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The hen harriers flying in the face of wildlife crime

Campaigners are calling for action to protect hen harriers as wildlife crime soars and the birds’ numbers dwindle.

Hen harriers in England are being persecuted to the brink of extinction. The aerobatic display of the male “skydancer” as he swoops and flips in a bid to attract his mate is becoming a rare sight, and the raptors are in serious decline. A new survey shows that there are now only 545 breeding pairs left in the UK, a drop of 88 pairs since 2010. In England, there are just four territorial breeding pairs remaining, down from 12 in 2010.

Grouse shooting season is around the corner, and the “glorious twelfth” will be marked with the sound of gunfire on driven grouse moors across Northern England and Scotland. As predators are cleared to make way for grouse in advance of hunting season, hen harriers too are being shot. Killing these birds is illegal, yet the RSPB said that this is the main factor causing the decline.

Hen Harrier Day

Today, birders, conservationists, and the general public came together in honour of the birds. Hen Harrier Day South took over the RSPB Arne nature reserve in Dorset, and wildlife crime was high on the agenda. Other events took place around the country, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime.

Naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham joined the line-up in Dorset. Growing up as an avid birder, he was used to seeing a number of hen harriers in the New Forest National Park, where there was a winter roost. Going back to the same location now, there are none.

“You used to go out birding and see hen harriers. Now, you have to go out looking for hen harriers. That’s the difference,” he said.

He said that wildlife crime may be illegal in terms of law, but in terms of public perception, the crime is not yet taken seriously. This feeling may be changing, and speaking about the public reaction to the killing of Cecil the lion, the BBC Springwatch presenter said: “For me, that was highly symbolic, because it signified that people all over the world had had enough of our wildlife being wasted, because people get a thrill out of killing it for no reason.”

He said that whether the topic is trophy hunting in Africa or hen harriers in the UK, it all stems from people caring about the environment.

Charlie Moores was one of the original founders of Birders Against Wildlife Crime, and was instrumental to setting up the first Hen Harrier Day. He said the day is all about wildlife crime, the main thing limiting hen harriers: “In the end we will win. We will stop the illegal persecution of one of our most beautiful and iconic birds of prey.”

On Saturday 12th August, hen harriers will again be in focus at the Make Badger Culling and Hunting History Protest March, where London will hear the cries of those against badger culling, fox hunting, and hen harrier shooting. Chris Packham will be at the event, and encourages a peaceful demonstration.

“There’s no ambiguity in what we’re talking about. We know these birds are being illegally killed. We’re on a very firm platform, and we don’t need to step off that platform,” he said.

Public pressure is what will make the difference, according to the naturalist. This was echoed by the RSPB’s head of nature policy, Jeff Knott, who said it is important to demonstrate this strong feeling to policy makers: “That’s what gives people like me the authority to go and speak to decision makers.”

As Britain’s exit from the EU draws ever closer, wildlife law will be subject to a substantial review. He said this is an opportunity, as well as a risk.

Tackling wildlife crime

Raptor persecution is one of six national priorities for police in terms of wildlife crime. However, on vast rural areas of the countryside, there is a lack of witnesses.

Claire Dinsdale, a wildlife crime officer from Dorset Police, opened Hen Harrier Day South. Her time is not solely allocated to this role, and there are wider funding issues around tackling wildlife crime.

“As a police officer, I beg you to report, report, report,” she said, adding that suspicious activity, car registrations and GPS locations are all useful pieces of information. “Can you photograph it? Can you video it even?”

In the last year, the Dorset team has had around 100 wildlife investigations. The importance of wildlife crime is something they wish to highlight, and they are using social media to raise awareness.

Under the wing of conservationists

Meandering across Britain’s hills and moorlands, the wandering nature of hen harriers makes them difficult to monitor. To aid conservation efforts, the birds are being tracked as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project. The five-year RSPB programme is running until 2019, with conservation, satellite tagging, monitoring, and awareness raising at the heart of the scheme.

In the last year, more hen harriers have been satellite tagged than ever before, and these numbers will soon be confirmed.

A competition to name this year’s satellite tagged chicks will close at midnight tonight, giving the public a chance to get involved and follow the progress of the birds. As part of this project, 12 birds were tagged last year. Only five have survived, and a number of birds from previous years have either been shot, found dead, or have disappeared.

Protecting hen harriers has proven a difficult task, as they travel across the country to mate, feed, and nest. Alongside wildlife crime, changes in weather, habitat, and available prey could all be contributing to the depleting numbers.

This year’s two satellite-tagged chicks have been successfully raised by another monitored female, DeeCee. Following in their mother’s footsteps, the chicks will provide vital information to the RSPB, and will be protected by the conservationists when they come to nest.

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