Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma.

 Ahead of the first ever Hen Harrier Day Wales, on Saturday 18 July, RSPB Cymru Raptor Officer Niall Owen and Head of Species Julian Hughes explain why hen harriers need our help.

This Saturday, hundreds of people will celebrate the hen harrier and highlight the continued threat it faces across Britain. The plan had been to gather at a venue in north Wales, but like all events this summer, it will be online, live-streamed on Facebook, hosted by Mountain Escapes and Julian Cartwright Mountain Adventures. It’s fantastic that two outdoor activity companies are organising this, illustrating the breadth of support for Wales’ birds of prey and taking the message to a wider audience of people who love Wales’ countryside. Speakers at the events include Iolo Williams, Ruth Tingay, Dr Cathleen Thomas, Alan Davies, Dan Rouse and Rob Taylor.

During lockdown, Niall had special permission to continue the essential work of supporting the police to tackle wildlife crime. A day in the Welsh hills can bring what feels like all four seasons, but when you’re accompanied by these magnificent birds, you accept the outbreaks of rain and immerse yourself in the environment. Confirming a nesting territory is a game of patience, waiting many hours across multiple days in the hope of seeing a flash of grey in a lush landscape of purples and greens. The initial sighting hopefully results in amazing moments watching the breathtaking sky-dance or the male come in with prey to prove his worth to a calling female, ending with a spectacular food pass. Then to find the nest under licence from Natural Resources Wales, hopefully to find four or five pairs of eyes staring up at you, growing up and hopefully bolstering the fragile population.

The fate of hen harriers that nest on moors managed for driven shooting of red grouse is well-documented. Major studies in Scotland and England leave no room for doubt: the population is greatly suppressed in Scotland and has been brought once again to the brink of extinction in England by illegal killing. Persecution has caused the loss of hen harriers in Wales before: between 1910 and 1960, it ceased to breed regularly in Wales, and recolonised slowly during the following 50 years. However, the Welsh population fell from 57 pairs in 2010 to 35 in 2016. That makes it one of the rarest 5% of Welsh breeding birds.

Hen harriers are very mobile. Chicks that hatch in Wales roam widely in their first year, so can be victims of crime elsewhere. Hen harriers ringed in Wales have subsequently been found in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, and even in France, Spain and Portugal. Young birds face all sorts of challenges during their first year as they learn to hunt and deal with winter weather, so we should only expect a proportion to survive. But the decline is worrying, an indicator that all is not well in the Welsh uplands. Estimates by conservation experts suggest that Wales should hold around 250 pairs of hen harriers.

Lightweight satellite tags help us to understand what happens to chicks that fledge in Wales. Eight hen harriers from nests in north Wales were fitted with satellite tags over the last two years, including one from the RSPB Lake Vyrnwy reserve, as part of the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project. Of the eight, only one remains alive; a female, nicknamed ‘Bomber’ who hatched in Snowdonia in 2019 and spent her first winter in northern Spain. She returned to north Wales in early May, found a mate and is now feeding growing young. Great news!

Of the other seven, the bodies of four have been recovered – those in Brittany and the Brecon Beacons appear to have died of natural causes, the cause of death of one in northeast Wales is unknown and the fourth was found in mid Wales, but the body was too decomposed to know how it died. Two tagged birds disappeared - one in Powys and one on Exmoor – and the bodies were never found. The tag from the eighth bird was recovered in northeast Wales and this incident remains under investigation. The disappearance/death of two tagged birds within a few miles of each other in northeast Wales is a real concern.

Hen Harrier Day Wales will celebrate this skydancing raptor and show that people who live, work and visit Wales care about what happens to these rare birds. We look forward to seeing you there, between 12pm and 4pm on Saturday 18 July. The programme and online details are here.

We are grateful to Welsh Government for funding the satellite-tagging of hen harriers in 2020 and for part-funding the role of Raptor Officer this year. Both will help us to understand more about Wales’ hen harriers.