Hen Harrier shot dead in County Kerry

A satellite-tagged Hen Harrier was shot dead this week in Co Kerry.  The young female bird was known to thousands of people who had followed her since her first flight from a nest in east Kerry two years ago.  She has been fitted with a satellite tag as part of a joint project between the National Parks & Wildlife Service and local community group IRD Duhallow to raise awareness of these spectacular bird of prey.
‘Heather’, who was aptly named by local school children in Duhallow, captured the imaginations of all who followed her progress as she travelled throughout the country, before recently returning to the south-west where it was hoped she would breed for the first time this spring.
Dr. Barry O’Donoghue of the National Parks & Wildlife Service oversaw the satellite tracking project: “Knowing this bird since she was a tiny chick, and having followed her every movement remotely and in the field was a real privilege, enlightening and indeed humbling.  Every time without fail, she lit up my eyes when her tag showed she was alive and well.  It was heart-breaking to find this young bird when she had been shot.  An individual that gave so much joy to thousands of people that followed her progress, killed in the prime of her health.  This was not just one bird, but the hopes and dreams for a species that is vanishing from our country.”
John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, commented on the implications of this shooting: “Birds of prey are so important in an healthy countryside, and the lack of education which fuels such incidents of illegal persecution not only affects their vulnerable populations but has much wider implications for our countryside.  Fáilte Ireland has shown that visitors to Ireland rate the natural and unspoilt environment as one of the main factors which attract them here.  County Kerry is one of our most popular tourist destinations, so imagine how this shooting and the spate of other wildlife crimes reflect on our green image.”
David Scallan, a spokesman for the National Association of Regional Game Councils condemned the shooting: “The shooting of this bird is unacceptable.  No right-minded hunter would do something like this.”
The Hen Harrier has unwittingly found itself at the centre of controversy surrounding its protection in recent years.  As a bird which is often misrepresented and misunderstood, the unique insight into the life of ‘Heather’ served to highlight the natural beauty and fragility of this species, but also the negative sentiment which led to such a horrific persecution incident.
The recent focus on Hen Harriers in the media largely stems from the designation in 2007 of six Special Protected Areas (SPAs) for their conservation, as well as subsequent policies regarding land use, which in the absence of sufficient support mechanisms has reportedly resulted in the devaluation of lands.  Ten years ago, the Hen Harrier did not even register in the consciousness of many people who now sadly view it in a negative light.  The behaviour or ecology of the Hen Harrier hasn’t changed during that time, but somewhere along the way, perceptions of this bird of prey have: regrettably, it is now considered by some to be a threat to farming livelihoods.  This view is a simplistic and misguided approach to complex policy issues which, although related to Hen Harriers, extend far beyond the bird and concerns the value that we place on biodiversity, important upland habitats and the communities which inhabit them.
Despite their portrayal in certain media, Hen Harriers are largely dependent on the type of traditional farming in upland areas that has existed for generations.  Commenting on the SPA network and its appropriate management John Lusby of BirdWatch Ireland said, “The current ban on additional planting of forestry within the SPAs is entirely necessary, given that commercial forestry already dominates the landscape there and the fact is that an increase in forest cover within these areas is one of the primary threats both to the Hen Harrier and to other sensitive upland species.”
John Lusby continued, “Rural communities are struggling in marginal upland areas, but an unsustainable approach to commercial forestry is not the solution.  Alternatives need to be put in place to allow the landowners to continue farming their land, in a viable manner, which is ultimately for the benefit of the local environment and rural communities.”
There are supports available under Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy, and it is vital that these supports, provided by the EU to the Irish Government specifically for farmers like those in the Hen Harrier areas, are allocated appropriately.   Allan Mee, Chairman of the Irish Raptor Study Group added, “Land abandonment and rural depopulation is a serious concern for many communities across Ireland, but is also very bad news for the Hen Harrier and other wildlife and habitats dependent on low intensity farming within the SPAs and wider upland areas throughout the country.”
John Lusby noted, “Acknowledging the value of maintaining sustainable farming in these areas through the provision of adequate support mechanisms, which would deliver not only for Hen Harriers but other high priority species, habitats and wider ecosystem services is vital.   Many farmers agree that Hen Harrier conservation can and should be compatible with sustaining livelihoods through effective agri-environment policy.  Changing attitudes and getting others to recognise that the bird is not the cause of these problems is obviously important, however this would come naturally with the provision of effective agri-environment schemes which work for the farmer and biodiversity.”
The coming weeks and months will be pivotal for the future conservation of Hen Harriers and the upland habitats upon which they depend as structure of the Green Low-carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS) within the Rural Development Plan (RDP) is finalised.  A Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan is also currently in preparation through the National Parks and Wildlife Service.   The purpose of this plan is to identify the main threats to Hen Harriers and identify the best solutions for a sustainable future.  It has the potential to deliver an effective framework for future Hen Harrier conservation both within and outside the SPA network.
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