We are fortunate to have 2 reserves around the Solway where cropping is used to feed winter finches and buntings. Cropping is often used to feed game birds using a mix of plants producing seed and also tall cover for the birds but in this case its the Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Linnets and Twite that get a treat. As soon as numbers build up birds of prey start using the area like a ‘bird table’ to hunt birds but also voles and mice attracted to the abundance of seed. Over several years these reserves - Campfield RSPB and Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have attracted Hen Harrier to hunt this cropping. The one hide at Campfield has allowed photographers to come to take pictures of these Hen Harriers as well as watching a style of hunting by especially adult birds which has not been recorded before.
In 2017 the first satellite tagged hen harrier was found dead on a lowland estate. The estate in question near Alnwick in Northumberland claimed that it was not responsible for the birds death so much so that they were the ones to inform the local authorities. This was added to the report on this bird called Carroll -
Sadly, on the 26th January 2017, the body of a satellite tagged hen harrier was found near to Carroll’s last known location by a local landowner who immediately reported it to the local authorities. The body was retrieved with full cooperation and assistance from the landowner and local wildlife crime officers, and a post-mortem examination confirmed that Carroll had died naturally as the result of a parasitic infection. Incredibly, it also showed that she was carrying two shot pellets lodged under healed wounds, indicating that she had survived being shot at some point earlier in her lifetime.
What is interesting is that by studying the map Carroll created with her satellite –
is that she spent a lot of time hunting over cropping planted for pheasant and Red legged Partridge shooting. The fact that shot was found in her body shows that someone had noticed this bird feeding on this particular cropping. This also raises the question how many Hen Harriers drop from summer high ground to winter cropping for this abundance of food which is not game birds these lowland keepers are trying to protect!
Records of Hen Harriers feeding over cropping often come when a rare bird is found hunting with them and in the last 2 winters Pallid Harriers have wintered in Britain and been observed hunting over cropping. In Norfolk in 2015/2016 a juvenile Palled Harrier roosted in heather while hunting over nearby cropping and in 2016/17 a juvenile roosted in coastal wetlands while often seen hunting in a well known cropping. One observer actually saw 3 Hen Harriers, 2 Marsh Harriers and the Pallid Harrier hunting this cropping at the same time along with 3 Short eared Owls and even a Barn Owl!!
This would be great if this cropping was a safe place for harriers and other birds of prey to hunt but now we know that some lowland keepers are shooting birds of prey over these cropping fields many of which are paid for by us using High Level Stewardship payments.
So what about the future? Some cropping areas are regularly counted for feeding small birds but not for the amount of voles and mice or birds of prey hunting them. Many are tucked away and not in view to the general public so not easy to monitor. Extended satellite tracking of winter Hen Harriers may play a part to see if more are using winter cropping and hopefully not being shot. Hen Harrier monthly winter roost counts organised by the BTO may point to areas that need monitoring more closely but like moorland you cannot be there all the time to catch the criminal in the act!