Once a common sight on English Moorland, Hen Harriers had all but disappeared from our countryside by the turn of the last century; now, with the pressures upon their survival still as intense as ever, wildlife experts have been astonished by the incredible journeys made by three of the rare birds of prey born in the North Pennines last year.
The movements of the three young Harriers raised at the RSPB's Geltsdale reserve have been mapped by English Nature's Hen Harrier Recovery Project, and during the winter, the birds set out on a remarkable series of travels around the country, with one stopping off for a time in the Settle area of the Yorkshire Dales.
Five Harriers were raised at the Geltsdale reserve
Five Harriers were raised at the reserve in north Cumbria last summer and three of them were fitted with miniature radio transmitters and high-visibility coloured wing-tags by English Nature, allowing for their progress to be monitored.
The young birds had a blue tag on the right wing and a yellow tag on the left wing and were numbered, with 5 being a male and 6 and 7 being female birds.
After flying the nest the three young Harriers led the wardens a merry-dance, but thanks to joint efforts by English Nature and the RSPB and along with responses from a network of eagle-eyed bird watchers, the extent of their wanderings has now been revealed.
After leaving Geltsdale, the male bird of the trio hovered around the Border forests until mid-October. He was then spotted at the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands nature reserve near Goole in East Yorkshire. Sadly however, the bird did not make it through the winter and on 11th December his body was found on the edge of a forest in Northumberland.
The first female Harrier (number 6) settled for two months on the east coast, at Teesmouth National Nature Reserve. In January, the signal from this young bird was picked up near Settle in North Yorkshire, before she moved west to the Bowland area of Lancashire.
After leaving the North Pennines, the second young female (number 7) visited the Cheviots before disappearing off the radar altogether. Following a very long gap, there was a probable sighting of this bird near Porlock Marsh in Somerset on 14th December. Amazingly, in late January this bird was also in the Bowland area of Lancashire.
The wanderings of the Harriers amazed RSPB staff
Pete Howard of the RSPB's Geltsdale reserve said: 'Winter is always a tough time for young birds but it is still disappointing to know that the male harrier hasn't made it through. However, it's great that we have had recent news of the two female harriers.
"They have proved to be remarkable travellers and it would be fantastic if they return to Geltsdale in the spring to nest. We are keeping our fingers crossed that more harriers nest at Geltsdale this year.'
"Tracking of the harriers is uncovering fascinating new information about the wanderings of young birds. For example, we never expected that the birds from Geltsdale would travel as far as South West England. The information about their movements that we are gathering is incredibly valuable."
In recent years, only a handful of Hen Harriers have nested in England, usually on moorland, and the only regular breeding areas are at the Forest of Bowland and Geltsdale.
The birds are often unwelcome visitors on moorland where Grouse shooting takes place and the pressures upon them saw the number of breeding pairs drop from nineteen to ten in 2004.
RSPB staff and volunteers mounted a round-the-clock guard of the nest at Geltsdale last year to safeguard the nesting birds.