North of England Raptor Conference 2009

by on Nov.15, 2009, under Birds, Family and friends, Northumberland

Yesterday was the North of England Raptor Conference 2009. This year it was organised by the two study groups based in the Peak District, and was held at the Agricultural Business Centre in Bakewell. The distance from the northeast had clearly discouraged most of the Northumberland raptor workers who normally attend. For us it was less of a problem though; Sarah’s parents live in Derbyshire so we were able to combine attending the conference with visiting them. As an aspect of birdwatching raptors aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they can be a fascinating part of an overall approach to the hobby, and a number of species lend themselves well to amateur study.

The first speaker was Bill Heinrich, talking about the work done by The Peregrine Fund with Peregrine, California Condor, Aplomado Falcon and Gyrfalcon. Some novel approaches to dealing with conservation problems caused by hunting were described, and it did raise the question of why we can’t adopt a process of engagement to deal with some of the problems we face in Britain.

A description of a survey of Merlin numbers followed, and this is particularly pertinent to Northumberland as some detailed work on the species has been carried out in our home county.

Next came Ian Newton. As the author of ‘The Sparrowhawk’, one of the best monographs we’ve ever read, we were both looking forward to hearing him speak again. As he was talking about the subject of that monograph, and the species of raptor that breeds closer to our office than any other, it was all the more fascinating. It’s a real gift to make scientific study interesting and understandable, but Professor Newton does that very well. Lots of ideas for studying our local Sparrowhawks occured to both of us during the talk, so some of the long dark winter nights will be taken up with planning that study.

The morning’s proceedings were drawn to a close by the estate manager for the National Trust in the Peak District, outlining the challenges that our upland areas face.

After lunch came a talk that we were both eagerly anticipating; Steve Roberts describing how to find, identify and study Honey Buzzards. To describe it as entertaining doesn’t really do justice to Steve’s approach to public-speaking.

Then it was the turn of Terry Pickford, with a talk entitled ‘Ground-nesting Peregrines in the Forest of Bowland’. What we actually got was a talk that concentrated almost exclusively on Hen Harriers. We understand Terry’s passion for Hen Harriers completely, but giving an unpublicised presentation on the scheduled topic for the next speaker, we both found rather offensive and distasteful.

The scheduled speaker from the RSPB had been unable to attend so a last-minute stand-in had the unenviable task of talking about ‘The Hen Harrier in 2009’. It was refreshing to hear a level-headed summary of the events of this year and we applaud the speaker for his openness and honesty in the face of some self-important heckling from one or two members of the audience.

Anthony Messenger was the next speaker, describing nearly 20 years of studying Hobbies in South Derbyshire. This was another talk that stimulated many ideas, particularly as the species occurs in small numbers in Northumberland during the breeding season.

The final speaker was Andrew Dixon, talking about Saker Falcon conservation and sustainability in Mongolia. Martin had been looking forward to this one as he taught with Andy’s wife Nicola in the early part of this decade. Like Bill Heinrich’s talk, this was another description of a ‘different’ approach to raptor conservation. Food for thought…

The conference ended with a short Q&A session, but you could probably have an all-day Q&A on Hen Harriers alone.

As the conference closed and delegates departed, we were fortunate to have an opportunity to chat with Steve Roberts and Andy Dixon about our own Honey Buzzard studies in Northumberland. Proven breeding remains an elusive goal…but we’ll get there.


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