Sunday, 31 January 2016

Heather – One Year On


Because of the direct and indirect impacts humans have on nature (for better and for worse), because of how we would prefer humans interacted with nature, or because of the experiences and memories that we gain from nature, we often tend to consider nature from ‘our perspective’. It is seldom that we look at nature and that our contemplation of what we see doesn’t fall under one of the aforementioned categories; 1. “I’m sad at the loss of habitat” or “I’m delighted to see the maintenance of habitat”, 2. “I wish people would have more consideration for habitats and species” or 3. “I really enjoyed watching all those starlings over the reedbed”.
Those who love nature will automatically be drawn into the situation from a personal perspective – perhaps it is human nature and in all ways, that is a good thing. But perhaps a bit more, we should go beyond what “I” see, what “I” wish or what “I” got out of being with nature. How often do we think about what nature itself sees, wishes or experiences?
So, out of respect to nature, this blog entry will not recount what Heather, the satellite tracked Hen Harrier gave to “us” in terms of joy following her progress or information in terms of her travels, habitat use, new roosts and much more, nor will it go into the obvious devastation that was felt at the time or her persecution (which is still felt today) or public outcry and support for Hen Harriers that followed. Instead, it will focus on what Heather would have seen, experienced and wished.

Heather was born and reared in the Summer of 2013, with her four siblings in a heather covered nest, nestled on the slope of a ravine, with a young river flowing below. Her mother would shelter and protect the young, very closely in the first couple of weeks until they grew their feathers and became capable of self thermo-regulating and feeding themselves on the food that their mother and father would bring. Heather’s father was a particularly good provider and did the majority of the provisioning for the five young, as well as for Heather’s mother in the early weeks of the summer.
One day, while both of Heather’s parents were away, the peace of nest was interrupted by two men who walked in and took Heather and her sister (Sally) from the nest and fitted them both with satellite tags before putting them back into the nest immediately afterwards. Heather’s parents returned to the nest none the wiser, but they and the young birds, must surely have been wondering what that small device on their backs were.
When the time came, Heather and her siblings began to fly. For the first month, the family unit stayed around the general nest area, making great use of the heather moorland so that the young could rise and attempt food passes from their parents (with occasional fumbles forgiven by the fact they could re-find any dropped food on the ground). Heather was now beginning to see the wider world, beyond the heather covered nest where up until then all she knew was the sky and her family. She could see for miles and miles from the top of the mountain where she was reared. She could even see the Atlantic Ocean. Heather did what was natural, and she flew. She began to explore, and in a big way. She travelled in a north-easterly direction through Munster, towards Kildare, Wicklow and Dublin. Dublin was obviously a world away from the little ravine, heather moorland and mountain streams where she had been reared – she would have seen the City, in fact flown over it. She turned for more natural habitat and called the heather moorland of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains home for a number of weeks. After some time, the natural desire for the young harrier to travel saw her head north, to Meath. There one morning, she rose from her roost and standing in the field was a man with a pair of binoculars looking at her. Onwards, north to Louth and Armagh. Heather roosted on the shore of Lough Neagh, the biggest lake in Ireland. She did not delay there however, and made the amazing non-stop journey in a reverse southerly direction, from Lough Neagh to South Cork. Hundreds of kilometres later, she arrived by the cliffs and roosted on some coastal heath, surrounded by tillage farmland where she could find plentiful food and a safe place to rest. It is possible that she found this patch of land, hundreds of kilometres from where she had been, by following an adult female Hen Harrier who had coloured tags on her back. Heather called this home for a number of months, 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, there was every so often a man watching Heather with binoculars.
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. She did not breed that summer, but instead travelled through various counties to make it to Mayo. 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. Every so often, Heather would have seen a man with a pair of binoculars.
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. There, she would have every so often seen a man with a pair of binoculars watch her as she and other harriers settled into roost each evening to see out the night in what they would have seen as a safe haven. She overlooked the spectacular Skelligs and even roosted on an offshore island for some time. One day, she decided to take a short break from South Kerry and returned home to the exact spot where she was reared. Back to the heather clad hills and that mountain ravine. Even after all her journeys, she knew where home was at all times.
However, her return home was short and Heather soon travelled back to South Kerry again, a return to the hills for an attempt at finding a mate, would have to wait a short while until spring of 2015 arrived. One evening, Heather returned back to her roost, back to her safe haven and the other harriers she had come to recognize on a daily basis. There was a man watching, but this time it was not a man with binoculars and good intentions, it was a man with a gun. Whether he could be called a man is debatable however, as the coward pointed the barrel at the innocent harrier and pulled the trigger. Ended. Life Ended. All that Heather had seen, experienced and wished for was ended. The heather clad hills and the mountain ravine, the Dublin Mountains, the shores of Lough Neagh, the cliffs of South Cork the bogs of Mayo and all lands in between and further away, could no longer be visited by Heather and her presence could no longer add to the landscape or add depth to the scene.
The little device that those two men fitted to Heather and he sister Sally allowed Heather to be found, to allow her story when alive and dead to be known. So ultimately perhaps, after learning considering what Heather would have seen in her life (and you are urged to look back through this blog on Heather and Sally's full story as well as much more), we need to shine the light back on ourselves and again revert to what we wish to see, experience and influence. Habitat continues to be destroyed, for Hen Harriers and for all the native wildlife species that they are an indicator of. Human attitudes continue to differ – with more people growing indifferent to the plight of nature in Ireland, and at the same time more people growing to care for the plight of nature in Ireland. So if there is anything you can do to help more people care about wildlife in Ireland to move the trend in the right direction, then do it. Engage people with the outdoors. Fully educate yourself as to what is good and what is bad in terms of landscape and habitat change and consider what the custodians of the landscape need to continue maintaining habitats, rather than being pushed down a road of intensification or abandonment. Make that difference! But every so often, at the back of it all, have a think as to what the wildlife we so dearly love is experiencing.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

North Cork is one of the most densely afforested regions in Ireland ( many other regions have also experienced the same level of afforestation ). This region of North Cork ( Mullaghareirk Mts ) was once a stronghold of the Curlew,Hen Harrier, Red Grouse Corncrake,Skylark and Meadow pipit. The Hen Harrier has suffered massive decline in their population and only a few pairs remain,the Skylark and Meadow pipit also suffered a substantial decline, the Curlew, Red Grouse and Corncrake have long vanished from the landscape. The bogs and meadows where these birds once thrived are today unrecognizable with the majority of them planted with non-native sitka spruce. 

North Cork 1973
North Cork 2016 ( exact location as picture above )

The policy of planting these lands for the last thirty or forty years was simply not the answer, with the natural heritage experiencing enormous changes. For generations farmers worked vigorously to maintain and provide this pristine habitat, and is crucial they remain working and maintaining these high nature value lands for the survival of the remaining species                                                                                        
Family on there way to the well ( 1973 )  North Cork

Well today totally engulfed in sitka spruce ( 2016 ) North Cork
There was also considerable changes to social heritage of the region, with the elderly who farmed these lands fervently all there lives who witnessed the greatest changes, and have many a story to tell of days gone by, from days in the bog with bottles of cold tea and hard boiled eggs with only the Curlew and its lingering cry for company and days in the meadow making haycocks a real family day out, hot summers nights and the call of the Corncrake, the stories of the white hawk ( Hen Harrier ) gliding majestically over the rolling hills before suddenly disappearing out of sight, stories of ramblers discussing the hard days work telling yarns and the all important game of cards, sadly today many of these are just memories

The farmers that do remain do so because they refuse to give up on generations of hard work and grafting on a challenging landscape, landowners and farmers are again been encouraged to plant their land with commercial forestry, some believe that they would be "better off" encouraged to give up on generation of their families hard work.

These farmers and families are vital to the biodiversity and the culture of rural Ireland its imperative we do not lose them.