A familiar silhouette catches my eye as we drive down the muddy track that winds between the pools. ‘Harrier’ I call but Dave doesn’t quite catch the bird before it drops back below the treeline. He’s not sure; it could be something else and we stop the car to check. The bird soon reappears, drifting towards us in the early morning light, its wings held in a shallow ‘v’. It is a marsh harrier, long-winged and pale-headed, a young bird and one of only a handful of sightings from this inland site.
The presence of the harrier is an encouraging sign, reflecting a species whose population is increasing and whose breeding range now expanding. There are now more breeding marsh harriers in England than at any other time during the last two centuries but their history has been a mixed one. The marsh harrier seems to have been a familiar sight to the Norfolk naturalists writing in the mid-1800s. Lubbock, for example, writing in 1845, noted how every Norfolk pool of any extent had its pair, but numbers declined rapidly to leave just a single English pair at Horsey in 1911. The following decades saw a small recovery, but it was not until the 1980s that the breeding population began to grow and reached a size where the bird’s future as a breeding species no longer looked precarious.
The return of the marsh harrier to East Anglia has been dramatic, the increasing number of breeding pairs year on year revealing a remarkable change in fortunes. East Anglia has become the stronghold for the species within Britain and it is the Broads and north Norfolk’s coastal grazing marshes that support the greatest numbers. The harriers favour reedbed sites for nesting but have also taken to arable crops, such as wheat and oilseed rape, a preference that has opened up new opportunities for these birds.
I suspect that there might not be a sufficiently large reedbed to attract breeding harriers to the site we work but it is just possible that a pair might give it a go. We know that they breed not far from here and if nothing else we’d expect to see more harriers here over the coming years.