Hen Harrier Day 2014 (which is supported by the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust along with many other organisations and individuals) is an opportunity for people to express their disgust at the illegal killing of the protected Hen Harrier on grouse moors in the north of England and Scotland. Science says there should be 324-340 nests of Hen Harrier in England (Fielding et al 2011) – this year has seen just three pairs and of course none on Dartmoor. Here is a link to show what the NT is doing in partnership to help hen harriers in the Peak District. (There is no suggestion that hen harriers are currently being persecuted in Devon.)
Female hen harrier
– photo from a postcard sponsored by Lush, the ethical cosmetics company
– a postcard to the Queen no less urging her to support the campaign
Some of the most exciting and memorable bird watching experiences in my life have involved hen harriers. The hen harrier is a bird of prey which breeds on moorland and winters on wetlands and southern moorlands. The males are beautiful birds – pale grey with black wing tips and the females are brown with a white ring on the rump.
I used to work at Wicken Fen, the National Trust’s flagship wetland site in Cambridgeshire and always looked forward to the hen harriers returning in the winter to the Sedge Fen. At dusk you would often see birds hunting back and forth over the reeds and sedges before going into roost.
I also remember a bitter winter evening at Stubbs Mill next to Hickling Broad in Norfolk – a day I had forgotten my coat – a freezing experience but one made bearable by around 25 harriers swooping around again coming into roost.
On Dartmoor I have seen two hen harriers in the winter – one near to Nunn’s Cross and the other at the back of Haytor near to Holwell Tor.
Sadly today hen harriers no longer breed on Dartmoor, victims of Victorian persecution.
It is easy reading the current plight of the hen harrier nationally to forget or be completely unaware that the hen harrier once bred in Devon and on Dartmoor. Now the hen harrier is only seen infrequently during the winter months.
Here is a historical summary of the all the published breeding hen harrier records in Devon since the early 19th century.
1805 Bovey Tracey
1930 ‘Devonian peninsula’
1942-43 Location suppressed
There can be few environmentalists who would not welcome the return of the hen harrier to Devon and Dartmoor and Exmoor specifically. All things being equal (which of course they aren’t because of the persecution) one would have hoped that the hen harrier might return sooner, rather than later, to the moors of the south west. However this is very unlikely to occur because hen harriers only return to breed in the areas where they hatched as chicks. This phenomenon is known as philopatry. The sad fact therefore is that hen harriers are unlikely to return to the moors of the southwest unless they are helped to do so via a re-introduction programme.
That however is a debate for the future – today is all about campaigning against the illegal persecution of hen harriers on grouse moors. Lets win that battle first and then think about hen harriers on Dartmoor.