So where are all the adult male Hen Harriers?
Many of you will already be aware that only 3 pairs of Hen Harriers successfully bred in England this year; the single nesting pair at Geltsdale was based on an immature male which had never bred before usually described as a ‘First Summer’ male, with 2 older males using an area in the North east of England. This meant the Geltsdale male had no prior experience of helping to rear young before, and although some young males are good fathers and can successfully supply enough food for a growing family some can not, making the chances of rearing young even harder. Although the pair at Geltsdale laid a clutch of 5 eggs, only a single fledgling was produced this year.
The above image shows the single Hen Harrier chick complete with satellite transmitter with fledged from the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale this year. Image by Adam Moan
As we already know 5 adult male Hen Harriers disappeared during the 2015 breeding season from nests in the Forest of Bowland and in the northern Pennines, leaving several females to fend very much on their own survival instincts. One missing adult male from Bowland last year was replaced by an immature male, as was the male at Geltsdale this year. So where were all the adult males? Some of these adult males are so good at supplying food, they can even service more than one nesting female at a time helping to rear two broods in one season.
Female Hen Harrier with a brood of three well developed chicks, an increasingly rare sight on English Red Grouse moors.
Significantly in 2016 two of the three breeding pairs of Hen Harriers which succeeded in rearing young in England were located well away from Red Grouse moors with older mature males servicing each of these nests. This suggested that having chosen to locate their territories on moorland away from any active shooting estates these birds were better able to survive. Too many adult Hen Harriers are going missing, not just during the summer but also in winter; many of these birds are thought to have been shot as they fly into a winter roost.
This spring in the Forest of Bowland the North West Raptor Group recorded only two adult male Hen Harriers skydancing. The first was seen skydancing on 15th March, but had mysteriously disappeared two days later, and despite an exhaustive search over several successive days this bird was never seen again. The second adult male was seen skydancing on the 2nd April, but when the area, located on the Abbeystead estate was rechecked several times the bird had simply vanished. There is always a possibility these two male harriers were one in the same. The RSPB may have recorded these and other males when undertaking their Bowland census this spring, but so far no information has been made available to the public. This year the NWRG recorded 4 female Hen Harriers flying across the Forest of Bowland, however none of these birds make any attempt to settle suggesting a distinct lack of displaying males throughout this moorland region this spring.
One of the four adult male Hen Harriers which disappeared from a grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland in 2015, never to be seen again.
The Langholm Project in Scotland has shown that even females can remain in a small area of moorland all winter if the food supply is present and when no evil keepers are present to interfere with their safety. When these birds do survive the winter into the next summer and begin to breed, their experience of favorite hunting places can be used to their advantage once their chicks are old enough and no longer need a female to brood them at the nest.
This would apply to males also, but as males are smaller than females they often leave the uplands to find smaller prey on the low ground during the winter. Some of these mature males are removed as they return to the moors in the spring before they even begin their ‘sky dancing,’ courtship display, and as we saw in 2015 and again this year so few adult males returned England’s uplands to help expand the Hen Harrier population. Another problem is that many of these males disappear once a female had started to incubate her eggs. Some estates cynically claimed these males simply deserted the area or had been predated by a Peregrine, but as we know these assumptions are ridiculous as demonstrated by the disappearance of the five males which each vanished from red grouse moors almost at the same time in 2015.
It would be wrong to suggest that currently there is a surplus of females, as many female Hen Harriers wintering on Red Grouse moors can be removed by using illegal ‘Pole’ traps or baited pigeons. At present the best bet for any Hen Harrier is to migrate into Europe for the winter, and hope their return journey in the spring will find them on heather moorland which does not border a Red Grouse moor maintained by gamekeepers! Should these habitats not be available ‘the future according to Alan Fielding Phd may rely on expanding forestry in Scotland’ with mass planting soon to return providing plenty of large ‘clear fell’ to improve short term habitat where the Hen Harrier should begin to survive.
The Dodo represents the true symbol of the plight of both Hen Harrier throughout all moorland regions in northern England where Red Grouse are shot for recreational purposes.
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