Hunting A Hen Harrier

Before we get started, I really should point out that my use of the word hunting is not meant in the traditional sense. By that I of course mean that I did not have a shotgun cocked over my arm, nor did I jump on horseback armed with crossbows and spears during my so called ‘hunt.  In fact, my version of hunting was in fact more less hunting and more seeking, seeking so that I could catch a glimpse of a bird that I have longed to see for many years. What is this bird? The hen harrier. Raised in upland Northumberland, I have long been surrounded by a large area of suitable heather moorland habitat that should support a number of hen harriers. However, instead of these moorlands being dominated by this magnificent bird of prey, they are dominated by a game bird: the red grouse. Unfortunately, as many of us know, where there is red grouse moorland, there is usually not a hen harrier in sight. So, I could not begin my search at home, nor could I begin it where I now live in Glasgow. No! To find my quarry, I had to venture further north into Scotland, to the beautiful and rather breathtaking, Isle of Mull.

Photograph I took at Loch  , Isle of Mull

Photograph I took at Loch Na Keal , Isle of Mull

Photograph I took at Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

Photograph I took at Laggan Bay Loch Tuath , Isle of Mull

My first visit to Mull was in the summer of 2016 and I had many expectations concerning the wildlife that I would hopefully experience there. I was not disappointed. Golden eagles soared over the mountains, white-tailed eagles fished over the lochs and coast, red deer roamed the hills and otters played in the ocean bays. Despite these amazing sightings, for me, there was something missing. One particular bird of prey that continued to evade me; the hen harrier. On my first visit, it was not until the drive to the ferry that would take me away from Mull, where I spied a possible female hen harrier fluttering over the moorland. However, as quick as she arrived, she was gone and I was left wondering whether that was indeed my first hen harrier experience. My time in Mull over the summer was amazing, but it constantly niggled me that I had not managed to find the elusive hen harrier. So, for my second visit, spotting a hen harrier became my main priority.

My second visit, although it proved just as fabulous as the first, passed just as quickly. Once again I was enthralled by golden eagles and amazed by white-tailed eagles, but as the week went on, I became aware that again, my hunt for a hen harrier had failed. Pondering this fact as we drove back from a days walking, my family and dogs all in the car, we drove over a deserted moorland. It was then, with a very nervous springer spaniel fidgeting uneasily in my footwell (Floyd hates cars), that I saw my quarry. Tinged with my uncontrollable excitement, the words that quite literally tumbled from my mouth were almost inaudible:

‘Hen harrier hen harrier, male hen harrier!’

Thankfully, my dad stopped the car and I almost fell out of the door as I pushed it open, scrambling to get a better look. My camera around my neck, I waved goodbye to dignity, sent my regards to poise, and totally ignored grace, as I scrambled up a steep sphagnum covered bank, so that I could gaze across the endless wild moorland. My foot soaking from the bogs, my hair blowing madly in the wind, it was then that I reached the top of the bank and when I did…..nothing. The moorland before me was quite literally, lifeless. My male hen harrier had disappeared. I stood for a while, but realising that my family were waiting for me in the car down on the road, I abandoned my hunt begrudgingly. I had missed him. Muttering profanities under my breath, I trudged down the slope and slid back into the car, deflated. Once again, we started to drive, but about 30 seconds later, my mum spoke.

‘What’s that?’

Flying above the moorland, his black tipped wings beating against the breeze, I realised he was back. Narrowing my eyes, I could not help feeling that this bird was mocking me a little, but I didn’t really mind. Again, we stopped. Staring out the window, I had to make a decision. Watch him from the car and not stress Floyd out anymore, or, follow this amazing bird out into the fresh air. I made my decision and with a dirty look from Floyd as I opened the car door, I trudged out once again up the slope. Although I did not manage anything resembling a decent photograph, I did get to watch a male hen harrier dance in the wind and swoop down over the moorland as he hunted. It was fleeting, but it was breathtaking and totally worth the years of waiting.

Being able to observe not just the hen harrier, but also the golden eagle and white-tailed eagle in their natural habitats, is something that yes always fascinates me, but also always leaves me with a question: how? How could anyone witness these species in action and want to harm them? Watching a white-tailed eagle soar above the water as he looks for fish, or observing a hen harrier dance over moorland, are scenes that should only stir feelings of awe and admiration. However, it would only be in an ideal world where everyone harboured the same emotions for such species. An ideal world which, unfortunately, is not our own. In our world, eagles and harriers are perceived as a threat; a threat to livestock, or a threat to game. Birds of prey can be viewed as something to be exterminated, something that may harms profits and livelihoods, and therefore, should not be part of our ecosystems. But they are. As apex predators, raptors are an important part of our ecosystems, and they have a right to be there. To kill such important species because of their perceived threat, is, in attitude, nothing short of medieval.

The white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle have shown great recovery in Scotland, though only in some areas. In England, Wales and Ireland, this recovery has not been mimicked, with persecution eradicating these birds in those areas where they have dared to stray. For the hen harrier, areas such as the Isle of Mull, where red grouse shooting is not practiced, remain some of the only relatively safe havens for these birds to survive. When it comes to England and Wales, efforts to conserve the hen harrier have proved fruitless, with persecution undoing any good work. – White- tailed Eagle – Golden Eagle

My first glimpse of the hen harrier was a magnificent and special one, and one which will never be forgotten.However, after all the excitement and once the elation at spotting this species had passed, I found myself questioning my experience. Do not get me wrong, it was an amazing few minutes and I was delighted with my find, but I found myself asking why? Why did I have to travel 250 miles to see this bird, when their natural habitat sits right on my family homes doorstep? We know the answer. But it is not a good enough one, nor one we should accept.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Bog-trotter says:

    Lovely piece Eleanor, captures your enthusiasm for your quarry – the charismatic and enigmatic ‘silver ghost’. They are simply magic and well done with your perseverance.

    We need them back where they belong and the current situation, in my opinion, of illegal persecution is totally unacceptable.

    My first ‘Henry’ this year was 2 January when one had an altercation with a ‘shortie’ which had made a kill and duly defended his supper.


    • Thank you very much for your comments, I am glad you enjoyed the article! They are absolutely stunning birds to watch and I feel lucky to have seen one in the wild (even if it was only for a few minutes) when there are so few in the UK.

      I completely agree and persecution is a problem that needs to be tackled head on if these birds are to survive. It is unacceptable but we still have a long way to go unfortunately. Keep fighting!

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