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A nest in the cornfield

CABS Montagu's Harrier conservation project

CABS has been involved for several years in a conservation project for the endangered Montagu's Harrier in the Rhineland. Male Montagu's harrier flying over his nest (© Markus Varesvuo)Male Montagu's harrier flying over his nest (© Markus Varesvuo)When the Montagu’s Harrier returns in spring from Africa to its Central European breeding grounds, having survived the hail of lead from Maltese hunters on the way, they are greeted with, for them, a fantastic sight. Treeless meadows stretching to the horizon, with knee high grass and open patches and, in addition, a surfeit of delicious mice. Ideal conditions for a ground breeding raptor.

But what the harriers see as inviting meadows are the cultivated grain crops of our farmers and, when the chicks hatch, the combine harvesters are already warming up. Winter barley is a preferred habitat of the species. The grain, sown in autumn, has reached a height of 30 cm in spring – a magical attraction for the harriers.

From mid-May to the end of the month the female lays up to 6 eggs in a simple nest of grass stalks. After the brooding period of about 4 weeks, and a rearing period of another 28 to 33 days, the young fledge in mid-July. If the birds have laid their eggs early enough and the barley ripens at an average rate, the young birds fledge before harvesting begins.

A last minute rescue of a brood by a sensitive farmerA last minute rescue of a brood by a sensitive farmerOn the other hand, if the spring is warm and sunny, harvesting starts in June. The nests are thereby destroyed and the young birds killed.

At the close of the 19th Century Montagu’s Harrier, endangered as a species throughout Europe, was extinct in the Rhineland (western part of Germany close to the Dutch border). The last brood was found near Gemünd in the Eifel in 1889. It was not until the 1980s that ornithologists were able to observe the first Montagu’s Harriers again, which spent the summer on the fields between Cologne and Aachen.

The first broods were reported 10 years later but most of them were victims of the combine harvesters, the last one near Düren in 2005.

In 2006, in cooperation with committed ornithologists, the Bonn´s Group of the Naturschutzbund Deutschland (Birdlife) and the local biological stations of Euskirchen , Düren , Aachen and Bonn , CABS initiated a Montagu’s Harrier conservation project which consisted of the location of all nests in the Börde between Cologne and Aachen before the harvest and to negotiate a later mowing date with the affected farmers.

The farmers are very cooperative and so it was possible to set up a protection zone of 40 x 40 metres around the nests.

Joung harrier in the nestJoung harrier in the nestFinancial compensation for time and crops lost was paid out. Where public funds were unavailable, CABS paid the farmers, dependent on the crop and size of the protection zone, between 200 and 400 Euros per nest.

In summer 2007 CABS field workers found 3 Montagu’s Harrier nests in the Cologne/Aachen area. In the course of their work they also discovered 3 nests of the more common Marsh Harrier which, because of a lack of suitable natural habitat (damp meadows and reed beds), had nested in the winter barley.

Because of the early harvest, which began on 25th June, the protection zones were established earlier. The first Marsh Harriers fledged in mid-July, followed shortly by the first Montagu’s Harriers.

In the last 5 years, about 15 Montagu’s Harriers and more than 40 young Marsh Harriers had fledged within the project!