Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female perched on heather at Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay

Hen harrier persecution

Hen harriers are one of our rarest birds of prey, yet continue to be heavily persecuted.

Hen Harriers

Hen Harriers are birds of prey that breed in open, upland moors. They nest on the ground, and usually the female sits on the nest to incubate the eggs while the male hunts and returns to the nest with food. He passes food to the female in mid-air, in an amazing acrobatic feat, so as not to give away the nest location to potential predators.

95% of a hen harrier’s diet is made up of small mammals, but they do eat a small proportion of other birds, including song birds such as meadow pipits, shorebirds, waterfowl and grouse. Feeding on grouse brings them into direct conflict with moorland that is being managed for grouse shooting, particularly those with intensive grouse rearing for driven shooting.

Declines in population

In 1800, hen harriers were common and widespread across the UK, but by 1850, when driven grouse shooting became popular, records show hen harriers were routinely shot, and by 1900 they were persecuted practically to extinction as a breeding bird on mainland Britain. From the time of the First World War onwards, the population started to recover naturally, however regular surveys show that since the turn of the millennium, numbers are declining again and ongoing illegal killing and disturbance threatens to drive the birds to the brink of extinction once more. 

In 2013, hen harriers failed to breed successfully in England for the first time in almost half a century and the UK population fell by 18% between 2004 and 2010, and a further 13% between 2010 and 2016 to an estimated 575 pairs in the UK. Scotland remains the stronghold for UK hen harriers with an estimated 460 pairs in 2016, around 80 per cent of the UK population.

Habitat analysis suggests there is availability to sustain around 2,650 pairs in the UK1, so we currently have around 20% of the number of pairs we could support.  Having such a low population size means that any effects of natural pressures such as poor weather and low prey availability, as well as human-induced pressures like habitat loss and illegal persecution, are amplified, affecting a greater proportion of the population and bringing it closer to extinction.

In 2017, there were just three successful hen harrier nests in the whole of England, occupying less than 1% of the potential suitable habitat. A recent report identified that habitat, prey abundance and persecution and were of key importance affecting distribution, abundance and productivity of hen harriers. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds, including hen harriers.  Nevertheless hen harriers are still shot, trapped and poisoned, particularly in areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting.

1. JNCC Report No: 441 A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom Alan Fielding, Paul Haworth, Phil Whitfield, David McLeod and Helen Riley

Red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus, adult male in early morning sun. Cairngorm. Scotland.

Tackling hen harrier persecution

The RSPB is committed to protecting our UK hen harrier population and works alongside landowners, raptor workers, conservation organisations and protected landscapes to provide the conditions for the population to recover. 

Since 2014, the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project has combined on-the-ground protection and monitoring of birds at nest and roost sites, investigations work to uncover the scale of illegal persecution, satellite tagging to investigate the birds movements and identify areas where they are vulnerable so protection measures can be deployed, scientific analyses of habitat usage, dispersal and causes of mortality, policy and advocacy work to ensure the issue remains high on the political agenda and those carrying out illegal activities and wildlife crime are held to account, and community engagement to educate the public and garner public support.

The Scottish Government commissioned research into sustainable management of grouse moors, looking at models used in other European countries to inform legislation and are looking at taking positive action. RSPB staff are helping to provide information, and our investigations, policy and advocacy teams are providing advice to the governments as appropriate.

In February 2018, the RSPB worked alongside North Yorkshire Police, RSPCA, North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks to launch Operation Owl.  In the RSPB’s 2016 Bird Crime report, North Yorkshire was identified as the county with the highest known incidents of raptor persecution for the 5th year in a row.  We are taking action for wildlife by carry out surveillance and working with landowners. Volunteers will be trained to spot poisoned bait and illegal traps.

In April 2018, the RSPB is launching a judicial review against Natural England’s decision to licence their controversial brood management trial in England.

Hen harrier, female at nest of eggs in heather

Hen Harrier LIFE Project

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female in flight, hunting, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay

The Hen Harrier LIFE project is an exciting five year programme of hen harrier conservation across northern England and southern and eastern Scotland.