Internationally renowned film-make David Cobham reflects on the death of ‘Bowland Beth’
Bowland Beth, a first year female Hen Harrier has been shot and recovered from a Yorkshire grouse moor.
I visited The Forest of Bowland in Lancashire towards the end of May in 2012 for a book I am writing on British Birds of Prey and Us. During my career I’d made films for television on birds of prey and I was interested in finding out if programmes like Springwatch and Autumnwatch had altered the public’s perception of birds of prey and also how each of the fifteen British breeding birds of prey were faring.
At The Forest of Bowland I was hoping to see Hen Harriers. There was a grouse moor there where Natural England and the RSPB had been studying Hen Harriers for over 30 years. I knew that managing a grouse moor was an expensive business with no subsidies. Putting on a good show of driven grouse was fraught with difficulty – the weather, disease and, of course, I knew that Hen Harriers took grouse chicks.
Bowland had once been the stronghold of breeding Hen Harriers in England. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there had been 20+ pairs. Then there was a decline which was reversed from 2003 to 2008 followed by a severe decline to none in 2012. I was particularly keen to see the spectacular courting display of the male Hen Harrier, Skydancing, a dramatic series of dives, corkscrews and somersaults to impress his chosen mate.
I was told by Stephen Murphy, Natural England’s Hen Harrier project officer, that at the moment the outlook for Hen Harriers in England was not great. There were already signs that this could be the year when Bowland would lose its breeders, as only a single pair had been reported so far, this in another area of northern England. Maybe I would be lucky and see Bowland Beth – named after the character Bet Lynch in the TV soap opera Coronation Street. She was a female fledged at Bowland in 2011 and she had been fitted with a satellite transmitter. I’d already seen the video recording made at that nest and I knew she was the most precocious of the four chicks, the first to fledge.
Satellite tracking has revolutionised our knowledge of the Hen Harriers, a quite amazing, ultra-mobile, unpredictable and opportunistic raptor. From the knowledge gained by satellite tracking it may be possible to develop a strategy to protect juvenile harriers when they leave the area where they are fledged and disperse onto the Pennine grouse moors.
Stephen showed me a print out from the satellite tracking of Beth’s journeys. On 23rd July last year she left the Forest of Bowland and flew to the Yorkshire Dales spending the autumn and early part of the winter on a grouse moor between Grassington and Pateley Bridge. Did she have some ancestral map in her brain that enabled her pin point the best foraging areas and also the best places to roost? She returned to Bowland on 2nd February 2012. In mid-March she again headed back to the grouse moors in Yorkshire before returning to Bowland. In April she returned to the grouse moors in Yorkshire and to my amazement, within the next ten days, she travelled 450 kilometres to a point just north of Inverness. What racial memory pulled her in that direction? Were her ancestral ties linked to the Orkneys? Anyway two days later she was back in Bowland. I marvelled at the mobility of this fine bird. I was told that RSPB staff had seen her ‘skydancing’ and ripping up bits of heather so it looked like she was about to breed if she could find a mate.
She had no luck finding a mate, so on 1st May she left Bowland heading for Drumnadrochit, passed through Forsinard in the flow country – that would have been a good, safe place to stay as it is an RSPB reserve – and reached Thurso on 8th May. An epic journey of 510 kms.
Over the next twelve days she wended her way back south again and was in the Grampian mountains by 20th May. What an adventurous, feisty lady she was and still no sign of a mate.
I had endless discussions with conservationists and a grouse moor owner about what was being done to save the Hen Harrier from extinction in England. The Joint Raptor Study at Langholm – in 1998 and 1999 showed that diversionary feeding with dead day-old chicks, rats or mice was a great success, reducing the number of grouse chicks taken by 86%. But moorland managers were not keen on it. There was the expense and the possibility that it might attract more corvids. The trials continue.
As long ago as 2006 Natural England set up a Hen Harrier Stakeholder Group to try and resolve the conflict between the conservationists and the owners of the grouse moors. At the moment there isn’t any conflict because there aren’t any breeding Hen Harriers on grouse moors in England.
At the moment there is just one breeding pair of Hen Harriers in England. There’s a popular misconception about harrier numbers in England because in the autumn Hen Harriers from Scotland and Scandinavia fly south to over-winter with us, perhaps as many as five hundred birds. That’s why from October through to the end of February Hen Harriers can often be seen hunting the fields during the day before flying into roost at dusk.
If Hen Harriers were ever allowed to breed undisturbed and numbers increased sufficiently a scheme has been discussed in which a quota of surplus Hen Harrier chicks would be translocated from grouse moors, reared artificially and then re-located back to their original sites in the autumn. This has the potential to allow for Hen Harriers and driven grouse shooting to exist side-by-side. At the moment the status of the Hen Harrier as a breeding bird in England hangs by a thread and is threatened by extinction. The government have now made a commitment that there will be no further extinctions of English wildlife in the periods up 2020. If they act immediately the Hen Harrier can be saved as a breeding bird in England.
Unbeknown to me as I left to catch my train home, Bowland Beth was homing in on the Forest of Bowland. When I’d last heard of her she was in the Grampian Mountains. Now she was back in Bowland and quite close to the nest site where she fledged in 2011. I had missed her by just 5 hours.
She stayed at Bowland for a couple of days and then on 25th May headed north-east using the prevailing wind to settle on the grouse moors around Pateley Bridge. This is where she had spent her last autumn and winter. It seemed as though she had found a good billet for the summer. Her immediate future seemed secure.
When I got back there was a message from Stephen Murphy telling me that on June 3rd Beth was still near Pateley Bridge and letting me know that she was fine.
Another fix on 11th June showed that Beth had contracted her foraging range to the grouse moors around Nidderdale and Colsterdale. This was probably due to several days of prolonged rain. It was one of the wettest Junes in living memory. Heavy cloud cover meant that for several days there was no accurate fix on her. On about 14th June Stephen was becoming concerned for her. Maybe the transmitter had failed. The manufacturers were contacted and asked whether the last fixes were reliable. Stephen now felt sure that something had happened to Beth sometime between 8th and 11th June. Beth’s approximate position on a map was known. Natural England contacted thelandowner. He couldn’t have been more co-operative and arranged for the head keeper to help Stephen in the search. Using a hand-held scanner Beth was located at 11 am on 5th July. She was lying face down in a patch of heather and bilberry. The satellite tag was plainly visible. An immediate post-mortem showed that she had been shot. A pellet had broken her leg and nicked the femoral artery. Beth probably would have been able to fly a few miles before she bled out and collapsed onto the grouse moor where she was found. Conclusive evidence that she had been shot was later confirmed when scientists from UCL Stanmore photographed a cross section of her leg. Analysis of the particles in her leg bone confirmed that it was lead.
Bowland Beth was a beautiful bird, an amazing bird. Her story is remarkable. We should be celebrating her life now and her becoming a parent and tracking her sons and daughters.
We will probably never know what happened. Perhaps this fearless, naive bird went a wing beat too far and had to run the gauntlet to regain the grouse moor which she knew as home. We grieve that, illegally, she was cut down in the prime of life. I hope she has not died in vain.
Information on the Hawk and Owl Trust Campaign Against Persecution
David Cobham is a UK Film and TV producer and director, notable for the film Tarka the Otter. He also directed children’s TV series Bernard’s Watch, Brendon Chase, Out of Sight and Woof. Other work includes wildlife programmes, the films The Goshawk (1968), To Build a Fire (1969),One Pair of Eyes (1970) on the sculptor John Skeaping, Survival in Limbo (1976) starring Duncan Carse, Seal Morning (1986) and the BBC TV series about Japan, In the Shadow of Fujisan (BBC One 1987 and BBC Four 2009). He is married to Liza Goddard, ex-president of the Hawk and Owl Trust, of which he is vice-president.