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Sad Plight of the Hen Harrier

There’s something particularly magical about seeing birds of prey in the UK countryside when you’re out walking. Whilst some species like red kites are thriving, things are less good for other native species like the hen harrier, with the chances of catching a glimpse of one getting slimmer by the year. The RSPB has just published its fifth national hen harrier survey which reveals sad news for these amazing aerial gymnasts…

harrier food passingKnown for their enchanting skydancing ritual, the hen harrier is one of the most majestic and graceful birds of prey in the UK. Males attract females by performing aerial gymnastics, flying high into the air, then twisting, turning, somersaulting and diving straight down, pulling up only just before he hits the ground. The longest skydance recorded included more than 100 dives. The gymnastic abilities are also used for passing food from male to female in mid-air, ensuring their nesting site isn’t advertised to predators.

Hen harriers breed primarily on upland heather moorland, while in winter they move to lowland farmland, heath and coastal marshes. The males have mostly grey plumage but are easily identified by their black wing tips. The females look completely different, with puffy brown plumage that helps camouflage them and their nests. They fly with wings held in a shallow V, gliding low in search of food, which mainly consists of meadow pipits and voles. They occasionally take larger prey, such as red grouse, with the moorlands used for grouse shooting being their natural breeding habitat. Sadly, this means the hen harrier is the most intensely persecuted bird of prey and this has brought conservationists into conflict with managers of estates involved in grouse shooting.

The hen harrier population has suffered a decline of 88 pairs (13%) over the past six years with a total UK population in 2016 estimated to be 545 pairs, according to the latest figures. Longer term figures show dramatic decline of 204 pairs (39%) since 2004. 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 (despite there being potential habitat in England to support at least 300 pairs). Scotland continues to be the hen harrier’s stronghold, with 460 pairs, but this is a 9% reduction since 2010. In fact, Orkney and the Hebrides were the only areas of the country to show a slight increase in the number these birds. Population numbers have also declined in Northern Ireland and Wales (where 2016 is the lowest population seen for over a decade).

harrier male flightMartin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, 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 throughout the UK countryside.”

The reasons for the population changes are likely to be a combination of factors that vary from region to region. From previous research, it is known that the main factor limiting the UK hen harrier population is illegal killing of these birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and parts of mainland Scotland. Other pressures such as cold and wet weather conditions over a number of breeding seasons, changes in habitat management and low prey abundance could have all had an impact on numbers throughout the UK. 

harrier female flightMartin Harper added: “The latest figures back up a continued trend that we have seen for more than a decade – hen harrier numbers are on the decline throughout the UK. The illegal killing of this bird of prey is a significant factor behind the diminishing numbers and a large barrier stopping their recovery. Without purposeful action from all, including governments across the UK and the shooting industry, we may see hen harriers once again lost from more parts of the country.” 

For more information about hen harriers and how you can help their plight, visit the RSPB guide at https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/h/henharrier/index.aspx

6 August 2017

Images and illustrations courtesy of RSPB
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