Hen Harrier – A complex picture

[singlepic id=84 w=413 h=635 float= left]In the Spring & Summer issue of the North Pennines News, an article by Chris Collett of the RSPB (‘Your call could save the Hen Harrier’) quoted a 2008 Natural England report (A Future for the Hen Harrier in England) which states that ‘illegal persecution continues to limit the hen harrier’s recovery in England’; Chris’s article also stated that, “The heather moors of England should have at least 300 pairs of hen harriers but in 2010 there were only seven successful nests, the majority of these in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland established on just one of the areas estates.” This year as we now all know there were only four successful nests, again each of these nests located upon the same moorland estate in the Forest of Bowland owned by United Utilities.

The article drew some comments from the Countryside Alliance’s Moorland Director, Adrian Blackmore, who lives in Teesdale and knows the North Pennines and its moorlands well. The difference in views, in some respects, and the points raised, highlight some of the issues currently facing hen harriers (and other raptors) in our uplands.

Adrian suggests that few hen harriers settle to breed locally and that “Even at the RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve, no hen harriers have bred successfully since 2006.” He said, there are many reasons why this might be the case (including their vulnerability to both ground predators and unkeepered moors and to other birds of prey, evidenced by an eagle owl attacking a hen harrier in Bowland last year).”  It is we think important to point out here the RSPB video released to the press only showed an eagle owl standing over four hen harrier eggs in a nest, it did not capture or show an eagle owl attacking anything.

Perhaps the logical reason why no hen harriers choose to settle on a majority of upland red grouse moors is that when in the past they have attempted to do so most, if not all, are shot. These days with numbers of hen harriers reduced to just four successful breeding pairs in England, the chances of settling anywhere across the uplands of England, including upon the RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve where undoubtedly persecution was a key factor in their elimination prior to 2006 , recolonisation  is very unlikely. We should not forget the pair of Geltsdale eagle owls also disappeared within weeks of their location by local gamekeepers. 

Adrian Blackmore also noted, there have been no confirmed crimes recorded against hen harriers in the last six years. Surely this situation is not too surprising to understand. Resulting from a strategy of sustained illegal persecution throughout England’s uplands during the last two decades, hen harriers are rarely seen and certainly no longer breed on 99.9% of red grouse moors today. If there are no longer any hen harriers on the majority of England’s uplands to shoot, it stands to reason there will be no criminal activity to detect.

In 2009, the RSPB and Natural England concluded that the breeding failure of hen harriers was entirely due to natural causes (though it ought to be pointed out that this conclusion referred to that season’s nesting rather than a general comment by these organisations on hen harrier survival).

One of the most in-depth studies of hen harriers in recent years has been undertaken on at Langholm, in the Borders. Adrian Blackmore added, “At Langholm, hen harrier numbers went from a high of 20 breeding pairs in 1997, when the moor had been keepered, down to only four in 2006.” This was, Adrian considered, “due to increasing fox predation, and dwindling food supply, in the absence of those keepers. There may also be additional factors at play that are as yet unclear, as in the case of the Isle of Man, where the RSPB’s 2010 hen harrier survey found that the population of hen harriers had fallen considerably, for reasons that remain unknown.”

Natural England’s report identifies seven different factors in the failure of breeding attempts by hen harriers and Adrian Blackmore too noted above there are ‘known and unknown’ factors involved. The percentage of successful breeding attempts on United Utilities land in the Forest of Bowland (64%), and on unkeepered grouse moors generally (56%), was (from 2002 to 2008) greater than elsewhere in England, and yet this was on habitat no more obviously suitable than that in the Northern Pennines. On keepered moors, though the breeding success percentage was lower (55% in Bowland and 26% elsewhere), where breeding attempts were successful the mean number of chicks per attempt was the highest of any habitat. So it’s a complicated situation, which Natural England’s report addresses succinctly.

The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Management Plan 2009-14 includes an objective to end persecution of birds of prey; in the Northern Pennines , land managers might justifiably say that no persecution now exists locally then they shouldn’t have to say it will stop )in essence they quite rightly shouldn’t be guilty until proven innocent’), but others say it may persist in some places, drawing on the obvious lack of success not just in hen harriers but, especially compared with the lowlands, in peregrines too. So, this picture is clearly a complex one. The future of hen harriers in the Northern Pennines, and that of other raptors, some of which continue to do well, notably buzzard and merlin, needs to continue to be informed by sound science and accurate current data (and there’s a strong legacy of this to build on from a variety of organisations) rather than claim and counter-claim; just as importantly it needs to be informed by an approach that isn’t factional and that is respectful of the views of all those concerned.    

1 comment to Hen Harrier – A complex picture

  • John Miles

    No Hen Harriers nest at Geltsdale due to so many birds being killed each spring by local Red Grouse moors. I wonder where the Langholm radio tagged Hen Harrier was lost SE of Carlisle!!