I say harrier, you say hen. Fair enough and the attention on the hen harrier is undeniably much needed. As our most threatened bird of prey they should be at the centre of our conservation efforts. But the hen harrier is not the only harrier that graces our skies. The other is of course, the marsh harrier.
The larger cousin of the hen harrier, the marsh harrier is as captivating as any species could be. I was lucky enough to see my very first marsh harrier at Steng Moss in Cumbria during a university field trip in June. We were standing in a lowland field right next to a reed bed, having a fabulous time looking at soil. That’s right. Soil. Though I was expected to be enthralled by the plasticity of soil of the field, something else caught my eye. Something more interesting than soil? Surely not! Well yes, and it manifested itself as a large v-shaped silhouette flying low over the reeds. I got a little excited and completely abandoned soil, slipping away from my enthralled peers toward the reeds in order to get a better look. Unfortunately for my enthusiastic lecturer, I started a bit of a trend, with more people shuffling away, more interested in the magnificent bird. But he definitely deserved the attention and I could not be moved until he flew away over the forest. With a heavy heart I turned my attention back to soil, still thrilled by the sighting.
Marsh harriers in Britain are, like so many others, a species that suffered greatly at the hands of us humans (join the club guys). They were widespread throughout the 18th century, but marsh clearance, pesticides and persecution (due to their taste for game) significantly reduced their numbers. In fact, between 1899 and 1911 the species succumbed to extinction. All courtesy of us. There was a recolonisation however, but in 1971 there was still only one breeding pair in the UK. That number is now around 370 breeding females, much better than 1, but still far below historical numbers.
Marsh harriers are now at their highest numbers for 100 years, though this is in very localised areas. Their preferred habitat is of course reed beds and marshes (really?), but since their return, these raptors have quickly learnt to adapt. Though many still breed on reed beds when they can, they are also now known to breed on farmland. Marsh harriers are now amber status species as there is still a threat to their habitats and their populations are not stable. So, our marsh harriers are not quite out of the woods yet, but conservation efforts focused on reed bed rehabilitation are helping the species recover. Currently, they can be found East Anglia, South East England, Somerset levels and where I saw them, the North west. Now, lets not jump the gun, hang the bunting, crack open the champagne and celebrate too early, this is not a comeback story just yet. But it’s headed in the right direction. And if we’re lucky and we wait patiently enough, we might see this species once again widespread throughout Britain.
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