitat and facilitate their discovery of the amazing diversity of life that exists on a healthy moor. We talked a lot about the importance of moorland for many things and the role of not just the landowners, but also the farming and shooting tenants, in looking after the areas we visited. It was a fantastic day and I was delighted to feel like we had given these kids an experience that would stick with them for years to come.
In fact, it wasn't until we were preparing to walk back to the bus that one girl tapped me on the arm and with her one innocent question, managed to bring my good mood crashing down.
"When are we going to see a hen harrier?"
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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
By the second half of July my fieldwork was more or less over. The endless crisscrossing of the hills had developed a level of fitness I hadn’t achieved before or, sadly, since! I even started running to keep the fitness up. On one occasion I powered (ish) past a man pushing his bike up a hill, I stopped at the summit before returning and he caught me up; ‘are you a fell-runner?’ he asked ... such an undeserved proud moment!
Although the fieldwork was over – I was able to turn my attention to sorting out all the records and data collected in those pre-digital days, pulling it all together in to the final report. My employment would run through until the middle of August ... a recognition that it might still be worth having eyes on the skies as young harriers would be still around at the beginning of the grouse shooting season.
Another important (and enjoyable) part of my last few weeks was calling in on the people who’s paths I’d crossed in my all too brief stay in the Forest of Bowland. I’d learned a lot and fallen in love with this corner of England’s uplands – and I wanted to ensure I didn’t just blow in and blow out again, I’d helped secure a three year agreement with the North West Water Authority so our role in Bowland was set to develop further (it never occurred to me that 30 years later I’d still be writing about it).
As I crunched the numbers from the endless transects I’d walked I came up with an estimate of 7,500 pairs of meadow pipits explaining why they were a constant accompaniment to my days on the hill.
Of the hen harriers – I monitored the outcome of six nests (a minority of the pairs in the whole of Bowland) one nest failed completely and the other 5 produced 12 young that successfully flew.
Four tiny hen harrier chicks and fifth hatching - all grew to fledge successfully. Photo on a licenced nest visit Andre Farrar
It was apparent that there were plenty of young harriers around – and at the time a feeling both that the future for Bowland’s harriers was looking positive and that this could be the start of them reclaiming England’s uplands.
Neither has proved to be the case.
But back in the sunny summer of ‘82 no-one realised that we were seeing the high point for hen harriers, it felt for a brief moment that a corner had been turned.
The supporting cast was quite impressive too – on the streams 22 common sandpiper territories and 15 dipper territories. And from my transects 25 ring ouzel pairs, 33 pairs of wheatears and 70 whinchat territories.
My biggest disappointment (and it still makes me angry 30 years later) was the failure of ‘my’ peregrines. Robbed of their eggs and duped by dummies placed in their nest.
Fond as am of hen harriers, they lack the ability of a wild peregrine to look you in the eye and see into your soul.
For me – new horizons beckoned as I had landed a job (tea making included) in the RSPB regional office in Huddersfield. But that’s a whole different story.
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My time with Bowland’s hen harriers was coming to an end – and thankfully a positive one. Young harriers in several of the nests I was monitoring had been exercising their wings and blundering about on the tops of heather clumps around the nest.
And then the first flight – just a few meters and then back onto the heather wings akimbo.
With each attempt, longer and stronger.
My harriers were fledging. Not mine, clearly, but make no mistake, I felt very close to them. Now they were up and away I was finding fewer excuses to tackle the paperwork and write up the season’s records.
But for a few more days I carried on with my rounds – young birds where appearing all over the place, the redstarts and spotted flycatchers were feeding young. Small flocks of golden plovers were gathering, a sign that the year was turning.
It’s interesting that my note books of the time make little reference to the other waders – the priority in those days was the open moorland and I was giving little attention to the lapwings, redshanks and curlews – a pleasurable accompaniment as I walked up to the moorland, but not a priority for record taking.
The retreat of waders from our countryside was still some years off in Northern England. Of course, today they are a major focus of our work as you can read here.
The fine spring gave way to a hot summer. The moors shimmered with heat haze. Young harriers were now big and strong and they were spread around their nesting areas making little flights encouraged by their parents.
The first fledged swallows (like the ones pictured below) were now collecting on wires and house martins were well into their second broods. The last few months had raced past and now the endless surveying was more or less over and I was able to spend time with individual families of birds as their breeding seasons approached their end.
I’d not been focussing particularly on Bowland’s merlins ... a blessedly uncontroversial bird of prey. But one nest was near a harrier site and I’d been keeping an eye on them and the young birds (one is pictured below) where now sitting about amongst the heather tucking into a meal or making short flights.
I even had time to sit in the car and listen to some of the World Cup Final (Italy 3, West Germany 1).