United in a weekend for Hen Harriers

This weekend was superb. If you went to a Hen Harrier event you’ll know what I’m on about but if not then make sure you do next year! If I were to sum it up in five words, which is difficult, they would be very inspiring, exciting, lots of motivation, fervent and uplifting.

But why am I using such positive words to describe events which are about a depressing and serious matter? Well, when you hear a lot of negative stories, including the five Hen Harriers which disappeared (yeah, OK) this year, an event like this makes you feel incredibly positive as you see so many people joined together showing their support and feeling the same as yourself. Even though I knew all of these people existed and most of the country, a part from SOME, are and would (if only they knew about what goes on) be opposed and saddened by ongoings of wildlife crime everywhere including upon the upland moors, again it was very positive to be there, see it with my own eyes, and to see that change is definitely happening and that we will win.

Whether it’s the fact many species, including raptors, are being illegally persecuted to protect ones own interest, a bird of prey is being pushed to extinction,  habitats are being damaged or the burning is having a role to play with global warming and flooding, the activity of driven grouse shooting upon upland moors needs to end. This was a key message expressed by all of the speakers at the Hen Harrier events I went too. Along with this the fact that we’re right, we’re backed by science and we deserve justice.

If you’d read a few of my latest posts, follow me on Twitter or even saw me there yourself I spent my Hen Harrier Day up at the Goyt Valley near Buxton, Derbyshire.  As well as this I went along to the Hen Harrier Eve event at The Palace Hotel in Buxton on Saturday. 

When we arrived in Buxton on Saturday afternoon, whilst walking around waiting for the evening event to start, I bumped into quite a few people who were going. Either wearing their t-shirt or I knew who they were already. We even got sat next to two ladies going to the events when we went for something to eat along with some others at our B&B the following morning. Hen Harrier supporters had taken over Buxton!

But this was great! I often see this when I go on street marches, all the people passing by take an interest by what it says on their t-shirt or placard. This also had the same effect at the Goyt Valley when walkers, runners and cyclists passed, along with at the afternoon event in the Pavilion Gardens, Buxton. I heard quite a few people passing and muttering ‘what’s with the black t-shirts’ and so on.

Once at The Palace Hotel for the Hen Harrier Eve event it was great to have a chat with some old and new faces before the talks began. Overall there were a variety of things talked about by each speaker along with a variety of speakers.

First to speak was Mark Avery who was one of the organisers and introduced the evening. He has also had a massive impact on the fight to ban driven grouse shooting with the work he’s done, including his recent book Inglorious and the ban driven grouse shooting petition he set up again this year after last years success of it reaching over 10,000 signatures. So far this year the petition has over 11,000, you can sign it by clicking here.

He was followed by the other organiser, Susan Cross, and also Gordon MacLellan who presented some literature about the Peak District and Buxton, and also included context about Hen Harriers. After this the RSPB’s skydancer video was introduced by Amanda Miller and CEO RSPB Mike Clark said a few words about their hard work on helping the Hen Harrier. It was brilliant to have two people from the RSPB talk, along with Jeff Knot (RSPB) speak at Hen Harrier Day. As well as the RSPB, Jo Smith who is the CEO Derbyshire Wildlife Trust also spoke at the Hen Harrier Day event.

Next was Mark Cocker in conversation with Jeremy Deller. Jeremy Deller is a Turner Prize winner (2004) and has produced such art work as ‘A good day for cyclists’ which shows a massive Hen Harrier clutching a blood red Range Rover in its talons. Whilst in conversation with Mark Cocker he spoke about a lot of his work, including this piece, which was very interesting.

Jeremy Deller, the artist featured in the British pavilion, had one of the most talked about installations at the Venice Biennale preview, attended by critics, curators and collectors from around the world. Photo by mary Louise Schumacher

Then after the interval Mark Cocker gave his own talk. This was about birds of prey in culture across the world with references to his book. As well as Hen Harriers.

Next to speak was Findlay Wilde who said a few words about Hen Harriers before going on to how he made two new brilliant models. One was a grouse butt and another was a massive bottle of poison. With this he showed a video mash-up of how he did so with a sound track created by his younger brother, Harley.  He also announced how he’d persuaded Ecotricity to support satellite tagging of Hen Harriers next year.

Then there was another video mash-up about the adventures of Henry the Hen Harrier around the UK which was created by Phil Walton from Birders Against Wildlife Crime. If you don’t already follow Henry on Twitter then please do at @HenryHenHarrier.

Last, but one, to speak was Chris Packham who was superb and inspiring as usual. He spoke very passionately and expressed his anger of persecution of Hen Harriers, the huge decline of wildlife, Cecil the Lion and much more.

To finish of the evening of talks, there was a quick announcement from Charlie Moores (BAWC) about the exciting arrangements of the next day, Hen Harrier Day.

As I walked up to the venue of Hen Harrier Day at 10am the Hen Harrier thunderclap went out. This reached almost 5.7 million people which was just amazing, lets hope all those people took note of what they read. The thunderclap read…

The location of Hen Harrier Day, in Buxton, was perfect. As the speakers said what they wanted to say you could gaze over onto the moorland. When they spoke you could just picture their dream, and your dream, of what they want that area to look like one day. You could visualise the aim. Along with this, at this location Hen Harriers have been spotted here in the past.

However the image of what we’d all love the upland before us to look like was somewhat shattered and taken over by what it really looked like at that moment. Not a bird in sight, it looked dead and you could see the areas where it’s been burnt for intensive driven grouse shooting. But this brought no one down, in fact it gave more motivation. Along with the inspiring and wise words from those who spoke and being surrounded by those who care immensely.

Speaking at the event was Charlie Moores, Mark Avery, Chris Packham, Jeff Knot (RSPB) and Jo Smith (The Wildlife Trust). The talks started about 11am and ended just before 1pm. Then after that many still gathered, chatted and after a while some headed down to Buxton Pavilion Gardens as there were a few stalls, along with lots of interest from people passing by.

As I’ve mentioned, and you can probably tell, it was a fantastic weekend as I’m sure were all the other events happening around the country and I look forward to next year. It feels very odd today after such an exciting weekend! But also on a more serious note, lets hope yesterday made an actual difference and this continues as we won’t be stopping until it does.

Here’s another tweet from Birders Against Wildlife Crime which sums it all up very nicely.

Here are some photos from the weekend.

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Raptor ringing and monitoring in Wiltshire

Earlier this year I gave a talk at a workshop at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which was run by Dr Emily Joachim. When I met Emily she told me a lot about the work she does which sounded very interesting! Emily has been monitoring nest boxes for eight years. She has recently been awarded her C license for raptors and owls and was trained by a man called Nigel who set up a raptor and owl nest box project in 1983, I speak more about his work later on. She has completed a PhD on little owl breeding ecology so she’s a real expert! She decided to focus on little owls because they are rapidly declining and she wanted to learn more about their ecology. Few people study little owls in the UK. Emily is fascinated by raptors and studies and monitors barn owls, little owls, kestrels and tawny owls. She has recently set up a UK Little Owl Project which works to celebrate the species and encourage people to record their sightings, you can see more about it here – http://www.littleowlproject.uk/

When I visited she also invited me to come out with her and some others, who are part of the team, later in the year to see what they do and get up to when spending the day ringing and monitoring raptors in the South Wiltshire area. Through the year they monitor and ring different birds at different times, altogether they check around 700 nests. First of all it’s the tawny owls in February, then kestrels in late March, little owls in late April then barn owls in May.  These are just the first checks. If they discover any signs of breeding they record the number of eggs then return later on in the year to ring the young, if the nest has been successful.  As I was visiting later on in the year, the day was all about ringing and monitoring barn owls however we did come across some late kestrels.

On Tuesday morning, we met with the man who runs the project, Nigel, before we all went out together to the first nesting site. Altogether there were four of us but Nigel is supported by a big team of dedicated volunteers. Major (Rtd) Nigel Lewis MBE initiated his raptor and owl nest box project in 1983. The project extends across south Wiltshire, south England. The project covers an area of 700km2. There are a total of 1100 nest boxes for barn owls, kestrels, little owls and tawny owls; 500 boxes are on the MOD land, Salisbury Plain Training Area.

During the breeding season the team spend 3-4 days a week monitoring nest sites. I joined them on one of these days which was a full day of hard work, not just a couple of hours! When we arrived at the first box we weren’t sure what to expect as it was a ‘lucky dip’ so hadn’t been checked this year. Quite surprisingly there were three kestrels in the box, this was unusual as it’s quite late for them. However they were in good condition and doing well. This was great to see as it was such a surprise and I wasn’t expecting to see any.

I’m told it is hugely satisfying to monitor the raptor nests, but can be difficult if there are a high number of nesting failures due to poor weather and low prey availability. This year there are low vole numbers and many pairs of barns owls have not bred. They’ve had a 100 pairs and the average brood size is only 1.2 chicks. As well as this they’ve had 60 pairs of kestrels use their boxes this year and the mean brood size is lower than average due to a shortage of food. Overall the average brood size is only 2.3 chicks. Little owls are also continuing to decline in Wiltshire. This year only 11 pairs used the boxes. They also had 30 pairs of tawny owls using their boxes this year.

After visiting the kestrel site we were then on our way to the next site where we checked three boxes. In one there was some eggs, another had an old jackdaw nest in then the last had an adult, which was already ringed, a chick then an egg which was rotten and hadn’t hatched. We had to empty the box with the jackdaw nest in as jackdaws fill the box up with sticks which would put of an owl nesting in there next year but if the jackdaw went back next year it could build the nest again in no time at all.

Whilst travelling around to the different sites we travelled across a lot of privately owned land to get to them. This was a great experience as we got to see areas of the countryside which many others won’t. I also felt privileged to be travelling around this this area of the country as the views were amazing. The team work with 100’s of landowners across south Wiltshire. Many manage habitat for wildlife and try to ensure that strips of rough grassland are kept for barn owls to hunt for their main prey, which is short-tailed voles.

Throughout the day we visited 11 boxes at 9 different sites. They normally visit more but these were all at the edge of their study area so it took longer to travel. I got a brilliant first hand experience of the work they do which was fantastic and very inspiring. I also got a detailed view of the life of the barn owls, from how they look close up and small details like the parents brood patch to how their nests look. You can see some of the photos I took and what it was like below.

The volunteers were incredibly dedicated people who do some amazing work in the area and contribute to records from the rest of the UK. They send their records to the BTO.

Their nest box team won the MOD’s Silver Otter and Environmental Project Awards in 2014 and Nigel has won Wiltshire Life’s 2015 Outstanding Contribution to Conservation Award. Very well deserved for a fantastic project.

IMG_8201Emily ringing a kestrel.

 

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Adult barn owl with young.

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The talons of a barn owl.
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The brood patch of an adult barn owl.

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On the way back we stopped off at the little owl area to change the camera and found two of this years young roosting in there.

A big thank you to Emily and the rest of the team for letting me come along!