Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 4.11.14

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The alarm bells are ringing! House sparrows, of all birds, are in serious decline and the British population of this universal bird has fallen across these islands by a staggering seventy per cent and in Europe as a whole by some 150 million birds over the past thirty years. Yet even with such figures in mind, the truth is that there are still over five million pairs of these versatile little fellows at large across this land. Furthermore, even if they are in decline in England, they are apparently, for reasons I do not fully understand, still prospering in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Is this as a result of global warming or do they perhaps, feel more at home on the Celtic Fringe?

Some say that the decline is down to changes in the way we construct houses and presumably other buildings. Modern structures are, it seems, much less ‘sparrow friendly’ with fewer opportunities in particular, for them to build nests. That certainly was not the case when I was a lad, for the eaves of my childhood home always provided ample nesting opportunities which I recall, were very willingly taken. Those eaves fairly echoed to the noisy chatter of speugs virtually during every month of the year! However, these massive figures of decline are food for serious thought and I would have thought, not by any means entirely explained by an apparent lack of nesting sites. After all, sparrows are notoriously adaptable birds, on the evidence down the years, able to adapt to almost any circumstance.

More ominously, some suggest that our sparrows may be likened to the canaries once carried underground by miners. If the canaries died, the message was to don breathing masks and to get out of the mine because of the presence of gas or at best a serious decline in air quality. It is therefore asserted by some that the substantial decline in sparrow numbers, especially in towns and cities mirrors the use of those canaries. Some see this as a warning that such places are indeed becoming increasingly hazardous and polluted, largely thanks to the increasing weight of traffic and the fumes that go with such increases. However, there are many other theories pertaining to the reduction in sparrow numbers, including what might at first glance seem the most fanciful notion, promoted by Spanish experts, who blame radiation from mobile phones!

And yet, in the face of this evidence of decline, history tells us some remarkable stories of sparrow survival and opportunism. A pair was for instance, recorded nesting on the eightieth floor of New York’s Empire State Building whilst in stark contrast, others have been known to survive for several years two thousand feet below ground in Yorkshire coal mines where presumably they were sustained by food provided by the miners. Furthermore, sparrows have over the years, followed mankind into the most obscure corners of this globe and have somehow managed to colonise six of the world’s seven continents. Theirs is therefore a quite remarkable story of global success. Furthermore, that success story has undoubtedly been cemented by the sparrow’s insistence upon living cheek by jowl with us. That however, might be coming home to roost!

Travel anywhere in the world and you will find sparrows sharing man’s food and indeed his dwellings too. Indeed, such has been the omnipresence of these wee birds over the years, they have been widely regarded as something of a nuisance and as a result, have at times been the subject of serious persecution. Whilst most folk probably regard house sparrows as urban or at best, suburban birds, being the opportunists that they are, they are also very familiar birds in rural areas too. The blocky shape of the sparrow’s beak tells us that grain is an important dietary item and consequently farms where grain is grown or stored are especially attractive to them. And, as sparrows are exceedingly well known for their ability to go forth and multiply, as consumers of valuable grain they have from time to time, inevitably brought upon themselves, a climate of antagonism.
Hundreds of years ago in the Low Countries, ‘sparrow pots’ were invented and subsequently introduced to parts of Britain. These were hung to encourage sparrows to nest, a cunning ruse, which was duly exploited with the eggs taken in order to produce omelettes – an extremely useful source of extra protein for folk struggling to feed themselves properly. Furthermore, sparrow pie was in some parts, a local delicacy. Early in the twentieth century, the destruction of sparrows was encouraged by the formation of ‘sparrow clubs’, just as ‘squirrel clubs’ were also all the rage at that time as a means of controlling red squirrel numbers and thus protecting commercial forests from damage. Indeed, during the Second World War, when every ounce of grain was seen as a contribution to the war effort, the BBC regularly broadcast Government appeals for sparrow destruction!

Once upon a time, sparrows were relatively rare hereabouts but over the years, their numbers have grown. I suspect the influx initially, was the over-spill from burgeoning populations on neighbouring farms. Each morning these days, I am entertained when I throw scraps out for my motley flock of hens and watch the sparrows dart down to filch items from under the very beaks of my well-fed poultry. Sparrow numbers here in recent years, have been augmented by the arrival of small numbers of the closely related tree sparrows, which are comparatively rare and much more rurally orientated birds.

If they weren’t so common, sparrows might well be renowned for their attractive plumage. Cock sparrows in particular, with their streaky brown and grey plumage and becoming little black bibs are actually quite attractive. The tree sparrow, with its little black cheek spots is arguably even more pleasing on the eye. 

This startling recent decline in sparrow numbers however, should be taken extremely seriously. They are not the only birds in decline. Recent figures tell a depressing story of declining farmland birds. Skylarks, which until a couple of years ago were always a significant presence here, serenading me as only larks can during my morning rounds, are down by an alarming thirty seven million across Europe and willow warblers are also down by over thirty million. The less we see and especially hear of these iconic birds, the poorer surely, is the quality of our lives. As this general decline has been taking place for many years now, should we perhaps be re-examining the long-term effects of some of the chemicals we use in modern farming? 

Of one thing I’m sure; whilst Nature constantly demonstrates its amazing resilience, the advent of more and more technology, the manic drive for more and more wealth and the rapid pace of change, might well be threatening the very future of our skylarks and sparrows. More pertinently perhaps, it is also perhaps, threatening us. The warnings are stark but they are real. Sparrows may seem to be relatively unimportant in the general scheme of things. Yet they may well be sending us a message, loud and clear. Clean up your act!

Country View 28.10.14

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Blustery winds set the cat among the pigeons in no uncertain terms, or rather, stimulated by the arrival of them, the local rooks suddenly ran amok. It was as if the local community of ‘crows’ had been waiting for the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo to pitch up. Perhaps they had seen the weather forecasts on television; more likely are they to be much more sensitive to changing air pressures and the inevitable arrival of a deep Low pressure system with its tightening isobars, than we mere mortals. The fact was that whether or not they knew what was coming, once it got here they decided to enjoy it!

Indeed, the sky here was filled with rooks, in company with a number of jackdaws, as they tilted at the wind, sailing blithely into the teeth of the at times, gale force winds and then letting rip with all sorts of aerial gyrations. Nothing will ever convince me that the ‘black’ members of the crow clan – the crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws – are averse to playing games and consequently absolutely delight in such windy conditions in order to grab the opportunity to play … with great gusto. That is something that I firmly believe is the very essence of their temperaments. Crows may be black and therefore sinister in the eyes of those who don’t like them but they are without any doubt, fun loving!

The same appetite to play on the wind does not seem to seize all crows however, for although I have seen plenty of evidence that magpies are enthused by some aspects of play, they never seem to tilt at the wind in the same way as the rooks. And jays, the most colourful members of that clan don’t seem be enthused by rising winds either! Are they I wonder, the more seriously minded inhabitants of ‘crow-land’?

Play is perhaps something we more readily associate with kittens or puppies … or even with fox and badger cubs. Indeed, I have spent time watching and indeed being amused by the playful antics of fox and badger cubs, which certainly also play with great gusto. Such play has a purpose of course and play fighting helps siblings to establish family pecking orders albeit that I’m not quite sure how to unravel relationships within incidents in which fox and badger cubs play together. Such an activity I have sometimes speculated, might be contrary to the desires of parent badgers which, being so tidily minded, probably regard the much more ‘slap-dash’, uncouth foxes as undesirable playmates for their off-spring!

Child psychologists could doubtless write reams on the developmental implications of play patterns in children, which are clearly also a vital part of childhood experience and are very much a part of growing up and preparation for adult life. Play patterns in birds however, are rather more difficult perhaps to interpret. For one thing, the play I have described in rooks, is not by any means, an activity restricted to juvenile birds. Indeed, the participants are universal with whole flocks of birds, presumably comprising birds of all ages, including those in their dotage, taking part, all with the kind of enthusiasm and energy one might naturally associate with youngsters.

Perhaps, had the incident recorded, with masses of rooks tumbling about the sky, occurred this evening, it would have been attributed to some kind of ghoulish dance of witches, or indeed the spirits of Halloween running riot on the wind in some sort of dance of dervishes. However, as such demonstrations of ‘rook power’ are likely to occur on any day on which the wind really gets up, such associations are surely erroneous. Furthermore I cannot but reflect on the infectious nature of these bouts of play. It seems to start with one or two birds, their gyrations suddenly acting as a stimulus to others until the mood sweeps through a whole community of them. Eventually, the sky is full of hurtling birds!

This chain reaction certainly fits the communal lifestyle that dominates the rook way of life. However, there is a hierarchical structure to it with a clear discrimination between senior members of a flock and the more junior members, which suggests a degree of ageism! Senior members of rook communities, get the easier living and thus the choice of the very best eateries. They will, more often than not occupy for instance, the prime ground in a field where there are large numbers of the invertebrates upon which rooks delight in feeding. 

The more junior members will be on the periphery of a feeding flock, albeit that they may also be required to undertake ‘sentry’ duties by keeping their eyes open for any potential threats. In this respect, such behaviour is another demonstration of organisation. Some members of a feeding flock will be delegated with the duties of ‘look outs’. They apparently all know their place in the scheme of rook living! Incidentally, rooks are pretty sharp eyed and should you approach such a feeding flock with a stick in your hand, they will very likely take flight. Whilst they are clever, rooks do not seem to have the ability to discriminate between a stick and a gun! Without the said stick, you’ll accordingly get a lot nearer!

Rooks have not generally had a good press, for generations of crop farmers in many parts of the world have waged war against what they have always perceived as, thieves of vast quantities of grain from their fields. However, whilst some research indicates that grain represents a substantial part of the rook diet, it also points towards the bulk of that grain being gleaned from stubble or being un-germinated, neither of which of course, hit the farmers’ pockets. There is plenty of evidence to show that rooks do not eat germinating grain at all and that their preference is indeed for the pests that destroy such crops. The fact that grain takes a lot more time to be digested further distorts the balances and on the other hand, the substantial number of easily digested but harmful pests consumed by rooks perceived to be eating grain, save those same farmers a good deal of money.

Many years ago that doyen of Scottish naturalists, the late David Stephen, conducted an examination of the food found in the crops of a quantity of dead rooks. There was little in the way of grain and plenty of pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. But of course, rooks are ‘black’ birds and as such, have always induced the jaundiced eye! 

The reality is that rooks are highly intelligent, fun-loving birds that almost certainly do more good than harm. The next time the wind blows, just get out there and watch and absorb their exuberant flying displays. Rejoice, it’s playtime! It really will lift your spirits.

Country View 17.10.14

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"Let me out of here!" That seemed to be the demand when, several years ago, I was called to one of our local police stations to try and catch a fox which had been brought in by a passing motorist, apparently unconscious, having been hit by a car. It certainly was not comatoze by the time I arrived, for it had recovered consciousness and finding itself locked in a cell, was venting its displeasure in no uncertain terms. It clearly was not enjoying the experience! As far as I could tell, it was intact, with no permanent physical damage and no broken bones but judging by its reaction when I entered the cell, human beings (and presumably their conveyances) were definitely not its favourite things!

This apprehension was certainly clear during the ensuing forty minutes or so. In company with the resident police constable, by now rather concerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of his cell, which had been appropriately decorated by its incumbent, we endeavoured to take the said fox into and then out of custody. Eventually, we managed to apprehend the culprit and consign it to the ‘pet carrier’ but not without something of a struggle. I had taken the precaution of wearing a heavy pair of gauntlets but when at last I managed to get hold of the beast, he left his mark. Indeed, I still bear the mark – an indentation - on my hand where one of his lethal incisors got through the thick leather of the gauntlet.

I can have no complaints about this for the fox must have been utterly terrified to wake up from its mini coma and find itself in the confines of a police cell. It was literally, a fox with a sore head. And as we endeavoured to catch it, naturally it reacted to what it could only translate as aggression on our part. We knew we were trying to help the beast; the beast didn’t understand our concern for it and probably thought we were threatening its life and thus as might be expected, it defended itself, using every trick in the book to evade us and fighting back … with a vengeance!

The final act in this short lived drama was the easy bit as I drove out to the edge of the forest near which he had been found and quietly opened the box to release him. He departed at first like a bullet from a gun, ran up the hill into the forest before pausing for a moment, looking back and staring at me for a few moments, before finally making good his escape. Fancifully, as far as I was concerned, for a fleeting moment as he glanced back, he seemed to be signifying his thanks for giving him a second chance in life!

I am sure some readers may feel that we should have despatched the animal, for few creatures are quite so universally tarred with ‘the villain’s’ brush. Foxes in many minds are simply bad, just as a few hundred years ago in this airt, the wolf was the villain of the peace as I guess it still is in many other parts of the world. I read recently that wolves had been seen a mere forty miles from Paris, a fact that probably re-awakened in the minds of some citizens, thoughts of Mademoiselle Red Riding Hood for instance. And shepherds in several alpine parts of Europe, are voicing their concern about the predation on sheep by wolves, which they claim is becoming more and more commonplace.

Many things are said about foxes, not many of them complimentary, especially about the dangers they pose to lambs, poultry and of course, game birds, together with other ground nesting birds. Having lost geese, chickens and ducks at various times, losses for which the only explanation is predation by foxes, you might think I would have a somewhat jaundiced view of Tod. However, I take the view that if I insist on keeping free-range poultry, allowing my wee flock to wander at will, I can have no complaints about the odd one falling victim to foxes. For them, if they happen to be in the right place at the right time, this is simply food! Furthermore, I have a curiously benign view of these creatures, having down the years, reared a number of cubs thus, in the process, gaining some understanding of their nature.

One such fox stayed with us for the whole of her life, all thirteen years of it, and whilst I would never recommend foxes as pets, I can certainly testify to the very benign nature of that animal, albeit under very unusual circumstance. She came to us at three days old, having somehow survived an assault by terriers, which left all of her siblings dead but somehow, her unscathed but now orphaned. Ironically it was the very keeper whose terriers had despatched her siblings who gave her a second chance, finding her crawling blindly about the entrance to the earth that had been her nursery but then being unable to bring himself to kill her. He therefore took her home but reluctant to commit himself to the task of raising a fox cub, called me instead!

As much as my family jointly took on that task, so did one of my dogs play a significant part, nursing the said cub, cleaning it and playing with it. Throughout her life, that fox always maintained a very close relationship with our dogs. But she also established good relations with people, especially children and with a sheep-farming friend, hitherto hostile to foxes but on meeting our ‘tame’ fox, at first bemused and later charmed! On one occasion, having escaped from her run, she was to be seen standing alongside my hens, eating hen food and then later visited a neighbour’s garden in order to play with their dog! Not normal fox behaviour!

In my lifetime, more and more foxes have trans-located to urban situations, presumably because they find rich pickings in urban and suburban areas and where, despite the risks they run with regard to city traffic, there is perhaps easier living to be enjoyed and relative freedom from persecution. There are times, especially when the media is looking for stories to run, when horrendous tales are reported of foxes being found in houses usually to the horror and dread of the citizens therein. But let us put such rare incidents in perspective. Every day it seems there are incidents reported, in which domestic dogs attack people, especially children. You will not find ANY statistics in this respect relating to foxes!

Urban foxes in fact do not do a lot of killing, save for rats. They live on what our affluent society throws away! I suppose in that respect they might be seen to be doing a fair amount of good!

I certainly think that the almost manic pursuit of foxes in the countryside, is often irrational for I am quite convinced that the more persecution is aimed at them, the less effective it is. More likely is it that over zealous persecution has had the effect of moving foxes around and encouraging them to fill territories that have been emptied. It therefore fails in its primary objective of reducing the number of foxes over all. Indeed, it seems more likely that the opposite is the case. Despite a growing level of activity against them, fox populations just seem to keep rising both in town and in country! 

Country View 7.10.14

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Slowly but inexorably, autumn is advancing. It is a slow advance in the wake of a memorable summer. Mr Frost has been noticeable by his absence thus far, yet the end of the benign weather conditions we have enjoyed, as they always apparently say, is surely nigh with a change very evident during the past few days! Yet in that ending, so predictable in the general scheme of things, there are the seeds to be sown of an entirely new beginning. The farming community is already injecting the landscape with new energy as next year’s crops are sown to keep the momentum of the inevitable cycle of life on the move.

And, there are stirrings in the glens as the sap begins to rise in the breasts of the Monarchs of those glens. Their year is about to reach its dramatic climax as the more ambitious members of each community of stags prepare to do battle. Meanwhile, the hinds which, over the next few weeks, are destined to be the prizes competed for, await their inevitable fate and perhaps wonder at the heat that is so energetically generated by their male compatriots. There will also be around the periphery of all this frantic action, stags not experienced enough to be involved in the main events, yet ambitious enough to become bit players in this annual drama – on the under-card of the main contest so to speak.

These may be animals lacking the years and the stature of the master stags but not entirely lacking in ambition which, as opportunity arises, may be cute enough to carve out for themselves mini harems of hinds. They nip in like massive collie dogs to purloin a few choice damsels whilst the main protagonists are pre-occupied. Sometimes two such young stags, aware that they cannot yet be among the main players, may work in concert together to ‘beat the system’! 

The pre-occupation of the master stags is clearly focussed upon maintaining a strong and in the end, a dominating presence, usually in a carefully selected location, where advantage over any adversary is likely to be gained. And gaining advantage over rivals by any means possible, is very clearly manifested, for the red deer rut is often as much about mind over matter as it is an issue of physical prowess. Their deep, guttural roars bring vocal chords into use that will have been almost entirely dormant throughout the rest of the year. Red deer stags are generally pretty mute except for when they attend ‘the lists’!

The louder and deeper the roars issued by individual ‘master stags’, the more respect they command among both rivals and indeed the hinds. Rivals roar and posture. They even make themselves look more threatening and more imposing by rolling in bogs, coating themselves with peat and mud and adorning their famous ‘heads’ with vegetation and muck. Thus they look so much more imposing. Competing stags may run parallel with one another across a hillside, every sinew taut, eyes wild and wide, eyeing each other up before one may turn and face his opponent. Antlers clash and now it is literally a test of strength as each strains every muscle in an effort to push the other back. Sometimes as the strength of one begins to dominate, the nerve of the weaker stag frays and he breaks off to flee the arena, usually hotly pursued by the victor until he is sure that the day is decisively his.

This age-old ritual has always been a part of the aura of autumn. Yet red deer stags, live out their lives in relative harmony for the rest of the year in their single sex herds. They are apparently content in the companionship offered by fellow stags, without fear or favour; cool and calm with few hints of disharmony. And then, as the days dwindle down to a precious few and Jack Frost begins to cast his brittle spells, the bitter rivalry suddenly rises to the surface. Companionship is swapped for confrontation, as erstwhile colleagues suddenly become fire-breathing adversaries.

Such events are these days associated in particular with our Highland glens. Yet red deer must have once roamed widely throughout Britain, when much of the landscape was covered by natural woodland, for these are by origin, woodland dwelling creatures. However the demand for more and more acres for the burgeoning farming industry followed by a rapidly increasing demand for timber during the early years of the Industrial Revolution brought massive change. During the years in which the fast growing coal mining industry was producing a demand for pit props and the rapid development of the nation’s railway network necessitated an equally dramatic demand for millions of sleepers, much of the landscape was stripped of its natural woodland.

Thus our herds of red deer were forced to trans-locate, in Scotland, to the hills above what was left of the tree line. In addition, deer stalking, which became increasingly popular among the nouveaux riche as well as the aristocracy, saw the creation of deer forests across great swathes of the Highlands. Ironically these were ‘forests’ which were virtually bereft of trees! However in more modern times, the creation of new forests in the wake of the First World War, offered some of our red deer the opportunity to return to a forest environment. Much of the new forests are of course defended from such incursions by many miles of deer proof fencing. Nevertheless, many deer are making their way back into forests, many of them in Lowland Scotland.

The spectacle of the rut therefore is no longer confined to our Highland glens. Not that the rut is any less spectacular in those forests. It is perhaps more covert in nature, the voices of the stags more muffled. Out in the glens, the roaring literally does reverberate across the glens and may indeed therefore, create even more apparent rivalry. No matter where these events are taking place, the excitement generated is amazing to behold. If you are ever in a location close to where the action is, you may be quite taken aback by just how seething is the behaviour of the principal protagonists. They simply cannot contain their fervour, to the extent that they somehow seem to be almost out of control, urinating freely and without constraint, almost beside themselves with sheer passion.

This is their time; when fervour and passion are the daily driving forces; when the flame burns more brightly and fuses are apparently so short that there are sudden explosions of uncontrollable emotion. The stags are distinctly bellicose whether making their stances in Highland or Lowland. Meanwhile the hinds await their fate. Next summer, a new generation of red deer will be born. These are the moments of their creation.

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