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Where are all the harriers?

Last modified: 11 September 2008

Male hen harrier in flight carrying twigs

Image: Andy Hay

Numbers of hen harriers – England’s most threatened bird of prey - are flat lining with no sign of a recovery.

Latest figures from the RSPB and Natural England show the English population bumping along the bottom, with just 10 successful nests from 19 attempts in 2008.

Last year saw 14 successful nests from 23 attempts and since 1994, the number of successful nests in England has never exceeded 15. This is despite estimates that the country’s uplands could support at least 200 breeding pairs.

A huge disappointment

The RSPB’s Director of Conservation, Dr Mark Avery, said: 'There is no natural reason why hen harrier numbers are so low. If there is no illegal killing, as some grouse-shooting interests would have us believe, then where are the missing birds?

'This year’s numbers are a huge disappointment given the good track record of lowland land managers in helping to conserve iconic birds of prey like the red kite.'

'If there is no illegal killing, as some grouse-shooting interests would have us believe, then where are the missing birds?'

The Forest of Bowland in Lancashire remains the hen harriers’ stronghold with 14 of this year’s 19 nesting attempts. Much of the land is managed by United Utilities and their estate saw 10 attempts, seven of which were successful. Surrounding driven grouse moors saw four attempts, one of which was successful.

Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of Natural England, said: 'Results for 2008 show that Bowland continues to be the stronghold for hen harriers in England – a situation achieved through working in partnership with shooting interests, landowners and managers. This pocket of birds is now a snap shot of what should be a national situation.'

A fantastic upland bird

However, Sir Martin warned: 'Small populations of species can be highly vulnerable to chance events and we cannot literally have all our eggs in one basket. If we lose the hen harrier in Bowland, we could lose it in England. We must have a much larger and widespread population of this fantastic upland bird.'

Away from Bowland, there were five breeding attempts in Northern England, two of which were successful. In one, five chicks successfully fledged from a nest in Northumberland, proving a huge draw to people keen to see these fantastic birds.

A breeding attempt in the Peak District failed when, after a period of display, nest building and mating, the female bird was not seen again. A second female then paired with the male bird but sightings of this female also ended abruptly.

This means that, once again, no harriers bred on large areas of ideal habitat managed as grouse moors in the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.

Much to be done

The RSPB has challenged upland landowners to help increase hen harrier numbers to 40 breeding pairs by 2010, with half of those on grouse moors. This year’s results show much remains to be done to achieve even this modest target.

Dr Avery said: 'We want to work with shooting interests to increase hen harrier numbers but moorland owners and managers have to stop pretending illegal killing isn’t happening so we can all work together to stop it.'

Sir Martin said: 'Natural England will continue to work with landowners countrywide to increase the hen harrier’s range. Our monitoring work to tag and track the birds from Bowland will help us understand more about their behaviour as they travel around the country throughout the year.'  

How you can help

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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