Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Peak District Birds of Prey still under pressure

Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Peak District Birds of Prey still under pressure

Harris Hawk

It is good to see many birds of prey making a comeback and on a recent visit to Essex, we had numerous Red Kites soaring over the A1, and Kestrels hovering over roadsides. Daily in Sheffield, I see Common Buzzards and even Peregrines. Indeed my postbag of letters and emails includes plenty from local people seeing Sparrowhawks close-hand in their gardens and around their bird-tables. Spectacular thought they are, not everyone is happy when the local Blue tits or Goldfinches are on the menu. This has always been a PR issue for bodies like the RSPB when not all their members appreciate small birds being devoured by birds of prey!

There is also a lot of confusion as to exactly what these birds are, and I have had various ‘phone calls and letters about ‘Eagles’ and even ‘Hobbies’ in Sheffield gardens. Well exciting though that might be, these sightings almost always come down to Sparrowhawks either male or female. The two are different in size, colour and markings and so get differing responses. ‘There’s an eagle digging up my lawn’ was the response to a large female Sparrowhawk vigorously plucking a female Blackbird.

People always think size is the key, but it is misleading and especially so in flight unless there is a known bird or other object to give scale. Female Sparrowhawk is smaller but can look and behave rather Buzzard-like to less experienced observers. However, male Sparrowhawk is smaller and is grey–blue in colour on the back and mantle. In the Peak District fringe, there is a further complication with the potential for the larger cousin Goshawk, but most sightings are of the more common Sparrowhawk.

Records of birds in flight are even more difficult to pin down. ‘Buzzard-like’ birds are often recorded and could be Goshawk, a big female Sparrowhawk, or Common Buzzard. But look carefully at how it flies, tail shape, wing shape (length / breadth, pointed or rounded) as all are useful clues. Buzzards are very variable in plumage and can have quite a lot of white on the wings. To get around these doubts, our Victorian predecessors used to shoot the birds they recorded and provide a ‘skin’ as proof of evidence! A local man and nationally eminent pioneering ornithologist, Charles Dixon of Meersbrook in Sheffield, was one of the first to advocate watching through opera glasses and not shooting on sight.

Unfortunately, even today not everyone has the message. There are regular concerns voiced about continued persecution of birds such as the magnificent Hen Harrier on our Yorkshire moors. The winter moorland ‘Harrier roosts’ of my youth have gone and that is very sad and totally avoidable. This is the ongoing ‘elephant in the room’ that for now seems irreconcilable. It is a shame that the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg cannot achieve more on this issue – after all, one of the most embarrassing declines and now absences is actually in his parliamentary constituency. Does he take it seriously? I wonder.

Finally, one of the other interesting trends has been for escaped American Red-tailed Hawks and Harris Hawks to appear and cause utter confusion. In the film of Dark Ages ‘Arthur’ the producer even had a Roman soldier sporting a Harris Hawk on his arm, even when they did not get to Europe for about another fifteen hundred years. Anyway, that is one to watch out for in 2015.

Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change

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