Marsh Harrier`s Shadow

During the first UK lockdown, I discovered precious nature in Thamesmead through running and walking, including visiting the Crossness Nature Reserve marshes where diverse wildlife remains. I had not explored local nature until then even though I moved to Thamesmead three years ago. Then I started thinking what the marshlands were like before Thamesmead was built. In fact, large parts of London and surrounding it were marshland in the past. R.S. R. Fitter wrote in his book ‘London’s Natural History (1945)’, “Across the river extensive marshes existed until quite a late date in the present boroughs of Bermondsey, Southwark and Lambeth…G. Graves, who wrote about British birds during the Waterloo decade, recorded all three species of harrier from the South London marshes. The hen-harrier (Circus cyaneus) was apparently no uncommon sight, skimming over the fields known as Rolls’s Meadows by the side of the Kent Road… A marsh-harrier’s (Circus aruginosis) nest was found by an osier pond near the Grand Surry Canal near Deptford. The nest was made of sticks, grass and leaves and decayed stalks of the flowering rush, and was situated on a small hillock just above the water’s edge.” Last July, my partner and I decided to visit Elmley Nature reserve, marshland in Isle of Sheppey, Kent after the lockdown ended to see what Thamesmead was like in the past. I was astonished that so many marsh-harriers were skimming across the sky of the marshes.

The later the same month, I was commissioned to work with a local youth group the YEDC (Youth Eco Development Council) on an environmental art project in Thamesmead. The YEDC wanted to create aerial landscape art from litter so I suggested and designed a shape of a flying Marsh Harrier, as these birds of prey once ruled the Erith marshes. Collecting rubbish in the local area from Crossways Park to Southmere Lake, we created an artwork called Marsh Harrier’s Shadow. I remember that it was over 30 degree Celsius when we did the litter picking. YEDC brought their recycled rubbish from home as well. The total amount of rubbish collected was about 2500 litres! It was mainly plastic, paper, cans and bottles. I noticed a GCSE maths paper was included in the rubbish; I suppose from one of YEDC members. Juvenile Marsh Harrier’s have a red head so we made the bird head of the artwork red too, as that represented the YEDC. The drone footage was taken by retired engineer and local resident Dave Cooper.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the marsh harrier was hunted to extinction in the United Kingdom. After being reintroduced from other regions, its population steadily increased until pesticides threatened it, along with other birds of prey, in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then the population has slowly and steadily increased. Marsh Harriers spend the summer in the UK and then migrate to winter in Africa. The number of breeding pairs in the UK now exceeds 400. They are still under threat by illegal killing, habitat loss and disturbance from increased use of nesting sites for recreation so they are an Amber Listed species. According to the RSPB Bexley Group, Marsh Harriers have been spotted locally at Corinthian Manorway Erith, Crayford Marshes, Crossness Marshes, Thamesmead Golf Range and Thames Road Wetland. The litter Marsh Harrier was a message of hope, if we commit to a greener and cleaner future then we can help all species to recover.

Last Autumn, I spotted a marsh harrier like bird over the Southmere Lake. It was quite high up but it was a dark bird of prey, possibly a female or mimic male. As an interesting fact, Marsh Harriers are the only bird of prey which males mimic females, 40% of these males look like their female counterparts as a way of getting close to them without the attention of aggressive territorial males, or perhaps they are choosing to live in a peaceful world.

There is a response to this story here: Cathy MacDonald


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