Birds of prey in Bowland

Thirty years ago, the RSPB began working in the Forest of Bowland, with the then North West Water Authority (now United Utilities) to monitor and protect England's most important hen harrier population.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, female in flight against blue sky, Geltsdale, Cumbria


Following near-extinction as a UK breeding bird, the hen harrier population was slowly recovering, but was still suffering from human persecution on its moorland habitat. The North West Water estate in Bowland had become a refuge and a stronghold for this species.
The hen harrier population has fluctuated across Bowland since the 1980s, but has now settled and become relatively stable with 11 nesting attempts in 2010. All of these except one are on the UU estate. This remains the single most important location for breeding hen harriers in England.
The rest of the English population remains perilously low, still held in check by illegal persecution. In 2010, there was only one nesting attempt across the whole of England outside of Bowland.
The recently published Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) report, A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the UK (Fielding et al, 2011) identifies suitable habitat in England for more than 320 pairs.
Through work with partners such as United Utilities, Natural England, dedicated volunteer raptor fieldworkers and the police, the RSPB has ensured at least some of the moorland in Bowland continues to support this iconic species. This work will continue to be a focus for our conservation work in northern England.
As well as monitoring the hen harriers on the UU estate, we monitor peregrines, merlins and other key upland species such as short-eared owls, whinchats and ring ouzels.


  • Monitor and protect priority birds in the uplands
  • Secure favourable land management in the uplands for priority habitats and species by working with key partners
  • Demonstrate how our uplands can provide a range of services such as improved water quality, flood alleviation and that blanket bog restoration can have a beneficial effect in the face of climate change

Planned Work

We need the successes achieved in Bowland to be replicated elsewhere. Hen harriers still struggle on moorland elsewhere in Bowland and across northern England.
Illegal persecution on upland grouse moors remains the most important threat to hen harriers. This intolerance must be stamped out. The RSPB is working with shooting interests to try to identify a way forward.
The RSPB contributes financially to the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, which is carrying out research into hen harriers and grouse moor management, and to the Environment Council hen harrier dialogue process.
We will continue working with government, partners and landowners to create a safer environment for birds of prey. We want to see upland land management delivered which benefits all of us.We will continue to work with communities to show them how important our birds of prey are.
In Bowland, an additional pressure on hen harriers could arise from the presence of breeding eagle owls. These birds are believed to have established from escaped or released birds. This species is not thought to have occurred naturally in the UK for over 9,000 years. In Europe they are known to be intolerant of other birds of prey, which they will predate. There is already evidence of eagle owls predating hen harriers in Bowland.
We believe the government should fully investigate this issue and assess the likely impact, given the significance of the Bowland hen harrier population.


Our relationship with United Utilities over the last 30 years has enabled us to jointly develop a new approach to upland management – the Sustainable Catchment Management Programme, or SCaMP.
With significant investment from UU and agri-environment scheme funding from Natural England, SCaMP in Bowland had delivered 70 square kilometres of improved moorland and blanket bog management along with new areas of upland native woodland and wetland management. Thirty miles (48km) of upland ditches have been blocked. Tenant farmers who have been supportive and involved in the decision making are benefitting from investment in farm buildings and new fences.
We have run events to show people how great birds of prey are. Through the annual Bowland Festival, run jointly with the Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we run hen harrier safaris, where people have been able to enjoy the spectacle of seeing a hen harrier.
Elsewhere in northern England, we have done similar work with peregrines in Manchester and at Malham Tarn, with golden eagles and ospreys in the Lake District and red kites in the north-east.
The SCaMP project is seen as so groundbreaking that UU have extended it to other parts of their northern England estate. Other water companies have even developed similar initiatives.
We see this integrated approach as being the key to the future management of our uplands - providing multiple benefits and where upland wildlife, including birds of prey are able to thrive. We are adopting a similar approach at Geltsdale, in the northern Pennines.


  • Part-funded by United Utilities
  • Heritage Lottery Fund funding for community/people engagement work
  • Bowland AONB funding for education work


Coast on a stormy day

James Bray

Bowland Project Officer
Tagged with: Country: England Habitat: Upland Species: Hen harrier Project status: Ongoing Project types: Advocacy Project types: Education Project types: Site protection Project types: Species protection