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Hen harriers on the decline in Northern Ireland

Last modified: 17 July 2017

Female hen harrier in flight

Hen harriers are on the decline in Northern Ireland, according to a new survey.

Image: Steve Round

Hen harriers - an iconic bird of prey - are on the decline in Northern Ireland, according to a new survey.

There are now 46 breeding pairs left in Northern Ireland – a fall of 22% since 2010, when there were 59 pairs – and the numbers are also declining elsewhere in the UK.

The hen harrier population has suffered a decline of 88 pairs (13%) over the past six years with a total UK population estimated to be 545 pairs, according to the latest figures from the fifth national hen harrier survey.

Known for their majestic skydancing ritual, this graceful bird is one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK. Historically hen harriers were once a much more widespread breeding species before they were driven to extinction in Great Britain during the 19th century. Despite its comeback, the species has remained rare in the UK with a breeding population under 1000 pairs making it vulnerable to the effects of habitat loss, weather and illegal killing.

Claire Barnett, Conservation Team Leader for RSPB NI, said: “The hen harrier is one of our most wonderful birds of prey. To see one soaring through the air before dramatically diving down during its thrilling skydancing display is an iconic sight and one that will always take your breath way. These are sights that we should all be able to enjoy. Unfortunately, we are being robbed of the chance to see these beautiful birds flourish. The reasons for the population changes are likely to be a combination of factors including change in habitat which may affect prey abundance, and opportunity for predators. There are also further risks to the population from persecution and the recent dramatic impact of the wildfires in our uplands.”

Dr Marc Ruddock from the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) said the latest figures were a cause for concern.

 "The Northern Ireland Raptor Study, working in partnership with RSPB NI, would particularly like to thank the extensive number of volunteers who dedicated many hundreds of hours undertaking surveys and achieved complete regional coverage,” he said.
“Despite the high level of survey coverage we are disappointed in the further hen harrier population decline observed since 2010. We are particularly concerned about the low productivity of the population in Northern Ireland which we believe may not be sustainable."

Richard Weyl for Northern Ireland Environment Agency in DAERA said: “The hen harrier is one of the small number of birds which receives the highest level of protection both here and in Europe. We recognise the considerable contribution that the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) and RSPB have made to our understanding of the distribution of Northern Ireland’s breeding hen harriers and changes in their overall population. The recent decline in breeding numbers is of concern and DAERA will seek to build on initiatives which will benefit the hen harrier.”

The survey also revealed that the hen harrier remains on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England as the population fell from 12 pairs in 2010 to just four pairs last year.

Longer term figures highlight the dramatic decline the UK hen harrier population has suffered over the past twelve years. The national survey in 2004 pointed to an estimated 749 pairs, meaning hen harrier numbers have fallen by 204 pairs (39%) in the years following.