Sunday, 17 April 2016

Farming and Hen Harriers – from the ground up.


Lets start with why, and lets finish with the solution that we want.


Why are Hen Harriers one of the rarest and most endangered species in Ireland?             

Their habitats have been lost and damaged across large areas. Their prey base has been decimated (for the loss of every single Hen Harrier, there will have been thousands of other birds that depend on the same habitat lost). Even within the special protection areas, more than half of what would have been their best habitat (moorland and grassland) have been subsumed by non-native commercial plantations. The quality of habitat that remains in the open areas if more often than not, of a poor quality. This industrial scale loss of natural and semi habitat has seen the loss of many of Ireland’s most loved birds including Curlew, Red Grouse, Skylark, Cuckoo and of course the indicator of the health of the ecosystem – the Hen Harrier.


Why has the habitat been lost?

The loss of habitat has followed a loss of the low intensity type of farming that existed for hundreds of years. This type of farming is difficult to maintain as economically viable. For the past 4 decades, the government and private foresters have pushed forestry grants to small farmers - cash to plant their land with non-native conifer trees. These industrial type plantations are the absolute opposite of what many native Irish wildlife species require and they are soon lost from the area. Of course the grant for planting the land is only for a limited period (15 years), but the land is forever lost to farming and indeed forever lost to memory. What often happens is that in an ageing population, when the farmer passes on, the land is inherited by someone who is not living on the land or who has a desire to continue farming on what is difficult land, with relatively low financial return. The past 4 decades have seen massive rural decline in these areas. Commercial forestry has clearly not been the answer to stemming the loss of people from marginal upland areas. Moreover, it has paralleled the loss of people and farming.

For those that do stay to farm the land, they try to compete in the same market as the guys that are able to produce hundreds of large animals on more agriculturally productive land. Those guys have far lower input costs, while the farmers on the more marginal uplands have higher input costs, struggling with heavier soils, higher rainfall, rushes, scrub, etc. In some ways, it is like a two-tier league of agricultural production, where there are the elite clubs who will always top the table given the resources available to them, and those that are struggling to stay up. In trying to compete with “the big boys”, habitats are lost and damaged on marginal upland farms – species rich fields are reseeded, scrub is cleared out, stocking rates are increased – all with resultant loss of biodiversity. However, if one takes a step back – is it actually sustainable for those farmers struggling to stay up? In what are volatile markets, where the price of milk or beef can drop below levels that are economically safe even for “the big boys” in Ireland, the amount of time and energy and money that farmers in the uplands are investing into their farms would not be advised by pure economists. Farmers are not economists. Farmers want to farm. They want to farm because of the love of being out there, on their land. They love being out in the open, walking and working in their fields, seeing the fruits of their labour, looking after their stock, etc. They love the tradition. They would love to pass the farm from one generation to the next. If they were in it for the quick buck – they would have sold out to the forestry grants a long time ago. However, it would be foolish to suggest that these farmers are blinded by their love of farming and that they don’t see the financial side of what is happening. They see it more than anyone as they are living it. Just about all these farmers work full time jobs elsewhere so that they can make ends meet.


So, what’s the solution?

Under the Rural Development Plan, there are supports available to farmers to maintain viability, including incentives to support ecosystems, maintain habitats and protect wildlife. Farmers in Hen Harrier areas are ranked as a priority group for entry to GLAS. In addition, a new Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme (LLAES) is expected to come into place for farmers in Hen Harrier areas. This scheme is intended to deliver results above and beyond what GLAS will achieve and to be honest for the Hen Harrier it is very much needed as GLAS does not appear to have the ability to turn things around for a species that is in drastic decline. For commentators that wrongly have notions that the locally led scheme is some form of compensation for designation, they should realise that this commentary is misleading and unhelpful. If the schemes are seen as anything other than money to farmers to support habitats and species, the chance of failure is high. If the habitats and birds are lost – what are the chances of getting this money in future, where there are no habitats and birds? The monies are targeted towards where the habitats and species exist. While the farmers are not economists, they understand exactly how important agri-environment scheme money is to their farm income and an environment of appreciation should be fostered to ensure this money delivers on what it is paid for, and so can continue to come in.


A future with balanced choices

In effect, this is the start of a move towards incentivising farmers in marginal areas to operate in a third market – not forestry (whereby farming ceases on that land), not trying to keep up with the big boys (which will ultimately be a losing game), but a High Nature Value market whereby the farmers are incentivised to continue or reinstate the practices that made or makes their area so important for biodiversity and a range of public goods from carbon to water to scenery. Farmers want to farm and agri-environmental farming may be the best fit and most sustainable option for many farmers in the long run. There is a very long way to go, to make sure the markets are balanced, to make sure that the farmers are being offered three evenly weighted options and not being forced down a particular route that would otherwise not be their preferred choice.






Hen Harrier Diaries: Entry No. 4

Saturday saw 5 different sites covered.

It was more like a winter Roost watch at one of the sites as the hailstones and snow came falling down. The resident male and female rested up in the white blizzard and waited until it abated. To fly around and get unduly wet would hinder their flight. When the weather dried up, it became lovely and sunny, with blue skies above. The pair flew around together closely, touching wings and landed together. This is behaviour that suggests they will nest very close by.

However, things aren't always so straightforward! A second male visited the pair in their peaceful Valley and the three flew around together. Does the female have a decision to make?
It may well be that the second male was from a neighbouring territory where his own female has not been seen, we are getting anxious that this territory which has been watched from as far back as 1955 may be vacant/become extinct. However we still hold out and will continue observations there.
Elsewhere at another traditional site there has also been anxious moments during previous watches, the female from this pair also was nowhere to be seen, thankfully Saturday this all changed with both male and Female present, they collaborated to oust two Ravens out of their territory, with the Male sky dancing in a territorial display to show the Raven's who the boss was , the female relentlessly harassed the Ravens until eventually they had enough and left the Harriers territory, hopefully the pair can soon settle down concentrate on their breeding attempt.

Also checked on Saturday was a site that previously had four Harriers present, and it was great to have all four birds still present on Saturday. The two males have really raised their game, with one enthusiastic male soaring in fierce shower of hailstone in an attempt to impress of the female's, the other male also did his very best to impress the females, with his excellent hunting skills, hunting in heavy snow and hail, all this activity from the males appeared to impress the females with both of them checking out potential nesting sites, hopefully they will soon pair off.

 The fifth site checked Saturday didn't have a successful breeding attempt last year, but there are encouraging signs so far this year, with birds present on both occasions the site was checked, Saturday we had two males circling each other, checking each other out and saying hello, next time let's hope there is a female present and that she settles down with one of the males.

Stay tuned for further updates.
Thank you,
Hen Harrier Ireland

Hen Harrier Diaries: Entry No. 3

Hen Harrier Diaries: Entry No 3

The spectacular Hen Harrier breeding season was in full flow again today. The warm air and gentle breeze helped the birds soar to astonishing heights. Two traditional breeding sites in Kerry were checked today.

One of the breeding sites checked today is very special, it is the birth place of a very special bird 'Heather'. Today's watch was similar to a previous watch from Entry 1, for 2 hrs there was nothing seen just as the watch was about to ...come to a conclusion a Hooded Crow alerted me to the females presence, he scrambled over a kilometre to confront the on rushing female, he soon gave up his quest when he realised the enormous size of this female, she gracefully went about her business gliding elegantly towards her awaiting male companion, on her arrival the excited male immediately set off in a sky dance reaching 80 peaks, the female then decide to take to the sky's herself, taking full advantage of the warm thermals soaring to extreme heights, it was an immensely enjoyable way to spend 2.5 hours.

The second site checked today had been one of the most productive nesting sites over the last number of year's. The Male at this site gave an excellent display of sky dancing reaching 110 peaks, his Female counterpart did not show herself today, but there was encouraging signs that she was not too far away, the Male sky danced directly over a bunch of willow and returned several time and perched on the willow maybe signaling the Female was present , hopefully she will reveal herself next time.
Stay tuned for various updates over the coming days.

Thank you Hen Harrier Ireland

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Hen Harrier Diaries: Entry No. 2

Today saw the Hen Harrier season well and truly get off the mark with the first food pass witnessed for 2016. This stage of the season is arguably one of the most important of all. The body condition of the females will determine how many eggs they will lay in about a months time. If the female is not receiving much food, physiology will lessen the number of eggs – maybe only 3-4 eggs. If she is receiving good quantities (and quality) of food, she might lay 5 or 6 eggs. This is a natural adaptation that follows good logic – no point in trying to rear many chicks if the signs are that food is low, but if food is high then it would be worth capitalising on this and laying more eggs in the hope of rearing more chicks.

The Hen Harrier’s food pass is one of the finest spectacles in all of nature. The male will come in with the food, often holding it low in one leg so that it is clearly visible to his mate. There will be some communication between the male and female and she will rise up underneath him in the sky, turn over and he will drop the food for her to catch in her talons while upside down! She will then take the food and eat if for herself or take it to the nest when she has chicks. It is an acrobatic feat that is unrivalled, though two trapeze artists perfectly moving in synchrony to meet one another is one way of describing what it is like (only better!!).

So we saw that today at one site, which was wonderful. We are now off the mark.

Elsewhere, at another site we had a male sky dancing to see off a hooded crow. It is popularly considered that the Hen Harrier’s sky dance (see Hen Harrier Diaries Entry No. 1 or the video on is to show off to potential suitors, but it is likely to also be a territorial display to show other birds (including other male harriers and possible trouble like crows) that the male is strong and agile and this is his turf! The sky dance of the male today made an absolute fool of the hooded crow. He was bamboozled by the agility of the male harrier and after a while did not know which way was up, as the male soared above him and dived below him so many times. He simply could not keep up with the Hen Harrier. However, he did persist in trying to attack the harrier for 15 minutes straight before finally giving up and leaving. The male’s mate then appeared and soared for some time high in the sky. The crows of course have not gone away and there may be more to come from them as the season progresses. They are often a lot of trouble for Hen Harriers as they attempt to go about their business and can take the harrier’s eggs and chicks also.

3 traditional sites that were checked today showed no signs of Hen Harriers. This has become too common an occurrence. We will continue to monitor these sites in the hope that Hen Harriers might some how show up.

As the evening drew to a close, we were lucky enough to be treated to the sight of four Hen Harriers together at one sight. Hopefully these four will progress to be two pairs (there has traditionally been two pairs in the locality). Lots of soaring high in the sky was witnessed. One of the males was carrying food but did not pass it to any female. This may have been in an attempt to hardwire into the female’s minds that this male, above the other male, is the guy that carries food. Treat them mean and keep them keen?!

One of the females perched on a turf heap for 40 minutes and was surprisingly buzzed by a male Merlin! Merlins are Ireland’s smallest bird of prey and share similar habitats to Hen Harriers with heather moorland being the preferred environment. Wonderful birds to see.
Another wonderful bird to see in this environment is the Curlew and we had our first of the season today at the same site. These birds have become very rare. Like Hen Harriers, their decline is indicating a malaise in the upland environment; particularly due to afforestation, predation and agricultural intensification.

If you have any Hen Harrier sightings or records this spring/summer, we would be delighted to hear from you – but please do not publically disclose locations.

Keep in touch and watch out for the next instalment of the Hen Harrier Diaries!

Photograph by Highlandwildlifephotography

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Hen Harrier Diaries 2016. Entry No. 1

Sky Dancing Male Hen Harrier (photo David Palmer)
This is a wonderful time of the year if you want to enjoy watching Hen Harriers. It is when they perform their courtship displays, known as the sky dance. Really, words cannot do this aerial display justice, and even videos like this ( really can't live up to witnessing full blown sky dancing!

Today saw some wonderful sky dancing at a site in Kerry where a pair of Hen Harriers succesfully bred in 2015. For 1.5 hour...s, there was nothing to be seen, when as if from nowhere a male appeared on the scene. He performed a most remarkable sky dance, with 170 peaks and troughs - an amazing display of agility and stamina. Surely this impressed his mate and she soon came into the picture following the superstar on the dance floor! We all hope they do well this season. It is a long way to late July when we hope they will have reared chicks; fingers crossed!

At another site, it was a somewhat different story. The male was present alright, but there was no sign of his female. He sky danced and sky danced, exerting a massive amount of energy in hope that the female he bred with last year might see him and hopefully attach to him again this season. She did not show and while it is still early days, we are a little concerned that this may be yet another traditional breeding site that will lose a breeding pair. The nest was predated in 2015 and the female was not seen thereafter. Let's all hope that this is not the case and that the male's efforts will eventually pay off handsomely.

We will continue to keep our followers up to date with various news throughout the season.
All the best for the breeding season ahead!