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The Return of the Harriers

Posted: Thursday 4th September 2014 by TimBirch

Hen Harrier chick, DWTHen harrier chick, DWT

Hen harriers are breeding successfully in Peak District for the first time in eight years. Our Conservation Manager, Tim Birch, tells us about watching the family on the moors. See also the video link at the end of his blog.

I am sitting on a remote moor in the Upper Derwent at the end of August in the Peak District National Park watching a female hen harrier gliding over a far hillside. It is a stunning late summer afternoon with the heather just beginning to fade but that purple sheen is still eye catching. She suddenly rises up to intercept a buzzard which is too close for comfort and a thrilling aerial dogfight follows for several minutes with both birds tumbling and calling. The superior maneuverability of the harrier wins out and the buzzard glides off over the hill. Suddenly I hear two high pitched whinnying calls and a couple of immature hen harriers fly up to greet their mother, complaining that they have not been fed for a while. A peregrine swoops overhead to buzz the female harrier again and the two young harriers go to ground, apparently spooked by this latest intruder. It doesn’t get much better than this, I’m thinking to myself, with raptors seemingly filling the sky for a few brief moments.

This is a sight that I have not witnessed before in the Peak District; these magnificent birds have been largely absent over large tracts of land in the Dark Peak in the north of the Peak District National Park. It shows what the future holds if our birds of prey, and hen harriers in particular, are given a chance to re-establish themselves back in their upland home in the Park, free from persecution. It also shows what a wonderful wildlife spectacle awaits us all if we can learn to live with and respect some of the most stunning wildlife we have in the UK.

I was on one of the watchers keeping guard over a family of hen harriers that astonished us all by nesting so late in the season in a remote part of the Peak District on National Trust land. There has been increased publicity about the threats to our harriers with over 600 people attending a rally in support of hen harriers earlier in the summer, just a few kilometres away down the valley at the well-known visitor centre of Fairholmes. This concern is not only in the Peak Park but across all the upland areas in England where hen harriers are largely absent due to conflict with the grouse shooting community.

Earlier in April I had alerted colleagues in the National Trust and the RSPB to a sky dancing male hen harrier with a female further up the valley that I had spotted whilst wandering with friends one early spring evening. After a lot of watching and effort from many different organisations including the National Trust, RSPB, Peak Park, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the regional Raptor Groups we realized that there was not going to be any successful nesting at this location as the female had quickly disappeared, despite weeks of spectacular sky dancing acrobatics by the male hen harrier. We had all come to the conclusion that this year was set to be another failed year for the birds in the Peak District – how wrong we were all proved to be.

The successful nesting of the hen harrier back in its upland home is a fantastic boost for everyone who wants to see these birds rightfully back in the iconic uplands of the Peak Park. The five chicks have all been ringed and satellite tags have also been applied, which will enable us to follow where a number of the birds go.

The future of these birds is still uncertain as they wander widely over the moors. The satellite tagging will enable us to follow their journeys over the coming months and hopefully we will see these birds back in 2015. Now that would be a massive cause for celebration, wouldn’t it.

For once this is a good news story and it would appear we have the grouse shooters onside. The birds are so far safe and we hope it stays that way. That’s how Derbyshire Wildlife Trust will measure success – not just for one breeding season but for all subsequent breeding seasons and for all the months that harriers are present in our uplands and beyond. We will have been successful when seeing harriers will be a wildlife spectacle enjoyed by all in some of the most spectacular landscapes our islands have to offer.

Tim Birch
Conservation Manager
Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Take a look at Tim’s video clip



Read TimBirch's latest blog entries.


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