Marathon for the Missing Hen Harriers
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Between 3 and 6 July I covered 200km, climbed 5500m and spent 40 hours on my feet. I was running from the Forest of Bowland in north-west Lancashire to Thruscross in the Washburn valley, North Yorkshire. With me were my brother Ed, and friends Tim and John. Our route ran between the last known locations of satellite-tagged hen harriers. All those places were on grouse moors.
A year ago I knew little about hen harriers, not least because in England they are virtually extinct, and it is easy to overlook things you never see. Science says that there is sufficient habitat in England for at least 300 pairs of this magnificent bird of prey. Last year there were just nine successful breeding attempts. Why? Because hen harriers are routinely killed. Just today we learned that a tagged bird called River was found illegally shot on the Swinton Estate. Peer-reviewed data tell us that they are ten times more likely to die on or near moorland where driven grouse shooting takes place than anywhere else. The harrier is supposed to be protected by law. I resolved to try to do something about it.
We decided to base ourselves at Countersett near Askrigg and plotted four routes, from west to east, that joined up the dots of the vanished birds. I was going to run the whole thing, while the others would relay the route with me. We wore satellite tags so that we were trackable at all times, and decided to raise money for Wild Justice, a group set up to fight for wildlife by using the legal system and seeking change to existing laws.
Driven grouse shooting (DGS) is pursued by c.12,500 individuals who will pay several thousand pounds a day to shoot red grouse between August and October. The success of a shoot is gauged by how many grouse you can bag, so the more birds you have on a moor the better. Because a hen harrier’s diet includes red grouse chicks, and they don’t pay for the privilege of taking them, game keepers kill them. Their methods include pole traps, shooting, poison, and destruction of chicks in nests. Yes, that’s me saying that. It’s also dog walkers who see it; wildlife groups, peer reviewed science and the police who document it; even the government’s own data say it. The only people who disagree are the DGS interests who can’t afford to admit that their industry is underpinned in part by criminal behaviour. It has, after all, been illegal to kill hen harriers and other birds of prey since 1954. But to their credit, and no matter how daft it makes them look, the DGS apologists stick to their guns (sic) and tell us that it does not happen. If we were to believe them, we’d need to suppose that the birds themselves have been engaging in mass suicide.
Day One was from Bowland Knott in Lancashire to Oughtershaw, a hamlet high in the Yorkshire Dales between upper Wharfedale and Wensleydale. We reached the start under a bright sun at 8am where we were met by Wild Justice director Mark Avery and Simon Pettit who is part of a team of volunteers who guard hen harrier nests. The volunteers watch from a safe distance, 24hrs a day, to protect the nests from people who wish them harm. I find it incredible that such people are needed. Anyway, we posed for some pictures and got running. My right achilles was a bit battered from a recent race, and it hurt from the very first step. My heart sank somewhat; I thought about mentioning it, but with more than a hundred miles to go there wasn’t much to say.
Tim was first on navigation duty, which was soon complicated by the washing off the map of our highlighted route by his sweat. This generated a lot of amusement and no little stress, but we orienteered our way round the lower farmland and then up onto the Salter Track that travels from Croasdale Fell to Wray. This runs through United Utilities land which allows low intensity grouse shooting. This in turn means that hereabouts hen harriers have a fighting chance of survival. We had a pre-arranged meeting with a member of the RSPB who took us to look at an undisclosed hen harrier nest through his scope. We watched a recently fledged harrier circling low above the nest. He told us about raptor persecution he had witnessed. For example, at a nearby site they had film of a gamekeeper shooting a female peregrine, killing the young in the nest and then leaving a trap on the nest upon which the returning male would alight. It took a day for the male to die. The lesson here is that while hen harriers have become the poster bird for this cause because they are so rare, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, buzzards, goshawks, red kites, ravens, foxes and stoats are all being killed as well. I have now heard from several well-informed people that a single estate that is operating an enthusiastic predator control model will in one year take a toll of raptors that is easily in three figures. In the 1980s there were thirty breeding pairs of hen harriers in the Forest of Bowland. In 2013: none. Ironically, pitiably, the Forest’s emblem is a hen harrier.
Motivated, Tim and I pressed on. We passed Goodber Fell, where two young hen harriers, Sky and Hope, were last heard of. The birds were named by local primary school children, reared and tagged on Untied Utilities land. They disappeared on the high intensity neighbouring moors shortly after fledging. We ran down off the hills into Wray where we were met Hilary Carr and friends holding a hen harrier banner on the bridge. It was getting hot and their support and encouragement were very welcome. There was a lot of map reading to be done on farmland between Low Bentham, Burton in Lonsdale and Ireby, where John and me spent a long time attempting to follow footpaths that were much better marked on the map than they were on the ground. After several hours in the midday sun, we made it into Masondale and a really challenging run on the spectacular limestone over Scales Moor on the lower edge of Whernside. From there, we went down into Ribblehead. Here we were met by an old friend, David Long, who had made a six-hour train journey to come and run with us for the last nine miles of the day. Despite having come over 30 miles I ran all the way up Cam Fell, then down the long valley into Oughtershaw. Ominously, the last farmhouse we passed was brimming with gamekeepers and their shotguns having a Wednesday evening beer and clay pigeon session. They didn’t take much notice of us. My more pressing concerns were the effects of the 40 miles and eleven hours on my feet, the 6000ft of climbing and far too much sun. It had been a hard day. I stood in the river for a bit. Then we went home, showered, ate – and, in what felt like the blink of an eye, rose again for Day Two.
We restarted at Oughtershaw. The route ran south to Malham and Grassington, then back up the Wharfe valley and on to Cray. We had ambitions, if we had time, to get back to Countersett where we were staying. I had not looked very closely at the map for this day and it had escaped my attention that there were two huge climbs in the first three miles. Moreover, I had forgotten to reapply sun-cream the previous day and the brush of clothes on sunburn was painful. Also, my achilles and right knee were deeply unhappy. By the top of Fountains Fell, when John and I had clocked 2500ft in only two hours, I was not feeling great. I shuffled down another four or so miles to Tenant Fell where Tim switched with John and I shuffled around to Malham Tarn and Great Close Scar. It was already lunchtime; we were a long way behind schedule. With sixty miles racked up, I was out of the next leg. Ed and John sprinted it for me so we could catch up some time. I was gutted temporarily to have to drop out, but realistically it was probably our only option, and they were not passing any sites where birds had disappeared. When I re-started I was reenergised and ran with Tim over Linton Moor into Threshfield and Grassington. Even better, mum arrived with some freshly baked cakes, which had an energising effect. In the afternoon, we worked our way back up Wharfedale, through Kettlewell, Starbotton, Buckden and Cray. The effect of the cakes was short lived and I was back to shuffling through the uneven fields. By the time John swapped back in with Tim he was walking faster than I could run. We climbed out of Buckden and stopped just short of Middle Tongue, a horrible bit of fell which I have encountered on other races, but usually only with 40 miles in my legs, not the 70 plus I had now accumulated. And with that thought in mind and no more satellite tagged birds to reach, and the fact that I had been on my feet for another 11 hours, we stopped at 35 miles and went home to wash, eat and sleep. It’s amazing how eleven hours on your feet can feel like a lifetime, while eleven hours in a comfortable house disappears in a flash.
On Friday, with the knocks accruing and pace slowing, my brother and I had a mega early start. He got on his bike and led me on a horseshoe around Abbotside and Muker Common via Buttertubs Pass, travelling by the road rather than fell. We were not far from the area where three illegal pole traps were found in 2016 and where three sat-tagged hen harriers had disappeared in recent years. Are you are wondering what all these locations have in common? They are all driven grouse moors. And we are the only country in the world that has such places. It is not as if Scandinavians, who have similar landscapes and ecology to us, come over here, watch us kill all our predators and say to themselves ‘Guys, we’re doing it all wrong.’
At Askrigg I was walking very slowly. I made my way to Aysgarth where Tim joined me; we crawled into West Burton. Even so, after the early start we were slightly ahead of time for once, and it was a relief to slow right down for a bit. Still, the drag up Carlton Moor was hard. When eventually we hit the top it was bleak and there were yet more missing hen harrier locations to mark. It is worth emphasising that only a handful of hen harriers get satellite-tagged. It follows that if 72% of those are illegally persecuted, then the actual kill rate is going to be a lot higher. The shooting industry is conspicuously quiet about this. If you follow this sort of thing, you’ll notice the BASC, the Countryside Alliance and the Game and Wildfowl Conservancy Trust (sic) never make calls for information about illegally killed birds. But the RSPB and the police do. Funny that. There are plenty of noticeboards up on grouse moors by the tracks, usually with a poster about ground nesting birds, maybe one about temporary closures and one about dogs on leads. But I’ve noticed most of the boards always have a bit of space on them. Could not the DGS community, when it is not stretching our credulity by asking us to believe that they care for raptors and that foxes eat satellite tags, use these notice boards to ask people if they have any information about the scores of buzzards, red kites, peregrines and hen harriers that go missing on their moors each year? There is a police campaign, Operation Owl, in progress now that is designed to target this.
At West Scrafton, we met Guy Shorrock, the RSPB’s Senior Investigations Officer; Bob Berzins, a seasoned fell runner; and a talented distance runner called Pascal Dubois-Pèlerin. Until now the run had been very hard going. The heat, the lack of recovery time, the sunburn, the injuries, were cumulatively painful. I was in bits. I knew I’d reach the end one way or the other, but things did not feel promising. Yet now, with the arrival of these guys, everything seemed to make a lot of sense. They were fresh, enthusiastic, motivated and excited to hear about how I’d been getting on. Emotions always go up and down during a long run. After a lot of troughs, I suddenly found myself running again.
Guy spoke about his 28 years of experience as an RSPB investigator. He told me that the RSPB typically record up to 100 confirmed raptor persecution incidents each year. Based on his experience, and detailed conversations with several people in the shooting industry, he believes this will be less than one per cent of what is actually taking place. After a few miles running up some very tight contours onto West Scrafton Moor (which to my, and everyone else’s, surprise, I ran all of), Guy said that he was going to go over to the place where a tagged hen harrier called Bowland Betty was found shot dead in 2012.
He asked if I wanted to come. I asked how far; he pointed and said one kilometre as the crow flies. I said yes. Then, because of the large gully between us and it, we set off in the opposite direction and added an hour to the day to get there. But it was worth every extra step. Once there, Guy recorded a very eloquent and articulate piece about Bowland Betty’s life. It was likely she was a mother as her body was found only 450m from a failed hen harrier nest. Guy went on to explain that between 2000 and 2016 there had been 20 hen harrier nesting attempts within 10km of where we were, 14 of which had failed due to suspected persecution. I don’t like injustice. Hearing that a bird is becoming functionally extinct in this country not only because the adults are being poisoned, trapped or shot, but because their young are being killed in their nests, strengthened my resolve.
We ran down off the moor and finished for the day. We were met by John who had gone back to the car. Excitedly, he presented some camera phone footage of a bird of prey that he had seen en route. Guy confirmed what it was: a hen harrier, an unbelievable stroke of luck as there is only one known nest in north Yorkshire this year. Our envy was partly mitigated by some incredible flapjack made by Guy. And now, with only one day to go, we stopped in Middleham for a pint on the way home. We tried to make sense of the previous 72 hours; I looked forward to the final ‘easy’ twenty-mile stretch through Nidderdale.
Saturday started at 8am near How Stean Gorge. Pascal told us how the friendly owner of the bunk barn there was thrilled about our endeavours and was glad that people were finally beginning to take notice of the scandal in the uplands. The work began with a 1000ft climb across farmland onto Masham Moor and over to Roundhill Reservoir, before cutting south over the top of Hambleton Hill and down towards Ramsgill and Gouthwaite reservoir. The spring traps that keepers leave out for the stoats and weasels were everywhere, left across the ditches either side of the tracks, as were all the trays of medicated grit left out for the ‘wild’ red grouse. Since grouse numbers on shooting moors are artificially high, diseases like strongylosis are widespread. The birds are medicated via trays of grit which they like to nibble. But the thing is, it is illegal to serve meat that has been medicated 28 days before it has been killed. With ‘The Glorious 12th‘ approaching fast, someone is cutting it fine.
I felt strong running on this last morning. Knowing the nearness of the end helped; so did the arrival of new, enthusiastic people with whom to run. At Gouthwaite Guy and my brother re-joined us; a little further on my friends Dan and George arrived. Earlier, the run had felt like an interminable challenge being faced in isolation; now, it was becoming something achievable that was capturing others’ imaginations.
It was hot again. We ran as if we were on elastic, with the others breaking off ahead, then remembering how slow I was, patiently waiting, before springing ahead again all the way down the river Nidd to Pateley Bridge.
The hill up to Yorkes Folly and Heyshaw Moor was as steep as any we’d done. Knowing we were nearly there I knew I had to run it. I charged up as best I could, with my achilles reminding me how much it disagreed with my project of the last four days. Dripping in sweat and sun-cream, we made it to the top and then pieced together the final bits of map-reading over Braithwaite Moor, around several farms, at only two of which we got lost, to The Stonehouse Inn at Thruscross. Coming up the hill in one last obligatory dash, it was lovely to see the crowd of family and friends who’d given up their Saturday to meet us.
I’d covered more than 120 miles, climbed 18000ft and taken more than 200,000 steps. I had wanted to run further, but over 200k in four days isn’t bad. I’m used to doing my own thing with nobody watching, so I think next time I’ll just tell people I’m doing less and then surprise them by doing more. At the finish we drank several beers, ate, and listened to Mark Avery talk about the illogicality of driven grouse shooting. Hearing Mark put the case for wild justice to people who had known nothing about it beforehand felt like a job well done.
That feeling has since grown. As I’ve found my way back onto social media, thousands of notifications on Twitter and Instagram say that more people are talking about this now than did so before. As I write, we’ve raised almost £12000 from donations to the run, which Wild Justice will use to defend hen harriers and apply existing law.
Thank you for your encouragement and support. Thank you all.
Watch this space.
You can listen to me talking to Radio Lancashire about this run here.
And to find out more about the cruel anachronism of driven grouse shooting, please look at my website: www.thehenharriers.com