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Hotline opens for sightings of the UK's rarest breeding bird of prey

Last modified: 16 May 2014

Male Montagu's harrier in flight

Male Montagu's harrier

Image: Graham Catley

Farmers and birdwatchers are being urged to keep a lookout for Montagu’s harriers – the rarest breeding bird of prey in the UK, which nests almost entirely on arable farmland.

Just six pairs of Montagu’s harriers bred in 2013 and it is essential that the small number of breeding attempts made this year are identified and protected from accidental damage or disturbance to help these graceful birds establish themselves in the UK.

Montagu’s harriers spend the winter in Africa and return to Europe in the spring to nest. On their journey, they face harsh weather, an increasing area of desert and the threat of illegal hunting in places such as Malta, where many birds of prey and other birds are illegally shot.

Illegal hunting

Chris Packham, broadcaster and RSPB Vice President said: "Montagu's harriers are much-loved birds of prey facing many threats on their travels to and from Africa. Only last month on Malta, I was trying to prevent Maltese hunters from illegally shooting a group of these birds as they headed for their breeding grounds.” 

Those fortunate enough to complete their journey back to the UK generally nest in lowland crops, particularly winter cereals, oilseed rape and grass silage. The core population usually returns to the same nesting areas each year and the RSPB has been working successfully with these landowners for over 30 years. However, it is vitally important that any new or unknown nests are located.

Chris continued “Now the birds are back on their nesting sites they face new threats, as those nesting in cereal crops can have their nests destroyed accidentally by farming operations or other disturbance. Many farmers are doing great things for wildlife and I'm delighted there is so much effort being put in to save these birds. I'd urge anyone with these birds on their land to get in touch with the RSPB so the handful of pairs attempting to nest in the UK can enjoy a more secure future."

To help locate these nesting sites, the RSPB has again opened its dedicated hotline where possible sightings of these birds of prey can be reported.

Mark Thomas, who leads on the RSPB’s Montagu’s harrier conservation work, said: “Having survived the journey back to the UK, it is vitally important we identify as many nest sites as possible. We can then offer free advice to the landowner on how best to protect these sites and give these birds a home to rear their young.”

Farmers and birdwatchers can really help

“Farmers and birdwatchers can really help with the conservation of this threatened species. Now is a great time to witness the adults’ airborne courtship before they establish their nests and become more difficult to see. If you are fortunate enough to see these magnificent rare birds then please contact the hotline to let us know.”

“Last year, reports to the hotline helped us confirm their presence at some of the traditional nest sites. Hopefully, this year we will discover some new nest sites and help these birds firmly establish themselves as a breeding species in the UK.”

Male and female Montagu’s harriers differ in appearance. The males are plain grey, with black wingtips and a white underside. The females are mottled brown with a white rump. They are approximately the size of a buzzard, but have a more slender and graceful appearance.

Any possible sightings of Montagu’s harrier can be reported to the hotline on 01767 693398 or emailed to wildlife@rspb.org.uk. Details should include the date and six digit grid reference if possible and a contact telephone number. All reports to the hotline will be treated in the strictest of confidence.

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