Rare bird breeding in Scotland for first time in living memory

The four hen harrier chicks who have hatched on a nest in the Cairngorms are delighting Scotlands conservationists. Picture: Saltire News and Sport

The four hen harrier chicks who have hatched on a nest in the Cairngorms are delighting Scotlands conservationists. Picture: Saltire News and Sport

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One of Scotland’s rarest raptors, the hen harrier, is breeding on a major National Trust for Scotland estate in the Cairngorms for the first time in living memory.

The hen harrier is the most persecuted bird of prey in the UK, featuring on the red list of endangered species.

Persecuted to the point of extinction in Upper Deeside during the Victorian era, it has not bred successfully on the NTS’ Mar Lodge Estate in “many decades”. Now four chicks have hatched on one nest.

A male chick has been satellite tagged by the RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life project, to allow conservationists to understand where the birds go and where they are most at risk.

David Frew, Property Manager at Mar Lodge Estate, said yesterday “It is fantastic news and really exciting to see these birds returning to the estate for the first time in living memory. We have worked hard to create an environment where raptors can thrive, and it is great to see that our approach to management is paying off.

“The estate is heavily used by visitors to the Cairngorms and we work hard to balance conservation, field sports and visitor access and enjoyment.

“The presence of raptors, and particularly the return of hen harriers, demonstrates that these objectives can all be balanced given the right conditions. It is tremendously exciting to see these birds here once again.”

The hen harrier used to be a widespread and familiar bird in the uplands of Britain.By 1900, persecution by Victorian game preservers and skin and egg collectors had pushed the bird to extinction as a breeding species on the British mainland.

Between 2004 and the last National Hen Harrier Population Survey in 2010 there was a 20 per cent decline across Scotland. The 2010 survey estimated there were 505 pairs in Scotland, and the population was in decline. The birds frequent Scottish moors, where their acrobatic aerial “skydance” courtship displays are a sign of breeding activity.

But their distribution and numbers are still restricted in some areas due to persecution, land use changes and predation. Mar Lodge Estate occupies nearly 7 per cent of the Cairngorms National Park, some of the most remote and scenic wild land in Scotland.

It is recognised as one of the most important nature conservation landscapes in the British Isles, and home to iconic and rare raptor species including merlins, peregrines, and four pairs of golden eagles.

Will Boyd-Wallis, Head of Land Management and Conservation for the park, said: “It is fantastic news that the hen harrier has returned to breed on Mar Lodge Estate after many decades of absence.

“We very much hope that the careful management undertaken by the National Trust for Scotland alongside other estates in the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership and in the wider National Park will lead to many more pairs successfully returning.”

Blánaid Denman, Project Manager for RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life Project, added: “National surveys show a 20 per cent decline in just six years between 2004 and 2010 and east Scotland in particular has seen only a handful of successful breeding attempts in recent years.”

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