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  • Writer's pictureConor O' Connell

Hen Harriers- more than just a barrier to progress

This is a short blog entry on a bird which, in Ireland at least, can certainly throw up some mixed feelings among people. Unfortunately here, this is common with a lot of our birds of prey. Hen Harriers have certainly not escaped the usual attacks, whether they be by the media, by politicians, or literally, as we have sadly seen time and time again.

For those of you who may not be up to speed on your birds, you've probably nonetheless heard of the Hen Harrier, and unfortunately, the name has taken on an infamous quality. In recent years there have been countless stories in the media of all sorts of developments being held up due to these birds, stories of how 'viscous' and 'aggressive' they are- as we've seen time and time before with Golden Eagles, Pine Martens, and other fauna that are increasing in scarcity by the year. It's just another example of how detached Irish politicians, lawmakers and agricultural sector have become with wildlife as compared to the likes of Scotland and Scandinavia. In our politics, wildlife has become almost a dirty word that few want to hear- it's become synonymous with hampering progress. The Hen Harrier is one of the species at the forefront of all this.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Male Hen Harrier. Pic:

The Hen Harrier is a medium- sized bird of prey, with the female slightly bigger than the male. The male, however, is a very striking bird with a blue/grey, gunmetal plumage and black wingtips. As with many of our birds of prey, you are probably most likely to see the male, as he hunts for food. Their diet consists of small birds and rodents predominantly. Hen Harriers favour large areas of moorland/bogland and marshes. The female nests on the ground, amongst heather. The Hen Harrier has gained the deserved reputation as the 'skydancer'- perhaps your best chance of seeing one of these birds is in the spring where the male bird puts on an astonishing display of aeronautics and aerial acrobatics. Equally as interesting is the food-pass. This can be seen in the summer months when the young birds have hatched. Instead of the male bird simply carrying food to the nest, the female will fly up to the male, the male will drop the food, and the female will catch it in mid- air and return to the nest.

It would be a sad loss indeed to our natural heritage to lose such breathtaking sights.

Hen Harrier food-pass. Pic: Hen Harrier Project

Unfortunately, our bogland has been decimated over the years due to large-scale turf cutting, changes in farming practises, and, perhaps even more serious, the industrial scale planting of the non-native Sitka Spruce. What many people may not realise as they look out to the hills in the West is that those forests are not natural, they were planted where once lay rolling expanses of heather and native trees. Hen Harriers are known to nest in young plantations, but after a few years when they begin to grow, these become useless to the birds. Since the middle of the last century, spruce forests have decimated the habitats/hunting grounds of hen harriers, red grouse, red deer, skylark, marsh harrier, golden eagle, barn owl, peregrine falcon- the list goes on and on. The relevant leadership of this country is unfortunately unable to see past the short term, the 'get rich quick', schemes, with little thought given to the benefits of instead conserving our habitats and planting native trees which would, in the long term, have much more financial benefit, especially where tourism is concerned. Look at the Highlands of Scotland- if they were barren of nature would they be as popular? Don't think so. Say what you want about shooting but the reason much of Scotland's moors are in pristine condition is because of the grouse shooting industry, plain and simple, and I'm not in favour of a shooting ban. It would be detrimental to wildlife, believe it or not. Anyhow, I digress. Rant over.

A typical Irish forestry plantation. These hold very little wildlife. Pic:

Hen Harriers have seen a huge decline in the last century. Once widespread, their range has decreased massively to a few areas in the west and midlands. In 2015 a survey by BirdWatch Ireland estimated that only 108 to 157 breeding pairs remained, a decline of 8.7% since the last survey in 2010.

However, like all threatened species, there is hope. Instead of constantly battling with wildlife, we need to see a large scale shift in thinking and in our way doing things. Native animals like the Hen Harrier are part of our culture, our heritage. And yes, culture and heritage do make money. Who wants to visit an Ireland devoid of wildlife, after all? We need to take examples from other countries and encourage farmers and wildlife to coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship. We need to break the thinking of people who bring up wildlife equalling 'tree huggers' who just want to delay progress and development. Thankfully that shift seems to be happening, with more and more farmers setting aside areas for wildlife. With the help of a recent initiative giving bonuses to farmers, hen harriers just might be making a slow comeback. However time will tell- wildlife and wildlife crime are still hugely underrepresented in our leadership.

Many farmers are passionate about nature, however it's the 10% that causes a real worry. We've seen many incidents of illegal poisoning or shooting of birds of prey in recent years. I believe the media, with it's 'fake news' stories of eagles carrying off children or 'baby-eating pine martens', is to blame for a lot of this. And for the love of God, we need to move away from the spruce trees. They are an eyesore and hold no benefits in the long term. I was in Connemara National Park last year and they even made an appearance there. Come on.

'Nature', in today's society, is dangerously seen as just a 'hobby' that some people are interested in and some not. We may not see how integral it is to all of our lives until it's gone. We all have a responsibility to conserve what we have today for future generations.

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