It’s the question to which everyone wants the answer – how many hen harriers bred in England this year?
Answer: three successful nests, from a total of seven attempts, producing 10 fledged young.
Today, the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership* have announced that five of this year’s nests, including the three successes, were under their watch, with four of these occurring on land managed by the Forestry Commission. This is the third year in a row that hen harriers have bred successfully at this site, after eight fledged from two nests in 2015, and six from two nests in 2016, clearly marking Northumberland out as the new stronghold for hen harriers in England.
One of this year's hen harrier nests in Northumberland (Image: RSPB)
Representing the Partnership, Andrew Miller of the National Park said, “Hen harriers are still facing an uphill battle to re-establish themselves in the uplands of England. However with the positive support of all our partners including key landowners, ten young birds have successfully fledged. Working together and using the latest scientific techniques is also increasing our knowledge of this amazing species. We will continue to monitor our birds throughout the year and hope that this year’s youngsters will stay safe and be as successful as last year’s Finn”
This nesting success comes as a desperately needed lifeline for a breeding population currently hanging by a thread in England. The country’s former stronghold for hen harriers, the Forest of Bowland (a Special Protection Area (SPA) designated for 13 breeding pairs of these threatened birds, and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which has the hen harrier as its logo), hasn’t had a successful nest since 2015.
Last year, the only other SPA designated for breeding hen harriers in England, the North Pennine Moors (designated for 11 pairs), experienced its first breeding success in a full decade after one chick fledged from a nest on the RSPB Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria. Sadly, the success wasn’t repeated this year - despite an abundance of food and habitat, the birds simply weren’t around.
Bonny, the sole hen harrier chick to fledge from our Geltsdale reserve in the North Pennine Moors SPA in 2016 (Image: Mark Thomas)
There were, however, two nesting attempts in the North Pennines just outside the SPA this year, both in the Cumbrian part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Unfortunately, despite sensitive monitoring and protection by National Park Authority staff and volunteers and Natural England with full support from the landowners, neither was successful. One of the attempts was in a gap in a forest plantation, while the other was in a thick rush bed, both on private land, adjacent to a managed grouse moor. In a polygamous set-up with one adult male attending to two females (one adult, one immature), both nests are believed to have failed naturally – one in the very early stages of the attempt and the other due to suspected fox predation while still on eggs.
David Butterworth, CEO Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority said, “Given it had been ten years since Hen Harriers nested in the National Park, the presence of these birds was extremely welcome. It was, therefore, incredibly disappointing that the nesting attempts failed, despite the best efforts of all involved.
“The Authority is fully aware of all the issues surrounding Hen Harriers in the uplands, so it was really encouraging that the birds’ presence was welcomed by all stakeholders. We would like to thank them all for their cooperation during the nesting period. We hope that the enlightened attitude towards the presence of these birds is the start of a more positive outlook for this species, which will lead to the Hen Harrier returning as a regular breeding species within the Yorkshire Dales National Park”.
Male hen harrier in flight (Image: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
Of the two failed Northumberland nests, one was also thought to be due to fox predation, while the other was lost to extensive, heavy rainfall when the chicks were at a very vulnerable stage. Natural losses such as these are of course disappointing, but far more concerning this year has been the near total absence of hen harriers from vast swathes of potentially suitable habitat elsewhere in the country.
A lone male skydanced to empty skies over United Utilities’ estate in Bowland for six weeks this summer, with never a female in sight, despite an apparent abundance of food including good numbers of voles. Meanwhile, although short-eared owls enjoyed record breeding success on our Geltsdale reserve following a boom in vole numbers, hen harriers were nowhere to be seen. And sporadic reports of individual birds were all that was to be had from what should be prime hen harrier areas, such as the wider North Pennines, North York Moors, and the Peak District.
This puts the 2017 total number of hen harrier nests in England on a par with last year’s three successful nests from four breeding pairs, making it the second year in a row where the hen harrier breeding population in England is no more than 1-2% of the recognised potential (>300 pairs).
Clearly as we’ve seen this year, natural factors such as predation and weather events play a part, however a healthy population should be able to withstand such fluctuations. What is utterly unacceptable is the ongoing illegal killing and disturbance of this protected bird of prey, primarily associated with intensive moorland management for driven grouse shooting.
In the last 12 months alone, two hen harriers have been confirmed shot in northern England. First a female hen harrier named Rowan, satellite tagged by Natural England in 2016, was found shot dead in Cumbria last October. Then, in January, an RSPB sat-tagged female, Carroll, was found dead in Northumberland. The post-mortem showed she was in very poor condition and had been suffering from an infectious disease. Disturbingly however, it also revealed two shotgun pellets lodged in her body, indicating she had survived being shot at some earlier point in her life. Of course, if these birds had not been satellite tagged, it’s entirely possible that neither of these crimes would have ever come to light.
Radiograph of Carroll, showing two shotgun pellets (Image: Zoological Society of London)
Clearly something needs to change, which is why the RSPB is asking for stronger controls, including the introduction of a licensing system to stop the wildlife crime and other damaging practices linked to grouse shooting in its most intensive ‘driven’ form. We think a fair set of rules could also help put grouse shooting on a sustainable footing, whilst introducing more effective means to deter criminal activity, including in the most serious cases, the removal of their licence to operate.
It is good that the overall number of nesting attempts has increased slightly this year, but whichever way you look at it – three successes, or seven attempts – it is nowhere near good enough.
This weekend, I’ll be joining hundreds of people attending Hen Harrier Day events across the UK, to say “Hands off our Hen Harriers! “ and calling for safe return of these spectacular skydancers to our moors. I’ll be speaking alongside Natalie Bennett, Mark Avery, and Iolo Williams at the event in Sheffield on Saturday 5 August but there are plenty of others across both Saturday and Sunday for you to choose from, all organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime.
Simply visit henharrierday.org to find out more. See you there!
* The Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership includes the Northumberland National Park Authority, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumbria Police, and Northern England Raptor Forum.
For more information on what the RSPB is doing to secure a future for hen harriers in England and beyond, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife and follow us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer.
Sorry Blanaid, but as we have previously discussed, the RSPB must accept some responsibility for this result. Far too much time and patience has been shown by the RSPB towards the law-breakers, who simply take advantage of the weak position of the RSPB on this issue. I appreciate many people at the RSPB are trying hard and doing the right things, but quite simply the law-breakers are laughing at the stance of the RSPB and many of your members are getting increasingly frustrated.It really is time for concerted, determined, effective action to protect these glorious birds.