Hen harriers having ‘fantastic year’, with record-breaking fledglings

In the north of England, 60 hen harrier chicks fledged this year – the most since 2002.

Natural England say the chicks came from 19 nests in Northumberland, the Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria and Lancashire, in early summer 2020.

The government agency puts the success down to good weather and cooperation from Moorland Association, RSPB, Forestry Commission, the National Trust and others.

A hen harrier flying around a grousemoor in northern England

 

Hen harriers are some of England’s rarest birds of prey and their deaths are routinely blamed on the shooting community, specifically keepers, usually without evidence.

“2020 has seen the best breeding season for England’s hen harriers in years,” says Natural England chairman Tony Juniper. “I thank all those who’ve helped achieve this wonderful result, including landowners and managers, campaigners, conservation groups, police officers.”

Juniper, a former green campaigner, can’t help having a pop at gamekeepers, however. He complains: “too many birds still go missing in unexplained circumstances”, suggesting persecution is the cause.

A hen harrier nest on a grousemoor in northern England

 

Adam Smith from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust calls the chick record, “a very promising result”.

“Management options for bird of prey conservation rather than just legal enforcement is very forward thinking approach,” he says.

Smith acknowledges “real tension between harrier conservation and grouse shooting for over 30 years” but says it ended when the “managed approach was adopted” in 2002.

Director of the Moorland Association Amanda Anderson calls 2020 another “fantastic year for hen harriers”.

Moorland Association’s Amanda Anderson

 

“Twelve of the nests reported today are on land managed for grouse shooting,” Anderson points out. “This reflects a genuine commitment from moor owners and managers to work with others and help rebuild the harrier population.”

The RSPB, which has publicly criticised Natural England’s Hen Harrier Project, chose not to add a comment to the joint statement.

“The news that 60 hen harrier chicks have fledged in England this year is encouraging, and testament to the crucial monitoring from raptor workers,” it says in its release, ignoring the hard work gamekeepers and others put into creating habitats that allow the birds to thrive.

RSPB insists “persecution remains the most serious threat to this species”, adding a claim that “43 hen harriers are known to have been killed or ‘gone missing’, after fledging” since 2018. It fails to add that three-quarters of raptors die naturally in their first year.

A study published by the magazine Nature last year shows that four tagged hen harriers were either killed illegally or the tag was recovered intact with no bird across the whole of the UK in the previous three years.

Chart from ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors’ study in Nature magazine

 

In the past three years – including this year’s tally – a total of 141 hen harrier chicks have fledged.

There’s also good news from north of the border, where a hen harrier population has established on the Isle of Lewis for the first time since records began.

The species is present throughout most of the Outer Hebrides, where there is little grouse shooting. Hen harriers have been absent on Lewis due, says scientists, to the lack of voles.

The first nest was found in 2015, four the following year and a survey in 2019 spotted nine pairs. This year, it’s estimated there are more than 10 pairs breeding.

Hen harrier chicks on a grousemoor in northern England

 

It’s thought the birds moved to Lewis in response to changes in land management. Sheep numbers have decreased over the last two decades and heather is thriving, providing the ideal habitats for nesting and prey species.

There were concerns about the threat to the birds from a planned wind farm for 35 large turbines. The RSPB responded to the concerns by asking for the removal of turbines near nesting, breeding and roosting sites.

The hen harrier continues its decline in other areas without grouse shooting, such as North Wales and the Isle of Man.

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