As the breeding season draws to a close, we take some time to reflect on the breeding success of hen harriers in England in 2018.
Hen harrier numbers have been declining steadily in England over the past few decades. It is well known from independent research that the main reason for this decline is illegal killing of these birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England.
Last year, hen harriers were very close to extinction as a breeding bird in England, with just three successful nests fledging 10 chicks in 2017, all in Northumberland. We were hopeful that this population would be bolstered when the birds we tagged in the Scottish borders, Marc and Manu, flew south into Durham and Northumberland respectively. However, this optimism was short lived and we were devastated to find that these birds suspiciously disappeared over grouse moors just months after fledging.
This year, we've had a similar number of birds in Northumberland with three successful nests and 11 chicks fledging. This is the fourth consecutive year that hen harriers have successfully nested in the north east, so our national nature reserves are becoming a real stronghold for them.
Fortunately this isn’t the end of the story - we were overjoyed to find that we also had nesting attempts elsewhere in England, with three successful nests on United Utilities land managed for grouse shooting in the Forest of Bowland and one successful nest in the Peak District on land managed for grouse shooting and owned by the National Trust. This is fantastic news and shows what can be achieved when grouse moors are managed sustainably and legally. Through partnership working with the estate staff, gamekeepers and local raptor workers, we were able to monitor and protect these nests too. I feel really proud that our team played a direct role in the protection of seven of the nine successful nests in England.
Natural England also reported today that we had two additional successful nests in England: one on a hill farm and another one on a National Nature Reserve. This gives us a total of nine successful nests out of 14 attempts, fledging 34 chicks. Unfortunately, we did have five attempts that failed.
Table showing successful breeding attempts in England in 2018.
Number of chicks
However, whilst it’s great to see a small increase in numbers, we must continue with our conservation efforts as we're still a long way from where we should be, with the government’s own study showing we have enough habitat for 300 nests in England. So where are our missing hen harriers?
During a long summer of 24-hour nest protection and monitoring birds in all weathers, our Hen Harrier LIFE project team have worked hard to put satellite tags on hen harrier chicks from these English nests and we’ll be watching their progress very closely.
With a survival probability of just 20% within their first two years, we wait anxiously to follow the fates of our young chicks as they make their way into the world. We also hope to understand what proportion of the birds are lost to natural causes, and what proportion to illegal persecution.
If only we could have more estate owners like United Utilities and the National Trust, and their shooting tenants, who see the value of having hen harriers on their land. By allowing the birds to live sustainably alongside working grouse moors, these youngsters would have a much more assured future, allowing everyone the opportunity to see them in their moorlands. Imagine the joy of seeing skydancing hen harriers every spring across moorlands in the north of England – what a fantastic sight!
Sadly for now, it’s clear that illegal persecution is continuing. This is why we are calling for licencing of driven grouse shooting and the introduction of vicarious liability into England and Wales, to drive up standards in the industry and ensure those responsible for breaking the law are held to account.
If you’d like to do your bit to help our hen harriers, you should read our ‘Six ways to help hen harriers’ blog and help us secure their future, so that numbers can continue to increase in England and one day we might all have the chance to see a hen harrier. We can all play a role in protecting our hen harriers for future generations.