The hen harrier
The hen harrier is a native bird of the British Isles and breeds in our uplands and moors. It is a bird of prey, a raptor, which feeds mainly on small birds and mammals. In winter some birds remain in the hills, but others move south and may be seen at communal roosts in the lowlands. Some travel further, to France or Spain: increasingly from satellite tags we know that this is a bird which ranges widely.
The hen harrier is a ground-nesting bird. To protect the nest site the male, which does most of the hunting whilst the female is incubating the eggs and chicks, passes prey in mid-air to the much less conspicuous female to return to the nest. This has evolved into a wonderful aerial courtship display, giving the bird the nickname ‘Skydancer’. The hen harrier is one of our most charismatic birds, but is becoming increasingly rare.
The hen harrier faces many threats. Over parts of its wider range it is in decline because of loss of habitat. In the UK by far the largest threat is illegal persecution; it is one of the most persecuted birds of prey in the UK, relentlessly shot and trapped on many grouse moors, despite being legally protected.
Scientists calculate that the UK as a whole has habitat to support 2,600 pairs of hen harriers. In the last national survey (2016) there were only 545 territorial pairs. In England alone there is the potential to have over 300 pairs of breeding hen harriers but in 2019 there were only 12 successful nests – itself a record for recent years. Furthermore, many of the young birds don’t even make it through their first year, let alone survive until the age of two, when they can first breed. Most UK hen harriers are in Scotland but even there its population declined by 27% between 2004 and 2016.
Illegal persecution on driven grouse moors has long been recognised as the main factor preventing recovery of the hen harrier population. An innocent but too often fatal food preference of the hen harrier is red grouse. Reduced grouse numbers reduce the profit made from shooting, so raptors are killed by the gamekeepers, whose main task is to return a profit for their employers. A 2019 government-commissioned study has shown that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed on or next to grouse moors. Hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or near a grouse moor than in any other habitat.
Hen harriers are not even safe inside some of our National Parks. Grouse moors in the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District and the North York Moors National Parks are notoriously dangerous for birds of prey. So too is the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), where they are poisoned, trapped and shot on grouse moors, prompting public condemnation from the Chair of the AONB, who also expressed concern that the reputational damage would affect tourism and other inward investment.
Those who illegally kill hen harriers on grouse moors get away with their crimes because they are hard to detect. The ones we know about – mostly through expensive satellite tags – are the tip of the iceberg. And even when there is good evidence, prosecution is difficult. A gamekeeper caught on camera shooting a hen harrier on a grouse moor in Scotland escaped prosecution because the video footage was deemed ‘inadmissible’. Even if there is a conviction, sentences are often risible. A gamekeeper caught on camera setting illegal traps on a grouse moor close to a hen harrier escaped formal prosecution and just received a police caution instead. With a crime so hard to detect and prosecute, sentences should be particularly high, not pathetically low.
So there is much to be done, and Hen Harrier Day events seek to make a contribution by adding to public and media awareness in the days immediately before the ‘Inglorious’ 12th August, the start of the grouse shooting season.
Photo credits: many thanks to Roberto Parmiggiani (top) via Flickr and Paul Bennett (bottom) via UK Raptors on Facebook for permission to use. Both images fully protected, not to be reproduced without permission.