This most hard pressed of raptors saw glimmers of hope in 2015, with an increase from three breeding pairs to six in England. While numbers remain low, public awareness of the plight of this bird of prey has increased and its welfare is now in the spotlight. Here, we answer some commonly asked questions about this impressive raptor.
1. What is a hen harrier?
It is a bird of prey that typically nests in mixed heather and grass moorlands. It hunts birds and small mammals by flying slowly and silently just above the vegetation hoping to surprise its prey.
2. What does it look like?
Males are a striking pale grey while females are brown but with a distinctive white band on the tail leading to their nickname of ‘ringtails’. The bird is slightly smaller than the more familiar buzzard.
3, Where does it live?
Most British hen harriers can be found in open moorland though individual birds can range widely and often head to coastal wetlands and estuaries in winter where there is more food available during the colder months.
4. Why is it called a skydancer?
This name comes from the birds’ courtship flight where a male and female swoop, roll and glide in elegant patterns around each other as a preface to forming a bond at the start of the breeding season.
5. How many hen harriers are there in the UK?
The British Trust for Ornithology estimates fewer than 700 pairs in the UK – the species’ strongholds are in Orkney, Shetland, Isle of Man and the north and west of Scotland. There are up to 60 pairs in Wales.
6. Why is this species in the news?
Hen harriers are the rarest resident bird of prey in England with just six pairs recorded nesting in 2015 (up from a low point of 0 in 2013) – having been much more widespread in the past. A report by Natural England in 2008 declared that “very few nesting attempts are successful on grouse moors” and that “there is compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and following the breeding season.” A report by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 2011 came to similar conclusions.
7. What is the evidence that persecution is to blame?
A number of studies (Etheridge et al. 1997; Potts 1998; Sim et al. 2007; Fielding et al.2011; Hayhow et al. 2013) have examined hen harrier breeding densities alongside traditional management of driven grouse moorland and other types of upland management and landscapes. These studies conclude that breeding densities and nesting success of hen harriers are lower in areas with a high proportion of grouse moor than in other areas.
8. Why are hen harriers seen as a problem by many of those managing grouse moors?
Once known for its skill in taking domestic chickens – hence its name – the hen harrier often preys on young grouse – wild game birds that gamekeepers protect and encourage for the sport of driven grouse shooting. The Joint Raptor Studies at the Langholm Estate in Dumfries and Galloway (1992-) http://www.langholmproject.com/ have found that “raptor predation at Langholm reduced autumn grouse abundance by 50%, leading to the cessation of driven grouse shooting”. Driven grouse shooting can be important for rural economies – the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) says that driven grouse shooting “generates £100m for the UK economy, supports 2,500 jobs – and maintains our heather hills”.
9. Are hen harriers protected by law?
The hen harrier is listed on Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and is protected under Schedules 1 and 1A the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means that it is an offence to kill the birds or disturb their nests.
10. How do driven grouse shooting interests respond to allegations of persecution of hen harriers?
The grouse shooting industry acknowledges that some illegal persecution of raptors is carried out by ‘rogue’ gamekeepers. Organisations including the GWCT, The National Gaemkeepers Association (NGA) and British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) have been vocal in condemning illegal persecution. However, advocates for driven grouse shooting also stress that grouse moor management is beneficial to many wild species and that there may be other factors involved in the decline of hen harriers.
11. What other factors can constrain hen harrier numbers?
Hen harriers nest on the ground so their eggs and young are vulnerable to foxes and badgers. Goshawks occasionally kill and eat hen harriers. Loss of habitat – for example when heather moorland is converted to forestry – will also impact on harrier numbers as will poor weather in the breeding season.
12 Can the conflict over hen harriers be resolved?
This year, a new plan has been developed by Defra in conjunction with the RSPB, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation, National Parks UK. Natural England will lead on the plan, working with organisations to:
• Monitor hen harrier numbers in England and the UK via satellite tagging and tracking;
• Encourage the provision of alternative food sources for birds of prey;
• Monitor and protect nests and winter roosts from disturbance and destruction;
• Work with landowners to reintroduce hen harriers to suitable areas in the South of England;
• Scope out feasibility for trialling brood management (this would see young birds removed from nests in areas where harriers have reached agreed densities. The birds would be raised in captivity and released into the wild as adults.