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3:13 PM 4th June 2022
nature

RSPB Welcomes Hen Harriers Back To Geltsdale Reserve

Hen harrier, in flight over Geltsdale. Credit: Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)
Hen harrier, in flight over Geltsdale. Credit: Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)
Last month saw the return of hen harriers to the RSPB’s reserve at Geltsdale in Cumbria. The bird of prey, which is listed as one of the UK's most threatened species, was spotted by staff and volunteers on several occasions in April and early May.

Staff at RSPB Geltsdale are asking visitors to the reserve to be on the lookout for this iconic bird and to report any sightings to the reserve team over the coming months.

Hen harriers could at one time be found breeding across much of upland and lowland Britain, including Cumbria, until raptor persecution saw the species driven close to extinction in England by the 1830s, before the practice was made illegal in 1954.

As recently as five years ago, there were only a handful of breeding pairs left in the English uplands. However, last year they had their most successful season in several decades, with 31 breeding attempts reported, of which 24 were successful.

Despite this success, breeding hen harriers remain rare in England. Illegal killings, linked to intensive land management in support of driven grouse shooting, is the main factor limiting the numbers of this ground nesting bird.

At Geltsdale, RSPB staff and volunteers have been working to restore the landscape since taking on the full management of the reserve in 2001, in order to create a better home for species like hen harrier to breed, fledge and hunt.

Stephen Westerberg, Site Manager at RSPB Geltsdale, said:
“We’re incredibly happy to welcome back this amazing species to Geltsdale. We had a fantastic year in 2021, with four hen harrier chicks successfully fledging from a nest on our reserve, the first since 2016.

“Although the birds were showing promising signs of territorial behaviour, we are still waiting to see if they are going to nest on the reserve this year

“The appearance of these birds is a testament to the work of our team of volunteers and staff who have led the restoration of the landscape at Geltsdale and created a space where nature can thrive and where species like hen harrier can nest safely. This has included the removal of 113 hectares of non-native trees and the restoration of over 2,000 hectares of blanket blog.

“However, we know that breeding success isn’t just about creating the right habitat conditions. In order for us to protect these birds once they leave our reserve, we’ve also been working closely with the local community and other landowners to highlight the importance of this iconic species."

David Morris, RSPB Area Manager for Cumbria and the North East of England, said:
"These birds ought to be a familiar sight in our skies but instead they remain one of the most widely persecuted species in our uplands. Across England there are hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat that should be suitable for breeding hen harrier. However, many of these places are either degraded as a result of harmful land management practices or put birds at direct risk of illegal killing.

“Male hen harriers are often targeted whilst searching for food for their females, leading to the abandoning of nests. At Geltsdale in 2015, 2017 and 2018 we saw just that, with harriers disappearing under suspicious circumstances and their nests failing as a result.

“To combat this, we have made use of techniques like diversionary feeding of chicks, ensuring that they remain fed regardless of weather and reducing the chance of adult hen harriers leaving our reserve and being illegally killed whilst hunting on moorland.

“But in order for us to do this, we first need to know where these birds are. That is why our volunteers and staff have been regularly patrolling Geltsdale to follow up possible sightings and monitor known nesting sites.

“As we move into breeding season, we are asking visitors to report any sightings of the birds and to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity."

To report a possible sighting, members of the public can email the reserve at geltsdale@rspb.org.uk. To report a possible bird crime incident, members of the public can contact the police by calling 101, get in touch with the RSPB Investigations Unit by calling 01767 680551 or use the online reporting form.