'Record breeding' season for England's most threatened bird of prey

A female hen harrier in flight.'Photograph: North Yorkshire Police
A female hen harrier in flight.'Photograph: North Yorkshire Police

They are one of Britain’s rarest and most persecuted birds of prey.

But now there is fresh hope for the conservation of hen harriers, after it was revealed it had been a “record” breeding season for the threatened species.

This year there were a total of 15 nests, with 15 successful breeding pairs and 47 chicks, outdoing the previous recorded best for England in 2006 of 46 birds, Government conservation agency Natural England said.

Tony Juniper, the agency’s chairman welcomed the “better breeding season”, but warned hen harrier numbers were still far from where they should be, with the birds of prey victims of illegal persecution.

Over the last two years, 81 chicks have been raised to fledging, outstripping the total for the previous five years combined, the figures show.

Chicks have also hatched in a wider variety of areas this year, including in the Yorkshire Dales, Nidderdale, Northumberland Derbyshire and Lancashire.

Hen harrier chicks. 'Photograph: Natural England/PA Wire

Hen harrier chicks. 'Photograph: Natural England/PA Wire

It marks an improvement from a low point just a few years ago, when there were no successful nests or fledged chicks in 2013, raising fears the bird was becoming extinct as a breeding species in England.

Hen harriers are England’s most threatened bird of prey, as their food source of red grouse chicks to feed their young brings them into conflict with commercial shooting estates.

Many of this year’s chicks have been fitted with satellite tags, which will allow Natural England to monitor what happens to the birds.

A study released by the agency earlier this year analysing satellite tagging data found young hen harriers suffer abnormally high death rates with illegal killing the most likely cause.

A young hen harrier being tagged, as dozens of hen harrier chicks have been successfully reared in England this year in what has been a "record" breeding season.'Photograph: Natural England/PA Wire

A young hen harrier being tagged, as dozens of hen harrier chicks have been successfully reared in England this year in what has been a "record" breeding season.'Photograph: Natural England/PA Wire

But this year’s breeding season saw 11 successful nests on grouse moors, the figures released ahead of the start of the grouse shooting season show.

Diversionary feeding, in which alternative food is provided for the harriers to prevent them preying on grouse chicks, was employed at six nests.

This year also saw the first trial “brood management scheme” at one nest, in which harrier chicks were removed from their nest to prevent predation of grouse and released back into the area once they could fend for themselves.

The use of brood management has been welcomed by moorland managers as a “vitally important” part of the efforts to bring back the hen harrier.

But it has been challenged by the RSPB as “the wrong tool” , with the wildlife charity saying the first step in hen harrier recovery should be the ending of illegal persecution.

Despite the successes, three nests in Northumberland failed, with two washed out by bad weather and one lost to predators.

Mr Juniper said: “I will be working with colleagues to pursue all options for the recovery of this wonderful bird, a creature that inspires and brings joy to so many people.

“It would be a tragic loss for our country, children and grandchildren if this majestic bird was to remain so scarce, or even disappear, in the future.”

'Commitment'

The director of the Moorland Association praised the “real commitment” to restoring the hen harriers population.

Amanda Anderson said: “We believe we are beginning to turn a corner.”

However Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s director for England, said the Government’s own figures suggest there should be over 300 pairs of hen harriers skydancing above the English countryside, “yet the species remains on the brink of local extinction”.