Bowland Beth: the life of an English Hen Harrier

Published on 03 October 2017 in Book reviews

By David Cobham

HarperCollins, 2017; hbk, 207pp; black-and-white illustrations

ISBN 978-0-00-825189-5, £16.99

If, like me, you love to watch Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus, then you are not in a minority. In fact, I have yet to meet a birdwatcher who does not enjoy seeing them hunting or skydancing in search of a mate. Perhaps the same is true for other birds of prey too, but right now, for many people, the Hen Harrier has become the chief flag-carrier for persecuted raptors in Britain. Indeed, while most of our birds of prey are doing comparatively well, the Hen Harrier is declining, and in the uplands of England it has almost vanished as a breeding species. The story of this decline has been the subject of many colourful articles in the press, while at the front line a team of dedicated conservationists devote all their time to finding out exactly why the Hen Harrier is doing so badly.

As part of that ongoing research, Natural England has been tagging juvenile Hen Harriers with satellite transmitters in order to understand where they go both in summer and in winter. One such Hen Harrier chick was a female given the name of Betty by members of the public, although to those working closely with her she was known as Beth. She was fitted with a transmitter while still in the nest, in the uplands of Bowland in Lancashire in the summer of 2011, and her subsequent movements were monitored until her untimely death in June 2012. Her body was found in the Yorkshire Dales – with clear evidence that she had been shot. This book is the story of Betty’s first year of life.

David Cobham is a skilful story-teller. He is best known for his 1970s film dramatisation of Henry Williamson’s book, Tarka the Otter. Since then he has had many other film credits to his name, and his recent book The Sparrowhawk’s Lament: how British breeding birds of prey are faring also won much praise. In this new volume he uses a mixture of fact and fiction to give readers an insight into the daily challenges facing a young Hen Harrier. My use of the word ‘fiction’ here is not meant to discredit the authenticity of the story being told. David Cobham had good knowledge of Beth’s activities and when still in Bowland she was monitored daily by those who were tracking her. Her subsequent movements between Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland revealed how Hen Harriers will travel large distances in just a few days. In fact, on one day Beth travelled 200 km in less than nine hours.

Over the course of 21 chapters, Beth’s story is told with great affection and to accompany the text there are attractive line-drawings by Dan Powell. To bring us back to reality, the fictional text (always in italics) is interspersed with known facts to explain what factors may affect Beth’s daily activities. Many of these facts are delivered through interviews with those who are working closely on Hen Harriers.

The book closes with discussion of some practical solutions that might enable more Hen Harriers to breed in England – such as brood management to increase the productivity of individual pairs and translocation of young birds to lowland areas away from the moors. Such methods are favoured by the Hawk and Owl Trust (of which David Cobham was a Vice-President until recently), although other conservationists are sceptical about their chances of success. What is clear is that the story of Beth must surely mirror that of many young Hen Harriers. As this book was being completed, news came in of yet another satellite-tagged Hen Harrier being killed in the Yorkshire Dales – again even before it had had the chance to breed just once.

Keith Betton