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Perilously close to being lost

Last modified: 02 November 2009

Female hen harrier flying low

A harsh winter and a possible shortage of prey in spring meant some pairs failed to breed, while those that did had fewer chicks.

While there is no evidence of illegal killing or nest destruction associated with this year’s breeding failures, it is illegal persecution that has led to today’s critically low breeding numbers and patchy distribution.

As a result, hen harriers are even more vulnerable to chance natural events.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “We always feared that with hen harrier numbers kept so low, the English population was extremely vulnerable to a bad year like this.

"There can be no place in England's future for the illegal killing of birds of prey. Land owners and other shooting groups need to show real commitment and start working with Natural England, RSPB and BASC to implement legal solutions such as diversionary feeding.”

In contrast to the dismal breeding success in the uplands of northern England, one ray of hope for the hen harrier came with the news that for the first time ever a pair was found nesting in a cereal field in southern England.

The hen harrier was once found throughout the English lowlands and is not, as its current range might suggest, a bird solely of mountains and remote moorland.

Although there have been two other nesting attempts in southern England in recent years, this was the first time a crop-nesting pair has been recorded. With help from the farmer, a committed group of volunteers from local bird clubs ensured the birds’ behaviour was carefully monitored and they were able to successfully rear a chick.

Dr Tom Tew, Chief Scientist for Natural England, said: “This isolated nesting site in southern England is a massive leap from the hen harrier’s recent restricted distribution. Single birds occasionally loiter around suitable habitat in the early spring but rarely attract a mate, as hen harriers have a strong natural tendency to return to the upland areas where they were reared.

“Although this was just one pair, which may or may not return next year, their success hints at the potential for the hen harrier to be re-established in southern England, however this would not mean giving up on hen harriers in the uplands."

John Swift, Chief Executive of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said: “A bad winter has left the hen harrier population even more vulnerable than before – this means that everybody must concentrate on doing what they can to ensure that the moorland habitat continues to be well managed and that persecution is confined to history.

“It is imperative that we find a solution to the conflict between grouse shooting and birds of prey and those who manage grouse moors must continue to be vigilant against persecution of harriers.

Click the link on this page to sign our pledge and your name to our call for an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey.

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Birds of prey continue to be mercilessly killed, despite the fact that it is illegal and has been for decades. Please add your name to our online pledge and say 'the killing must stop'.

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