This is a guest blog written by the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group.
The Mystery of the Disappearing Hen Harrier
On 27th February 2021, the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group (PDRMG) received reports from a trusted source, of an adult male and female Hen Harrier on a grouse moor on the Wentworth Fitzwilliam Strines Estate, South Yorkshire.
The following day an area very close to where the birds had been seen was chosen for heather burning. Perhaps an unfortunate coincidence but it would not be the first time we have witnessed such tactics used to deter Hen Harriers from settling on grouse moors in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park.
For example, on 11th April 2014, the group received reports from a reliable contact who had witnessed Hen Harriers performing a food pass and displaying on an area of grouse moor between the A53 and the A537 near Buxton. The following day raptor workers observed that moorland burning was underway in that very same area. A call to Natural England revealed that the estate had informed Natural England that burning had finished for the year earlier that same week.
Despite all the talk of welcoming Hen Harriers and other raptors on shooting estates in the Dark Peak, some estates would appear to be anything but welcoming to Hen Harriers and other larger raptors. There are within the Peak District National Park several estates who have a proven track record of year-on-year success with nesting raptors. With one or two exceptions these successful areas are largely associated with National Trust land holdings and the adjacent woodlands.
We are sure that the estates where raptors are fledging successfully must be wondering why some other estates do not appear to have any success and are dogged by strange disappearances and a history of birds being found shot or poisoned. We are certainly wondering, given the faith we have all invested in the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative.
On several occasions at the end of March 2021 male and female Hen Harriers were observed on and around the Strines Estate, including a female with some heavy feather damage to one wing.
At the beginning of April, the female Hen Harrier with the damaged wing was observed ‘sky dancing’ around the Wentworth Fitzwilliam Estate’s western border along with a smaller (male) Hen Harrier observed from a distance interacting with this female.
Over the next two weeks there were multiple sightings of both adult and immature birds around the estate and surrounding areas. A summary of key sightings and dates is included below:
14th April 2021, adult female observed hunting on Brogging Moss in front of one of the occupied estate cottages.
15th April 2021, adult male and adult female Hen Harrier observed displaying and calling on Foulstone Moor less than 800m from the above-mentioned building.
16th April 2021, 2 adult male Hen Harrier and 2 adult female Hen Harrier observed on Foulstone Moor and Brogging Moss. 1 pair exhibiting display and pair bonding behaviour as would be expected from a pair intent on breeding.
17th April 2021, several local bird watchers and raptor group members watched from multiple vantage points for most of the day. The ‘pair’ were now settled. Several copulation attempts were observed and both birds were seen to be visiting one spot in the heather on numerous occasions. Comparison of detailed notes collated on the day confirmed that there were 2 adult females and 1 adult male in attendance, interestingly neither of the adult females were the female with the damaged wing.
18th April 2021, adult male and adult female still present displaying, hunting and visiting the same area of heather as observed on 17th April.
18th April 2021, The Estate’s Sporting Agent and Head Keeper are informed of the imminent breeding attempt.
19th April 2021, adult pair displaying and interacting, hunting, and going into the heather as previously observed.
20th April 2021, no Hen Harriers observed despite several hours of observation.
21st April 2021, the estate responds with a strange email, stating that despite their own staff spending hours monitoring the birds they have not seen the type of behaviour described and no evidence of a settled pair. They then go on to question the reliability of the observers involved:
21st April 2021, follow up email from the raptor group explaining with some frustration, their position regarding the now absent Hen Harriers and their disappointment that the keepers had not reported any Hen Harrier sightings despite the birds being very active around one of the keeper-occupied estate cottages. This despite such glowing reports about improved cooperation between shooting estates and raptor workers in the 2020 Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative report:
Despite raptor workers and local bird watchers spending many hours over several weeks trying to relocate these birds it became apparent that the Hen Harriers previously observed, were no longer present and in particular no adult (grey) male Hen Harriers were subsequently located.
However, on a more positive note an immature pair of Hen Harriers bred successfully and fledged 4 young, once again on National Trust-owned land.
The questions that need to be answered are:
- Why didn’t the estate report the Hen Harrier activity on the estate to the Bird of Prey Initiative or the Raptor Group? It is inconceivable that they were not aware of the birds due to the proximity to one of the keepers’ residences; the birds were observed flying over his house and garden on many occasions.
- The more important question, which we know will never be answered is what happened to the adult male hen harrier that was so intent on breeding on Wentworth Fitzwilliam Strines Estate?
This incident was reported to South Yorkshire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.