There’s no doubt about it: the staff who work at the Rutland Osprey Project are very lucky. We have great volunteers who support us with their time, commitment and enthusiasm; a community of local people and business owners (including landowners, farmers and fish farmers) who understand the importance of conservation; and we can be proud of the fact that our project is considered by many to be a success. Although our work is far from finished, there is now a stable population of Ospreys breeding in central England after 150 years of absence: the whole purpose of the translocation.
We’re also lucky in that hard work and tireless efforts have meant that people – our visitors, supporters, volunteers, sponsors, etc. – actually know what an Osprey is. Engagement, education, entertainment are huge parts of what we do, as well as ecology, and no one part of this is more important than any other. Without the first three, the final one would arguably struggle to exist.
And that’s why I’m worried about the Hen Harrier. I went out for dinner with friends the other night and got going about Hen Harriers, and the fact that they’re facing a very real extinction in England. I was met with polite, but blank stares. So I went back a step further – do you know what a Hen Harrier is? Hmmmm. One thought that maybe she’d heard of it; not even a flickering of recognition from the others. Well, what about just any Harrier? Still no. What about a Bird of Prey? Ahh, that was more familiar territory, but still not entirely confident.
And then I realised; before I took up birding as a hobby and really got addicted to nature, did I know what a Hen Harrier was? Probably not actually. It’s just not a bird that most of us would engage with on a cultural level; they’re not in our gardens or roving across your standard field; they’re not wheeling over the M40; they don’t feature in kid’s books or songs or even really on television, except if you know what to watch. You have to actively go and look for one (now more so than ever) and be able to identify it in remote, windswept locations.
And this shows the importance of socio-cultural factors in nature conservation: deep down, most people need that human connection.
So, what is a Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus?
They really are gorgeous birds: males are a pale grey colour, elegant and tapering with wingtips that look like they’ve been dipped in ink, yellow legged and yellow eyed; females and juveniles are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail: ‘ringtail’. They fly with wings held in a shallow ‘V’ across moorlands (or marshes in the winter) gliding low in search of food, which mainly consists of meadow pipits and voles. Identifying your first Harrier can be tricky – the more familiar Kites and Buzzards would dominate your thoughts – but there’s something distinctive about the way that they fly, and once you’ve got it you won’t lose it.
What’s the problem?
Hen Harriers are our most persecuted Bird of Prey. They have fallen into conflict over many, many years with Grouse Moor owners, who see the bird as having a direct impact on the populations of Red Grouse bred specifically for the purposes of shooting. Moors are intensively ‘managed’ and whilst some owners now have good relationships with local Trusts and wildlife charities, others continue to abuse the land, abuse the wildlife and abuse some misguided and ill-conceived ‘right’ that makes them believe that they are somehow above the law. Peer-reviewed research suggests that good habitat remains that could support over 300 pairs of Hen Harriers in England, but ‘there are 962-1285 breeding pairs of Hen Harrier ‘missing’ from Scotland and 322 – 339 pairs ‘missing’ from England‘. The killing of Hen Harriers is illegal and we had all hoped that the time when Bird of Prey persecution, which seems so deeply Victorian and parochial, had passed. It hasn’t and as a consequence we are facing the reality that a Bird of Prey will probably go extinct in England in the 21st Century because of direct, human persecution. Wow. In 2014 just three pairs have bred – all have required 24 hour protection. You can read more about this on Mark Avery’s blog, as well as by visiting the websites of Chris Packham and Birders Against Wildlife Crime, the RSPB, the North West Raptor Protection Group and the Wildlife Trusts.
What’s this got to do with Ospreys?
Simply put, the Osprey is a bird with a tumultuous and conflicted history in the UK, just like the Hen Harrier. Without the work of many individuals, organisations and businesses it would not be recovering. Ospreys, and thus the Rutland Osprey Project, does not exist in isolation from the many other habitats and species in the UK (and beyond that, the world!) but has to be placed in a wider conservation and cultural context. We’re doing pretty well overall (apart from a few natural ups and downs), but we can only say that we’re truly successful if we keep working towards a bigger picture. Hence why we, the Wildlife Trusts, are trying to halt the persecution of the Hen Harrier.
What can you do?
Lots! Show your support by adding a ‘twibbon’ to your Facebook or Twitter account, so that you can raise awareness amongst friends and colleagues; learn more by listening to these podcasts by Birders Against Wildlife Crime; or join in with Hen Harrier Day – the 10th August – by attending a peaceful, legal gathering in Derbyshire, Lancashire or Northumberland. There’s lots of blogs and social media support out at the moment, so reading and sharing these is a great way to understand the situation further, too. You can donate to the cause on the RSPB website, which will help to track the birds movements and support staff with surveillance equipment.