Running with the theme of positivity for 2013, if one were to try and find some sliver of good in the tragedy of Bowland Betty, it's that the circumstances of her untimely demise have finally brought the hen harrier issue to national attention. In the last week alone, there has been a strong article in The Observer and a BBC Radio4 piece featuring Martin Harper and Adrian Blackmore from the Countryside Alliance on Monday's Today programme. There are also feature articles on hen harriers in the January editions of both Lancashire Life magazine (they even made the cover) and the Shooting Gazette. Regional and local news stories about hen harriers are one thing but to get national media coverage like this is rare enough.
We now have an opportunity here, you and I, to focus this attention and not let it slip away. We need to build on it and in doing so, connect the wider public with these beautiful birds and the moorland landscape in which they live. Tell the hen harrier story to your neighbour over the garden fence, or your friend next time you go for coffee. Point people to this blog, tell your friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter. Write to your local paper and let them know that this is important to you, to us all.
Remember buzzardgate? Public outrage can be a powerful thing, and we should be outraged. That people (however many or few) are intentionally and illegally killing hen harriers or discouraging them from nesting is outrageous. However in the midst of this I ask you to please remember that not all people who shoot hate hen harriers, and not all people who want to see hen harriers protected are against grouse shooting. The two interests are not mutually exclusive. We don't need scaremongering or demonizing - these things are not helpful and indeed, they only set people against eachother and deepen the problem. This is an opportunity to get away from all that and to help people to really understand the issues. We all want a world richer in wildlife.
We need to encourage everyone, whatever their background, to speak out in the name of hen harriers and send a clear message that these are our birds. They belong in our shared landscape. And illegal persecution will not be tolerated.
This is our chance, and your voice matters.
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We have two more harrier nests! This takes our total to three.
We still have birds present at two other sites, and possibly a third, which continue to show signs of pairing and possible nest building. But things really are very slow, with birds still seemingly unsettled. Speaking to others elsewhere in the country this week, this seems to be a common theme with hen harriers, as well as other birds of prey, with many people speculating about availability of prey species such as voles and meadow pipits.
Hen harriers, like most birds, are fascinating to watch and study, if you put the time in, revealing many aspects of behaviour that most people miss out on. One of these aspects is sky dancing. However, there are other things…
Hen harriers have, what some people might consider, a ‘traditional’ relationship. That is, the female stays at home and looks after the kids, whilst the male does all the providing. However, and many people would also view this as being traditional, the female is undoubtedly the boss in this relationship - she decides where the nest is going to be, is always very demanding of the male, if there’s any sort of a threat she is the one that deals with it whilst the male hangs around in the background, and she won’t let him in the nest!
It is this last fact that provides us with one of the other spectacles that harriers provide – the aerial food pass. This is a ‘blink and you miss it’, sort of thing! But amazing to watch. As the male approaches the nest site, the female rises from the nest and intercepts the male. As she passes under him the male releases his prey, she twists over onto her side and catches the prey as it falls. The male flies on, off to catch something else, whilst the female either eats the food herself or feeds it to any chicks she may have.
That is the million-dollar question posed by Tony in response to last week’s Skydancer blog. And boy is it a good one – so good in fact, that I felt it deserved its own blog post. This could be a long one, so for those of you in a hurry, the short answer is:
Yes. Of course hen harriers and grouse shooting can coexist!
For the long answer, read on.
To start with, I think we need to qualify the term “coexistence”. Hen harriers on a grouse moor eat grouse. It is not the main component of their diet. Research has shown that the number of hen harriers an area can support is influenced by the number of meadow pipits and field voles available, not the number of grouse (see here and here). However, to expect a hen harrier not to take a single grouse from a moor that’s choc-full of them is nonsense. Like any predator, if the food is easy, they’ll take what they can get. So there will inevitably be some degree of loss – that, I’m afraid, is just nature.
The next point to make is that we are not talking about reintroducing a long-extinct species. In places like the Forest of Bowland and the Northeast of Scotland, hen harriers have existed in reasonable numbers alongside driven grouse shooting as recently as 20-30 years ago. In 1991, there were 18 breeding pairs in Bowland (not just on United Utlities land), and the viability of shooting on local estates did not collapse. The idea that a single pair of hen harriers, or even two or three, would automatically bring an end to grouse shooting on any estate is an overstatement in the extreme. That said, it is entirely understandable that estate managers would want to minimise any impact the birds do have.
Fortunately, diversionary feeding, or the provision of supplementary food during the nesting period, works. It is not the only answer, and the effect of hen harriers on the number of grouse available to shoot will vary from moor to moor, but early trials of diversionary feeding have shown it can reduce the number of grouse taken by up to 86%. More recently at Langholm, only a single grouse chick has been recorded being taken as prey between a total of seven hen harrier nests in five years – those are pretty good odds.
Regardless of where you stand on the Langholm project, you should know they’re not the only ones at it. Glen Tanar estate in Aberdeenshire took up diversionary feeding of hen harriers in 2010 using scraps of unsalable venison from deer culled on the estate. In that same year, driven grouse shooting became viable on the estate for the first time in over a decade and has continued since, reporting "very satisfactory" grouse bags (yeilds). If you’re interested, this example of coexistence was the subject of the winning entry in the documentary category of the British Wildlife Photographer Award 2012. Sadly, despite producing two very healthy broods in 2010 and 2011, the declining hen harrier population meant there simply weren't enough birds around to breed in 2012. Diversionary feeding may not be the only answer but it’s certainly a good start.
The bigger issue here lies in the sustainability of intenstive management for rearing grouse. Red grouse in the UK have been experiencing a steady population decline for most of the last century, for reasons entirely unconnected with birds of prey (see here). Despite this, there is an apparent tendency within parts of the shooting community to continually strive for bigger and better grouse bags. In order to achieve this, management has become more and more intensive and legal (and in some cases, illegal) predator control, near absolute. It is in this context that there are those who feel that the loss of even one grouse to a bird of prey is unacceptable (an ambition that, as previously discussed, is entirely unrealistic). Which begs the question – how sustainable is the current level of intensive management?
And sustainability really is the magic word because a well-managed and sustainable grouse moor can have benefits for conservation. Research has shown that appropriate, legal predator control carried out by gamekeepers does have benefits for a number of wader species when combined with sensitive moorland management. Historically speaking, it is also true that grouse shooting estates have maintained large areas of our moorland landscape that may otherwise have been lost to afforestation or overgrazing, preserving not just wildlife but vital carbon stores and water catchments.
Until this year, hen harriers and the grouse shooting community have successfully coexisted on the United Utilities estate in Bowland for decades (the absence of breeding harriers in 2012 being attributed to factors outwith the estate). Granted their habitat management is considerably more extensive than many other estates might be prepared entertain but that’s not to say that there isn’t a middle ground. The key to a sustainable system of driven grouse shooting has to be the application of management practices that are, in themselves, legal and sustainable (see here again).
Some estate managers would argue that the pressure to produce larger and larger grouse bags stems from a real need to cover the considerable costs of managing the estate in the first place. However, hen harriers could actually help with this. Consider the fact that white-tailed eagles on Mull bring in around £5 million a year to the local economy in wildlife tourism. You can read an RSPB report on the value of such nature tourism here – the figures are a little out of date now but it gives a good picture of just how valuable a natural spectacle like a skydancing hen harrier could be to an estate.
A number of estates in Scotland already run wildlife “safaris” in the spring/summer and shooting in the autumn with great success (here, here, here). Such trips could also be used to help educate people about the moorland landscape and show the managers of these estates for what they truly are – custodians of the countryside. I’ve said it before, but I envision a future where hen harriers are seen as a badge of honour, a symbol of the best and most sustainable grouse moors.
Finally, the last point to make is that like it or lump it, hen harriers are legally protected. To intentionally or recklessly harm or disturb these birds for any reason is against the law. Whether or not you agree with that law is irrelevant. You can complain about the top speed limit being set at 70mph but that is not going to change it. The law is there because these birds are an integral part of our natural heritage and deserving of protection. However, the potential shown by estates like Glen Tanar demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be a case of “putting up with” hen harriers just because the law says so, that hen harriers and driven grouse shooting don’t have to simply “coexist” – they could thrive together in mutual benefit.
Those of you who followed the Skydancer blog over the spring/summer this year will have been familiar with hearing about the exploits of the female hen harrier 74843 or Bowland Betty as she was known to us locally.
The reason I've been unable to provide you with regular updates since my last post in June is because in July, Betty was found dead in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She was recovered by the North Yorkshire Police and Natural England after fixes from her tag indicated that something was wrong and since then the Zoological Society London have been undertaking state of the art tests to determine the cause of her death.
We've just received the results, which confirm that she was shot and that the resulting injury was directly responsible for her death.
Gutted. That's how I feel at this news. I was privileged enough to have been present when she had her sat tag fitted. I also had, what I felt to be, the honor of placing her back in the nest once the job had been done. As I placed her back in the nest with her siblings that day, I made sure to wish her luck; silly as it may sound it's something I always do. The natural world is a harsh place for young harriers, even without any threat from illegal persecution. So, superstitious as I may be, in my mind they need all the luck they can get.
Betty was the first harrier I had 'known' to have had a satellite transmitter fitted. I, like so many others had watched her grow from a little (kind of ugly if I'm honest!) vulnerable white ball of down to a fine young female via video footage recorded at her nest in 2011. The prospect of being able to follow her progress for the next few years and learn a little more about hen harrier behavior from a bird I had actually held was incredibly exciting.
Betty being fitted with her satellite transmitter in 2011 © Jude Lane, RSPB
Normally I never know whether the young birds that have fledged from nests I have monitored survive or not, so knowing she had made it through the winter was fantastic and had me hoping that she would go on to fledge broods of harriers herself, maybe even on the United Utilities estate this year.
In my mind, Betty was England's symbol of hope for hen harriers. She had become quite the celebrity here in Bowland and indeed across northern England, with almost everyone I came in contact with asking what she was up to. No satellite tagged females have ever proved so mobile, especially during the breeding season, so the information she was providing us with was not only entertaining but incredibly valuable. It angers me that someone has taken the life of this beautiful creature and with it our ability to understand more about the behaviors of these incredible birds.
I want the death of Betty, the young bird I was privileged enough to hold in my hands, to have significance. It already has by proving that hen harrier persecution is still occurring - we need Government and its agencies to use this knowledge to redouble efforts to protect and ensure the recovery of this species.
If Betty's death is to have a silver lining, it must be in persuading the Government to take illegal persecution seriously and to act to bring this intolerable Victorian practice to an end. We urgently need Government to implement an emergency recovery plan to bring the hen harrier back from the brink, as extinction in England for a second time beckons. A vital first step is to ensure that the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which works to ensure the laws protecting birds of prey are enforced, has a future beyond this March.
Like so many people, I feel privileged to have known Betty in her short life. Her sad, untimely death may not be in vain if it means other young hen harriers avoid a similar fate.