RSPB England Director Chris Corrigan discusses why we should get along to Hen Harrier Day this year.

 Over the weekend of 5-6 August (and today for anyone lucky enough to be visiting Mull), Hen Harrier Day events will be happening around the country.

In my new role as RSPB Director for England, the desperate plight of this magnificent moorland bird of prey is of great concern but I take great heart that a growing number of people are united in their desire to see more hen harriers in our uplands and an end to the illegal killing which is holding back their recovery.

We hope you will visit a Hen Harrier Day event (with a friend!) and meet like-minded people who care passionately about our birds of prey. This is the fourth year that volunteers from the Birders Against Wildlife Crime are organising events across the UK to highlight the plight of the hen harrier and celebrate this ‘ghost bird’ of our moorlands.

The RSPB is happy to be supporting Hen Harrier Day and will be hosting events at our Rainham Marshes, Arne (I will be here with Chris Packham), and Loch Leven reserves. There will be some great activities to get involved in and talks from passionate hen harrier supporters.

For me, the saddest thing about the current hen harrier situation is the lack of recent breeding success in Bowland. This part of Lancashire used to be England’s breeding stronghold for the bird but there hasn’t been a successful nesting attempt here since 2015.   

Although I have spent my RSPB career in South East England I was brought up in East Lancashire. I have many special childhood memories of seeing wildlife there.  Counting dippers from my school bus and finding a migrating dotterel are two particular highlights, but easily my most special experience was a wonderful unexpected encounter with displaying hen harriers over Bowland. This would have been in about 1980, the year in which there were 39 hen harrier nesting attempts in Bowland, a number which seems unimaginable now less than 40 years later.

I feel so lucky to have seen this wonderful bird of prey, which breeds on heather moorland in some of our remotest upland areas. Here they feed on other birds and small mammals but despite full legal protection, hen harriers have long been a target for illegal killing because they can sometimes also eat red grouse.

Driven grouse shooting is an intensive form of shooting, which requires large numbers of birds so moorland managers are inevitably under pressure to maximise the numbers on an estate. This leads to some stepping outside the law to kill birds of prey in an attempt to boost the numbers of grouse.   

There are many people who would like to see an outright ban on driven grouse shooting and this is understandable, faced with evidence like this and this. Meanwhile, many in the driven grouse shooting industry remain focussed on seeking guarantees that they will be able to control hen harrier recovery. But despite voluntary initiatives which promised change from the industry, these have failed to stop the killing of birds of prey like the hen harrier, or deliver the crucial improvements needed for other upland wildlife and protected habitats.

For this reason, the RSPB wants to see licensing system introduced to govern driven grouse shooting. We think a fair set of rules - underpinned by law - is needed so that there are effective measures to stop illegal and unfair practices.  This would target and penalise only those landowners who fail to meet necessary standards or step outside the law and kill protected species.

We think licensing could protect hen harriers and their upland home, whilst also helping those operating lawfully to distance themselves from illegal practices, which are increasingly bringing driven grouse shooting into disrepute and threaten the industry’s long term future.

Three months into my new role, one of my top priorities is to return the hen harrier to the uplands of northern England. I doubt it will be a quick fix but the RSPB is relentless in the pursuit of protecting our most special wildlife. Over 100 years ago we were founded by a group of women who fought against the feather trade which was driving declines in egrets and other amazing birds. That spirit remains at the heart of the RSPB and we will campaign with equal vigour on behalf of the hen harrier.

Hen Harrier Day carries a simple message: stop killing hen harriers (#StopKillingHenHarriers) and we hope everyone will agree how important this is for hen harriers, but also so future generations will get to witness this marvelous skydancing ‘ghostbird’ of our moorlands.