The Day Of The Harrier
Fellwalker Andrew Stachulski recalls a spellbinding encounter with a rare bird of prey
I strode briskly along that familiar track, the central, oldest and best part of it. Here, several miles beyond Slaidburn and around the 1,200 feet contour, the track is a narrow ribbon winding through great expanses of open moorland – a tenuous link indeed with the outside world. Ahead lay miles of enriching solitude before journey’s end, punctuated only by various bird calls on that June morning.
Overnight cloud and drizzle had cleared, and with visibility improving all the time and a light breeze, conditions were ideal for walking. The exact date eludes me now, probably the mid-1990s. When I tell you there was still a reasonable bus service between Clitheroe and Slaidburn at the time, that speaks for itself.
It was no surprise to see an RSPB Land Rover. The society is active in this area, with a number of unusual species to be found, and initially I wondered whether the peregrines had returned. Around that time a pair nested hereabouts quite frequently – indeed, one nest had recently been spoiled. A brief scouting around showed no sight or sound, so I moved on, still not another soul in sight.
The familiar sights and sounds of gulls, curlews and red grouse had so lulled my senses that I almost missed the moment when it came. Steadily I became aware of a large bird of prey gliding and circling with graceful ease some hundred yards away, at no great height above the moor. Roughly buzzard size, but narrower wings and a more elegant carriage – I was at full concentration now. As it circled closer, I was thrilled to detect the silvery-grey plumage and black primaries that could only mean a male hen-harrier.
I hunched myself down, cursing my gaudy orange rucksack, and kept as still as possible, entranced by the flying display. The harrier seemed relatively indifferent to my presence. The bird circled away after a few minutes, and behind, a second vehicle had appeared by the Land Rover! Little question now what they were monitoring.
I moved on, with a definite schedule to follow, and beyond a bend ahead I was soon out of sight of the vehicles. The second encounter proved even more spectacular, and closer, than the first. A curious shape on the moor, barely 20 yards away, was no tree-stump or rock. It was the harrier again, somewhere near a nest perhaps? He rose noiselessly and for several more minutes I had the great fortune to witness another spectacular display. How often I had passed that way and dreamed of seeing just this!
Its call was quite a surprise, a repeated chattering call, longer but less harsh than a peregrine’s. Then the vision passed as the light grey spectre glided away, and I resumed the long track towards journey’s end. Now, again, just gulls, curlew and grouse were to be heard but I felt greatly enriched. During the rest of the walk, I met only two other walkers – I wonder if they were equally treated?
Since that day I have only seen female harriers, one viewed through a kindly RSPB warden’s telephoto lens, perched near her nest perhaps half-a-mile away. The harriers of Bowland continue to live a charmed life, for in these carefully guarded grouse moors they are scarcely welcome. All bird lovers wish them well – they have some successful breeding years, some unsuccessful, but they keep returning. I was so fortunate that day. Truly, a spellbinding vision of beauty in a remote and seemingly desolate spot may await you too. All walkers and lovers of the Forest of Bowland will, I am sure, wish the harriers well.
Andrew Stachulski is co-author with Helen Shelmerdine (nee Shaw) of ‘The Forest of Bowland’, published in 2015 by Merlin Unwin @£14.99