A Cumbrian Naturalist: Hen Harriers observed from my window.

I am one of those fortunate people who lives where I can spot birds of prey from the house and the last 3 autumns have had a mixture of harriers coming down to hunt on the moor opposite where I live. The first winter the whole family were fortunate to have observed 4 different hen harriers, including 1 adult female, 1 first year male and 2 first year females. The adult female was the only one winged tagged and turned out to be a 9 year old bird from Langholm not seen for many years. The rest of the harriers were free of any tags. This was the year of the invasion from Europe with record numbers of birds crossing the North Sea especially Hen Harriers and Short eared Owls and had the adult female been overseas where they are not shot!

The reason so many raptors concentrate opposite the house where I now live is the result of a local shoot which have released 4000 Red legged Partridges. The partridges had dispersed out away from the shoot leaving many to be hunted by the harriers and other birds of prey on the surrounding moorland. All these partridge need feeding so a large amount of grain is supplied for the birds allowing concentrations of mice, voles, finches and buntings adding to the prey availability for the harriers.

The following year the number of partridge released were down to 2000 and an adult female harrier was seen but not the wing tagged bird. She stayed for a while and then moved around the upland area where I live following the partridge as they dispersed. Talking to the young keepers that manage the partridge, I was informed the shooters were happy with the number of birds they were shooting. When I asked about the birds of prey on this particular area I was advised the owners were not putting pressure on the keeper about removing them. At times you can see up to 6 Buzzards hanging over the partridge and during shoots this must be bad for lifting the partridge towards the guns.

This year the partridge numbers were down to just 1000, with pheasants released on the shoot for the first time up here. An adult female hen harrier again appeared but one day she was hunting voles not partridge as she stayed in one area giving great views and I was able to walk up close to her as she kept covering the same area. She landed in flattened bracken and I tried to get my friend onto her. ‘She must have caught a partridge’ he said. ‘No feathers were blowing in the wind so that was wrong’ I said. ‘She was resting up allowing prey to settle before she tried again’. This is something I have now observed in mature harriers at a number of locations. Immature and inexperienced harriers will persist in attacking prey over and over again giving them no time to settle. The adult female continued to hunt after a good 20 minutes and I left her to carry on walking with my dogs.

Only this month I watched an adult male hen harrier attacking Tree Sparrows in another Cumbrian location on the low ground. It would cover the area with the sparrows flying high and away into thick hawthorn. The male would fly away and land in short grass. It would sit for around 3 – 5 minutes allowing the sparrows to return to feed and then try again. I observed this behaviour for over an extended period with no success. The light was fading so in the end the bird went off to roost.

What a privilege I have to watch these birds in England while the rest of the country is shot to pieces leaving no chance for these magnificent birds to survive! If only the men and women with the guns could feel the way I do about such amazing birds!!

Peter M.

2 comments to A Cumbrian Naturalist: Hen Harriers observed from my window.

  • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

    You can follow the latest news on this years’ 4 satellite tagged Langholm hen harrier by clicking the attached link http://www.langholmmoorland.blogspot.co.uk

    It has been disappointing to learn one of the 4 birds is now reported missing presumed to have been shot. Once again we the public are being kept in the dark as to the grouse moor location where this harrier met its final end.

    I also think an important opportunity was missed this year when all 10 fledged hen harriers were not fitted with satellite tags. Just consider the valuable data that would have been obtained. On the other hand I can understand why Natural England would not wish to go down that route. The inevitability of having to report so many additional harriers off the radar screen would have resulted in widespread condemnation.

  • paul williams

    Natural England could have diverted their satellite tags they allocated to the Forest Of Bowland!

    Editor’s Comment. Yes Paul they could have done that, however with an assured 100% loss of such units had they been fitted the cost, not accounting for any embarrassment, would have been too prohibitive even for Natural England.