Four steps from extinction

A hen harrier chick, one month old, on its nest in the Forest of Bowland
A hen harrier chick, one month old, on its nest in the Forest of Bowland

ONLY four nesting pairs of hen harriers successfully reared young in England this year, all of them on United Utilities’ Forest of Bowland estate.

This makes the hen harrier the bird most likely to become extinct in England because of human pressure, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). A 2011 joint survey of the English uplands by the RSPB and Natural England found that only four nesting pairs of hen harrier had successfully raised young. This is believed to be the lowest population in England since they recolonised in the 1960s following extinction in the late 19th Century.

An adult hen harrier in flight

An adult hen harrier in flight

Hen harriers were formerly widespread in the UK, but persecution forced the mainland extinction of the hen harrier in Britain. By 1900 it was confined in the UK to Orkney and the Western Isles of Scotland. In the 1940s, it recolonised mainland Britain, and two decades later it recolonised England.

A government-backed report – the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework – proved that illegal persecution on driven-grouse moors is the main factor restricting the growth of the hen harrier population in the UK. The framework reported that England’s uplands could support at least 320 pairs of this bird of prey.

Hen harriers disappearing from England for a second time would see the government break its recent commitment in the revised England Biodiversity Strategy to avoid any human-induced extinctions before 2020.

Hen harriers sometimes prey on red grouse on upland shooting estates, making them unpopular on many grouse moors. Given the bird’s potential for extinction in England, the RSPB and Natural England are appealing to grouse moor owners to support techniques being trialed to reduce predatory impacts on grouse from harriers.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said: “With only four pairs of hen harrier in England, this bird only has four steps before extinction and the Government has very little time to act to prevent breaking their promise.

“We believe the potential for diversionary feeding will provide a lifeline for the recovery of the English hen harrier and a way for grouse moor managers to maximise the number of grouse.”

The past 20 years has seen a perilous decline of an already tiny English hen harrier population, to leave it barely clinging to existence in England. The RSPB recently launched the “Skydancer” project with more than £300,000 of financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). It is designed to help the hen harrier recover across northern England and will provide a mix of community engagement and direct conservation work over four years to inspire people about this magnificent bird of prey.

The Skydancer project is named after the male hen harrier’s aerial courtship display, known to many as “skydancing”.

A 2010 hen harrier survey recorded an estimated 646 pairs of hen harriers nesting in the UK and the Isle of Man, down from an estimated 806 pairs in 2004. The hen harrier is one of 52 species of bird which appear on the red list of the Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK.