The Hen Harrier LIFE project team are delighted to announce that we have been involved in protecting and monitoring nine successful hen harrier nests in England this year, with the successful fledging of 33 chicks. This marks the continuation of a small increase in hen harrier breeding success in England and we hope this progress continues, as the hen harrier is one of the UK’s most threatened bird species.
In addition to those supported by the team, a small number of other hen harrier nests were successful in England this year. We look forward to public confirmation of this year's total hen harrier breeding season numbers from Natural England in the near future.
Northumberland hen harriers have now made it five in a row, with 2019 being the fifth year they have successfully bred and raised chicks, making it the most consistent nesting place in England for this rare bird of prey. Nine young have fledged from three nests on Forestry England and nearby private land.
Originally six nests were located, and we had hoped we might surpass last year’s total of 11 fledged young from three nests, but unfortunately it was not to be. Two broods of chicks were lost in the spring due to the very wet weather, which would have soaked the nest and made the young chicks too wet and cold to survive. Another brood of chicks was lost to natural predation by a fox, which is unfortunate but is one of the inevitable risks facing ground nesting birds.
The success of hen harriers in Northumberland is supported by a combined effort from the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, which consists of a team of people from Forestry England, RSPB, Northumberland National Park Authority, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumberland Police and local raptor experts. We are all proud to work together to find and monitor the nests.
Gill Thompson, Chair of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership said: “It is great to see hen harriers nesting and fledging young successfully in Northumberland for the fifth year in a row. Thanks to the team from all the organisations that worked hard to locate and watch the nests. It was particularly satisfying to see a tagged bird breed in Northumberland after we had watched her during the winter elsewhere in the county. Let’s hope the class of 2019 fair just as well.”
In Bowland, 22 hen harrier chicks have fledged from five nests on the United Utilities Estate. This is the second year in a row that hen harriers have nested successfully at the East Lancashire site, after 13 chicks fledged from three nests in 2018.
Following six years of little or no consistent breeding success in the Forest of Bowland, we are now hopeful that this could mark the start of the return of these rare and beautiful birds of prey to an area once considered a stronghold for them in England.
The success of hen harriers on the United Utilities Estate in Bowland is also supported by a unique partnership. Since early spring, RSPB’s staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities, their shooting and farming tenants, and the Forest of Bowland AONB, have worked hard to protect and support the five hen harrier nests on this estate through close monitoring, diversionary feeding, habitat management, and careful avoidance of disturbance.
Matt Upton, Catchment Manager for the United Utilities Bowland Estate, said: “I would like to thank everyone involved for their continued conservation efforts. All the hard work and dedication has paid off again this year and it’s a real joy to see these magnificent birds of prey are one again choosing to make Bowland their home.
In the Peak District, two hen harrier chicks fledged from a nest in the High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park. This also marks the second year in a row that hen harriers have nested successfully on this National Trust-owned land, after four chicks fledged from one nest in 2018.
Again, the key to this success has been partnership work between the National Trust’s ranger team, their shooting tenants, the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, Natural England and the RSPB. The success of the hen harriers in this area is very much seen as a symbol for the future direction of the uplands.
Jon Stewart, the National Trust’s General Manager for the Peak District, said: “The hen harrier has been one of the most persecuted birds of prey in Britain for many years and we have set out on a mission to work with others to create the conditions for the harrier and other birds of prey to thrive once again in the uplands. We hope this will be a positive model for improving the fate of our birds of prey and providing the healthy natural environment that so many people care about and want to see. We know how fragile any recovery of hen harriers is. We want to see uplands richer in wildlife and beauty, widely enjoyed and providing huge public benefits. For this to be a reality we need to see birds returning in following years to breed”.
Prior to fledging, a number of this year’s chicks were fitted with satellite tags and colour rings by the project team. What is crucial now is that the strong, positive partnerships continue with landowners, land agents, their tenants and gamekeepers to help to continue to protect these young birds as they leave their nests and fly around the country, to ensure that they remain a key part of the future of a growing hen harrier population.
One of this year's hen harrier chicks, whose nest we have helped to protect and monitor (image by Steve Downing)
Hen harriers are on the verge of disappearing as a breeding bird in England owing to ongoing illegal killing associated with driven grouse shooting, and they aren’t doing much better in the rest of the British Isles. Scientific research published in March this year, based on data from Natural England, showed that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers were considered or confirmed to have been illegally killed on British grouse moors, and the birds were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over grouse moor than any other type of land use.
Chris Corrigan, RSPB’s Director for England said: “We are fantastically proud of our team having played a role in the successful fledging of 33 hen harrier chicks this year. However, this success is tarnished by the clear evidence that illegal killing of this rare bird of prey continues with little sign of it coming to an end. This must change. We should have over 300 pairs of hen harrier in England, yet shockingly only nine pairs have successfully bred here this year and this species remains on the brink of local extinction. If all of this year’s chicks were to survive and breed, it would more than double the current English population. However, in our tagging study under the Hen Harrier LIFE project, none of the chicks we tagged in England in previous years are still alive: to date over half of them have died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. The pervasiveness of illegal killing means many of this year’s young hen harriers will not get the chance to raise a family of their own and so the population continues to decline. Until something is done to stop illegal killing it is hard to see a bright future for this year’s chicks.”
In Bowland, in 2012 a tagged hen harrier named Betty died from an injury resulting from a shot gun wound and in 2014, barely two months after leaving their nests, Sky and Hope disappeared without trace when their tags suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting within a few miles of each other. Two young hen harriers tagged in Bowland in 2018 died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances – Thor’s tag stopped transmitting near same the location as Sky and Hope, and River’s body was found in North Yorkshire, lodged with two shotgun pellets. In Northumberland three tagged hen harriers named Finn, Athena, and Vulcan, all disappeared when their tags stopped transmitting in suspicious circumstances in March 2018, August 2018 and January 2019. In January 2017, Northumberland-born Carroll was found dead with two shotgun pellets lodged in her body. Octavia and Arthur who were tagged as chicks in the Peak District in the summer of 2018 both disappeared when their tags stopped transmitting suddenly and inexplicably in August and October 2018.
We believe grouse shooting needs to change, that’s why we are calling for licencing of grouse moors. This will ensure they’re managed sustainably and legally, to secure a future for the next generation of hen harriers before we lose them altogether.
Aware you have thanked some of them, but wished to register thanks to private, often unfunded input, from diverse rural communities working for hen harriers across the UK - incl on the Hen Harrier Action Plan.
Cathleen. Good stuff. Though please don't forget to thank private landowners, farmers, land managers, gamekeepers, foresters et al who are working, often behind the scenes, on keeping sites secure, controlling predators, managing other recreation users and land use operations (harvest, tree felling) etc.Especially as long term conservation can only succeed through collaborative partnership efforts.
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