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What future for England's hen harriers?

Last modified: 19 November 2010

Male hen harrier in flight carrying twigs

The sight of a hen harrier carrying nesting material is an increasingly rare sight in England

Image: Andy Hay

With only seven successful nests in 2010, a large shadow hangs over the future of the hen harrier as an English breeding species, unless the illegal killing of this bird of prey can be brought to a halt.

A comprehensive English hen harrier survey found that only 12 pairs of hen harrier attempted to nest in England this year, despite evidence showing there is enough habitat for over 300 pairs. Seven successful nesting pairs is one more pair than nested successfully in 2009, but it is only half the number of successful nesting pairs just three years ago, graphically illustrating the continued danger of such a small population slipping into extinction as an English breeding species for a second time: historically, the hen harrier was persecuted to extinction across mainland Britain.

Dr Mark Avery is the RSPB’s Director of Conservation. He said: “Persecution, associated with land managed for driven-grouse shooting, remains the main reason for the hundreds of missing pairs. Even though these birds now have the full protection of the law, the persecution of birds of prey remains devastatingly common.


“We welcome moves by Roseanna Cunningham - Scotland’s environment minister - to consider options for fining or imprisoning those land owners who manage staff who are convicted of killing birds of prey in Scotland. Now that the future of the hen harrier in England hangs by a thread, we now need to consider all measures necessary to prevent the extinction of this bird in our uplands.

"It is shocking that protected birds of prey are still being killed illegally in the UK"

“In February, we submitted a 210,000-strong petition to the former Wildlife Minister, calling for the greater protection of birds of prey. It is vital that popular support for these birds does not go unheard while the hen harrier remains in such dire need of their support. As a first step, Government should confirm that the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit is secure.”

English stronghold

Five of the successful pairs (from 10 nesting attempts) were on the United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire, which remains this bird’s only English stronghold.

Preventing the persecution of birds of prey is one of the Government’s key wildlife crime priorities, yet enforcement of the laws protecting it is clearly not proving effective.

Dr Mark Avery added: “It is shocking that protected birds of prey are still being killed illegally in the UK. In this International Year of Biodiversity, we challenge the Coalition Government to provide the leadership and political will necessary to address the problem and re-iterate our challenge to moorland owners and managers to allow hen harriers to settle and breed.”

Detective Inspector Brian Stuart, Head of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “Last year England again produced a disappointing number of young hen harriers. The police will continue to work with our partners in conservation and land management to support the survival of the hen harrier in the Forest of Bowland whilst identifying ways to prevent criminality and enforce the laws wherever they have been broken.”

Tom Franklin of the Ramblers said: “One of the joys of walking in the British countryside is the chance to witness our beautiful native birds of prey. To suddenly see them soar above you can instantly lift your spirits. You feel so close to wild nature. It is a tragedy that hen harriers are no longer seen across large swathes of upland England. The Ramblers is at one with the RSPB in calling for greater protection for these birds.”

Paul Irving, Chairman of Northern England Raptor Forum, said: “A change in the legislation and enforcement is long overdue to more effectively protect the last few pairs of what is one of our most charismatic birds and to allow them to thrive and spread. We will all be the poorer if the hen harrier is lost from English uplands where it truly belongs.”

Formerly, the hen harrier was widely distributed in the UK, but persecution restricted its range to Orkney and the Western Isles by 1900.

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