Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Hen Harrier Diaries

Welcome to the first installment of The Hen Harrier Diaries. Over the course of the next four months,I will share with you some news from six territories in the Stack's to the Mullagharierk Mountains Special Protection Area for Hen Harriers. This is being undertaken as part of a national breeding survey; but also to extend what has been a long running study of over half a century on these mountains. How these pairs will do in 2015, we have no way of knowing but fingers, toes and everything else crossed that they will make it all the way from now until the end of the summer and come out the other side with young chicks reared!

For the safety of the Hen Harriers involved, these pairs will not be referred to by the location they dwell in, but by numbers (pair 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6). The males will be known as Males 1-6 and their corresponding partners will be know as Females 1-6.

So for the past few weeks, a small team of us have been busy going out establishing which territories are currently occupied. this is one of the most exhilarating times of the year and we have been treated to some spectacular sky dances by the males and even one female who reached 111 peaks on one of her dance sessions!! One of the sights that really puts a lump in our throats is the male and female circling together on the thermals, rising and inter-weaving with one another as the sun shines through the feathers of the brilliant white male and the rich brown female, against a beautiful blue sky. It really is something to behold. Love is the air!!

So to introduce our pairs, with whom you will become acquainted throughout the season!

Pair 1. Heather' Mom and Dad. You will remember Heather, who was born and reared in 2013 and targeted and shot in South Kerry in January 2015. Heather had travelled the country and brought so many people closer to Hen Harriers, as well as providing much needed data on the ecology of the species in Ireland. Well, Heather's parents are back for another try this spring and summer, The male has been sky dancing and has had to ''escort'' another male harrier who may been eyeing up the female. Good on him, he loves his girl and his territory! this pair have not had the best of luck and their usual nest location close to forestry, has been precarious and there have been a number of predation events over the years.

Pair 2. The Neighbours! While not yet confirmed for sure, we are hopeful that another pair will settle close to pair 1. we have had 2 females and 2 males in the area,so hopefully they will sort things out. This pair had their nesting attempt interfered with in 2014 when a well known forestry company were planting the ground right at their nest kept the adults away from the nest so long that the young died. Lets hope for better in 2015.

Pair 3. This has been a traditional nest site for a number of years now. The female tends to nest in amongst gorse scrub on a slope.Hopefully they will soon select their preferred nesting spot and start bringing nesting material for the breeding attempt that lies ahead.

Pair 4. Both male and female have been seen courting each other. they nest in an area where turf cutting is active and they were successful in rearing 3 beautiful young fledglings in 2014. Lets hope for more of the same this year!

Pair 5. The glen nesters!This pair nest in a secluded glen, which is very quite, apart from the beautiful sound of the Curlew! The male and female are considered real professionals and have been successful in rearing young for the past number of years.Once, the female was seen to carry a stoat in her legs!!

Pair 6. New kids on the block! A brand new '' out of the box '' female. born just last summer, has been seen in the company of an adult male. This is a very exciting prospect as this is a new pair and we wish them all the very best!

Stay tuned for various updates along the way .

Of course, feel free to share your own news also,BUT PLEASE DO NOT EVER GIVE ANY INFORMATION THAT WOULD DISCLOSE LOCATION  of these sensitive and rare birds of prey.

Bye for now!
Hen Harrier Ireland.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey is on 31 March drawing to the conclusion of its 10th season,at which point the data will be analysed and published.This has been a massive piece of work,undertaken entirely voluntarily.It has documented from scratch,where Hen Harriers can be found in Ireland during the period August to March and how they have been doing in terms of numbers and much more besides.Be sure to play your part and contact the survey organiser ( with any sightings or records from roost watches.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Heather the beautiful Hen Harrier - a tribute and a legacy

    See this female Hen Harrier in the photo above? That was Heather's mom in June 2007 - her first nesting attempt as a young female on the uplands around Mount Eagle in County Kerry. You'll see this very image on information boards in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, on posters produced by Monaghan County Council about the Farney County's heritage, on various websites including and on the information booklet that was sent out to landowners throughout the six Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas in Ireland. This image for a long time, represented hope. The female was unable to rear young on her first attempt in 2007 - this was not a "failed" attempt (Hen Harriers do not "fail" anything), rather her nest (with young chicks inside) was predated. However, there was hope, because this female was young and she had time on her side.

Fast forward to 2013. A great sunny summer near Mount Eagle and the same female was close to rearing her brood successfully. The breeding attempt was followed from the earliest sky dances by the sky silver male and his heather brown partner, to the fledging of the young chicks and indeed we were all so lucky to be able to follow one of the young chicks for years to come.... 

An early start saw one of the greatest days ever with Hen Harriers. By 0600hrs, two young healthy female chicks were expertly fitted with lightweight MWT satellite tags. Local school children named them Heather and Sally (after two of the most important habitats for Hen Harriers). Heather can be seen on the right of the photo and her slightly older sister Sally on the left of the photo. The original post about this great day can be found by clicking here

As the local community and indeed people right across Ireland and overseas eagerly anticipated these birds' travels, Sally made the earliest moves away from the nest sight. She was first to leave the uplands, her siblings and parents.  She was the first to see the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the McGillicuddy Reeks and the Golden Vale. She made various movements around Munster but eventually succumbed to starvation in West Limerick in August 2013. See the original post here but better still, see the various other posts about Sally's short life throughout this blog site.

Heather was quieter in terms of her original movements. She stayed around the heather clad hills for a while, before making a very exciting move to Kildare and then the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains! Heather even made a visit over Croke Park on the weekend her native Kerry lost to the Dublin Blues in one of the greatest Gaelic Football matches ever played. She saw 80,000 people, but did 80,000 people see her? A lot more people got to hear about Heather on the Mooney Show on RTÉ Radio One (listen here from 01:04:00 and this certainly helped the profile of Hen Harriers among the general public and there was great support and hope for Heather in her future travels in life). Heather was already contributing to the conservation of her species in Ireland by endearing the public to this beautiful but vanishing native bird.

From Dublin, she visited the Royal County of Meath, where she was seen by the same researcher who fitted her with her satellite tag. To see her rise from her roost before sunrise over a field of oilseed rape was truly awesome and will never be forgetten. Miles from home, a world away in terms of habitat, a truly independent and free bird making her way in life. The shores of Lough Neagh next. Ireland's largest lake and Heather's furthest north trip. From there, she turned back around and made a direct journey all the way to the Atlantic cliffs of South County Cork. It is believed she must have met an older (wing tagged) female all the way up north and that this bird guided Heather to the Rebel County. The two showed up at their cliff top roost together on the same day. How else did Heather know how to find this roost for the very first time when she was hundreds of kilometres north in Lough Neagh the day before? She stayed there for some time with a number of other harriers, cruising around the tillage fields by day and roosting by night to the sound of Chough, Gulls and crashing waves. From these older birds, Heather would have learned of good hunting places and safe places to spend each night. Again, the same researcher was again lucky enough to see Heather here, while local man Dave McGrath got some wonderful photographs of Heather including this one below.

A new year came. 2014 saw Heather visit the Nagle Mountains and then West Waterford. Come breeding time, she was in the Ballyhouras and hung around with an established pair - did she want to breed? Was she just curious? Learning the ropes? Whatever the case, she did not breed that summer, but instead travelled through various counties to make it to Mayo. Mayo may have been perhaps one of the happiest and most content times in Heather's life. Heather's roost sites in and around Ballycroy National Park and Castlebar provided some super habitat in terms of heather, rough grassland, hedgerows and scrub. It was a beautiful summer and Heather's surrounds provided ample resources. To be honest, it would have been good if she stayed there the rest of her days, but a free and wild spirit, she was to go wherever she liked. 

With the summer finished and the days shortening, Heather decided to retrace her steps and visit the exact same sites in Cork as she had spent the previous winter. However, after some time, she made the bold move back to her native Kingdom - this time South Kerry. She overlooked the spectacular Skelligs and even roosted on an offshore island for some time. She made a memorable trip home to Mount Eagle for a while. Even after all her journeys, she knew where home was at all times and could have returned to breed there this summer if she wanted.
Yet this was not to be. Throughout 2013 and then 2014 and then 2015, Heather's location was checked on a daily basis. Everytime, it was heart in mouth stuff as to whether she was alive or not, and exciting to think where she might be at that very moment in time. Every time without fail, she lit up our eyes when her tag showed she was alive and well. Until someone in South Kerry (in the very same area where the magnificent White-tailed Sea Eagles have been poisoned), decided it was a good idea to shoot Heather out of the sky in the second week of 2015.

A sustained series of negative media articles over the past year has vilified this, one of Ireland's most magestic yet most endangered birds of prey. Reports of "farmers unable to farm their lands" were published without reference to fact. There are two items where consent must be sought in Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas - 1. removal of field boundaries and 2. reclamation of heath/bog - both activities require consent for any farmer anywhere in the country even without anything to do with Hen Harriers or SPAs! "Tight restrictions?". The Hen Harrier has co-existed with small farmers for generations and it is afforestation that is seen as the largest threat. Under GLAS, farmers in Hen Harrier SPAs will be prioritised for funding - and hopefully that's something that gives people a viable alternative to planting their land (which the vast majority of farmers don't want to do).

The Hen Harrier is effectively bringing farmers in the Hen Harrier SPAs up to €140 million over the next five years, to stay and farm their land in the manner that has led to these areas being so important in the first place. The loss of this type of farming, which is difficult given the land types, has been one of the main reasons for the decline in Hen Harriers. When the people move out and the trees move in, the wildlife that depends on the previously existing habitats are also lost.

40 years or so of planting non-native Sitka spruce trees in these areas has only served to hasten the loss of small farmers and communities. The Hen Harrier SPA is bringing millions of euros to the pockets of those who farm in the most important breeding areas and is thereby contributing towards keeping people in an otherwise socio-economically struggling area.

Whats even more worrying, is that other Hen Harriers have disappeared from the same place as Heather at the same time, while at another roost in North Kerry (as reported previously), where there were 13 Hen Harriers just before Christmas, there are now none.
Heather was a fine healthy bird, a good weight and had just fed before being shot. She was knocked abruptly from the sky to the ground, with a ruptured liver, her right wing broken in two and her rib cage smashed. Her tag had a hole in the side of it, yet it still gave out accurate information as to Heather's location and the fact that she was dead.

Hopes and dreams stemming from 2007 to the future of Hen Harriers in Ireland. This was not just one bird, but the hopes for a species that has been and continues to vanish from our country. The story of these three birds - Heather's mother, her sister Sally, and Heather herself, sums up the issues for Hen Harriers in Ireland. Predation, Starvation (via lack of habitat), Persecution - three of the key aspects that are seeing Hen Harriers disappear from Ireland. Where Mount Eagle had 11 pairs in the 1990s, there is now 1 pair barely hanging on, mainly as a result of the heather moorland having and farmland been planted with commercial plantations. Curlew, Grouse and Skylark to name just a few have also disappeared. So too have local farmers, families and communities that once managed that land as a valuable habitat. We need to ensure small farmers are protected and supported to stay on the land and look after the wildlife and their own social heritage and indeed future. It is vital however, that any money provided to farmers in the name of the Hen Harrier really delivers for the Hen Harrier itself.

Heather's mom, the young female photographed in 2007 may not be around Mount Eagle for much longer - time is no longer on her side. Heather will not grace this area, nor will her sister, nor will 200 or so other Hen Harriers born and wing tagged or satellite tagged in Ireland since 2006.

We are losing a species right before our eyes.
It is possible to address this, and the solutions have been clear for some decades now. Less of the bad stuff (commercial wall to wall sitka spruce monoculture) and more of the goood stuff (farmers financially supported to stay on the land and paid to maintain the habitats as they have done for generations, rather than encouraged off the land by lucrative yet short term afforestation grants). €1.25 billion will be spent under GLAS for farmers to suppor biodiversity - lets hope it works for Hen Harriers, Red Grouse, Curlew, Snipe, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Owls, Kestrel, Merlin, Marsh Fritillary, Ragged Robin etc. etc. and indeed the people who manage their habitats in these areas. Thankfully, the majority of people, espeicially the farmers in Hen Harrier areas, are realising these solutions.

It is vital that "environmentalists" and farmers continue to work together to resolve a future for all - the bird is dependent upon the farmer and the farmer may well be dependent on the bird to bring agri-environment payments so that the farm can remain financially viable.

Heather is gone from us but lets not say her life was in vain - lets not have this illegal and cowardly act define her legacy. Lets work together for a better future.

Cromán na gCearc

I dtús báire, ba gheit a bhaineadh sí asam
mé ar mo mhachnamh clapsholais sa gharraí
ag siúl go mall, mo mhéara leis na duilleoga,
mo shúil ag muirniú fás gach gas
m’anáil ciúin roimh mhórgacht luí na gréine.
Ar airde mo chinn a heitilt, an dá sciathán
Oscailte ina gleann fial ar dhá thaobh an choirp.
Chorraigh an t-aer lena himeacht, osna ciúin,
Agus í ar a seilg, tostmhar, tapa.

Ní fhaca ariamh ag cromadh í ach chamadh sí
I leataobh go minic, faobhar a seilge a thabhairt ar shiúl
Ó mo mhuineál bhí ina bealach.

Tagaim uirthi ar maidin, úrmharbh, ina luí álainn ar an fhraoch, eití leata,
Báinne nimhe ag líonadh ina súle, gach cumas imithe,
Agus an ghaoth ba ghiolla aici, ina leanbh bómánta ag súgradh lena heireaball.
Fágaim I ngabhal crainn le hómós í,
Ach diúltaíonn an ghaoth don deasghnáth choimthíoch agus leagann í.
Cuirim ina luí ar dhos fraoigh í.
An mhaidin dar cionn, tá cleití scaipthe, corp ar shiúl.

Monday, 22 December 2014

In search of Heather. Happy Christmas!

21st December 2014. The longest night in the earth's history. Short days and low light levels meant Heather's satellite tag missed some scheduled transmissions - the first time this has happened really. Worrying. But like a ray of light, data comes in from the satellites in space to tell us Heather is alive and well. The data shows she is roosting back in her home range where she has spent the past few months in South Kerry. There is a good chance of seeing her leave her roost in the morning. 

Through some of the most stunning scenery known to man, but invisible in the dark and fog, I travelled through the night to meet the local IHHWS volunteer, for whom Heather has highlighted two new roosts. In this weather and low visbility, the entire journey to one of the far reaches of South West Ireland could be in vein - would we see her at all? As always with Hen Harriers, it was worth the effort even just to say you were within a couple of hundred metres of these rare birds - anything after that was a bonus.

We assumed position. Pat on one side of the bog, his back to a fine big reek of turf; while I was at the other side of the bog, with a small herd of 7-8 cows for company. We waited eagerly. At 0831 I saw a flash of light on the far side of the bog - it was Pat's phone, calling to let me know Heather was in the air, flying towards me. I did not answer the phone as I already had her in my sights - the phone on silent, vibrating in my raincoat pocket. Closer and closer she came until she was within 40-50m. She looked fine and healthy. It was an absolute joy to see her in the flesh once again.

2014 was a very memorable year for Hen Harriers and all involved in their research and conservation in Ireland and indeed in Britain. From Galway to Dublin, Kerry to Antrim, Cork to Donegal, and everywhere in between, people have been striving towards finding out more about Hen Harriers in Ireland and people have been advocating strongly for their protection, and the protection of the habitat that they and so many other species depend on. This has been a personal highlight of 2014 - to see so many people become so independently minded on Hen Harriers in Ireland, progressing their own local studies and spreading the word on how wonderful a native Irish bird this is.

2015 will be difficult. Vested interests who want to remove the habitat of Hen Harriers (and Curlew, Red Grouse, Snipe, Skylark, Merlin, Meadow Pipit, Cuckoo...the list goes on and on) in favour of more "profitable" developments continue to lobby for such destruction. Sickeningly, these vested interests are trying to turn the custodians of the landscape who have managed the habitat for generations against conservation. The say "SPAs are stopping people living and farming" whereas there is in fact a clear solution - support farmers in the SPAs to live and farm and support the habitats and species (using the money the EU has provided for same). The SPAs would be seen as the most positive thing to ever grace these marginally productive lands, but instead because forestry is being touted as the only game in town, with large grants to get people to stop farming and plant their land, the SPAs are being seen as restrictive. What is more restrictive than planting the land of previous and future generations for the sake of a 15-20 year grant? Anyone who knows these areas can clearly see the decimation not only of landscape and wildlife, but of local communities, cultural and social heritage...and future. 

There is no doubt but that the passion instilled in people's hearts who have seen these birds in their natural habitats will also come to the fore in 2015. In Britain they have serious issues with persecution and they have had marches and petitions with 10's of thousands of signatures in support of Hen Harriers. Here we have serious issues with habitat loss, which is arguably even more serious. If we lose what little habitat remains (natural/semi-natural habitat has now been lost from the vast majority of the Hen Harrier SPAs), and if we lose the farming people who manage these habitats, what hope would we ever have of holding our Hen Harrier population? 

Thanks for all your input in 2014. We look forward together to a progressive 2015.

Have a wondeful Christmas.

Hen Harrier Ireland

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Heather makes a stunning and unexpected return home! Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin!

Heather as a chick at Mount Eagle and as a one year old in South Cork.

Heather, after travelling the length and breadth of the country, from Mount Eagle in Kerry to Lough Neagh in Antrim, from Mayo to Dublin, has spent recent weeks in South Kerry and has now returned to her home - Mount Eagle.

She is now among her own tribe - in a communal roost. Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey volunteers have moved to see Heather at her roost. It'd be nice to think she might stay here but as always, we are happy once she is happy and healthy! Heather has shown us so so much through her movements, and her tendency to use communal roosts so regularly points strongly to the information sharing value of these centres, from which individual birds can find out where to hunt and where to spend the winter nights. 

Good luck to you Heather!


Thursday, 30 October 2014

Heather has her very own island! Halloween Winter Roost Weekend!

The South Kerry island that Heather has made home
 Heather, the intrepid young female Hen Harrier is still in the Kingdom of Kerry and surely fit for the Queen of the Kingdom is her very own island! The above island has been home for Heather for the past while. It probably makes good sense too - especially from a safety point of view - no predators or disturbance.

Continue to follow Heather and other Hen Harrier news on this blog and on and on Twitter @HarrierIreland

This weekend sees the annual Halloween Hen Harrier Roost Watch. It is a real experience to be at a reedbed or bog on Halloween, with a half moon overhead as you finish your watch. Friday and Saturday currently look to be the best bets weather-wise. For details contact

Winter Roost Scene

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Heather is a Kerry girl at heart!

Heather is a Kerry girl at heart!

Heather has now returned to Kerry after another stay at her 'home range' in Cork. She has been deciding between the two counties for some time now, switching from Cork to Kerry, Kerry to Cork and so on. This is very interesting behaviour, which would not be known only for Heather and her satellite tag. These movements are not insignificant either - Heather's latest move from South Cork to South Kerry is 150km in a straight line and surely lots of ground travelled and encounters along the way for Heather. Why has Heather made this move?? For now, see Heather's latest movements and an excellent photo of her latest view - of the Skelligs (Skelligs image copyright Eoin Kavanagh).

Skelligs (c) Eoin Kavanagh - Heather's current view

Heather's most recent movements, now in South Kerry