With all the upheaval that has been surrounding the UK in the last few days, I was relieved to hear some good news today. That’s right, it’s time for a little jig in the kitchen, a mini celebration at the office desk or a click of your heels as you take a walk with a few cries of ‘Hallelujah!’, because a third pair of hen harriers are breeding in England this year. The RSPB Geltsdale reserve in the North Pennines is the new home for this particular pair and the nest has already been visited by licensed wardens. A spectacular 5 eggs are currently being incubated by the female and if the nest is successful, it will be the first time there have been hen harrier chicks at Geltsdale for ten years.
Last year, there were only 6 successful hen harrier nests in the entirety of the UK, with some nests failing, including one at Geltsdale. Unfortunately, that failure was tainted by what hen harriers face a constant struggle against; persecution. The male from the pair vanished whilst hunting and consequently, the female harrier was forced to abandon her eggs. Staff and volunteers at the reserve have already begun round the clock monitoring of the nest to make sure that it does not fall victim to any form of disturbance. In addition, neighbouring reserves have been informed of the nest to help to ensure the safety of the adult birds whilst they hunt.
However, with this good news comes the inevitable fear, worry and uncertainty. Fear that the nest, the adults or even eventually, the fledged chicks, will fall victim to illegal raptor persecution. Hen harriers are currently our most persecuted birds of prey and the struggle to conserve them on our shores is a constant battle. It is far more common place to hear of persecution cases against this species than it is to hear of successful nests, or to even see a hen harrier in the wild. Hopefully, this new nest will be triumphant and the protection given by those at the reserve will be enough to ensure the chicks fledge and the adults stay safe.
England has expanses of suitable habitat that could host 300 pairs of hen harriers. In 2016, we only have 3 pairs. These numbers reflect just how bad the situation is for these magnificent birds. Once called ‘good hawks’ by poultry farmers, as they posed no threat to their animals unlike some other hawk species, the hen harrier is now the most heavily persecuted bird of prey in the UK. Although many of our raptor species have a history of persecution and some were even driven to extinction by that persecution, their populations have all recovered to a level much healthier than that of the hen harrier. Hen harriers breed and feed on heather moorland and unfortunately for them, humans use this habitat for the sport of red grouse shooting. Despite their protection and the illegality of killing these birds, the fact that they are still perceived as a great threat to the grouse shooting industry has been their downfall. Over the years, many hen harriers have been found shot, poisoned or have just mysteriously ‘disappeared’ across the UK.
When it comes to the recovery of our hen harrier populations across the UK, it really is a case of one step at a time. When we hear of new nests, the temptation that each raptor lover feels to descend on mass on the nest area and fearlessly guard the location day and night, is very strong indeed. It remains unclear how successful the hen harrier breeding project will be and the very fate of this bird in the UK is also very uncertain. However, one thing is for sure, we will all be waiting with hopeful, yet baited breathe to see the outcome of this new nest and hoping beyond hope that we can call it a success!
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