Hen harriers have best breeding season in over a decade

Friday 13 August 2021

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult male perched in flight with twig, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve

The RSPB has today [Friday 13 August] welcomed the news from Natural England that hen harriers have had their most successful breeding year in England in over a decade, with 84 young fledged from 31 nesting attempts. This success is reflected on sites where RSPB are involved in nest protection and monitoring.  

In Bowland, Lancashire, where the RSPB works closely with landowners United Utilities, all nests were successful with a record of 31 young harriers fledged. And on the RSPB’s nature reserve at Geltsdale four young harriers fledged, the first since 2016. This was despite the disappearance of two male hen harriers, in suspicious circumstances, which was the subject of a police investigation. [Note 1] 

Jim Wardill, the RSPB's operations director for the north of England said, “We are delighted to say that hen harriers have had a very good year across the board in England and particularly in locations where the RSPB is involved in site protection and monitoring. This has been very much a team effort, from the volunteers and staff monitoring the nests, to our work with partners such as raptor groups and United Utilities who have been wonderfully supportive throughout.” 

The RSPB is hoping that this year’s figures represent a positive turning point for both hen harrier and the future of our uplands. Historical declines of hen harrier have been driven by widespread persecution, often linked to intensive management of land for driven grouse shooting. The Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners, recently restated its “zero tolerance towards raptor persecution and wildlife crime”. And the newly formed Aim to Sustain Partnership of nine UK wide shooting organisations is looking to develop and promote sustainable shooting with a key aim to “conserve and improve the environment” and “comply with the law”. 

The RSPB says that 31 nests, of which 24 were successful, this year represent a tentative first step on the path towards a recovering population in England. A Joint Nature Conservation Committee report published in 2015 shows that the full potential for hen harriers on English uplands is 323-340 pairs.

Mr Wardill continued; “We know how important the management of our uplands is for the recovery of these birds and hope that this year’s success signals that attitudes are changing towards issues such as persecution. We are in a nature and climate emergency. Whether the land is managed for water supply, farming, forestry or shooting, we need everyone to work together to build on this success and restore England’s population to the known potential of more than 300 nests.” 

The RSPB works closely with the police on hen harrier protection and acknowledges the vital role of they play in their conservation and their improved success this year. 

Inspector Matt Hagen of North Yorkshire Police, and Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) said, “As Chair of the RPPDG I am in the privileged position of seeing the number of hen harrier successes as they unfold throughout the breeding season. I understand the nests monitored by the RSPB in Bowland have had a good number of successful nests this year, again with a good number of them being fitted with satellite tags.  

“However, it is not the number of successful fledged birds that we should be celebrating, it’s whether they survive and successfully breed themselves. There will always be a number that don’t, due to the weather, availability of food, disease and natural predation, but unfortunately persecution by humans is still going on. At this current time I am aware of a number of gamekeepers on driven grouse moors who are under investigation, being suspected of killing hen harriers. 

“Raptor persecution is still a National Wildlife Crime Priority. If anyone has any information in relation to this type of crime please contact your local police force to report it using an online system or by ringing 101. If a crime is happening ‘now’ please ring 999. We take raptor persecution very seriously and work tirelessly to investigate these crimes.” 

In the Forest of Bowland, since early spring, the RSPB’s staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities and their shooting and farming tenants have protected and nests on the estate, through close monitoring, habitat management, and careful avoidance of disturbance.  

However, hen harriers are known to travel widely, and concern remains for the birds once they leave the estate. Prior to fledging, a number of this year’s chicks were fitted with satellite tags. This will allow RSPB conservation staff to continue to monitor the progress of the birds once they have left Bowland and has proven vital in the fight against persecution.  

United Utilities catchment partnership officer Pete Wilson said: “It’s been a wonderful year for hen harriers at Bowland and it’s all due to years of careful management and the sheer hard work of volunteers, organisations and the local community, not least our farming and shooting tenants, working together. It has made our Bowland estate an environment suitable for hen harriers in particular, but also for the many other species of birds that make this area their home.” 

At the RSPB’s Geltsdale Nature reserve staff and volunteers have been similarly protecting and monitoring hen harriers. To help ensure the vulnerable chicks reach adulthood, a method called diversionary feeding is being used; where fresh food is supplied near to the nest. This conservation technique helps ensure that the chicks are well fed through bad weather and helps protects the grouse breeding on neighbouring estates. 

Hen harriers are one of 24 red-listed bird species to breed at RSPB Geltsdale; joining the reserve’s impressive breeding list of threatened upland species, including black grouse, curlew, snipe, redshank, ring ouzel and merlin. 

Last Updated: Friday 13 August 2021

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