Despite a modest comeback in some areas, the hen harrier remains one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, with longer term figures showing a dramatic decline of 204 pairs (39%) in the last twelve years.
The species has also suffered a decline of 88 pairs across Britain in the past six years,
According to the RSPB survey, there is now an estimated breeding population of just 545 pairs hen harrier in the UK, with the species on the brink of extinction in England as the population fell from 12 pairs in 2010 to just four pairs last year.
Scotland remains a stronghold for the species with 460 pairs recorded in 2016 and around 80 per cent of the UK population.
The hen harrier population had been slowly recovering in Wales since re-colonising in the late 1950s, but the latest figures show that the number of pairs has fallen by more than a third over the past six years, from 57 to 35. This is the lowest population that has been seen in Wales for over a decade.
With 46 pairs, Northern Ireland also experienced a decline in pairs after 59 were recorded in the previous survey.
Habitat loss, weather and illegal killing are thought to have contributed to the decline, leading to a call for action from government to clamp down on illegal shooting from conservation groups.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “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.
He 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.”
In response, Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance, Liam Stokes, said:“It is worth noting that hen harriers benefit from the habitat management and predator control undertaken by gamekeepers, as do more endangered species such as curlew and lapwing.
“However, the Countryside Alliance is not blind to the problem of illegal killing, and joins with the RSPB in condemning all instances of wildlife crime. We support Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan (HHAP) in its entirety, a science-driven, proactive and positive effort to reverse the hen harrier’s decline in England.”
The UK wide survey was carried out from the beginning of April to the end of July last year.
Main image: Hen harrier adult female perched on heather/Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)