Saturday, 9 May 2015

Three Steps Back for the Hen Harriers

Image courtesy of RSPB

A few days ago, the news came from the United Utilities Bowland Estate that three breeding male Hen Harriers had mysteriously disappeared from their nest sites. This species is in such a dire situation that an occurrence like this naturally invoked great levels of shock in everyone who heard about it, including myself. The critical status of hen harriers is widely known, so much so that it has been included in David Lindo's  Vote for Britain's National Bird campaign in an attempt to gather more support and awareness for a species that only managed four successful breeding nests in 2014.

I actually read the news about the disappearances online just before I started a shift on the Chichester Peregrine Project and I now can't help but draw comparisons between the two species. I am in the wonderful position of being able to tell members of the public about the fantastic comeback the peregrine population has made since the 60s, when it was on the brink of extinction. Just like the harriers, the peregrines suffered from horrific levels of persecution. Threats came from landowners and pigeon racers who shot the falcons to protect their own birds and coupled with the poisonous effects of agricultural pesticides at the time, the falcons' population plummeted by 80%.

Since then, steps have been taken to protect the peregrines through the introduction of legal protection and control of pesticides. There are now 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK, many of which have adapted to urban environments, much like the Chi pair, and are repeatedly nesting in cathedrals and other tall buildings. It's taken half a century and a lot of hard work from dedicated people, but the population has made a significant recovery and the species is officially  a "Green Status" bird.

It is this story that fills me with hope for the hen harriers. They were driven to extinction by 1900 but despite recovering their numbers naturally, persecution has driven to them to dangerous levels yet again. The peregrines are proof that it is possible to make a comeback but with the constant onslaught of persecution still faced by the harriers, it is sometimes hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is very unusual for one male hen harrier to just disappear from an active nest. So for three to vanish in less than a month is highly suspicious and although no one knows "officially" what has happened to them, everyone will have drawn their own, matching conclusions. There is a glimmer of hope edging this story. According to Martin Harper's blog, one of the nests has been saved by a juvenile male who was thankfully accepted by the female. One out of three egg clutches may still have a chance of survival now.

While I stood in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral on Monday waxing lyrical to the visitors about the peregrine renaissance, there was a bittersweet undertone. When one species is thriving, there are countless others still suffering and fighting battles that, after events such as these, already seem lost.

The important thing to remember is that they aren't lost.

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