With little movement from Burt and Highlander since my last update (still residing in North Cumbria and the South Pennines respectively), this blog is simply an excuse to share some photographs (all my own unless stated otherwise) and experiences with you of a place that is really special to me. I’m Lancashire born and bred and always knew Bowland as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers in England. It’s a misguided view that I’ve since revised, as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers should of course, be our uplands as a whole. So here’s my experiences of just one small corner of our uplands over a few months in the spring and summer a few years ago....

When I started work for the RSPB in April 2005 little did I know that the fifteen pairs of hen harriers that nested in Bowland that year would soon be effectively wiped out. Shocking isn’t it, from fifteen pairs to extinction in less than ten years. My first contract was a joy, essentially I was being paid to go birding, well spend four months surveying and mapping the breeding birds on the United Utilities Bowland Estate to be exact. I’d think nothing of seeing half a dozen hen harriers in a day whilst surveying the moors and on one particularly memorable morning that April, I lay in the heather watching two stunning male harriers skydancing whilst three ringtails quartered the moors below.

Spending four months combing 42 square kilometres of the estate gave me such an insight into how special these upland areas are for wildlife. No field guides, video clips, CDs of bird calls, photographs nor any other medium comes close to being in the thick of the action, and I learnt so, so much. As well as daily multiple hen harrier encounters, merlins and peregrines were frequently seen, I literally stumbled on my first ever short eared owl nest, the adult flying up from under my feet leaving three young owlets staring me out. They won. The nest subsequently went on to fledge three healthy shorties. It’s also the first time I experienced their spectacular wing clapping display flights.

Short-eared owlets on the United Utilities Bowland Estate.

Curlews were widespread and as well as frequent encounters with their sprinting chicks (they’re all leg for the first couple of weeks), provided for me what is the ultimate soundtrack to our uplands, that beautiful, eerie, plaintive, bubbling call that accompanies their parachuting song flight that just can’t be beaten. I challenge anyone to lay amongst the heather on a crisp spring morning taking in the stunning landscape whilst your ears are filled with that most atmospheric of sounds and not be moved by it. It simply lifts the soul.

Curlew chick. Golden Plover in breeding plumage.

I’d also share my ‘office’ with golden plovers on the high plateaus, resplendent in their black, white and gold spangled finery, a bird transformed from the altogether duller subdued golden browns of winter. The song of ring ouzels would echo around the valleys carrying far and wide and making it difficult to pinpoint the songster, usually perched in isolated rowans on the hillsides whilst whinchats, newly arrived from their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, flitted around areas of bracken setting up territories where the resident and closely related stonechats would allow. Incessant singing skylarks competed with the curlews for the audio crown and ‘tseep, tseep’ing meadow pipits were everywhere, scattering from tussocks on every transect I walked, occasionally a bird burst from underfoot in an awkward low, almost scrambling flight across the top of the vegetation with tail spread. I quickly learnt that this behaviour meant the bird had come off a nest and was attempting to get me to follow it – a distraction display to lead me away from the nest.

Meadow Pipit nestlings

With the meadow pipits providing food for harriers and merlins, the insect life that fed the pipits was there in abundance to the point that every footstep seemed to be onto moving ground, a tide of spiders scuttling out of the way as I placed my feet between tussocks of cotton grass, various mosses, bog asphodel and other-worldly carnivorous sundews. Green hairstreak butterflies, so small and inconspicuous amongst the bilberry and almost impossible to follow in flight were simply exquisite at close range when found motionless, still lethargic in the early morning mists before they warmed up enough to take flight. Golden-ringed dragonflies, our largest species, were an unexpected treat found hawking over some of the smaller rocky streams flowing down the moorland valleys. My steps became a little more tentative after the morning I met a hissing adder in one of the boggier valley bottoms. I could go on for hours and hours but you get the idea, the estate teems with wildlife and for much of the spring and summer I pretty much had it to myself. Wherever they were, the general public just didn’t know what they were missing.

Bog Asphodel, Round-leaved Sundew, Green Hairstreak, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Adder.

With the wider ecosystem services that such areas provide whether that be carbon storage, flood prevention, recreational walking, hiking, cycling or just taking in the spectacular sights and sounds, it just seems bizarre, selfish perhaps, that anyone would want to damage such places. Not all of our uplands are as diverse as this, especially where the management practises are geared towards intensive production of thousands of red grouse for driven shooting.


The United Utilities Bowland Estate.......

....and an intensive driven grouse moor in Scotland

In their own right, our uplands deserve the domestic and international protection they are afforded. Whether it is conserving hen harriers or restoring areas of degraded peat, the uplands remain a high priority for the RSPB and other organisations going in to 2015. It is essential that their protection and that of the internationally important habitats and species they support is maintained and effectively enforced. That way, the natural wonders I was privileged to spend the spring and summer of 2005 with, will be available to everybody, wherever they are, for generations to come.

So for me, nearly ten years on from my first steps into Bowland’s magical moors, I saw 2014 as a turning point. Whether it was the return of successfully breeding hen harriers to England, the inspiration that was Hen Harrier Day, or Skydancer winning the National Lottery Best Education Project Award, the year’s many highlights have provided us with many positives to build on in 2015. I begin the year with real optimism, so happy new year Skydancer followers, enjoy the photos and let’s make 2015 even better!