Nature in Focus – The Curious Case of England’s Hen Harriers
Nature in Focus this week looks at the Hen Harrier.
Extinction – a phrase connotative with the dinosaurs and creatures of the ice age. To think of an extinction occurring in our lifetime is almost unfathomable, especially in a country like England. However this distant prospect may soon become an inconvenient reality as one of the nation’s most iconic species has taken a nose-dive in recent years. The species in question; the hen harrier, a bird that has already risen from the ashes after previous population crashes – only to be staring into the abyss once more in 2017. With National Hen Harrier Day kicking off on August the 5th – here’s an Eco Companion guide to the colourful and compelling history of this magnificent bird of prey.
But wait – what even is a hen harrier?
They may not have the overpowering presence of a golden eagle or the exhilarating speed of a peregrine, but it more than makes up for it with incomparable elegance. Choreographically superb, pairs of harriers will perform an elaborate courtship ritual known as skydancing, with males acrobatically impressing females. The plumage of the female, best described as a mottled brown, is in stark contrast with the male, who adorns a sleek silver number.
British hen harriers breed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and in northern England (but more on that later). Not one for the limelight, their preferred habitats include uplands, moorlands and heathlands, basically as remote as possible. As well as being generally stunning looking birds, they have, in part, inspired aeronautical engineering (Harrier jump jets anyone?) and was shortlisted in the British National Bird vote – the only time when a robin would beat a hen harrier.
So, how are hen harrier populations faring?
Population trends for hen harriers would best be described as ‘bumpy’. Whilst historical records are sparse, we know that they disappeared as a breeding bird in England in the early 20th century. This is a trend shared with many other birds of prey species as a result of merciless persecution. Post-WWII, the species improved as attitudes changed, as did the usage of our wild landscapes. Populations remained low but relatively stable, until the turn of the 21st century.
The 2000’s were not kind to the harriers, with increased research highlighting a gradual decline. Not good news but let’s not panic, right? How about learning that hen harrier numbers in England alone have declined by a quarter in the last 12 years? Okay, where’s that panic button… Recent statistics hardly soften the blow, with English breeding pairs decreasing from 12 in 2010 to merely 4 in 2016, with a nationwide loss of 88 pairs of birds in that time. You don’t need a maths degree to predict what may happen in the next 12 years. Perhaps you can understand why conservationists are so concerned.
Hold on – why is this happening?
There is sadly not a simple answer with a quick fix as there are many overlapping factors that may lead to an overall decline of the species. Such as most endangered animals, specialist requirements leave little room for manoeuvre. For giant pandas, it’s a reliance on bamboo and a miniscule fertility window – for hen harriers, it’s peace and quiet, a surplus of prey and acres upon acres of moorland. Picky, I know. Recognised constraints on breeding success include severe weather and increased predators. Typically ground nesters, hen harriers are hampered by foxes, badgers and generally anything that fancies egg for breakfast.
Alas, for the harriers, there is a solution to this pesky problem – Grouse Moors! Salvation! These landscapes are meticulously managed and thus predator free, there’s constant security and they’re usually full of grouse, hen harrier heaven! The only downside is the fact that the grouse shooting industry is a cultural mainstay, highly regarded and also worth tens of millions of pounds to the national economy… and harriers tend to spoil the party. Newsflash: hen harriers feasting on grouse is somewhat counterproductive if you are running a grouse moor.
So begins the crux of the issue, as the very cause of their original extinction is dragging them back to obscurity. The medieval mentality of eradicating birds of prey remains an issue in modern times. Whilst it may be easy to jump to drastic conclusions, evidence in the last few years points towards raptor crimes still occurring in the UK. The scale of this is unclear, however conservationists are certain that it is still happening after centuries. The bottom line is that the persecution of these birds is illegal and the most direct cause of a population decrease. Many dispute these claims, stating that without moorland management, the population would be far worse off. Debates have sprung up left, right and centre, a notably example being the heated exchange between Springwatch presenter Chris Packham and ex-England cricketer Ian Botham – hardly Batman Vs Superman.
In these situations, we feel compelled to point the finger in whichever direction we wish to place blame. The fact is, hen harriers are rare enough as it is, therefore monitoring them is a mission in itself. The exact nature of what goes on in grouse moors remains undisclosed as they are mostly privately owned and run with little elbow-room for deeper investigations. As it’s a gamekeeper’s word against an environmentalist’s, it presents a complex game of conservation Cluedo.
Is there any hope of helping the situation?
If you feel compelled enough to act in favour of British hen harriers, the best way to help and have your voice heard would be to attend an event on this coming HEN HARRIER DAY. To prevent confusion, events are not limited to one day and are instead stretched over the weekend. Gatherings can be found in several locations across the UK, including a flagship rally at the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes reserve, with events and speeches led by Chris Packham himself. These events are aimed to both raise money for hen harrier conservation and also raise awareness to the plight of these birds. If you’re not in the UK, you can get involved by donating to the cause; why not buy yourself a hen harrier day T-shirt? Additionally, the easiest way to contribute is by getting involved via social media, the most effective medium in which to get the message out there!
For further information, please visit the website here: http://henharrierday.org/
In summary, immediate action is required. There is no doubt about that. Although the population may be more numerous in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is still in decline, with stable populations in the Orkney isles and Isle of Man coming as little consolidation. Never, in modern times, has a species taken such a drastic tumble towards the trap-door of extinction, and it may well go under the radar. You may have never seen a hen harrier before, but why let that compromise whether future generations should see them? A bird of majesty, a bird of inspiration and a bird that needs to stay.
If you want to travel further afield check out our Bird Watching Tour of Mexico.