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Welsh hen harriers hold their own against a significant decline across the UK

Last modified: 02 March 2011

Female hen harrier flying low over heather

The newly released results of the 2010 hen harrier survey has revealed a substantial increase in the Welsh hen harriers population within the last six years, rising from 43 pairs in 2004 to 57 last year.

This is in stark contrast to the fortunes of this spectacular bird of prey across the rest of the UK. Scotland has the vast majority of the UK hen harrier population, with almost 500 pairs. But here the decline has been dramatic, falling over 21 per cent from an estimated 633 pairs in 2004. The survey recorded little change in England as the population rose from 11 pairs in 2004 to 12 last year. Estimates suggest there is potential for at least 323 pairs of hen harrier in England, so a dozen pairs represents less than four per cent of the potential, with illegal persecution being blamed for this huge difference. The hen harrier remains on the verge of extinction as a breeding species in England.

In Northern Ireland, the hen harrier population has declined slightly, from an estimated 63 pairs in 2004 to an estimated 59 pairs in 2010. The Isle of Man population of hen harriers was found to have halved during the recent survey and reasons for this are unclear.

The hen harrier is a bird of open country, confined to undulating heather-dominated moorland during the breeding season.  It is here, on upland moors in North and mid Wales that numbers have increased significantly.

Dr Sean Christian, RSPB Cymru’s Head of Conservation said: “As we celebrate our centenary year, it is encouraging to see the steady, long-term recovery of these birds in Wales; they are so much a part of our natural heritage. This is what we have been working towards for the past 100 years and will continue to do so into the future; ensuring Wales’ wildlife is protected and valued.
“Last year over 210,000 people signed up to our bird of prey campaign across the UK with over 14,000 of those people in Wales, demanding an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey. With such a strong voice demanding change, we are thankful that, in Wales, most landowners and members of the community respect the law.

“We hope that every opportunity is pursued in all countries in the UK to ensure the protection of birds of prey becomes second nature like in Wales. For example, in Scotland, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill, which is currently being debated, provides a great opportunity to take new steps to try and help save Scottish hen harriers.”

Dr Sian Whitehead, Countryside Council for Wales’s Senior Ornithologist said "I am encouraged by the ongoing recovery of the Welsh hen harrier population, but we must not become complacent. Declines in the breeding population during the 1980s and early 1990s could be attributed, in part, to persecution, and it is encouraging that the situation has now changed. We must continue to ensure that the Welsh hen harrier is adequately protected, and the habitat for them managed appropriately, so that this iconic species of the Welsh uplands can continue to thrive."
CCW provided resources to the survey to ensure the Welsh population of hen harriers was adequately surveyed. However, much of the fieldwork was undertaken by volunteers from the Wales Raptor Study Group, and individual ornithologists concerned with the conservation of these magnificent birds.

Kelvin Jones of the Wales Raptor Study Group said: “Each year a dedicated group of field ornithologists voluntarily devote their time to studying birds of prey providing much needed information on their populations and changes to their habitats. We are fortunate in Wales that in areas where harriers are found, most farmers and landowners manage their land with wildlife in mind and there is little recorded persecution of harriers. We hope it remains this way, allowing us to continue this vital work.”

The 2010 hen harrier survey was funded by the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales.  Additional support was provided by Northern Ireland Environment Agency and many members of bird of prey study groups.

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