Critical Link between Hen Harriers & Livestock Numbers

[singlepic id=212 w=320 h=240 float=left]New research by RSPB Scotland has shown that hill farming can play a fundamental role in assisting the fortunes of one of Britain’s most threatened birds?—?the Hen Harrier.

Known for its dramatic, tumbling “sky-dance” courtship displays in the spring, where the males and females gyrate and spin wildly whilst in flight, the Hen Harrier is still perhaps the most persecuted bird of prey in the UK.  Indeed, illegal killing, nest destruction and intentional disturbance are the main factors impeding its population recovery and restricting its range in Scotland and the rest of the UK.  However, scientists and land managers keenly welcome any addition of scientific knowledge to help towards its conservation, and this represents a significant growth in understanding.

The new study, which is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, shows how getting the grazing regimes in upland areas right can deliver major benefits for nature and wildlife. Targeted agri-environment schemes and other Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments have a vital role to play in achieving this, and helping to support farmers. The RSPB would like to see a larger share of CAP funds directed to High Nature Value farming that benefits wildlife.

Orkney is largely free from persecution of birds of prey, and since 1975 the Hen Harrier population of the islands has been closely[singlepic id=84 w=320 h=240 float=right] monitored. Between the early 1980s and mid-1990s sheep numbers on Orkney doubled, largely in response to CAP subsidies, and this was associated with dramatic declines in Hen Harriers?—?from 100 breeding females in the 1970s to just three successful nests in 1993. Subsequently, as sheep numbers have fallen in response to changes and reform of CAP subsidy, the harrier population has recovered.

Scientists at the conservation charity examined whether these reductions in sheep numbers have led to increases in the birds’ favoured hunting habitat or their prey, as well as whether the breeding output over the last 33 years is correlated with this. They found that Hen Harrier productivity is directly related to the stocking densities of sheep that are present in its main breeding and hunting areas. Over the period that sheep numbers declined, the study revealed a significant increase in both rough grassland and the vole population?—?the harriers’ favoured hunting ground and prey species.

Dr Arjun Amar, Senior Conservation Scientist with RSPB Scotland, who led the study, said: “This is an major addition to our understanding of the conservation needs of Hen Harriers. Illegal disturbance and killing continues to be the main barrier to this beautiful bird returning to many parts of the country where it should be commonplace. We now know that, where the species is freed from persecution, grazing management can be a pivotal tool in helping Hen Harrier populations to recover, and may also benefit other species that rely on grassland voles as prey?—?Kestrels, Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls, for example.”

[singlepic id=85 w=320 h=240 float=left]Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy at RSPB Scotland, said: “This study shows the crucial importance of getting the right balance in grazing systems. Too many livestock and we lose valuable species; if sheep and livestock and numbers decline too far, this too is likely to cause a decline in the habitat quality, and have profoundly detrimental impacts on Hen Harriers and other vole-dependent species. This is why we need to avoid the broad-brush approach of encouraging more livestock everywhere, as was the case before the CAP was reformed and farmers used to get paid according to the ‘headage’ of sheep on their land. Supporting High Nature Value farming should encourage appropriate grazing that benefits a wide range of wildlife, and this show the dividends it would pay.”

RSPB Scotland
Tuesday 16th November 2010

On 17th November 2010 the European Commission will publish a communication on the future of the CAP. RSPB Scotland wants to see a much larger share of CAP funds directed to supporting High Nature Value farming systems and to targeted agri-environment schemes. Scotland has a high proportion of HNV farming systems?—?without appropriate support, farmers are faced with the choice of intensifying production or giving up farming altogether, neither of which will help wildlife such as the Hen Harrier.[singlepic id=211 w=320 h=240 float=right]

The RSPB Report Uplands: Time to change? addresses many of the issues concerning management of our upland habitats, in particular those affecting farming, sporting management, forestry and recreation.

Sheep numbers on Orkney’s West Mainland in the areas where Hen Harriers nest and forage increased from 20,000 in 1975 to 50,000 by 1998; over the next decade numbers have subsequently declined by around 10,000 (to 40,000 in 2008). These changes mirror those found nationally for much of Northern and Western Scotland as revealed in the Scottish Agricultural College report Farming’s Retreat from the Hills.

9 comments to Critical Link between Hen Harriers & Livestock Numbers

  • John Miles

    Many shooting estates are being paid large sums of tax payers money only to increase the number of game keepers with no protection for Birds of Prey. This paper also points the finger at grassland being the major feeding area for Hen Harriers so why are we still paying large sums of tax payer’s money to increase heather which has no value at all for wildlife other than for Red Grouse on our uplands. Remember Black Grouse declined by 66% on heather this winter while they increased on rough grassland and birch.

    John Miles

    • Mike Groves

      From your comments John I get the impression that you have never been on a grouse moor.
      Can I point out that heather moorland ia a vital habitat for feeding/breeding of around 50 species (18%) of our birds in the UK.
      On another point you made Black Grouse are a specialist bird and require several habitats to thrive. In my experience these birds require good quality heather moorland as part of their breeding success.
      Can anyone dispute that well managed heather moorland is a unique habitat and highly biodiverse?
      The only part of the jigsaw missing on this brilliant habitat is the poor old Hen Harrier.

      Mike Groves

  • Dave

    All well & good, but we all know its not the main reason for their absence as a successful breeding species over much of Britains uplands, no more than eagle owls are the problem. Its an attempt by the RSPB to appear to be doing something whilst dodging the real issue, which of course is direct persecution.

    • Admin

      Hi Dave, keep watching tomorrow on RP, you may be very proud of the RSPB, the shooting fraternity have declared war on the RSPB because of what they will be announcing tat MIDNIGHT. Have a look at James Marchintons blog

  • Dave

    Hi Admin, thanks for the link. Looks to be yet another case of the RSPB being all words & no action. The Onekind field officer in your article on the Leadhills poisoning incident puts them to shame.

  • James

    When I say on my blog “It’s war” I mean that as in, the RSPB have declared war on shooting. Sad really – the event they wanted to pour cold water on, was a fabulous showcase of what shooters and shooting estates can do, of their own volition. The Gold Award went to a project that has seen grey partridges, a seriously threatened species, restored in huge numbers (from a breeding stock you could count on your fingers to over 2000) on the Sussex Downs, and funded by shooters not taxpayers. A glittering conservation success we can all be proud of.

    If anyone had stood up at tonight’s event, in a room full of the ‘great & good’ of shooting, and advocated killing harriers, they’d have been lynched. I don’t expect you to believe that, but it’s true.

    It saddens me to keep reading the same misleading allegations, and the sheer venom and spite, directed at ‘the shooting fraternity’ (whatever that is, and I’m certainly not their spokesman). If we could only work together, imagine what we could achieve.

  • Mike Price


    Unfortunately there seems to be an element of the shooting industry that are simply unable or unwilling to adhere to the law where birds of prey are concerned.

    Time and time again we hear/read about how much could be achieved if we all worked together (and I do believe that is the only sucessful way forwards) unfortunately time and again we see gamekeepers being convicted of wildlife crimes, or there are instances that at least circumstancially seem to be linked to the shooting estates.

    Part of the problem is the fact that the crime is so hard to detect, any detection therefor is judged by many to be only scratching the surface of the actual number of incidences that are taking place (the lack of raptors in some area’s would certainly seem to back this theory up).

    It’s hard to see how things can possibly improve until an element of trust is developed and its hard to see how that trust will ever begin to develop whilst birds of prey are being discovered poisoned, shot or illegally trapped in suspicious circumstances, and whilst gamekeepers are being convicted of these type of crimes.

    This seems to me to be the very first stumbling block and one that desperately needs to resolved.

    A cynic might think that some people prefer this to be a long drawn out process (it already has been) because every season that goes by without resolution is another season where many crimes have gone undetected or unpunished and thus could be considered a small victory against the legislation that is there to protect raptors.

    I was trying so hard not to enter another game of tennis on this subject but I keep bring myself back to it and presenting my thoughts for someone else to shoot down (no pun intended).



  • John Miles

    Mike Groves – I worked on a Red Grouse moor for 10 years and have monitored them for the last 20 years. Sadly only 1 of your 50 species need heather and that is the Red grouse. The rest are not dependant on that type of habitat. May be you should read my paper ‘the vulgar plant’ given as the main lecture to the Hawk and Owl Trust and World owl Trust a few years ago.