Thirty years ago, when Gethin and Angharad were little, Elen and I were short of funds, so we toyed with the idea of doing bed and breakfast at our house – mercifully this never materialised. At the time I dreamed of attracting birdwatchers to stay by advertising that ‘within a three mile radius of the house you could find hen harrier, merlin, peregrine, short-eared owl, red and black grouse and probably golden plover.’ I would never have done it for fear of disturbing the birds, but as ornithological brags go it wasn’t bad. Thirty years on and the moorland habitat is still there and apparently in good condition – but what of the birds? This spring Gethin and I decided to have a day ‘on the mountain’ to see what we could find.
It was an overcast, chilly day in late April but the cloud was high and an occasional gleam of sunshine illuminated the enormous view that opened up behind us as we climbed. Above the last farm the ffridd (rough ground between pasture and moorland) was strewn with boulders and billows of dead bracken; ancient ash and rowan trees variously broken, hollowed or cankered stood propped and crooked amongst them. Tree pipits sobbed as they parachuted down – this is just their country. A pair of pied flycatchers, anxious for us to pass, fussed from branch to fence and back again. Cresting the slope we crossed a small river and followed the faint path along the rush filled upland valley. Apart from the thin calls of meadow pipits taking to the air and an occasional wren singing lustily it was strikingly silent. Nobody much comes this way.
After about a mile Gethin suddenly stiffened and exclaimed “harrier”. He said he had heard the characteristic ‘yip yip’ call and sure enough up to our left we saw a male hen harrier drifting away across the heather and up over a conifer plantation, before being lost from view. “Probably a food pass”, Gethin said laconically. Unlike me he had no reason to get excited; at this season surveying moorland birds is right at the centre of his work for the RSPB. In fact he was so ‘on it’ that I was beginning to feel laboured and slow. There was a time when I used to teach him this stuff…. There is no doubt that hen harriers are the moorland poster boys for conservation, particularly the males. Apart from anything else they are so beautiful: soft, pale grey plumage, almost white in some lights, with ink black wing tips and large yellow eyes. Their long slim wings, and a tail that flexes and fans are superbly adapted to tilt and slide across the heather, pouncing at the slightest movement from a vole or panicky pipit. I once held one of these extraordinary birds and I remember how its beautiful yellow eyes looked back at me with the blank indifference of planetary moons – the gaze of untroubled evolution. Endlessly patient they drift like pale ghosts across this dark landscape, conspicuous and yet often unseen in places where people rarely go. Gethin set up the telescope and settled into his own endlessly patient vigil. He was completely tuned in scanning the hillside for the smallest movement, and eventually it paid off: he saw the male settle on a rock about half a mile away and nearby he found the female, her streaked brown plumage neatly camouflaged against the heather. She seemed to be eating something, probably from the food pass. When the females are incubating eggs the males will fly in with food and use that ‘yip yip’ to call her off the nest. The food pass is often spectacular with the female turning upside down in mid air to catch the prey in her talons as he drops it.
Gethin was a bit concerned that these birds were rather close to a forestry plantation, which could give cover to foxes and crows, both of which take harrier eggs or chicks. The mixture of pleasure and anxiety we experienced was familiar as these birds are scarce and their numbers in Wales are down by about a third since 2010. Until recently we assumed they were free of the illegal persecution associated with grouse shooting that has so disgracefully supressed the population of hen harriers in England, almost to the point of extinction. This arises because, although hen harriers mostly eat voles and pipits, they do predate grouse chicks. As these birds are fully protected by law this persecution is a national scandal, which is far from being resolved. There is little intensive grouse shooting in Wales and incidents of persecution have been rare over the last thirty years. Sadly this has been blemished in the last two years when young harriers fitted with tracking devices have ‘disappeared’ over a grouse moor about twenty miles from here. One of these birds Gethin had watched over from egg to fledgling, so he was understandably angry and upset. There is no certain proof that grouse shooting people were responsible for these disappearances but there is a long and repeated pattern: hen harriers disappear far more often over grouse moors than anywhere else.
At first sight these rolling slopes of knee deep heather look like good habitat for hen harriers. Tall woody heather like this can become impenetrable to sheep, so farmers, as well as grouse shooters, used to patch burn these moorlands as the subsequent tender regrowth provided a ‘better bite’ for their animals. These days the government conservation agency forbids the burning of moors like this one, which is underlain by deep blanket peat, as the specialist plant communities are easily damaged by fire. But is this also so good for the birds? I wonder if the uneven age structure resulting from burning (or cutting) might support a greater density of meadow pipits, skylarks and voles as well as red grouse, which in turn would sustain more hen harriers? Although hen harriers require deep heather to nest in they also hunt widely over grassy moors, rush-filled flushes and young conifer plantations, where their prey species are often more plentiful. In Britain we have a particular responsibility towards blanket bogs and hen harriers, both of which are scarce and threatened,a as well as many other moorland species. Consequently ‘how to manage for everything’ becomes the unsolvable conundrum that keeps conservation managers awake at night.
Despite that, Gethin and I were pleased to find a pair of hen harriers on our doorstep and we set off up the valley in good spirits leaving them in peace. At least one of the birds on my bed and breakfast brag is still with us.