Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 1.10.14

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Pheasants beware! War has been declared and hostilities have begun. It will be a one-sided war with the winners declared well in advance of its start. Wednesday of course, saw the opening of the pheasant-shooting season, so the legions of still scraggy looking young pheasants currently scuttling along roadside verges and diving into hedgerows, are about to be targeted by tweed clad legions of trigger-happy gun-slingers. It will be a shock to the systems of birds, which thus far in their lives, have been so carefully nurtured, reared under heating lamps, fed vast quantities of grain and protected from predators. Cosseted only to be shot!
Some twenty odd million pheasants arrive in the British countryside each and every year. In other circumstance, the release into the countryside of so many birds, might be seen by predators such as foxes, as a massive bonanza, a vital life sustaining bonus of extra food, just when hard times – winter is creeping up on us – are about to set in. Thus war is also waged against such predators so that more pheasants can survive, later to be shot. It is an age-old dichotomy which unfortunately has a very big down-side for a number of predators such as buzzards and red kites, as witness the horrendous incidents which, from time to time, are reported in the pages of the press.


Somehow we do not seem to be very good at balanced approaches to such matters. Some of course, are prepared to take the law into their own hands and although the vast majority of those charged with responsibility for rearing game for the guns, do their job well and legally, there are those who firmly believe they know better than the law. Each year in the UK a depressingly high number of raptors are killed – 1200 or so, a dreadful commentary on the attitudes of a small minority of destructive zealots. Ironically, such incidents come at a time when interest in wildlife is becoming increasingly universal … and indeed, profitable. In recent years, a virtual forest of companies has sprung up all over Scotland, which offer to guide enthusiasts to locations where particular kinds of wildlife can be seen and enjoyed.


The income derived from wildlife tourism, despite the recession and so on, just keeps on rising. On the Island of Mull, as I’ve said on several occasions, the community benefits to the tune of several millions of pounds annually. Indeed, visit that lovely isle during the spring and summer especially, and you will find yourself mingling with countless groups of camera and telescope wielding enthusiasts, many of them escorted by local and very professional experts. They revel in the many opportunities to watch sea and golden eagles, otters and a wide variety of other birds and animals at relatively close quarters.


Among the really rare birds to be seen on Mull, is the now very elusive hen harrier. This is perhaps now our rarest raptor and one that I have found, is truly a delight to watch as it quarters methodically over heather moorland intent on flushing out prey such as small mammals or birds. Several decades ago, the hills in this airt supported an incredible seven pairs of these beautiful birds. Alas those same hills have, over the years, been largely submerged beneath acres and acres of dark, relatively lifeless banks of spruces and accordingly the harriers are long gone, albeit that in recent times rare sightings of one such bird means that hope does indeed spring eternal.


Such hopes are perhaps further raised during the winter months hereabouts when a handful of hen harriers roost on the mosses near here. There was a time, also sadly long gone, when it was a familiar sight to see a pair of hen harriers flying the local hedgerows on winter days – again in the hope of flushing out some of the birds sheltering among the branches. Alas, they too were long ago ‘dealt with’ and are therefore no longer to be seen. I have fond memories of watching harriers in Orkney too where they prosper largely because of the considerably more benign attitude of the folk of those delightful Northern Isles towards them.


It is therefore with some sadness that I hear that the only two young harriers to be successfully reared south of the Border during 2014, have mysteriously disappeared. These were birds that had been tagged with radio transmitters in order to record their movements. Such transmitters have a life expectancy of three years so it would seem that a destructive human hand has been at work. The two transmitters failed within three day of each other! A transmission failure is thought to be unlikely so the suggestion remains that these two young birds have been deliberately exterminated.


Even more depressing is the evidence of persecution directed towards both hen and the equally rare marsh harriers with one young hen harrier reared in 2013 in the north of England, known to have been shot. Horrifically, a young marsh harrier from East Anglia is also thought to have suffered the same fate whilst two others have successfully migrated south. And all this in the face of a recent estimate which, based on available habitat, asserted that England alone could support well over three hundred pairs of these moorland birds. Scotland clearly has vast potential and so there is no reason why the hen harrier should not be among the more commonplace of our raptors, given a fair wind and major changes in attitudes towards them.


Although hen harriers are perhaps not regarded as being among the most spectacular birds of prey, compared with say eagles, ospreys and peregrines, they are nevertheless wonderful to watch as they methodically quarter the moors and in the winter perhaps, coastal marshes. They hunt at very low altitudes, just a few feet above the ground, the male resplendent in his pale grey plumage, almost white beneath his wings, which are black-tipped. Both male and female show off that flashing white rump above the tail. The female, often known as ‘the ringtail’, because of the barring on its relatively long tail, is largely a mottled brown. Both have noticeable facial discs.


The blatant rush – the competition between estates - to boast larger and larger bags of grouse is perhaps at the root of the hen harrier’s problem for they are seen by those intent upon attaining the best returns of grouse, as direct competitors. Experiments, which provide alternative feeding in the form of carrion and so on, for resident harriers have been shown to work very effectively, diverting the harriers’ attention away from the ‘precious’ game. However, the basic fact that the presence of natural predators upon a moor can have the effect of improving the level and quality of game, is these days blatantly ignored. Harriers, because they are ground nesters, are clearly extremely vulnerable to persecution, their eggs and indeed their youngsters, clearly easy targets for those intent on their destruction.


Hen harriers are perhaps at their supreme best in the spring of the year when their courtship displays are indeed spectacular. The ‘food pass’ when the male bird offers his tokens of love in the form of food is a real spectacle, the offering sometimes dropped and ‘fielded’ adroitly by the female in mid-air, or passed from talon to talon in quite breathtaking fashion. Sadly it seems, there are those who would eliminate these magnificent raptors altogether. I for one believe that the law should pursue such felons with all the vigour at its command, for they apparently seem intent on robbing all of us of one of nature’s most glorious sights. As they show no mercy, so they too should receive none!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods