Category: RSPB Skydancer Project

Blog Post: Tagging success in Scotland this summer!

Our project team have fitted more than 10 young hen harriers with satellite tags this summer in Scotland. We have worked hard this summer to tag birds from the Scottish Borders up to the Scottish Highlands, with the generous support and assistance from of a variety of partners, volunteers, landowners, their managers and staff, and licenced taggers from the raptor conservation community. One of this year’s Scottish youngsters (image courtesy of Steve Downing) Hen harriers are one of our rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. The satellite tags allow us to follow the lives of the young birds as they strike out on their own. The last British Isles hen harrier population survey in 2016 put their numbers at just 575 territorial pairs, an overall significant decline of 24 percent since 2004. Estimates suggest there should be over 1,500 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland alone, yet only 460 pairs were recorded in 2016. Before tagging could take place, we monitored hen harrier nests across the country to understand more about how their breeding success varies year to year and why nests sometimes fail. The information gathered from birds tagged in previous years has revealed important information about how they spend their first few years of their lives. Two of the birds tagged in Scotland last summer headed over to Ireland for the winter before returning this spring, and one of the chicks tagged this year is the offspring of a female tagged in a previous year by the project, providing an opportunity to follow the species through two generations. Tagging also reveals some worrying turns of events, with some birds either suddenly or inexplicably disappearing or being illegally killed – almost always on or close to grouse moors. Earlier this year RSPB Scotland appealed for information on the disappearances in areas managed for grouse shooting of two birds tagged by the project – Marci, tagged in 2018 at Mar Lodge and last recorded in the Cairngorms National Park near Strathdon, and Skylar, tagged in 2017 in Argyll who disappeared close to Elvanfoot. In May this year, Rannoch, tagged in 2017, was found dead in an illegally set spring trap on a Perthshire grouse moor. Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project Manager for Hen Harrier LIFE, said: “It’s a real privilege to work with and follow the journeys of these incredible birds of prey and the sight of one of them skydancing never fails to take my breath away. “However, very few people get to experience such a spectacle as the British Isles are missing 80 percent of the breeding hen harriers they could support. These birds face enough natural challenges in their first few years of life trying to avoid predators and learn how to hunt without the added pressure of illegal killing, shooting and trapping by humans. “With Scotland being the stronghold for the British hen harrier population, tagging these young birds here and understanding what is happening to them is crucial for our efforts to create a more secure long-term future for the species.” An independent enquiry commissioned by the Scottish Government is currently undertaking a review of the environmental impact of grouse moor management and possible options for regulation. RSPB Scotland is calling for licencing of the industry to be introduced to bring an end to the continued illegal killing of birds of prey, including hen harriers as well as golden eagles, red kites and others, which is threatening some of the country’s most iconic species.

Comment on Joy at new English hen harrier chicks is tempered by spectre of illegal killling

Cathleen. Good stuff. Though please don’t forget to thank private landowners, farmers, land managers, gamekeepers, foresters et al who are working, often behind the scenes, on keeping sites secure, controlling predators, managing other recreation users and land use operations (harvest, tree felling) etc.Especially as long term conservation can only succeed through collaborative partnership efforts.

Blog Post: Joy at new English hen harrier chicks is tempered by spectre of illegal killling

The Hen Harrier LIFE project team are delighted to announce that we have been involved in protecting and monitoring nine successful hen harrier nests in England this year, with the successful fledging of 33 chicks. This marks the continuation of a small increase in hen harrier breeding success in England and we hope this progress continues, as the hen harrier is one of the UK’s most threatened bird species. In addition to those supported by the team, a small number of other hen harrier nests were successful in England this year. We look forward to public confirmation of this year’s total hen harrier breeding season numbers from Natural England in the near future. Northumberland hen harriers have now made it five in a row, with 2019 being the fifth year they have successfully bred and raised chicks, making it the most consistent nesting place in England for this rare bird of prey. Nine young have fledged from three nests on Forestry England and nearby private land. Originally six nests were located, and we had hoped we might surpass last year’s total of 11 fledged young from three nests, but unfortunately it was not to be. Two broods of chicks were lost in the spring due to the very wet weather, which would have soaked the nest and made the young chicks too wet and cold to survive. Another brood of chicks was lost to natural predation by a fox, which is unfortunate but is one of the inevitable risks facing ground nesting birds. The success of hen harriers in Northumberland is supported by a combined effort from the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, which consists of a team of people from Forestry England, RSPB, Northumberland National Park Authority, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumberland Police and local raptor experts. We are all proud to work together to find and monitor the nests. Gill Thompson, Chair of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership said: “It is great to see hen harriers nesting and fledging young successfully in Northumberland for the fifth year in a row. Thanks to the team from all the organisations that worked hard to locate and watch the nests. It was particularly satisfying to see a tagged bird breed in Northumberland after we had watched her during the winter elsewhere in the county. Let’s hope the class of 2019 fair just as well.” In Bowland, 22 hen harrier chicks have fledged from five nests on the United Utilities Estate. This is the second year in a row that hen harriers have nested successfully at the East Lancashire site, after 13 chicks fledged from three nests in 2018. Following six years of little or no consistent breeding success in the Forest of Bowland, we are now hopeful that this could mark the start of the return of these rare and beautiful birds of prey to an area once considered a stronghold for them in England. The success of hen harriers on the United Utilities Estate in Bowland is also supported by a unique partnership. Since early spring, RSPB’s staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities, their shooting and farming tenants, and the Forest of Bowland AONB, have worked hard to protect and support the five hen harrier nests on this estate through close monitoring, diversionary feeding, habitat management, and careful avoidance of disturbance. Matt Upton, Catchment Manager for the United Utilities Bowland Estate, said: “I would like to thank everyone involved for their continued conservation efforts. All the hard work and dedication has paid off again this year and it’s a real joy to see these magnificent birds of prey are one again choosing to make Bowland their home. In the Peak District, two hen harrier chicks fledged from a nest in the High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park. This also marks the second year in a row that hen harriers have nested successfully on this National Trust-owned land, after four chicks fledged from one nest in 2018. Again, the key to this success has been partnership work between the National Trust’s ranger team, their shooting tenants, the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, Natural England and the RSPB. The success of the hen harriers in this area is very much seen as a symbol for the future direction of the uplands. Jon Stewart, the National Trust’s General Manager for the Peak District, said: “The hen harrier has been one of the most persecuted birds of prey in Britain for many years and we have set out on a mission to work with others to create the conditions for the harrier and other birds of prey to thrive once again in the uplands. We hope this will be a positive model for improving the fate of our birds of prey and providing the healthy natural environment that so many people care about and want to see. We know how fragile any recovery of hen harriers is. We want to see uplands richer in wildlife and beauty, widely enjoyed and providing huge public benefits. For this to be a reality we need to see birds returning in following years to breed”. Prior to fledging, a number of this year’s chicks were fitted with satellite tags and colour rings by the project team. What is crucial now is that the strong, positive partnerships continue with landowners, land agents, their tenants and gamekeepers to help to continue to protect these young birds as they leave their nests and fly around the country, to ensure that they remain a key part of the future of a growing hen harrier population. One of this year’s hen harrier chicks, whose nest we have helped to protect and monitor (image by Steve Downing) Hen harriers are on the verge of disappearing as a breeding bird in England owing to ongoing illegal killing associated with driven grouse shooting, and they aren’t doing much better in the rest of the British Isles. Scientific research published in March this year, based on data from Natural England, showed that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers were considered or confirmed to have been illegally killed on British grouse moors, and the birds were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over grouse moor than any other type of land use. Chris Corrigan, RSPB’s Director for England said: “We are fantastically proud of our team having played a role in the successful fledging of 33 hen harrier chicks this year. However, this success is tarnished by the clear evidence that illegal killing of this rare bird of prey continues with little sign of it coming to an end. This must change. We should have over 300 pairs of hen harrier in England, yet shockingly only nine pairs have successfully bred here this year and this species remains on the brink of local extinction. If all of this year’s chicks were to survive and breed, it would more than double the current English population. However, in our tagging study under the Hen Harrier LIFE project, none of the chicks we tagged in England in previous years are still alive: to date over half of them have died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. The pervasiveness of illegal killing means many of this year’s young hen harriers will not get the chance to raise a family of their own and so the population continues to decline. Until something is done to stop illegal killing it is hard to see a bright future for this year’s chicks.” In Bowland, in 2012 a tagged hen harrier named Betty died from an injury resulting from a shot gun wound and in 2014, barely two months after leaving their nests, Sky and Hope disappeared without trace when their tags suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting within a few miles of each other. Two young hen harriers tagged in Bowland in 2018 died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances – Thor’s tag stopped transmitting near same the location as Sky and Hope, and River’s body was found in North Yorkshire, lodged with two shotgun pellets. In Northumberland three tagged hen harriers named Finn, Athena, and Vulcan, all disappeared when their tags stopped transmitting in suspicious circumstances in March 2018, August 2018 and January 2019. In January 2017, Northumberland-born Carroll was found dead with two shotgun pellets lodged in her body. Octavia and Arthur who were tagged as chicks in the Peak District in the summer of 2018 both disappeared when their tags stopped transmitting suddenly and inexplicably in August and October 2018. We believe grouse shooting needs to change, that’s why we are calling for licencing of grouse moors. This will ensure they’re managed sustainably and legally, to secure a future for the next generation of hen harriers before we lose them altogether.

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day 2019

If you’re wondering how you can support hen harriers, why not pop along to a Hen Harrier Day event? Hen Harrier Day returns this month for the fifth year running with one main event taking place on 11 August at Carsington Water in Derbyshire, hosted by Wild Justice. There will be a range of speakers including Chris Packham and Iolo Williams, as well as members of the Hen Harrier LIFE project team. The event is family friendly and open to everyone, with lots of different activities planned to keep you entertained, including storytelling and puppet making. You can find out more information here . In support of Hen Harrier Day, there are also three other events planned, all of which will be attended by the project team, so do come along and say hello. Tomorrow, 3 August, in Perth, Scotland, the Revive Coalition will be hosting a one-day public conference to explore the impacts that grouse moors have on birds of prey and animal welfare, our environment and natural landscape. The event is free to attend, but please do book a ticket here if you’d like to go. On 10 August, there will be a Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Day hosted by the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) at Goathland Community Hub in North Yorkshire. The event will be attend by the volunteer raptor workers from NERF, North Yorkshire Police, Operation Owl and the RSPB, who are happy to chat to you about the issues affecting birds of prey and their commitment to bring illegal persecution to an end. You can find more details here . Also on 10 August, the RSPB will be hosting a Birds of Prey Day at our Saltholme reserve, where lucky visitors recently got to spot a hen harrier for themselves. This will be a family friendly day, with activities and talks from those passionate about protecting our birds of prey. If you want to know more about what we’re doing, you can find details here . The aim of these events is to highlight the plight of hen harriers and other birds of prey, with a show of public support for ending their illegal persecution, which is largely linked to management of moorland for grouse shooting. Hen harriers are a key species in our moorlands, but sadly, they are becoming an increasingly rare sight in the UK as hen harriers are continuing to decline. A wealth of evidence including Government reports show illegal killing as the primary reason the population remains in trouble. A recent study concluded that 72% of tagged hen harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed on British grouse moors and that the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. There is enough habitat for over 2,500 pairs of hen harriers in the British Isles but the 2016 hen harrier breeding survey revealed that there are only 575 territorial pairs left, down by 87 pairs from the last UK survey in 2010. Just four of these were in England, where the population remains on the brink of local extinction. It’s not just hen harriers which are facing threats on intensively managed grouse moors. Many protected birds of prey and other species are being killed illegally and other damaging practices are widespread, such as the burning of internationally important carbon-rich peatlands. As a result of the ongoing managed burning of peatland habitats in the uplands, carbon is being lost into the atmosphere, making the UK Government’s ambition of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 ever more challenging. Why not come along and support us and our partners to spend a day with like-minded people, raise awareness of these problems and find out what we’re doing to address them?

Blog Post: Five nests and first flights at Bowland

RSPB Bowland’s Project Officer, James Bray, talks us through Bowland’s 2019 breeding season, the excitement of 5 rare hen harrier nests, and conditions for the volunteer team as they brave the hills! For decades the Forest of Bowland was the most important site for breeding Hen Harriers in England. So much so, they were formally adopted as the logo of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In some years it was the only place in England that Hen Harriers bred, so their recent temporary loss as a breeding species* was particularly keenly felt by those with an interest in bird of prey conservation. 2018 was the best breeding season for Hen Harriers since the population crashed in 2012. We waited with baited breath for how 2019 would pan out, particularly as we know that a high percentage of young Hen Harriers disappear on driven grouse shooting estates across the country each winter ( see here ). My team of staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities staff and tenants, put everything into monitoring and protecting the birds when they’re here, but hen harriers travel widely and we can’t control what happens when they leave. Many of the chicks that fledged and left Bowland in 2018 did not survive the winter. It is therefore tremendously exciting to announce that we now have chicks in five nests , and some those chicks have already taken their first flights . Photo credit: Young hen harrier chicks in nest – Mick Demain. As we have done in every year since the RSPB started working in Bowland at the start of the 1980s, our team of volunteers and staff have been monitoring and protecting the birds on the estate since the start of Spring, in partnership with the landowner United Utilities and their farming and sporting tenants. In 2018 we had to deal with baking hot conditions (some members of the team took to lying in streams to cool down), whereas this year the weather has been a bit different. Warm calm spells have been rudely interrupted by spells of rain and cold wind, but our staff and volunteers have coped very well with the conditions. Left: Keeping out of the rain and wind – Paul Thomas. Right: The United Utilities estate is also important for a range of other red-listed species such as Ring Ouzel, Cuckoo and Curlew – Mick Demain. The harriers don’t appear to have been affected unduly by the weather either. We have been lucky that whilst there has been heavy rain, the downpours have been relatively short-lived, allowing the males plenty of time to hunt and feed their mates and chicks. It is amazing how quickly the season passes. It does not seem long ago that the beautiful grey males were skydancing over the hills in successful attempts to attract mates. Now, some of the chicks are taking their first flights. For people who have spent every day of the last few months watching over the harriers, this is such a special moment. We still have plenty of work to do to get through to the end of the season as well as to work to ensure that this year is the continuation of a recovery back to the population levels of the 2000s (over a dozen pairs nesting each year) and the population level that the Forest of Bowland Special Protection Area is designated for. Photo credit: One of the nesting females – Jack Ashton Booth I would like to say a huge thank you to the RSPB’s team of staff and volunteers who have put in a huge amount of work to monitor and protect the harriers so far, as well as to United Utilities staff, and their tenants for their amazing support for Hen Harriers and the RSPB’s work to protect them. A final word – we would implore people who are visiting Bowland to look for its amazing wildlife to stay on the paths and tracks during the breeding season to avoid disturbing nesting birds. All of Bowland’s wonderful wildlife can be seen without stepping off a track. * Harriers failed to breed in 2012, for the first time since they recolonised Bowland in the 1950s and didn’t return until 2015 when only a single chick was successfully reared from 7 nesting attempts. Hen Harriers then remained absent as a breeding species for a further two years until 2018.