MONTAGU'S HARRIER, by Chris Packham
|The Montagu's Harrier is one of Britain's rarest birds of prey|
In the world of birds, birds of prey, or "raptors", are frequent favourites. Even the humble Kestrel hovering above the motorway draws admiring glances from people who have no direct interest in our birdlife.
But this affinity is relatively modern, throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth Century they were ruthlessly persecuted and carelessly poisoned.
The egg collectors
The upshot of this was that many of these predators became very rare.
This rarity brought them to the attention of egg collectors and other diabolicals and this in turn has led to extinction.
We lost the Osprey, Sea Eagle and Goshawk completely. Red Kites, Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons almost disappeared from the British Isles at the time as well.
Farmers and gamekeepers
|Threats like pesticide poisoning have led to declining numbers|
These days, however, it's mostly good news for Britain's birds of prey. Gamekeepers have been a traditional threat to the birds.
The keepers often see the birds as a threat to the game bird population. Since the Second World War the number of gamekeepers has fallen significantly and current keepers are far more sympathetic to the birds.
During the '50s and '60s the biggest threats to the "raptors" were pesticides, which were seen as a salvation for farmers. The story was very different for wildlife, and the toxins flowed up through the food chain, poisoning the hunter-birds.
Pesticides are now better tested and controlled, and not used in as large a quantity, thanks to the realisation that we are also at the top of the food chain and so are also vulnerable to the toxins passed up through the chain.
For birds of prey though the recovery has been slow, even the commoner more resilient species such as Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are only now recovering their former numbers.
Other birds of prey though have truly prospered;
Peregrines are probably at their greatest number since the middle ages.
The Hobby, once restricted to the southern heaths, has spread its range far north.
The Red Kite has enjoyed a fabulous reintroduction as has the Sea Eagle.
Ospreys have spread from the Scottish Glens to again nest in England.
... but what about our Harriers?
|Montagu's Harriers are migatory birds who winter in Africa|
We have three species of these long-winged buoyant flighted lovelies and only one is having a good time.
The Marsh Harrier, a migratory doyen of reed birds is slowly spreading and increasing its numbers in suitable sites.
The Hen Harrier is not having as good a time though. This moorland bird is still unfortunately loathed by grouse moor owners and keepers. It is still shot and it's young or eggs are trampled in the nest.
Despite a string of prosecutions by the Police and the RSPB, it looks set to vanish from all its English haunts and retains a precarious toe hold in northern Scotland.
The Montagu's Harrier is a different case. This species is a full on migrant, disappearing back to Africa for the winter. It's on the northern edge of its range in the UK so has never been common.
Indeed the Montagu's Harrier, having undergone periods of a few years success, has dropping back to only a handful of pairs.
Because of their rarity, the Montagu's Harrier's eggs have been much prized by collectors, and when so few are nesting these thoughtless collectors have had a serious and disastrous impact.
These days the Montagu's Harrier is jealously guarded by naturalists. They try to protect the birds through two methods:
- 1. Protection from egg collectors
- To guard the birds from the attention of these oologists (egg collectors) and their like, nesting sites are kept secret and often these sites are monitored 24 hours a day to keep egg poachers away.
- 2. Working with local farmers
- To ensure the nest sites are not disturbed, conservationists liaise with farmers and landowners to ensure their activities do not threaten the nest sites. This is not helped by the tendency for the harriers to build their nests in crops which are cut before the young birds can leave the nest.
The nesting sites
|The chicks are vunerable because the harriers nest in crop fields|
Now obviously I can't tell you where to see these birds. I'm not being smug. You could torture me to death and I wouldn't tell!
Because the secrecy is necessary and because I've been honoured with the trust of the team that works so hard to protect these and a lot of other rare raptors in the South.
Wayne Percy and his crew really are a band of backroom hero's whose dedication is unsurpassable. There were raised eyebrows about us even making our film, but if nothing else it aimed to celebrate their efforts and endeavours.
And the only reason these young Montagu's Harriers got into the air was through their unpaid, unsung work. Long may it continue!
Spotting other birds of prey
Other raptors are easily found: Visit the New Forest in spring to see Buzzards soaring over most of the major woodland blocks. In summer our southern heaths are the dragonfly hunting grounds of the Hobby.
Try Thursley Common in Surrey, keep a keen eye on your tit feeders for the local Sparrowhawk and over rough grassland where Kestrels are to be seen hovering above voles and shrews about to meet their nemesis.
Birding websites often carry news of rarer sightings, so for that elusive sighting it might be advisable to stay online.