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Miles King: Hen Harriers

I have to admit, I’ve never seen a Hen Harrier. This is partly because I’ve spent most of my professional life staring at the ground looking at plants. Occasionally I have looked up, and seen a bird. But I’ve never seen a Hen Harrier, so I’ve never seen a Sky Dance.

A few weeks back, nature writer Robert MacFarlane tweeted “sky dance” on his increasingly popular word of the day series.  He described it as a “heart-stoppingly graceful aerobatic display of the hen harrier, performed in spring as a courtship ritual.”

It is unlikely that I or anyone else will get to see Hen Harriers perform their sky dance anywhere in England, because the bird is on the brink of extinction. In 2017 there were just three successful nests in England, all of them on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland. Hen Harriers should be far more plentiful than this. According to the RSPB, there is enough suitable habitat for 300 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in England. Suitable habitat means upland Moors, and there is no shortage of Moorland in upland England, in fact there’s more than 500,000ha of this remarkable landscape. The main problem is that much of this is managed as Grouse Moor. Friends of the Earth estimates that 550,000ha of moorland is managed as Grouse Moor. Because Hen Harriers eat Red grouse, they are persecuted in Grouse Moors, and are prevented from breeding. The Scottish Island of Mull, where there is no Grouse Moor management, has 10% of the UK’s breeding Hen Harriers. 

Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC), working with partners including RSPB, Cairngorms National Park and Sheffield Environmental, organised the third annual Hen Harrier Day this year on the 6th August. Events took place across Great Britain, with around 2000 going to events on the day. Around 500 travelled to Dorset’s Arne reserve, 450 at Rainham Marshes in Essex, 350 people turning up in Sheffield, 200 in the Highlands of Scotland – there were even events on the Hebridean Islands of Mull, Eigg and Rhum. As well as the events, there was a great deal of activity on Social Media, and this continued through to what was previously known as the “Glorious Twelfth”, the day the grouse-shooting season starts. Tempers flared on both sides, as the shooting community launched its own campaign to defend what it sees as not only their right to carry out their sport, but also claiming that in managing moorland for grouse-shooting, they also help conserve other species. Needless to say, this is highly contentious. Author and bird expert Mark Avery has amassed all the relevant information on his blog, if you want to read about the issues. 

While we can all agree that the plight of the Hen Harrier is something that needs urgent action, the debate raises a broader question. Because while Red grouse are wild birds feeding off wild plants (they eat heather), this is in stark contrast to, for example intensively, managed chickens. The average broiler chicken lives 39 days and is fed a diet of intensively produced cereals. Unlike the Hen Harrier, which no longer feeds on Hens, we now consume nearly 1 billion chickens a year in the UK.

So while the Hen Harrier pays the price for someone to enjoy a wild Red grouse, farmland wildlife, like Corn Buntings or Yellowhammers, or Corn flowers, pay the price for cheaply produced wheat and barley, grown to feed those chickens. 

Not that Red grouse are raised to be eaten: they are raised to be shot on special shooting days – around 700,000 are shot every year. Many companies buy grouse shooting days as corporate hospitality events, though some have stood up against the practice.  

Hen Harrier Day 2017 successfully brought the plight of the Hen Harrier, and the role that keepered Grouse Moors play in that plight, to the attention of the public. What happens next will be partly down to the public mood: Grouse Moors after all, receive millions of pounds of subsidies every year, and the way landowners are supported is changing, thanks to Brexit. 

(All words owned by Miles King.) 

It is unlikely that I or anyone else will get to see Hen Harriers perform their sky dance anywhere in England, because the bird is on the brink of extinction.

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