How the life and death of Bowland Beth the hen harrier inspired filmmaker David Cobham’s campaigning book

David Cobham author of 'Bowland Beth' . Photo by Martin Hayward-Smith
David Cobham author of 'Bowland Beth' . Photo by Martin Hayward-Smith

David Cobham is renowned for his film ‘ Tarka The Otter’ but now he is seeking a new audience - the next generation of conservationists. He told Fiona Finch how he hopes his new work will help to save the hen harrier.

The plight of Bowland’s “missing” hen harriers has led acclaimed filmmaker and author David Cobham to turn his attention to Lancashire.

David, who made the ‘Tarka The Otter’ and ‘The Goshawk’ films, was so moved by the disappearance of hen harriers here he put pen to paper to detail the life and death of “Bowland Beth”.

Beth was a bird whose short life from hatching in Bowland to death in Yorkshire brings to the fore the conflict between gameshoot management and harrier conservation.

The author of this unashamedly campaigning book laments the way harriers have been killed or prevented from breeding successfully.

He said: “In 2013 there were none at all in England, let alone in Bowland and that is scandalous really. It just makes my flesh creep. It’s lazy, immoral and it’s cruel.”

The book mixes a narrative account of Beth’s life with a wide ranging overview of the politics and practice of upland management of grouse moors and recent conservation efforts to save the harrier, which is a known predator of grouse.

Stressing it is a dramatised but not fictional account David says he wrote it: “Because I don’t think anyone can understand how cruel it is to shoot a hen harrier. Bowland Beth was shot with a rifle probably from 200 yards away ... she picked herself up and floundered across heather, she flew in great pain for another four or five miles before crashing down in heather. I want to get this across.”

He now hopes to inspire and inform a new generation of conservationists, noting “serious birders” are aware of the harrier issue but many people are not.

David, who has an enduring passion for birds of prey is Vice President of the Hawk and Owl Trust and is also the author of another book on birds of prey, ‘A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring’.

He had visited Bowland twice researching other work and said: “I think it’s a wonderful area. I can quite understand why it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It’s such a mixture of stone walls, pasture and heather. One thing I had to be certain of when I wrote the book was that I did not give away any names (of places) where they bred. The names are all different in the book.”

He acknowledges he never saw Beth, who lived from 2011 to 2012 , but has drawn on accounts from local conservationists and experts, most especially Stephen Murphy of Natural England, plus his own experience observing harriers elsewhere in the U.K.

Stephen placed a satellite device on Beth she was a chick and also had the task of finding and recovering her body and is quoted recalling “Beth was a beautiful bird - an amazing bird - and I feel so privileged to be the only human to have held her while she was just a bundle of earth bound feathers and attitude. Her story is remarkable. We should be celebrating her life now and her becoming a parent, and tracking her sons and daughters.”

Stephen is later quoted recalling: “Beth’s death created huge publicity. There was widespread condemnation from within every conservation body. But worse was to come. A year later, in 2013, the hen harrier had disappeared as a breeding bird in England. What I couldn’t take in was that, year after year, between 2003 and 2008,hen harriers had bred very successfully at Bowland, raising 138 young. But from then on it was all downhill.”

David’s book details the daily activities of a hen harrier from fledging, through hunting, looking for somewhere to roost, plumage grooming, skydancing - that distinctive showcase of flying and falling used to attract a mate, and the impact of heather burning on habitat and grouse management.

He also discusses the practice of diversionary feeding, which he says evidence shows can saves many grouse chicks and allow a hen harrier to breed too.

In the final pages of the book David makes a passionate call for change. His conclusion is pointed: : “So there remains a conflict that is unresolved.

“There is an arms race: sophisticated satellite tracking by the conservationists versus state- of-the-art weaponry. Some owners or managers of driven grouse moors think that they have the solution - eradicate hen harriers. But that solution is idle, cruel and unlawful.”

Bowland Beth is illustrated by wildlife artist Dan Powell whose drawings skilfully tell of a harrier’s habitat and life.

Now in his 80s David has plans for another book on falconry, which he observes is attracting new interest. But first and foremost he hopes to see Beth’s story secure the future of many new generations of hen harriers.

• ‘Bowland Beth The Life of an English Hen Harrier’ by David Cobham, illustrated by Dan Powell, costs £16.99 and is published in hardback by William Collins.