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National survey reveals worrying decline for the hen harrier

Last modified: 02 March 2011

Female hen harrier flying low over heather

The Scottish hen harrier population has declined by over 22% since 2004

A nation-wide survey of the UK’s hen harrier population, conducted in 2010 by RSPB, Government nature conservation agencies, and the Raptor Study Groups, has revealed a worrying 20 per cent decline in the bird’s UK and Isle of Man population in just 6 years.

In Scotland, where most of the UK’s hen harrier population is found, the population has declined by 22.7% to an estimated 489 pairs, down from the 633 pairs estimated in 2004. In England, the hen harrier remains extremely close to extinction, with just 12 pairs located last year.

As a threatened bird of prey, the hen harrier is subject to special conservation measures under European Union and domestic conservation legislation. However, the species is still killed routinely and illegally by game managers on “driven” grouse moors (see notes) covering significant areas of the uplands in Scotland and northern England.

The recent survey emphasises the crucial importance of “The Hen Harrier Conservation Framework Review” – (“The Hen Harrier Framework”), published last month by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. This report concluded that illegal killing of hen harriers was the biggest factor affecting the status of the species, and was having a significant impact on the overall hen harrier population.  Particular problems were identified on areas associated with “driven” grouse moor management, notably in the central and eastern Highlands and the Southern Uplands of Scotland, as well as the Pennines in the north of England.  Indeed, by 2008 only 5 breeding pairs of hen harriers fledged young on driven grouse moors anywhere in the UK, despite such areas having sufficient suitable habitat and good food supplies to support 500 pairs.

In Scotland, the Wildlife and Natural Environment (WANE) Bill passing through the Scottish Parliament includes new steps by the Scottish Government to help tackle wildlife crime. These include a measure of “vicarious liability”, which would make landowners criminally responsible for the actions of their employees, if measures to ensure compliance with wildlife protection laws are not in place.  The results of this survey and the Hen Harrier Framework suggest much more may need to be done to tackle the decline of hen harriers, particularly in areas managed as “driven” grouse moors.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland said “The survey results confirm the findings of the Hen Harrier Framework, and reveal the true impact of the systematic and illegal persecution of hen harriers in the uplands, particularly in areas associated with driven grouse moor management. This survey should be a wake up call to the grouse shooting industry that urgent action is required on the ground to put their house in order. The illegal killing of these specially protected species, cannot be an acceptable part of legitimate modern day sporting practices. More landowners must adopt measures that improve habitats;  diversionary feeding of hen harriers to encourage grouse bags; and  employ legal predator control, not to resort to killing protected raptor species. Proposed amendments to the WANE Bill, which are designed to remove sporting rights from landowners as a last resort, and where there is a history of illegal activity, may assist”.       

Professor Des Thompson, SNH’s principal advisor on biodiversity said “This important piece of research provides more evidence on the decline of this magnificent bird. We would like to pay tribute to the hundreds of hours of work by many volunteers, which went into it. This new work will feed into a huge effort that is clearly needed to conserve this bird and to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and red grouse management. The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project; the Natural England-led Environment Council harrier project; and various activities under the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) have to work if we are to arrest the problem”.

Patrick Stirling-Aird, Secretary of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups said “    "The findings of the 2010 national hen harrier survey reveal the unduly low populations of this fine raptor in much of the country, even in areas that comprise its prime habitat.  It is not natural factors that are holding hen harrier numbers at such meagre levels.  Instead, the survey results demonstrate once again that it is criminal persecution of hen harriers in the supposed interests of red grouse shooting that is the main cause of the species' dire conservation status.  These results give added credence to a recently published report by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee which made the same point."

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