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

Hen harrier

Hen harriers continue to decline in areas dominated by heather moorland that is managed for driven grouse shooting.

Hen harriers in the UK

Renowned for its spectacular skydancing displays during the mating season, the hen harrier is one of the UK’s most threatened birds of prey. The RSPB is working hard to secure a sustainable future for these agile hunters across their range.

RSPB nature reserves give a home to more than one in ten of the UK’s hen harriers, even though moorland managed by RSPB accounts for just under one per cent of the UK’s total. We now need others to do the same.

Species status 

  • Phase of recovery: Declining 
  • Red list Bird of Conservation Concern

What is the problem?

As a ground-nesting bird of open scrubby habitats, hen harriers nest almost exclusively on upland heather moorland in the UK. In winter, they usually migrate to lowland and coastal areas, although some hardy individuals remain in the uplands throughout the winter.

Though their diet mainly consists of voles and small birds such as meadow pipits, hen harriers can also predate red grouse, which are highly valued as a game bird.

With the rise of intensive grouse shooting in the Victorian era, increased persecution and habitat loss sent the hen harrier population into decline. Breeding hen harriers disappeared from mainland Britain by 1900, but remained in Orkney and the Western Isles.

Reduced persecution during the Second World War and legal protection allowed numbers to increase and they returned to breed in the uplands of eastern Scotland in 1939, reaching northern England and Wales by the late 1950s and colonising the Isle of Man in the 1970s. However hen harrier numbers have remained well below what the available habitat suggests there should be.

Numbers in decline again

In recent decades, hen harriers have begun declining once more in several areas, a trend which is evident in northern England, and south and east Scotland. These are areas where moorland is managed intensively to produce high numbers of red grouse for driven grouse shooting, where grouse are flushed in ‘drives’ towards a line of guns.

Research shows that illegal killing and disturbance associated principally with intensive management for red grouse is a key factor preventing hen harrier recovery, despite full legal protection. If this continues, hen harriers could again disappear as a breeding bird in the uplands of these areas.

According to an independent government report, there’s enough suitable habitat for more than 300 pairs of hen harriers in England but there were no successful breeding attempts in 2013 and only three in 2016. The same report indicates the Scottish hen harrier population could be more than 1,500 pairs but only 460 were recorded in the 2016 national survey. 

Hen harrier, juvenile with satellite tag, being held by RSPB staff member, Geltsdale, Cumbria, August 2016

Conservation efforts

The RSPB’s dedication to improving the fortunes of the hen harrier go beyond providing a home for them on our reserves. 

Our work to secure a future for hen harriers includes dedicated projects and partnerships which have helped to improve understanding of the threats these birds face and improve their protection: 

  • Hen Harrier LIFE Project (2014-2019)
    An exciting and comprehensive cross-border programme of conservation for hen harriers, this part-European funded project combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising. It also involves working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern and eastern Scotland. Find out more and follow the progress of our satellite tagged hen harriers.

  • Skydancer Project (2011-2015)
    An award-winning Heritage Lottery Funded project which worked to raise awareness and promote the conservation of hen harriers, while monitoring and protecting nests across northern England. Find out more about Skydancer.

  • Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (2007-2017)
    A partnership project between Buccleuch Estates, Scottish Natural Heritage, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the RSPB and Natural England. This project aimed to demonstrate how to restore grouse moor management to the Langholm Moor SPA/SSSI while maintaining sustainable populations of hen harriers and other birds of prey, through careful monitoring, nest protection, habitat restoration, predator control, and diversionary feeding. Read more about the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project
Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, female in flight against blue sky, Geltsdale, Cumbria

A call to action

Recent years have seen a groundswell of grassroots campaign action for hen harrier conservation, led by groups such as Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) and high profile individuals such as Chris Packham.

Hen Harrier Day, which started in 2014, has become an annual awareness-raising event on the Saturday before the official start of the grouse shooting season on 12 of August.

In 2016, 11 events calling for the protection and restoration of hen harrier populations were held across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Several of these were hosted on RSPB reserves and also supported by organisations including the National Trust, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Scottish Ornithological Society, Northern England Raptor Forum, and Scottish Raptor Study Groups, among others.

Keep an eye on the Hen Harrier Day webpage for details of future events.