Hen harriers are one of our rarest birds of prey, yet continue to be heavily persecuted.
Hen Harriers are birds of prey that breed in open, upland moors. They nest on the ground, and usually the female sits on the nest to incubate the eggs while the male hunts and returns to the nest with food. He passes food to the female in mid-air, in an amazing acrobatic feat, so as not to give away the nest location to potential predators. 95% of a hen harrier’s diet is made up of small mammals, but they do eat a small proportion of other birds, including song birds such as meadow pipits, shorebirds, waterfowl and grouse. Feeding on grouse brings them into direct conflict with moorland that is being managed for grouse shooting, particularly those with intensive grouse rearing for driven shooting.
Declines in populationIn 1800, hen harriers were common and widespread across the UK, but by 1850, when driven grouse shooting became popular, records show hen harriers were routinely shot, and by 1900 they were persecuted practically to extinction as a breeding bird on mainland Britain. From the time of the First World War onwards, the population started to recover naturally, however regular surveys show that since the turn of the millennium, numbers are declining again and ongoing illegal killing and disturbance threatens to drive the birds to the brink of extinction once more. In 2013, hen harriers failed to breed successfully in England for the first time in almost half a century and the UK population fell by 18% between 2004 and 2010, and a further 13% between 2010 and 2016 to an estimated 575 pairs in the UK. Scotland remains the stronghold for UK hen harriers with an estimated 460 pairs in 2016, around 80 per cent of the UK population. Habitat analysis suggests there is availability to sustain around 2,650 pairs in the UK1, so we currently have around 20% of the number of pairs we could support. Having such a low population size means that any effects of natural pressures such as poor weather and low prey availability, as well as human-induced pressures like habitat loss and illegal persecution, are amplified, affecting a greater proportion of the population and bringing it closer to extinction. In 2017, there were just three successful hen harrier nests in the whole of England, occupying less than 1% of the potential suitable habitat. A recent report identified that habitat, prey abundance and persecution and were of key importance affecting distribution, abundance and productivity of hen harriers. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds, including hen harriers. Nevertheless hen harriers are still shot, trapped and poisoned, particularly in areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting. 1. JNCC Report No: 441 A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom Alan Fielding, Paul Haworth, Phil Whitfield, David McLeod and Helen Riley
Tackling hen harrier persecution The RSPB is committed to protecting our UK hen harrier population and works alongside landowners, raptor workers, conservation organisations and protected landscapes to provide the conditions for the population to recover. Since 2014, the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project has combined on-the-ground protection and monitoring of birds at nest and roost sites, investigations work to uncover the scale of illegal persecution, satellite tagging to investigate the birds movements and identify areas where they are vulnerable so protection measures can be deployed, scientific analyses of habitat usage, dispersal and causes of mortality, policy and advocacy work to ensure the issue remains high on the political agenda and those carrying out illegal activities and wildlife crime are held to account, and community engagement to educate the public and garner public support. The Scottish Government commissioned research into sustainable management of grouse moors, looking at models used in other European countries to inform legislation and are looking at taking positive action. RSPB staff are helping to provide information, and our investigations, policy and advocacy teams are providing advice to the governments as appropriate. In February 2018, the RSPB worked alongside North Yorkshire Police, RSPCA, North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks to launch Operation Owl. In the RSPB’s 2016 Bird Crime report, North Yorkshire was identified as the county with the highest known incidents of raptor persecution for the 5th year in a row. We are taking action for wildlife by carry out surveillance and working with landowners. Volunteers will be trained to spot poisoned bait and illegal traps. In April 2018, the RSPB is launching a judicial review against Natural England’s decision to licence their controversial brood management trial in England. image:
Hen Harrier LIFE Projectimage see below:
The Hen Harrier LIFE project is an exciting five year programme of hen harrier conservation across northern England and southern and eastern Scotland.
Just a little over a month ago the RSPB told us that three of this year’s satellite-tagged hen harrier chicks had all ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on driven grouse moors . This morning they’ve announced the suspicious disappearance of another one. Here’s the RSPB’s report:
Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances. This summer we were overjoyed to have hen harriers nesting in Bowland for the first time since 2015. Our project team worked round the clock to monitor the three nests there, and the parent birds fledged an amazing 13 chicks between them. Young hen harriers were fitted with tags as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we watched with anticipation as the chicks grew and started to fly away from their nests and make their way into the world. Unfortunately, it was unlucky 13 for one of our brood. Young male hen harrier Thor fledged from a nest of four chicks in the Forest of Bowland and his satellite tag was fitted in mid-June. After leaving the nest he remained in the vicinity for several months.
[Photo of hen harrier Thor by Steve Downing]
His tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. His last known fix on 3 October 2018 showed he was over Goodber Common near Salter in Roeburndale , Lancashire, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. This disappearance was reported to the police, and a search revealed no sign of the bird or his tag. [RPUK map below showing Goodber Common in the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty]
Thor is the fourth bird to disappear in the past two months, following the disappearances of Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in August this year. Alarmingly, the last known fix for Thor is directly between the sites where tagged hen harriers Hope and Sky were last heard from before they disappeared back in 2014.
James Bray, RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, was involved in monitoring the nests in Bowland over the summer, and watched as Thor hatched, grew and fledged from his nest. He says: “Whilst we know that hen harrier mortality rates are high for young birds – with a survival rate of around 22% within the first two years – if Thor had died naturally we would have expected to find some sign of him or his tag. His tag was functioning well before he disappeared, which sadly suggests there has been some kind of interference with it.” If anyone has any information as to what may have become of Thor, you can contact Lancashire Police on 101.
According to Guy Shrubsole’s excellent Who Owns England website, the grouse moors to the south of Goodber Common, shown in our map above, belong to the Duke of Westminster’s Abbeystead Estate. Nobody will be the least bit surprised that yet another young hen harrier has vanished close to a grouse moor in northern England, and especially in the Forest of Bowland AONB. We know from Natural England’s HH sat tag data (2007-2017) that Bowland is one of several areas (along with the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the Nidderdale AONB) where the land is dominated by driven grouse moors and where young hen harriers tend to disappear. We prepared a map of those areas in August 2018 after Natural England had finally released the HH sat tag data (which didn’t include details of any missing RSPB-tagged birds).
So what happens now? Absolutely nothing of any significance. The grouse-shooting industry will either stay mute and hope the news blows over quickly, or we’ll hear from Andrew Gilruth of the GWCT telling us how well the Government’s Hen Harrier (In)Action Plan is working (it isn’t, it’s a sham), or we’ll heard from Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association that there’s no need for concern as she saw Thor flying past her kitchen window just yesterday. DEFRA Minister Dr Therese Coffey will be too busy shuffling around in her handbag to even notice her Government’s complete and utter failure to protect this species. UPDATE 19 Oct 2018: Responses to missing hen harrier Thor (here)
Missing Hen Harrier locations in Forest of Bowland
photo Anand Prasad
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