Too Close to Home
Hen Harriers. A bird that often finds itself in the headlines and usually, due to the plight this species faces, the headlines are rarely positive. As many of us know, and many of us don’t, the Hen Harrier has been persecuted by man for hundreds of years, and is considered the most persecuted bird in the whole of the UK. Due to this persecution, their numbers have dropped dramatically and those Harriers that do manage to breed successfully, particularly in England, are few and far between. These days, chicks that fledge successfully are under close watch from organisations concerned for their survival, such as the RSPB, and are satellite tagged. Cruelly, many of these chicks that have fledged and are under close monitoring, have mysteriously disappeared. With no sign of malfunction, their satellites have suddenly stopped transmitting and for many harriers, no trace of them is ever found. So, it is hardly surprising that they eye of suspicion falls upon those who illegally persecute these birds, especially since, on many occasion, these birds disappear over or very near areas of red grouse shooting moorland.
My interest in birds was peaked at a very young age when I watched a David Attenborough video on common species of garden birds. Not long after this, I discovered birds of prey and they became my fascination. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long before I came across the Hen Harrier. This discovery however, was only ever in books and online, never in person. This fact always frustrated me, especially due to the fact that I was raised in an area in rural Northumberland, surrounded by habitat that would be considered perfect for these beautiful birds. Unfortunately however, this perfect habitat has long been claimed by something else; red grouse shooting moorland. Should I have seen a Hen Harrier near the small village where I grew up, I don’t know how I would have reacted. Presumably though, it would have been something similar to the euphoric reaction I had two years ago on the Isle of Mull, when I saw my first Hen Harrier. Looking back, I really should apologise to my dad, as I virtually hijacked the wheel of the car and forced him to pull over, whilst I manically repeated the words ‘Harrier! Harrier!’ in quick succession. Then, jumping from the car, I charged up a small hill onto some moorland to watch the male skydancer pirouette across the sky. Breath officially taken, I watched in awe for those few seconds, before he disappeared once again around the side of a mountain.
I had to wait until I was 24 years old and travel 250 miles to the west coast of Scotland just to get a glimpse of the magnificent Hen Harrier. Although I was thrilled that I had finally caught a glimpse of this elusive species, I also felt a little bit of resentment to those who had put me, and so many others, in such a situation, where we have to go on great journeys to see this raptor. Although I have long been aware of the persecution of the Hen Harrier, it hit me even harder than usual this week when I read a recent news article. A news article that told us that another satellite tagged Hen Harrier had gone missing, a female, named Ada.
Ada hatched this summer and was the first to leave her nest. Reading this information myself, I felt the usual emotions of anger and frustration, but before I had got too far through, something stopped me in my tracks. A mention of where she had disappeared. It was one word and that word happens to be the village I grew up in, in Northumberland. I suddenly felt even more incensed that I had seconds ago. This beautiful place in the North Pennines, was now contaminated by the disappearance of an amazing bird. This place I knew so well, these moorlands where I regularly walk, are now tainted with the blood of illegal persecution. Or is that an assumption? Perhaps it wasn’t illegal persecution! An accident! A freak incident? Sadly, all the evidence of similar crimes, would suggest otherwise.
I know the landscape of my home. I know the areas of beauty that are breath- taking, rolling hills, steep river valleys, moorlands and the many species they all support. I know the faces of the people who live there, some I know personally, others I don’t. However, I also watch the shooting parties roll up and congregate in the village before they set off for their day, hear the shots echo over the hills during the autumn and winter. I am horrified that such an incident has occurred at the place that I call home, but at the same time, I am not surprised. One incident that occurred a few years ago has stuck in my mind and reminded me then, as it does now, of some of the people who may also be associated with this area.
I was out running in what was probably early autumn. It was a route I knew well but something of a remote route, a route that took you round the moorlands and up and down the hills. As I was running, something had caught my eye and made me smile, a pair of buzzards circling over the moorland just next to the road I was running along. It was then, that a large pick up sped past me and pulled over further up the road. As I watched, I recognised this man to likely be one of the gamekeepers of the area from the way he was dressed. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but as he stood, he began to raise suspicion. He loitered by his truck, glanced at the birds, at me and then walked around in small circles to nowhere in particular. Call me suspicious, but I began to feel like he was waiting for me to leave. So, with the buzzards still circling, I slowed to a walk, the truck still ahead of me up the road. The man was still waiting, so I stopped completely and came to sit on the wall by the moorland. Getting out my phone I acted, or at least I believed I was acting, nonchalantly. After a moment, I looked back at the man, he looked slightly irritated and then got back in his jeep and drove off. Suspicious indeed.
The disappearance of Ada is another blow to the conservation of Hen Harriers on our shores. For me, the thing that hit home the most was just that, that it happened at my home. Often when we read about these things they make us angry, but there is something strange when it happens in an area that you know and love. Ada will not be the last to disappear. This, sadly, is fact. There will be others and there will be those who continue to flout the law. The struggle the Hen Harrier faces is far from over and lies entirely in our hands. These are beautiful, majestic and precious birds, a piece of our natural heritage, our natural heritage, that is being destroyed by the few, for the few. Red grouse live in their thousands on grouse moors, believe me I know! You can’t move for them! So abundant that shooters do not even take most of those that have been shot! This is something I know when my dogs bring me unwanted presents of shot, dead, red grouse.
So I have a question, in areas where there are so many red grouse and little else, can we not make room for our natural biodiversity? Make way for the rightful ecosystem? Not make a little room for our majestic birds of prey, especially, the great Hen Harrier.
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