Hen Harriers 2020: the most successful breeding season since records began

Gamekeepers report bird of prey success stories from across England this year. Below is a snapshot of these stories and this blog will be updated with news from keepers as it comes in...

A young male harrier having his tracking device fitted. This bird was bred and reared on a driven grouse moor in Lancashire.

Birds of prey are are having one of their most successful breeding years on land managed for shooting. With the recent allegations that there has been orchestrated persecution of birds of prey during lockdown – with the finger pointed firmly at gamekeepers – the news from our keepers is that they are doing well.

Once the birds have fledged and out of harms way from disturbance, many estates are reporting success stories.

Land managers and birders has always known that non-intentional disturbance, walkers, rock climbers and dogs can have a huge impact on the breeding success of any species of bird. When the possibility of unknown disturbance and unknown failures have been discussed at high level meetings, there have been some groups that would rather ignore this possibility, even after any subsequent police investigation has proved inconclusive and with absolutely no evidence of human interference existing, raptor workers and the bird charity tend to go back to the usual anti-shooting rhetoric of persecution by gamekeepers.

At this point it is worth mentioning that raptors do not live forever, and if one does die it is more likely to be down to natural causes rather than persecution, after all it is estimated that 70% + of Hen Harriers die in their first year down to natural causes, which could be predation, disease/parasites, or starvation caused by the inability to hunt due to poor weather.

Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

Keepers on an estate managed for grouse, pheasants and partridge in the Forest of Bowland have been monitoring a peregrine nest site that caused concern due to its easy accessibility. The hen peregrine decided that a nest on the floor with easy access on foot was the place to set up home and rear four chicks, three females and one male. Thankfully due to an active predator control programme the nest was kept safe and Keepers arranged for the birds to be ringing by a licensed British Trust for Ornithology expert. This is just one of many peregrine sites that are on managed moorland in the forest of Bowland, Lancashire.  The chicks have now fledged and will add to an already healthy population in the area.

There is more really good news that will come out from Bowland which will be released when the keepers and estates are happy that the birds have fledged safely.

Hen Harriers in Bowland

As of the 15th July it is confirmed that there have been seven nests, one with seven chicks was unfortunately predated by a fox and two more failed for unknown reasons but it is also thought that these to were predated. 12 harriers fledged with more chicks still on the ground.

Solo: A Bowland Story

Yet another good news story from one of the estates managed for shooting in the Forest of Bowland.

In late May a young male hen harrier arrived in Bowland after over-wintering in Spain, returning to his home ground. He soon found a mate and in early June they began nesting. To reduce any unwanted disturbance the nesting site was kept secret and the pair were left to their own devices and only monitored from afar.

A few days after the hatching date the nest was quickly inspected by the estate head gamekeeper and a Natural England hen harrier expert to see if they had been successful.

Only one chick was present, which looked quite small and bedraggled and it was thought that in all probability it wouldn’t survive. All the odds were stacked against this very late nest. The weather was taking a change for the worse, with days of constant rain and this young chick had no brood siblings to share body heat with. To make matters worse there was news of a nearby hen harrier brood of seven chicks which had all been predated by a fox prior to fledging.

At the end of July the time had come to inspect the nest again with a view to attaching a leg ring to the chick for identification. To everyones surprise the chick was in fantastic health! Measurements were taken and it was assessed that the chick was a male and was a good enough weight and condition to fit a satellite tag. This will allow Natural England and the estate gamekeeper to monitor his progress and learn more about the birds habits and movements. Maybe he will visit Spain like his father? He was named Solo (for obvious reasons!) and was quickly returned to his nest.

It’s a record year for successful hen harrier nests in England with the Bowland area in particular faring well. The managed moorlands and remote uplands are the last stronghold of the hen harrier in England. For the past few years there has been a plan to re-introduce Harriers to the Wiltshire Downs but despite gamekeepers and landowners being completely on board with the programme, for the second year running the RSPB has blocked the importation of these beautiful birds from the continent. For more information on this visit the CA website.

The Peak District, Derbyshire

In the Peak District it is much the same story, keep the nest quiet until the birds fledge.

As a small sample, two peregrines nest sites have now fledged in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District. Both of these sites are on manages grouse moors.

So far we know that the Dark Peak area has produced 15 successful merlin nests producing 50+ fledged chicks, six successful peregrine nests producing 14 fledged chicks, seven goshawks producing 17 young.

A further two historic nest sites have been used this year in the Dark Peak. Both nested and successfully fledged chicks, both nest sites were within 70 yards of what can only be described in a normal year as the busiest footpaths in England, but due to Covid-19 lockdown and the lack of visitors using the footpaths they have successfully reared and fledged young.

Unfortunately no harriers attempted to nest this year, also we so far have no reports of short-eared owls, could both of these species be being effected by the lack of voles in the peak?

Wiltshire

Keepers have been doing amazing work for years, and yet because of the bad publicity gamekeepers have received they are hesitant about singing their own praises.

Here in Wiltshire, we have a gamekeeper who has been putting up nest boxes across the estate and has records going back 20. Every year there are barn owls, tawny owls, kestrels, sparrowhawks, buzzards, red kite, peregrine and hobby’s among the birds of prey that successfully co-habit (and breed) on the estate. Each year he arranges for the BTO to come along and ring the birds. This is joined up conservation that is replicated across the UK with gamekeepers working with other conservationists to better our wider environment.

Another example in Wiltshire was the gamekeeper who found a peregrine falcon being mobbed by buzzards. He safely retrieved the bird and rang the local Hawk and Owl Trust (from Bath) who came out and took the bird away to The West of England Falconry Centre.

The gamekeeper from Neston Park Estate asked if The West of England Falconry Centre could put a Facebook post out thanking the gamekeeper for saving the peregrine falcon which they did but they said he was a member of the public, which obviously he is, but they would not change it or add ‘gamekeeper.’

Yorkshire Dales

This is the latest update from gamekeepers in the Yorkshire Dales. There is a large scale merlin study which is in its fourth year with some great success and will be spreading out into Nidderdale in spring 2021.

At least two nests of harriers, successfully released under brood management have been used a second year running helping to spread harriers out across the Dales.

Yorkshire Dales Merlin project

Since 2016 a group of moorland gamekeepers has been monitoring Merlin nest sites on several estates in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Participants in this BTO-licensed study, led by an experienced Merlin researcher, found 19 pairs in 2020 of which 16 bred successfully and reared at least 52 chicks . The mean brood size per successful pair was 3.25 young. This raptor conservation project has identified more than 30 heather-dominated moorland areas where merlins have nested during the past 5 years.

Keepers have also been doing great work getting children out to help build owl and kestrel boxes which we’ve been putting up across the Yorkshire Dales. They have been making these nesting boxes as the Estates and Gamekeepers work with local raptor workers to ring and monitor both species.

Hampshire

For years now gamekeepers have been building owl boxes to try and help boost the populations of these wonderful predators and in Hampshire one keeper has been doing more than just that. In addition to the owl boxes and kestrel boxes Tony has been providing habitats for them to hunt in creating rough grass areas in addition to those the estate already had in the agri environment schemes. The estate have over 50 acres of rough grassland and chalk downland habitat. Tony as well as many gamekeepers are true wildlife lovers and they try to leave the environment that they work in in a better way then way they became the cusdodian of it.

Its not just about birds of prey here but the stone curlew is doing well on the estate too and to hear its call over the chalk downland is a special thing and hopefully with the work of keepers one that will become more common.

The Stone curlews managed to rear and fledge a brood of chicks this year after failing with the first brood. The failed brood was predated by corvids but after a sustained control programme the corvids were stopped.

Willow Tits and Wood Larks which are red listed birds also nested in the estates managed woodlands again this year, after the shooting season is over Tony coppices small areas each year which is hugely beneficial to all wildlife as it leaves coppice areas next to hazel. The hazel was coppiced a couple of years previously thus creating a patch work woodland rather than clear felling all!

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