Even if I had realised at the time what a rare treat I was in for, I don’t think I could have enjoyed the encounter more. My boyfriend and I were trudging down a heathery hill in the Dales about 10 years ago when suddenly, some 20 metres in front of us a great, ghostly pale bird flew up from the undergrowth and glided elegantly, silently across the moorland and out of sight. We later identified it as a male hen harrier, a striking silver grey hawk with an owl-like face, known as “sky dancer” for its impressive aerial mating displays. A native British species we had never seen before, or since, despite our best efforts.
If we’re talking degrees of separation, my closest chance probably came the other week in a country pub near my house. A man dressed head to toe in camo gear read the text on my T-shirt. “Hen harrier, eh?” he said, and looked up to meet my gaze. “A very rare bird.”
He’s right. Where there should be some 2,600 pairs of hen harriers in the UK, there are only about a fifth of that number. At the time of writing there are just three active nests in England this year. That’s near functional extinction for one of our most beautiful birds. RSPB staff and volunteers are watching these nests 24/7 – absurd, really, when you consider it has been illegal to kill a hen harrier or sabotage its nest since 1954. But part of the hen harrier’s diet is red grouse, which means that for the 0.1 per cent of the country involved in shooting red grouse for fun, the law appears to have taken a back seat.
So when the gamekeeper in the pub dared me with the fact that hen harriers are rare, I wasn’t surprised that my response – “They shouldn’t be though, should they?” – met with a shrug.
Birds of prey are not just discouraged on some grouse moors – they are actively sought out and killed in a variety of grizzly ways: “trapped, poisoned, shot”, as my Chris Packham-designed T-shirt says. (Presumably the wealthy landowners can afford giving their gamekeepers the extra work, particularly since in 2014 the government increased the public subsidy it provides grouse moors by 87 per cent to £56 per hectare.)
The RSPB last month cited continued illegal killing as the reason it withdrew its support from government department Defra’s half-hearted Hen Harrier Action Plan.
Prosecutions are frustratingly rare because the crime is being committed on behalf of a land-owning elite. Type “Sandringham hen harrier” into your search engine to see just how elite we’re talking.
This year a gamekeeper was filmed planting a fake hen harrier on a moor and waiting with a gun to shoot the real birds who would be attracted to it, while a gamekeeper on the Mossdale Estate in the Yorkshire Dales (owned by friends of the royals the van Cutsem family) was merely cautioned when he was caught red-handed setting barbaric pole traps, illegal since 1904.
Last Friday, 12 August, marked the start of the driven grouse shooting season. Thousands of wild grouse, so far rigorously kept safe from protected birds of prey like hen harriers and peregrines and unprotected animals like crows, foxes and stoats, will have been shot for fun.
They call this the Glorious Twelfth. I’m not sure the last few hen harriers in England would agree.