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Resurgence of Hen Harriers at Wildland

Hen Harriers are one of the most persecuted birds of prey in the UK, but over the past five years they have found a refuge at Wildland Cairngorms and the number of successful nests there are rising rapidly.

In this blog, Wildland Conservation Assistant Ronan Dugan describes this incredible success and what this exciting development means for the wider ecosystem.

Glen Tromie. Mid-April. A cool northerly breeze contrasts with the warmth of the early morning spring sunshine. Squally showers move across the landscape and sprinkle the regenerating landscape. Fresh snow lingers on the higher peaks of the Cairngorms to the east. The air is clear. A scattering of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits flit among the heather and young trees. Black Grouse are audible in the distance, lekking on a bog full of cotton grass buds bursting into life. Below the bog, against a heather clad bank, suddenly a flash. A flash of grey it’s unmistakable. Twisting and turning gracefully yet contrasting so vividly against the landscape it feels surreal. This grey ghost is indeed a male Hen Harrier. He begins his sky dance – a mesmerising display of evolutionary excellence. He’s found a safe refuge to breed here at Wildland Cairngorms and we are delighted to witness this spectacle.

Hen Harriers remain one of Scotland’s most threatened birds of prey. The most recent national survey in 2023 estimated there to be 529 territorial pairs, an increase of 15% since the last survey in 2016. However, many areas remain devoid of breeding Harriers, perhaps one of our countries most valuable natural assets. Let’s hope many others can witness the spectacle of the grey ghost dancing across their local hills and moorland in the future if a large-scale species recovery is allowed.

However, at Wildland, within the Cairngorms Connect partnership area, we have cause for optimism. Since 2015, Hen Harriers have recolonised the area and have been breeding successfully. In 2023 Wildland recorded 11 pairs and this represented a significant proportion of Harriers recorded in the central and eastern Highlands as part of the national survey. At Wildland, we are in awe at the resilience of these birds and how they have found a safe refuge to feed and breed. We consider them to be one of most valuable natural assets.

 HenHarrier_Graph_2018–2023_WildlandCairngorms_webGraph showing the rise of successful Hen Harrier nests on Wildland Cairngorms from 2018–2023. Credit: Wildland Limited

 

While this resurgence of Hen Harriers is a wonderful example of a single species recovery, it is worth considering the interconnectedness with the wider environment. At Wildland and indeed the wider Cairngorms Connect area we are focusing on a wide aspect of ecological restoration processes. We acknowledge it is early in our landscape scale restoration efforts and studies, however, it may be that we are witnessing some wider environmental connections.

 

For example, perhaps, the reduction in grazing and trampling by Sheep and Deer are providing more luxurious ground cover, therefore, allowing more Field Voles to thrive and thus, the Harriers have more available food. Perhaps, in the absence of all predator control we are witnessing more of a balance – competitions and cooperations – between predator and prey. In 2023 all 11 of the harrier nest were successful, fledging around 40 chicks so this is quite incredible in the absence of predator control. Perhaps, the absence of any heather management – burning and cutting – over the past ten years or so has contributed to a healthy and prosperous home and breeding habitat for these Harriers. Perhaps it’s the reintroduction of Wildcats which will contribute to the predator prey balance. Perhaps it’s the move away from single species interventions that are allowing them to breed more successfully. All these interconnections, we believe, are helping Hen Harriers to once again flourish within Wildland Cairngorms.

 

HenHarrier_Wildland_web_2Camera trap photo of an adult female Hen Harrier and chick in a nest on Wildland Cairngorms in 2019. Credit: Wildland Limited

Aldo Leopold, a great American conservationist once wrote ‘Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land…’ It seems to be this harmony that we are endeavouring to create and cherish at Wildland and the wider Cairngorms Connect area. Hen Harriers are a wonderful, perhaps optimal, example of how predator and prey can both be in harmony and thrive together in a regenerating landscape. We are eager to see what the future might hold and hope you might be able to witness the Grey Ghost dancing across the hinterland between the mountains and strath.

Words by Ronan Dugan, Conservation Assistant at Wildland Limited 

 

Feature Image: Male Hen Harrier taking flight on Wildland Cairngorms. Credit: Ronan Dugan, Wildland Limited

 

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