Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Blackwater Retrieved and Lessons Learned

After seven years of being a member of the RNLI Lifeboats and the local Sea and Cliff Rescue team, it never gets easy looking for bodies. Yesterday, in looking for Blackwater's body (when her tag began to transmit data after 20 days offline), this was as difficult as any search that I have taken part in, given I knew her so well, having been able to watch her grow from a small ball of fluff on a heather moorland in Duhallow to become a beautiful brown, cinnamon & white glider. On one hand I wanted to find her. Finding her may give insight as to how and why she died and the tag could be retrieved, but most of all, there is a strong bond that compels you to find her, for all she was and for all she represents. On the other hand, seeing her dead is the last thing that I wanted to encounter.

Her PTT (satellite tag) had shown she was somewhere east of the Boggeragh Mountains in County Cork. Using a ground tracking device, and my dog Mel, we set about homing in on the tag location, in fiercely difficult scrub and swamp. Finally, we found Blackwater's remains, with the tag still attached. Only bones and feathers remained of what was once such an inspiring and awesome creature.

Blackwater's journey. The mid way point (with the red line) is the last time her PTT transmitted data while she was alive. Just 3 days later she was dead, her final resting place 53km SE of where she was born.

She had travelled most of the Blackwater Valley and departed from the world and a future with a possibility of seeing her flying, sky dancing, food passing, rearing young on the Irish landscape, at an all too early stage in her life.

Sincere thanks to the kind farmer whose land Blackwater had died on and also to Mackessy's Vets in Newmarket for examining the remains with me. Thanks to all of you following the blog for your kind words and support for Hen Harriers.

Death is a natural occurrence. However, this is happening to Hen Harriers in Ireland on a scale that is beyond sustainable, particularly when one considers how few young are being produced every year in the first place. Every year harriers are being lost from the Irish landscape. Young harriers fitted with the very same tags and technique in England and Scotland have little difficulty with predation or finding food and establishing themselves in the landscape. See http://langholmmoorland.blogspot.co.uk/ to follow the progress of two young harriers in Scotland.

The only thing that we can console ourselves with from this study is that both Sky and Blackwater have done a great service to their species and have confirmed to us, just how difficult harriers are finding it to get a foothold on the Irish landscape. Out of c.180 harriers wing tagged in the Republic of Ireland since 2006, just four have been known to breed.  Sky and Blackwater did not have wing tags that may have been lost or gone unnoticed. Sky and Blackwater did not set up lives for themselves abroad and therefore remain unreported. It is most likely that of the 180 birds that have been wing tagged, the vast majority of those experienced the same fate as Blackwater and Sky.

When we know there is a problem, we can (and should) set about addressing the issues, primarily habitat related, because if Hen Harriers are lost from Ireland, they will likely be lost forever.

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