Cross-Border rescue mission for UK’s hen harriers

ONE of Britain’s most threatened birds of prey could have a secure future thanks to a new project launched by the RSPB.
Hen harriers nest on the ground and like to eat grouse. Picture: RSPBHen harriers nest on the ground and like to eat grouse. Picture: RSPB
Hen harriers nest on the ground and like to eat grouse. Picture: RSPB

Scotland hosts most of the UK breeding population of hen ­harriers, mostly on Orkney, the Hebrides and parts of the West Coast.

The RSPB is launching a new project targeting seven special protections areas (SPAs) designated for breeding the harriers, which, unusually for raptors, nest on the ground. The sites are in southern and eastern Scotland and northern England, and the RSPB plans an ambitious five-year programme of direct conservation action and community engagement to boost harrier numbers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The hen harrier – Circus cyaneus – which can have a wingspan of up to four feet and lives up to 16 years, used to be a widespread and familiar bird in Britain’s uplands.

However, by 1900, persecution by gamekeepers, hunters seeking specimens for taxidermy and egg collectors had pushed the harrier to the brink of extinction as a breeding ­species on the British mainland.

Although the hen harrier is legally protected and has clawed back some of its lost ground, its diet of birds and small mammals includes grouse, which brings the species into conflict with those whose livelihoods depend on hunting estates.

This is especially true in parts of southern, central and eastern Scotland and northern England where land management for driven grouse shooting is most intensive.

The new strategy, known as the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, and is the first cross-Border joint Scottish-English initiative for the species.

Between 2004 and 2010 there was a 20 per cent decline in hen harriers across Scotland, according to a survey. Whilst this year was good for hen harrier productivity in places such as Langholm moor – where 46 young were fledged from ten successful nests, largely due to high vole numbers – hen harriers continue to face serious threats.

In June, two hen harrier chicks had to be hand-reared by wildlife experts after a female bird was shot in East Ayrshire.

Blanaid Denman, manager of the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, said: “Hen harriers are in dire straits. Numbers are declining dramatically and urgent action is needed, which is why this 
European Union-funded project is both welcome and timely.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The cross-Border project provides a huge boost to our efforts to monitor and protect harriers.

“Working together with volunteers and other organisations, we will have more eyes and ears on the hills than ever before, using satellite tagging, winter roost monitoring and nest protection to deter persecution, identify the important areas for these birds and highlight where they’re most at risk.

“Building on the success of our ‘skydancer’ project in England this new project will enable us to share the stories of these remarkable birds with a wider audience than ever before.”

Professor Des Thompson, principal adviser on biodiversity at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “In parts of the UK, the state of the hen harrier population is perilous. This collaborative project offers a lifeline in securing key evidence on what is working well and badly for these birds.”