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Breeding success for Orkney hen harriers

13 March 2012

Leianna Padgett
Media and Communications Officer

Conservationists are hailing the breeding success of hen harriers on Orkney as the population has reached a 20-year high of 100 breeding females producing over 100 chicks - a remarkable recovery for the species which is facing tough challenges in other parts of the UK.

The resurgence of the hen harrier on Orkney, a red listed species of high conservation concern, follows a period of steep decline on the islands, particularly between 1980 and the late 1990s when populations reached their lowest level since detailed records began in 1953.

A study to determine the cause of decline, funded by RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and University of Aberdeen, has revealed the direct link between the number of sheep grazed on land favoured by hunting hen harriers and the success of the species.

Food shortage was determined to be the primary cause of the fall in numbers especially at the start of the breeding season when the males hunt for both themselves and the females in order to bring them into good breeding condition.

It was found that the number of sheep grazing on moorland fringes in the rough grasslands that constitute hen harrier hunting grounds doubled during the period of decline resulting in habitat degradation and a shortage of prey.

With a shift in agricultural support payments the number of grazing sheep was reduced by 20% between 1998 and 2008 and the fortunes of the hen harrier improved significantly as the areas they preferred to hunt in were allowed to regenerate.

Eric Meek, Orkney Area Manager for RSPB Scotland, said: “Although nearly all hen harrier breeding sites on Orkney are protected SSSIs, SPAs or are RSPB reserves, the males range widely outside these areas while hunting, leaving them vulnerable to grazing regimes and habitat destruction.”

“It is fantastic to see the Orkney population thriving after so many years of decline and demonstrates their ability to bounce back if given the opportunity. The story here, in effect, is that if the habitat is in good condition and the weather is not too awful and there is no illegal persecution, then hen harriers will thrive.”

Gail Churchill, SNH’s operations manager for Orkney, confirmed: “It is wonderful to see that the Orkney hen harrier population is once again thriving and we welcome the efforts that have gone in to making this such a success story.

“The Orkney Hen Harrier scheme started in 2003 and was one of the first new voluntary initiatives proposed as part of SNH’s Natural Care programme and we are delighted that the fruits sown back then have contributed to the resurgence of the species, which is an important element of our local biodiversity.  The hen harrier scheme – which ran until 2008 –allowed many farmers to manage the moorland and adjacent rough grassland areas, thereby increasing the feeding areas available for hen harriers.

“Now, management options are available through Rural Development Contracts which helps provide the platform for these magnificent birds to continue to thrive.”


1.     Female hen harriers outnumber males in the Orkney population by about three to one. The males are polygamous as a result and the population is measured in terms of breeding females rather than pairs.


2.     Hen harriers’ primary prey items are the Orkney vole and birds such as meadow pipit, skylark and snipe. Orkney voles are unique to the Orkney Islands with its closest relatives found in continental Europe.  It is thought to have been introduced to Orkney by Stone Age settlers around 3,500 BC and is around twice the size of the field vole found in mainland Britain.

3.     Hen harriers are a characteristic sight over Orkney’s hills and the Orkney Mainland Moors Special Protection Area (SPA) hosts around 90% of Orkney’s breeding population. They nest in tall heather on moorland and often forage over surrounding farmland.

4.     The study revealed that the most important factor in the recovery of the hen harrier was the decline in sheep numbers with another more minor factor being the improved early spring weather (less rainfall) in recent years. Please follow the link to read the full report:

5.     SNH’s Natural Care Orkney Hen Harrier scheme is also thought to have contributed to an increase in hen harrier food supplies.  Farmers were paid to relax grazing in certain areas, allowing strips of rough grass to form, and also actively planted wild bird seed mixes along with other measures.

6.     There is no grouse shooting on Orkney and subsequently no incidents of persecution.

7.     When hen harriers became extinct as a breeding bird on mainland Britain- Orkney acted as a refuge for the species and became the source for the natural recolonisation of mainland Britain in subsequent years.

8.     For further information about hen harriers, please visit:


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