Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…
We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂 Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…
Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest. He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather. As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell. Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it. Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared. Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier. She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground. The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her. Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky. When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂
Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site). During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located. And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.
The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution. First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn. After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests. He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area. 24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others. Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.
Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations. Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry. That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird. You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous. This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though. Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?
What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution. Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?
The recent shooting of a Red Kite (link) obviously had an impact as the number of friends and colleagues who contacted me to express their disgust at the incident was overwhelming.
The Northern Kites release project is a model of community involvement and connection to our threatened wildlife and, without it, it’s questionable whether the shooting would have created such a stir. Other birds of prey are persecuted to almost unbelievable levels but many, many incidents never make the news.
One of my own favourite birds, the Hen Harrier, may well be the most persecuted species in Britain, but community involvement with the birds that have nested in Northumberland this year (link) is raising the profile of this elegant species. After all, we can only appreciate what we know.