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The mystery of RSPB Geltsdale's hen harriers

The news that two cock hen harriers have disappeared from RSPB Geltsdale is extremely disappointing and a severe blow to everyone who wants to see more hen harriers in England.

What is particularly strange though is word is filtering out that in fact there is now a 'new pair' of hen harriers on the reserve. Could this simply be a coincidence or have the RSPB jumped to the wrong conclusion, again, and attempted to trash the reputation of gamekeepers, again, when in fact the the birds had simply moved to another part of the reserve?

But for now let's give the RSPB the benefit of the doubt that these new hen harriers were in fact just a ready made pair that they had waiting in the wings and the original pair had just disappeared.

Anyone with any experience of working closely with hen harriers can tell you how aggressive female hen harriers behave if the male returns without any food to the nest.

Or indeed how males can abandon the nest if weather conditions are as appalling as they had been at the time of the disappearance, though this possibility was also completely discounted by the RSPB.

They have also, of course, decided that the birds could not have been made more than usually vulnerable to other raptors such as peregrines or goshawks, as they became more reckless in their search for food in what had been awful conditions.

No, according to the RSPB, it is obvious that raptor crime has occurred and the birds have been shot and this, they claim, was predicted because it has happened before, and as a direct result of the cocks no longer providing food for the sitting hens, both nests have been completely lost.

So what RSPB thought would happen, according to them, happened. But could something have been done to stop this catastrophe? Well, there might have been something. One of the few bits of the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan that RSPB was happy with was diversionary feeding.

This was done very successfully from the harrier survival point of view, a few miles north at Langholm, in the project which RSPB was a partner in. Dead day old chicks and rats were put out near nests and the harriers soon learnt to accept a free meal, ensuring a high survival rate of their chicks.

Faced with the RSPB's stated position, that they had two females sitting on eggs, entirely dependant on the males, which RSPB apparently expected to disappear, it is difficult to understand why they didn't approach NE to get permission to use a tried and tested method of which they approved, to ensure that even if the cocks disappeared the nests and their precious chicks would not be lost.

For the cognoscenti there are all sorts of niceties about the distinctions between diversionary feeding (good) and supplementary feeding (sometimes bad) but this is not some poor gamekeeper who can expect little help from NE. This is the RSPB, NE is virtually their regulatory wing, if they had asked they would surely have been given permission.

After all Geltsdale is one of their reserves where they have plans to spend eye watering amounts of EU money, to protect the remnant curlew population. Hen harriers eat wader chicks and so a diversionary feeding application would have been hard to fault. But they appear to have decided that what they expect gamekeepers to do, was not their sort of thing.

What is even stranger is that RSPB is happy to diversionary feed elsewhere. On the Oxfordshire reserve at Otmoor when they found that red kites were eating all the lapwing chicks, they instituted diversionary feeding of the red kites. Readers may be surprised by this news as everyone knows that red kites, “the greatest conservation success of the 20th century”, are completely harmless scavengers.

Well, at least everyone has been told that endlessly by the people responsible for the red kites being “the greatest conservation success of the twentieth century”. Can it be that the people who have been telling everyone that the kites were no problem actually knew that they were? Surely that could never be the case? If that was true it would mean that the grand old lady of conservation had been less than frank all this time.

There have also been reports this week in mainstream media of the red kites now hospitalising children in Henley and attacking pet dogs.

But there is more. The black tailed godwit is not the brightest of waders. Whilst it is a beautiful bird it lacked the wisdom shown by other waders such as curlew, lapwing, woodcock, snipe, and redshank. It foolishly does not breed on or anywhere near grouse moors. It therefore is in a very bad way indeed. It survives on a couple of lowland reserves and it is heading towards extinction as a UK breeding species. There are currently about ten pairs of hen harriers in the UK for every pair of godwits. The Nene Washes are its last strong hold and it has been obvious for years why it is disappearing.

According to both NE and RSPB the problem is predation, and particularly raptor predation, by both marsh harriers and red kites, but with, according to them, “red kites being responsible for the majority of chick predation”.

Just to get an idea of the red kites efficiency as a predator of wader chicks, NE/RSPB state that only 5 out of 69 godwit chicks fledged, and at Otmoor “71% of all predatory strikes in the fenced area resulted in prey being caught”. That is a far higher success rate than a bumbling old peregrine can achieve.

Faced with these problems, and no one would deny they are very serious, one of the actions undertaken by RSPB is diversionary feeding the red kites. Frankly, we don't blame them, but all this does raise an interesting question. If it is a good idea to diversionary feed red kites to protect lapwings and godwits, why is it not a good idea to diversionary feed hen harriers to protect curlew and lapwing on Geltsdale?

This is especially odd, as it would have the obvious collateral benefit of ensuring that if the cock birds disappeared, the harrier nests would not be lost.

Sadly we will never know. As the RSPB would not even tell us that red kites were wiping out lapwings and godwits, they are hardly likely to explain why they failed to intervene in a way that might have saved two broods of hen harriers on one of their flagship reserves.

But at least it wasn't a dead loss, with risk of more good news on the harrier front coming in every day, at least they were able to get some publicity traducing grouse moors and gamekeepers on the basis of absence of evidence.


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