Blog Post: Guest blog: Finn the hen harrier takes flight

Findlay Wilde is the young conservationist and blogger behind Wilde About Birds . Finn is a young female hen harrier who, together with her three brothers, fledged from one of two nests on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland this month.  Finn was satellite tagged as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project and is named after Findlay, who was one of the winners of Ecotricity’s Young Green Briton competition last year. Run by Britain’s leading green energy company, the competition looks to find the country’s greenest youngsters and gives them a chance to speak about a key environmental topic on stage at WOMAD Festival. Ecotricity was so impressed by Findlay’s passion and focus on the issue of hen harriers that the company funded the satellite tag.  Here, Findlay shares with us that passion for hen harriers and his hopes for our feathered Finn. I can still vividly remember the very first time I saw a hen harrier. It was high up on the North Wales moors. The fine rain and mist covered my face in water and the low cloud limited my views over the vast landscape.  Despite the rain and mist, I resolved to walk even further up the moors, but my plans to keep going suddenly came to an abrupt stop. A grey ghost, elegant and effortless, glided past within 10 metres of where I stood. He soared effortlessly on the wind, appearing and reappearing through the sloping hills. I am sure many of you out there worry about the way the world is changing and what the future holds for the next generation and the challenges they will face.  Well wildlife of course has to face up to all these changes and challenges too; changes that they have not caused, but will suffer from. An important thing to remember throughout this blog post is that chilling statistic that we have lost almost 50% of our world wildlife over the last 40 years. This really shows how important it is to protect, nurture and speak out for the natural world.  Many species are already struggling due to loss of habitat and climate change, but throw illegal persecution in to the mix and the situation just gets worse.   So what does the future hold for a young hen harrier named Finn? What are her chances? Finn (right) and her three brothers in the nest. Photo: Martin Davison It’s hard sometimes to explain the difficulties faced by these birds, but try thinking of hen harriers as a massive dot to dot picture puzzle.  Think of each dot as one of our much needed hen harriers. We need hundreds of dots to realise the picture we want. But the dots keep disappearing. Sky, Hope, Chance, the 5 males that went missing last year, forcing the females to abandon their nest, and most recently the disappearance of newly fledged Elwood over a grouse moor.  All those vital dots erased.   The end picture we all want for hen harriers doesn’t look good at the moment, so we have to ensure we get all the future dots in the right place.  Each connection line between the dots is all the hard work going on to protect them and stop their persecution, but it’s frustrating that our connection lines seem to be getting longer and longer.  Each plotted dot for the future represents hope and our efforts and successes, strengthening the picture we all want to see. Although I want to be optimistic, Finn’s chances of survival are not good, and it feels terrible to have to say that. She has fledged in an area surrounded by grouse moors; but she has spirit. When she first fledged she did not hang about the nest site as you would have expected, she flew to the coast first and since then has explored the surrounding area. But each of these flights put her in harm’s way as of course she doesn’t understand where the safe areas are.  Finn is going to have so many challenges to overcome, but my big wish for her is that illegal persecution is no longer one of them.   Finn about to receive her satellite tag. Photo: Martin Davison I urge you all to follow Finn’s journey and watch her progress. I urge you to tell other people about her and how important she is as one of those vital dots that will create the future picture we all want to see. Awareness of raptor persecution is growing, and there is a lot of momentum, but we have to keep this going. The natural world across the globe cannot afford to keep losing. ................................. I must say a massive thank you to the RSPB LIFE team and Ecotricity for enabling Finn to be monitored through the satellite tagging scheme.  When I first approached Dale Vince and Helen Taylor of Ecotricity at the 2015 WOMAD festival, I could never have imagined the opportunity this would create.  You can read more about that story here http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/wilde-about-finn.html Thanks Findlay! And here's a final note from Helen Taylor at Ecotricity: When we first met Finn just over a year ago we were blown away by his passion and dedication to protect hen harriers, and he inspired us to support his conservation work. It has been fantastic to work with him and the RSPB since then on the tagging project and we’re thrilled that the chick named in his honour has now fledged and is exploring its local area.  We all have a responsibility to protect the wonderful wildlife in this country and the hen harrier is one of our most vulnerable, so we must do all we can to make a difference – before it’s too late. Both Northumberland hen harrier nests this year were protected by the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, which includes the Forestry Commission, MOD, Natural England, Northumberland National Park Authority, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Northumbria Police and local raptor workers. This is the second year in a row that hen harriers have fledged successfully from this site.  From the end of the summer, you'll be able to follow Finn's progress online at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer .   

Blog Post: Introducing a Bonny wee hen harrier

With the notable exception of Henry , few living hen harriers manage to achieve national celebrity status. But at barely six weeks old, our young male, Bonny, is already well used to the public eye, after the fitting of his satellite tag by trained and licensed RSPB staff was filmed and featured on the national BBC Six News last week, as well as a radio edit on BBC R4's PM programme (available here until 17th Sept).  Bonny with his newly fitted satellite tag being held by RSPB's Guy Anderson. Photo: Mark Thomas Bonny was the only chick to hatch from a clutch of five eggs on RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve this year, marking the first successful nest on the reserve in since 2006, and only the second successful nest in the whole of the North Pennines in the last 10 years. He is one of a number of hen harriers to be satellite tagged as part of RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project across England, Scotland and the Isle of Man this year. Bonny in his nest at one week old. Photo: Steve Garnett His name was selected by Chris Packham from over 2,300 entries into the #nameandsave competition, run by LUSH cosmetics, to celebrate the incredible £122,000 raised by their skydancer bathbombs to support hen harrier conservation. Watch Chris announcing the winner here:  (Please visit the site to view this video) Right from the beginning, Bonny's life has been a rollercoaster journey. His mother, a mature female, arrived on the reserve back in May and it quickly became apparent that she was eager for a mate, skydancing (a trait normally reserved for males but used by females in times of desperation) and building dummy nests, but all to no avail. There were no males to be seen. Several weeks later, when a male finally did appear, it's safe to say she appeared to be deeply unimpressed - he was young and immature, still very brown and yet to earn his adult grey plumage. Normally in a healthy population of hen harriers, a young male like this wouldn't get a look in. But with so few birds in England this year, the female had little option but to accept his advances or leave breeding to another year. Bonny's mother - a beautiful mature female hen harrier. Photo: Mark Thomas As soon as the nesting attempt was confirmed, dedicated RSPB staff and volunteers mounted a 24/7 watch, special remote monitoring cameras were placed near the nest, and supplementary food was provided under licence, to ensure that this family of hen harriers had the best possible chance of survival and success. As it turned out, had the supplementary food not been provided, our immature male's inexperience could have proved disastrous. Though a reasonably effective hunter, he was hopelessly inattentive of his now-dependent female, frequently heading off for days at a time before reappearing with another small food offering. The extra food provided by RSPB thankfully ensured that the female never had to go far from the nest to feed herself or her chick.  RSPB Moorland Warden, Steve Garnett, placing day-old chicks and white rats on the supplementary feeding post. All supplementary feeding is carried out under appropriate licence from Natural England. Photo: Mark Thomas Having received his satellite tag on the 15th August, Bonny is now busily testing his wings and practicing his hunting skills around the reserve, under the continued close watch of our staff and volunteers. It won't be long before he starts venturing further afield and when he does, you'll be able to follow his movements online at rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer . Good luck, Bonny, and stay safe! 

Blog Post: Guest Blog: Aalin, the sat-tagged Manx Hen Harrier takes to the air

Neil Morris is the Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. Here he shares his thoughts and hopes for Aalin, the second hen harrier to be satellite tagged on the Isle of Man as part of a partnership between Manx BirdLife and RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project.  I’m a complete convert to Manx culture and the beauty and character of the Manx countryside, having relatively recently exchanged the blistering heat of the Qatari desert for the cool climes of the Isle of Man..  On just my third day on the island while tidying up the garden, I looked up to see a Hen Harrier drifting over the hills behind our house. This was my introduction to ‘Manx’ Hen Harriers. Roll forward eighteen months and my family loves the place. To the south, rugged heather moorlands drop spectacularly to dramatic granite cliffs. While to the north, rolling green hills akin to the Malverns give way gently to low sandstone cliffs and long pebble and sand stretches of coast. With a healthy Manx population of Hen Harriers, it’s possible to see them on the way to work, on the school run and even while doing the shopping. The rural, compact nature of the island gives an omnipotence to the Hen Harrier and other ‘high value’ species such as Peregrine, Hooded Crow and Chough. They are always just around the next corner. And so it was that I was delighted to swap my marketing career, with all the thrills and spills of a London commute, for my new role as Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. I have always been passionate about birds and wildlife. Indeed, the formative years of my career were spent at RSPB HQ in Sandy and I have been itching to ‘get back to my roots’ ever since. Aalin with her newly fitted satellite tag. Photo credit: Sean Gray This year’s satellite tagging of a young female Hen Harrier offers the chance to make up the ground lost when last year’s tagged Hen Harrier, Hetty, suffered an early demise. Like Hetty before her, Aalin has been named by the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment, sponsors of the Manx Hen Harrier tagging project (part of RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE programme). Fittingly, Aalin means ‘beauty’ in the revived Manx language. She was tagged in July and has since left the nest, though appears reluctant to stray too far. We await with baited breath her first forays farther afield – perhaps down to the coast like many other local Harriers, or perhaps she might attempt to cross the Irish Sea to England, Wales, Scotland or even Ireland. On a clear day, we can see all four countries from that same hill behind our house. Whatever she decides to do, Aalin’s wanderings will provide valuable data which will add to the overall understanding of Hen Harrier behaviour across the British Isles. Our local community is excited by the project and eagerly awaits updates on the satellite data. But like everywhere, the Manx countryside is threatened by over-population, development and disturbance, though thankfully wilful persecution appears to be rare. Aalin - the future of Manx hen harriers. Photo credit: James Leonard Keeping Aalin in the public eye and maintaining the islanders’ desire to look after the precious Manx countryside and the wild birds to which it provides a home is so important. While it’s tempting to dream that the island might get back to the heady days of 60 Hen Harrier nests each season, it’s vital we focus our energies on the 30 or so nesting attempts we have had this year. We must do all we can to learn about Aalin’s needs and vulnerabilities. That way we can devise conservation plans to protect her and future generations of this magnificent ‘sky dancer’. My thanks are due to the RSPB LIFE team, the Manx Ringing Group, the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment and James Leonard. Fingers crossed, Aalin will be digitally signing in for a long while to come!

Wild Flower Verge Management

We had a wonderful couple of days raking up newly cut and fast drying hay – Wed and Thurs. I’m so glad we didn’t leave any for today! The idea was to get it raked up and taken away quickly so that it doesn’t rot down on the verge and increase fertility. LCC have promised to collect as soon as possible. There were 3/4 of us on Wed and 6 yesterday. We absolutely belted through the 2 verges at Hallgate Hill Easington and after a swift cup of tea and lemon drizzle headed for Tinklers Lane. That took about 20 mins – it took a couple of hours last year but I think I was on my own. The smell of the hay took me back to childhood when all hay was turned and tedded and baled into small bales and carted off before the inevitable late summer thunder storm. 4 of us went back to Slaidburn to sit aboutin the sunshine whilst we ate pies bought earlier from Alpes in Clitheroe. What a nice way to spend a morning!
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Blog Post: Guest Blog: Researchers develop forensic DNA kit for hen harriers

Dr. Arati Iyengar is from the School of Forensic & Applied Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), who have recently developed a forensic DNA kit, SkydancerPlex, which allows individual hen harriers to be identified from tiny samples of blood or feathers. To celebrate this research, UCLan have sponsored one of this year’s satellite-tagged hen harriers, Hermione, who was named via an online poll. What is the SkydancerPlex? This exciting new development is an extremely accurate DNA based identification kit for hen harriers. In humans, DNA is routinely used to match an evidence sample collected from a crime scene to a sample from a suspect, thus linking the suspect to the crime scene. In wildlife species, there are very few DNA based identification kits, particularly ones which have been tested to the rigorous standards needed for forensic casework. The SkydancerPlex is the first such kit, making it a real step forward in the fight against wildlife crime. Hermione, the young female hen harrier from Mull, named by UCLan, and satellite tagged by RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project. Photo: Paul Haworth How was it created? Unlike in the case of human DNA where extensive information is available, there was nothing at all available for the hen harrier when we started. It’s one thing to distinguish hen harrier DNA from that of other species but identifying individual hen harriers was a much bigger challenge. To do this, we needed to look at areas of DNA called short tandem repeats (STRs). These are where strands of DNA start to repeat themselves and it’s that pattern of repetition which is unique to each individual, like a genetic fingerprint. The more of these STRs you analyse, the more accurate the identification. After much hard work from a research intern and some MSc students, we selected 8 STRs along with another section of DNA to tell us the sex the bird. These were then all combined into a single identification kit, or an a STR multiplex. Hence the name 'SkydancerPlex'. How does the SkydancerPlex work? By focusing on these specific areas of hen harrier DNA, we can simultaneously amplify and analyse small samples of genetic material to create a DNA profile for each bird.  How do you individualise hen harriers using SkydancerPlex? If two DNA samples (e.g. a sample taken from shot bird and one obtained from a suspect) have the same alleles across all STRs, what you have is a ‘match’. Of course, without DNA from every single hen harrier out there you can never be 100 % certain that a DNA profile is from a particular hen harrier. So instead, what we do is to calculate the probability of the DNA profile being present in a random unrelated individual in the population. The smaller this probability, the more likely it is that the sample came from the individual concerned. By calculating the frequency of the various alleles within the hen harrier population you can then calculate the probability of this match. Using the Skydancerplex, the probability of matching a DNA profile to the wrong bird can be as small as 1 in 188 million. So if a DNA sample had been recovered as evidence and matched to a suspect, it would be hugely powerful evidence against him indeed. What next? The development of the SkydancerPlex is certainly not the end of our interest in hen harriers. It is very much the beginning of more exciting projects. What we really want to do next is use the SkydancerPlex to understand the population dynamics of hen harriers from across the UK and Europe. Analysing DNA from hen harriers from across this range will tell us about their movements and breeding patterns which is vital information to inform future conservation efforts. Find out more about UCLan's exciting research by visiting their website here  and can download the abstract from their published research paper here . From the end of this summer, you can follow Hermione's movements on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website at rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife .

Blog Post: The ordinary 12th

Today is the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – the ‘Glorious 12 th ’ to some; the Inglorious 12 th to others. To be honest, it’s just another day to me – I’ve never been grouse shooting and I doubt I ever will. It’s a Friday so I guess that’s good. I suppose for me it’s just the ordinary 12 th . If someone brings cake in it might stretch to the pretty decent 12 th . But behind that slightly flippant introduction is a serious question – does grouse shooting matter and perhaps most pertinently of all, does it have a future? In 100 years’ time, will there still be a Glorious 12 th , or will it be looked back on as an odd quirky footnote in the history of our countryside? I’m sure we’ll hear lots of perspectives on that today from all angles, but from my perspective the only answer to the question “should grouse shooting have a future?” is a clear... definitely, maybe . Driven grouse shooting can’t have a future unless it shows it is capable of evolving to tackle the problems it faces. These issues clearly start with the illegal killing of birds of prey , which must end. It is absurd this is still going on – we shouldn’t have to remind people to obey the law! But the problems also extend further, from the inappropriate burning on peatlands to drainage and the creation of damaging tracks . In addition, emerging issues such as mountain hare culling and medication of the grouse , are only now coming to the fore. Some moorland management is certainly good for some species, such as curlew and golden plover, but that can’t come at the price of the other environmental damage it causes. One way of tackling these issues would be a rigorous licensing system, such as those found in many European and North American countries, which recognises and builds on existing good practice. Self-regulation has clearly failed, so tougher steps must be taken. The UK has been unusual in having no statutory form of shoot licensing and given the intensity of management on some shooting estates and its environmental impacts, this seems, to put it mildly, a bit odd. We all need a modern scheme, with licensing of shoots and powers to remove the opportunity to shoot gamebirds where wildlife crimes have taken place. Loss of shooting rights is widely available as a sanction and deterrent to law breaking in other countries, so why not here? Licensing is not about tarring everybody with the same brush – law-abiding estates have nothing to fear. Those that have clean licenses could be celebrated for doing a good job. The details of a licensing scheme would need to be worked out through a public debate. But there could be a sliding scale of penalties, ranging from the most severe penalties (loss of the right to shoot) for the worst offences (eg illegal killing) through to lower penalties (fines, suspended loss of licence?) for offences such as burning on deep peat or creating damaging tracks (although arguably these are just as ecologically damaging and potentially more difficult to reverse). There could be a points based system, as on driving licences. We think it is vital that licensing requirements are compulsory, as voluntary approaches have patently failed, and that licences apply at the shoot level. Licensing could have value anywhere intensive management for shooting is causing environmental problems. This would mean a focus on the intensive driven grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, but the same approach could be used to drive up standards in other areas too. Clearly monitoring and enforcement would be required to check estates were abiding by the rules and laws set out in any licence. This might sound bureaucratic or expensive, but it is delivered perfectly straight forwardly in other areas and I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t be replicated here. A good option for administration and enforcement would be via the statutory nature conservation agencies, who could have the necessary access powers and support for enforcement from the police forces. This combination seems to work well in other examples, like the fishing rod licensing system, which is enforced by the Environment Agency working in partnership with the police and other organisations. A modern online system for licence administration and reporting could help save costs. A nominal fee could cover costs of administration. Again, similar to the EA rod licensing system, licence fees could potentially be a significant source of funding for conservation work. With high levels of compliance achieved as a result of effective enforcement, the rod licensing system raises over £20m a year to support fisheries . The shooting community too have a lot to gain from a robust licensing system. Such a system could improve public confidence in the industry, providing a means to demonstrate the sustainability of shooting sports, driving up standards, and giving us an opportunity to celebrate the best shoots where nature thrives on the land. There are no doubt a lot of other details to be worked out. For example, would estates automatically get licences and then have them taken away if they break the rules, or would they have to prove they’d reached certain criteria before being allowed a licence? What I’ve suggested here is in no way a formal RSPB submission on how a licensing system would work. It is merely a few thoughts and suggestions for how it could work. As ever, the details would need to be worked out through a long overdue public debate and consultation with all stakeholders. This is clearly something the public care about, as can be seen in Scotland where the debate is well underway. While it is appalling that yet another golden eagle has disappeared , the words of the Scottish Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, clearly show that she is serious about tackling the problem. Her statement is pretty clear - “the Scottish government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary. It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running". This is good news – progress is being made. Hopefully we can deliver similar progress in England too. The challenge is clear and it’s a great opportunity for clear leadership. That leadership doesn’t just have to come from politicians though. It can and should come from the law-abiding and forward-looking elements of the shooting industry itself. Licensing has huge potential as a tool for driving up standards across the shooting community. Shooters, as well as our wildlife will benefit. Driven grouse shooting is not an inherent right. It is something a small minority of people enjoy, yet affects the management of large swathes of our uplands. It doesn’t seem unreasonable in that context to expect that minority to abide by some basic rules of not damaging the environment in exchange for being allowed to practice their hobby. Will there be a ‘Glorious’ 12 th in 100 years time? Only if grouse moor management reforms, that’s for sure. The status quo is not an option. The RSPB is not anti-shooting. But we are anti-wildlife crime. We are anti-illegal killing. We are anti-damaging land management practices. The ball is firmly in the driven grouse shooting industry’s court to show it is capable of addressing its problems. Licensing is the best option for it to do this. There are plenty of people out there calling for a ban on driven shooting. If the industry embraces licensing as the way to counter these calls and show it can evolve, then there could be many Glorious 12ths to come. If responses to the very real issues it faces continue to be characterised by spin and denial, then the 12 August could become just another summer’s day. But at least there will always be cake!          

Comment on Leaving the Hen Harrier Action Plan: a personal perspective

Jeff, Multi-agency, 6-element plans involving 2 pillars that are still in their formative stages are very unlikely to deliver ‘immediate progress’, not least because those 2 elements haven’t even commenced - hence my question about the ‘Measures of Success’, and their associated timelines, that our Society was working to.  What exactly were they? On the southern reintroduction I will ask around, as you suggest.  And on the subject of reintroductions, just been reading in July’s ‘British Birds’ about the successful 6 year-long, multi-agency, multi-stage, cirl bunting project in Devon/Cornwall, see here - http://tinyurl.com/gmjvfmm .  That's the way to do it!  Thank goodness the team there didn't give up when it wasn't looking good, but chose instead to extend the project by 2 years. Finally, as I recall, the phrase used was the Pythonesque ‘give him a knee-in-the-groin from me’ (that your colleague seemed quite keen to deliver I might add), and very happy to do so in person when we next see each other :-)  

Comment on Leaving the Hen Harrier Action Plan: a personal perspective

Jeff, Multi-agency, 6-element plans involving 2 pillars that are still in their formative stages are very unlikely to deliver ‘immediate progress’, not least because those 2 elements haven’t even commenced - hence my question about the ‘Measures of Success’, and their associated timelines, that our Society was working to.  What exactly were they? On the southern reintroduction I will ask around, as you suggest.  And on the subject of reintroductions, just been reading in ‘British Birds’ about the successful 6 year-long, multi-agency, multi-stage, cirl bunting project in Devon/Cornwall, see here - http://tinyurl.com/gmjvfmm .  That's the way to do it!  Thank goodness the team there didn't give up when it wasn't looking good, but chose instead to extend the project by 2 years. Finally, as I recall, the phrase used was the Pythonesque ‘give him a knee-in-the-groin from me’ (that your colleague seemed quite keen to deliver I might add), and very happy to do so in person when we next see each other :-)