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Why are Hen Harriers failing to thrive in Ireland, when their numbers are on the rise in England?



This week, the Irish Minister for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan TD, launched a public consultation on their draft plan to address and reverse the key threats and pressures on Hen Harriers in Ireland.

 

In Ireland, the Hen Harrier is declining in both numbers and in range. Estimated numbers are now down to somewhere between 85 and 106 breeding pairs. In 2015, the national survey for the species estimated that were between 108-157 breeding pairs in the country, indicating a decline of 34% since the first national survey in 1998-2000.

 

Preliminary results from the most recent survey (2022, not yet published) illustrate further declines in both numbers and in the species’ range in the countryside.

 

In 2007, a number of SPAs were designated for the bird’s protection under the EU Birds Directive; but numbers have also been declining in these protection areas, as well as in the wider countryside.

 

Tree planting, overgrazing and changes in agricultural land use due to policy changes are believed to be the key primary pressures and threats on the species in Ireland, along with wind farms, which is rarely talked about as a threat in mainland UK. Hen Harriers do sometimes select pre thicket stage conifer plantations for nesting, though predation can also be heightened in these areas.

 

It is interesting to compare the Hen Harrier breeding situation in Ireland to the current situation in England. In Ireland, where ‘keepered moors are few and far between, Hen Harrier numbers are in stark decline. In contrast, in England Hen Harriers are recording huge successes.Statistics from Natural England show that 141 hen harrier chicks fledged in England in 2023 compared to 119 in 2022 – the seventh year in a row that numbers have increased.

 

Hen Harriers are flourishing due to a combination of factors, including the Hen Harrier Action Plan which involves among other things, a project to reintroduce the birds to southern England, licences for diversionary feeding, and improved satellite tracking.

 

The hard work that gamekeepers do in England to protect and encourage Hen Harriers on the land they manage is making a huge impact, and this is clear from the difference in population growth in Ireland and England. Predation is a huge threat for Hen Harriers as ground nesting birds, which gamekeepers can help to manage to the benefit of many species living in the uplands. In Ireland, where there are very few grouse shoots, the moorland management which helps Hen Harriers to thrive exists only in tiny pockets. The thriving red grouse population also proves a rich food source for the birds – something that is not found in Ireland, where red grouse numbers are also in decline.

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