I am told that hen harriers are some of the worst predators of red grouse that it is possible to have. Paying a visit to an experienced hill keeper on the border between Galloway and Lanarkshire, I spent a fascinating morning asking questions on a variety of subjects to do with grouse and moorland management. Peter told me how old grouse can become wise to attacks from peregrines, who can only hunt flying prey. When they see a peregrine, a wily grouse will hunch itself into a tuft of thick heather and freeze, thwarting the raptor’s superior speed and aerial manoeuvrability. In the same way, buzzards will only attack birds on the ground, so a grouse will take to the air whenever they feel a buzzard is probing too deeply into its affairs.
With hen harriers, it’s quite different. These stunning birds are as comfortable tackling prey on the ground as in the air, and grouse have no defence against their agile attacks. Hen harriers were traditionally seen to be the biggest avian threat to grouse, and their numbers declined rapidly over the twentieth century as “old school” gamekeepers hammered them into submission. Although they are now far from their original numbers, hen harriers are returning to Britain’s wide open spaces, and this can only be a good thing.
From what I can gather, there are three hen harrier families on the Chayne. The cock birds are obvious in their chalky white plumage, although they can be mistaken at a distance for a seagull with an unusual flight pattern. I have never knowingly seen a female hen harrier, but that is probably because their mottled camouflage and their superficial similarities to buzzards make them far less conspicuous.
There have been a handful of occasions over the past few weeks when seeing a hen harrier has made the twenty minute trip up to the farm worthwhile, and watching them weave a path through the rushes as they hunt is a spectacular sight. If I was trying to build a monoculture where grouse were the most important thing in my life and my income, I would resent these beautiful birds, but as it is, I am delighted to see them on the farm.
Imagine a sustainable loss of twenty grouse each year on the Chayne. Three of those will fall to my shotgun and three will be taken by hen harriers. The remaining fourteen will be picked off by crows and foxes. If I want to shoot more grouse on the farm, I need to reclaim some of those losses for myself. I would far sooner share my grouse with a hen harrier than a filthy old crow, and as far as I can see at the moment, there is no reason why we can’t continue to coexist together.