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2020 looks set to be a successful year for Hen Harriers

Image: Rob Zweers

Hen Harriers are beautiful birds and prized above all other birds of prey; all other species for that matter. The male is a stunning light grey in colour, and they hold their wings in a distinctive V-shape as they glide along, hunting low to the ground.   

The Hen Harrier is often given the unfortunate tagline of being “one of the UK’s most persecuted birds”. Its name might explain why; the bird’s infamous habit of predating on fowl – including grouse – made it a target for people trying to protect other birds from predation. In the 1900s it was lost as a breeding species from the British mainland, with the only surviving population in the Orkneys. In recent years, the birds have seen some recovery, with numbers in England steadily increasing. 

Everyone is trying to help the hen harrier. A five-year brood management trial is being carried out, which is designed to determine the extent to which Hen Harrier populations have an impact on grouse numbers. It involves removing Hen Harrier eggs or chicks, rearing them in captivity before releasing them back into the wild. This is just one of six actions which form Defra’s Hen Harrier recovery plan, which also includes monitoring of populations, diversionary feeding, and protecting both their nests and winter roosting areas. And recent statistics show that the tactics are working. 

Moorland estates across the north of England indicate that this could be a boom year for the birds. In Lancashire six nests have been reported; four in Cumbria, and two in Yorkshire. These nests are all on land managed for grouse shooting – areas which have typically been blamed for persecuting Hen Harriers, and as such, for their demise. 

In 2012, 617 pairs were recorded  – a 20 per cent fall since 2004. But 2019 was a record-breaking year for Hen Harrier breeding, with 47 chicks fledging from 12 nests – the majority of which were on grouse moors. It looks like 2020 could be another successful year. 

Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, said: 

“This is very encouraging news and further evidence that birds of prey are welcome on land managed for grouse shooting by our members. We obviously have to wait to see how many of the chicks fledge successfully, but the signs are promising that 2020 will be another good year for hen harrier breeding. 

"It is heartening to see the bird doing better in the north of England with the help of gamekeepers protecting it from predators and encouraging a healthy habitat teaming with prey species.”


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