The First Ever Hen Harrier Day Wales 18 July 2020 Part One

A beautiful male Hen Harrier a bird repeatedly killed by criminals, photo Frank Wildman.

Here is Alan's talk given at the first ever Hen harrier Day Wales - Good afternoon and thank you for joining us at the very first Hen Harrier Day Wales. I would like to talk to you about what Hen Harriers mean to me.

Firstly a little about me, I have been passionate about birds all my life, obsessed some would say, and rightly. Birds are wonderful and once you notice them they enrich our lives. Listen to a Blackbird sing and your day is better, watch a Robin hopping around on your lawn your day is better. Birds are everywhere too so driving to work you might notice a Buzzard soaring over the road, a little wow moment that makes your day better. Some of you may have met me when I worked at RSPB Conwy or may have joined me on one of our Birdwatching Trips or perhaps just out enjoying birds here in Wales or further afield. I have always been fascinated by birds of prey and growing up in North Wales they have always been around to enjoy. I have been involved with Hen Harrier Day since the first event in 2014 and passionately believe that raising awareness of the plight of these wonderful birds is the way to stop their illegal killing.

So what do Hen Harriers mean to me and why should you care about their plight.

I would like to take you into the uplands of North Wales close to where I first noticed birds and saw my first ever Hen Harrier. Our walk takes us up through oak and birch woodland where Common Redstarts and Tree Pipits sing a wonderful sound and gives the excuse to pause on the uphill path and listen, beautiful.

Out of the woodland and out onto heather moorland and rough grassland a first scan for a Hen Harrier no luck yet. Tree Pipits have been replaced with Meadow Pipits and Skylarks the early morning air thick with bird song. A starching song announces a handsome male Whinchat singing from a rusty fence wire. Keep scanning the whole area but no birds of prey yet, it is still early and the air is cool. Reaching my favourite viewpoint we settle down to watch, a huge vista stretches before us, heather moorland, sheep pasture, cliffs and high mountains form the back drop what a wonderful place and not another human being in sight, magical. The monotonous reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler drifts across the heather but we can’t see this singi. A Common Buzzard calls and we look up, how did a large bird of prey just appear in a clear blue sky?

Then over a distant ridge another raptor, no Buzzard this one, it is low over the heather moving quite quickly, long tail, wings held up at 45 degrees, grey plumage, with striking white rump and black tips to those wing a male Hen Harrier! Such a beautiful sight the bird floating over the heather in this most stunning location. Hairs on the back of our necks standing up so exciting to see this fantastic bird sadly so much rarer than it should be.

A stunning male Hen Harrier floats over a heather moorland where it should be safe, photo Frank Wildman.

As we watch the male Hen Harrier starts to circle and then soar up on the warming air over the moor, he climbs up, and up and up. Necks straining now to keep this grey ghost of a bird in view, where is he going? Then he has been shot and is falling from the sky, no, no he has not been shot though for all-the world it looked that way. The male Hen Harrier has folded his wings and is plummeting towards the earth twisting and turning as he does so! We hold our breath surely he will smash into the ground the speed at which he falling? At the last second before impact with the earth he pulls out of the dive and throws back up into the blue almost vertically better than any jet fighter could manage! The Harrier climbs and climbs into the vast blue sky then he is hurtling down again towards the ground at breath-taking speed! Again and again the male repeats this performance as though stuck on an invisible rollercoaster! What a thrill to witness this spectacular display of such a rare bird in such a fantastic location. For twenty minutes the male Hen Harrier performs his mind-blowing sky-dance and we watch spellbound by this grey-ghost doing aerobatics. Show over the male Hen Harrier is back to hunting low over the heather and soon slips over a ridge and is lost to view, leaving us stunned and elated to have been privileged to witness this spectacular display. Watching a male Hen Harrier sky-dance is just magical and something everyone should have the chance to see.

Of course not everyone is lucky enough to live somewhere where they can witness the breath-taking sky-dance of a male Hen Harrier but you may live close enough to a place to see one in winter. Many of our remaining Hen Harriers move off the moors in winter to marshes and estuaries where with luck and patience you might be lucky enough to see one of these most beautiful birds. Living here in North Wales I am lucky to not only to be able to watch them on the moors but also on the coastal marshes in winter too.

Let’s go and look for Hen Harriers in the winter. It is a December day, cold and calm, hard frost last night and going to be again tonight. Mid-afternoon and we walk silently through a conifer wood just the odd “tick” from a Robin and them a load “cronk” from a Raven passing low overhead, sure this sharp eyed corvid saw us moving through the trees. We reach the edge of the wood and suddenly a huge vista opens up a saltmarsh and estuary stretch for miles. Luckily the air is still it can be a very cold place here and even now we feel a chill seeping under our warm layers. A broken fence marks the boundary of forest and marsh and we stand here with the dark trees to our backs our dull clothes hopefully blending in as the winter sun dips already towards the western horizon. We scan the vast mash before us, not a thing, nothing. Further away on the mudflats Shelduck are sifting through the wet mud for a last meal before dark. A big flock of Golden Plover stand motionless hunched against the cold shoulder to shoulder like an army waiting for the order to march. A Curlew suddenly calls what a beautiful sound as this large wader flies over the marsh and drops out of sight into a creek. We wonder what else is hidden in the creeks. Scanning, scanning, a Carrion Crow flaps slow over the saltmarsh but no harriers. The light is failing but we scan harder now knowing we don’t have much time. Then a call “phisskk” and we look up as a Woodcock skims over at tree height only in view for a few for seconds but enough to quicken the heart beat and forget the cold that is turning feet and hands numb.

Male Hen Harriers are such wonderful birds we should have the chance to see them, photo Frank Wildman.

There! It’s there! A Hen Harrier! A male Hen Harrier a grey ghost drifting just above the marsh grasses oh so beautiful. All the scanning the waiting the cold all forgotten in a moment of elation. This beautiful raptor moves effortlessly low over the marsh suddenly jinking and diving into the vegetation but is up again almost at once and floats on and then back over the same area thrilling us in the gloom. What a spectacular bird and a real privilege to witness it. Then the harrier lands deep in the marsh and the show is over. Wow! What a wonderful experience to see this rare and spectacular bird coming in to roost. We should all have the chance to witness Hen Harriers and be thrilled by them.

Sadly the sight of Hen Harriers over our moorlands is being stolen from us. There are many of our moorlands with no Hen Harriers despite the habitat being suitable - only one reason for this, criminals are killing them systematically and continually. The Hen Harrier has the highest protection offered to a bird species in the UK yet time and time again they are killed by criminals. Let’s not forget this it is a criminal offence to kill one of our Hen Harriers yet it keeps happening! Surely not much to ask for the law of the land to be upheld?

What can we do to stop the killing? There are things we can do.

We can raise awareness of Hen Harriers and their plight. Most people in the UK do not know what a Hen Harrier is we need to change that, once people know how wonderful these birds are they will want the illegal killing of them to stop. If you know about something and see how wonderful that thing is you will care if a criminal is stealing the chance of you enjoying it. That is what these criminals do when they kill a Hen Harrier not just destroying a beautiful creature but stealing the chance of you and me enjoying that bird over our moorlands. We should all be outraged that these criminals are destroying what belongs to all of us.

If a criminal entered your home and stole your television that you were enjoying watching you would quite rightly expect the crime to be investigated by the police and the criminal caught and brought to justice. Yet time and time again those that kill Hen Harriers get away with it and this has to stop. If more people were aware of the problem more resources would be thrown at the problem and the criminals would find it much more difficult to operate. Our Wildlife Crime Police Officers need much more funding and we need many more of them! With enough public support this could easily happen, politicians run scared of public opinion and this is an easy win – asking for the law of the land to be upheld. While so few people know of and care about Hen Harriers these changes won’t happen and our beautiful Hen Harriers will continue to be killed on our moorlands. We can all play our part here and raise awareness of our Hen Harriers and the illegal killing of them. Talk about Hen Harriers to your friends, family, the milkman, the shop keeper, farmer, steelworker and literally anyone and everyone you meet. Tell everyone how such a beautiful bird is being killed by criminals just so that a tiny minority of people can slaughter Red Grouse for fun.

The Driven Grouse Shooting Industry is the main reason we have so few Hen Harriers and the reason criminals kill these most wonderful birds. Very few Grouse Moors have any nesting Hen Harriers and the vast majority of these huge areas of moorland have none despite the habitat being suitable for harriers to nest. This is a scandal and steals our wildlife from all of us.

So let’s all make lots of noise about Hen Harriers not just today but every day! Once people know who amazing Hen Harriers are they will be appalled that criminals are killing these birds and denying us all the wonder of watching them over our moors.

You can watch the whole of Hen Harrier Day Wales 2020 by clicking on the link below, join Iolo Williams and Chris Packham and many more for this interesting presentation, you will need to scroll down right to the bottom of the page to find the Hen Harier Day Wales event....

Check back soon for lots more about Hen Harrier Day Wales and Hen Harrier Day UK coming on the 8th August 2020.

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