Worrying statistics show UK decline in numbers of hen harriers

Intensely managed grouse moorland and changes in habitat are part of the blame for the declining numbers in hen harriers an enquiry into the results of the 2010 survey has found. The survey found that despite steadily improving for decades the UK and Isle of Man population of hen harriers has declined by nearly a fifth to just 662 pairs.

Once a common and widespread bird, hen harriers were  wiped out in mainland Britain in the 19th century.Following the Second World War, numbers began to expand from populations in Orkney and the Western Isles and today it is a ‘Red Listed Bird of Conservation Concern’ in the UK. Therefore its population is closely observed and has been subject to frequent national surveys.  Previous surveys have shown increasing number of hen harrier pairs; in 1988/9, 478-669 pairs, in 1998, 570 pairs and in 2004 a 41 percent increase since 1988 to 806 pairs.

The survey was conducted in five regions, Scotland, England, Isle of Man, Wales and Northern Ireland between April and July and gathered from a number of sources including the RSPB, Natural England, BTO, Birdwatch Ireland and SOC.


Capsule The fourth national survey of Hen Harrier showed that the population in the UK and the Isle of Man declined significantly between 2004 and 2010.
Aim To estimate the size of the breeding Hen Harrier population (with associated 95% confidence intervals) in the UK and Isle of Man, constituent countries and Scottish regions, in 2010 and calculate population change since previous surveys in 1998 and 2004.
Methods Complete surveys were made of 10-km squares likely to be occupied by breeding Hen Harriers in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, using standard methods developed for previous national surveys. In Scotland, a ‘census’ area was non-randomly selected for survey by volunteers, and randomly selected squares were surveyed in two strata covering the rest of the known range.
Results The UK and Isle of Man Hen Harrier population was estimated at 662 territorial pairs (95% confidence interval (CI): 576–770), a significant decline of 18% since 2004. Scotland holds the bulk (76%) of the population (505 territorial pairs; 95% CI: 417–612), with smaller numbers in Northern Ireland (59 pairs), Wales (57 pairs), the Isle of Man (29 pairs) and England (12 pairs). Declines of 49% and 20% were observed in the Isle of Man and in Scotland, respectively, whereas the Welsh population increased by 33%. A significant decrease was recorded in numbers of pairs using young and mature plantation forest in Scotland.
Conclusion The breeding population of Hen Harriers in the UK and Isle of Man declined between 2004 and 2010. Notable decreases in Scotland and the Isle of Man may be related to habitat change and illegal persecution. Illegal persecution continues to limit the population size of harriers in England to very low levels.

6 comments to Worrying statistics show UK decline in numbers of hen harriers

  • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

    Reading reports which promote excuses for what has taken place not solutions is always extremely depressing. I now have serious doubts that even if Vicarious Liability became law in England this would still not resolve the current raptor situation which has been brought about by systematic persecution. What use would such legislation be when all the raptors have disappeared from England’s uplands altogether? Such a law would be of little use either on the RSPB’s northern Pennine reserve at Geltsdale, or on moorland in the Forest of Bowland owned by United Utilities; in each case both landowners can not be held legally responsible for the recent loss of hen harrier, peregrine and now the eagle owls, unless carelessness is now a crime. Placing blame on climate change, lack of food and loss of habitat instead of accepting the true realities for these huge losses will only make a bad situation much worst if that were possible.

    I was reading recently a feature enclosed within the RSPB’s SkyDancer blog where the author remained confidently optimistic gamekeepers would at some point come on board to help protect threatened species like hen harrier. Everyone is entitled to their views, but in this case I fear the writer was more than a little naïve in her beliefs. To even contemplate gamekeepers and their landowner employers would have a change of heart somewhere down the line in the near or distant future is simply never going to happen, and why should such interests change their policies towards raptors now that they have achieved what they have always wanted-raptor free moorland?

  • John Miles

    I was in an RSPB hide yesterday and watched a male Hen Harrier fly passed. It was like a football match [I have been to plenty!] Everyone was so excited having waited for 1 hour and the goal finally came. The only difference was we didn’t start singing but chatted about the birds future. Langholm was mentioned but the real suggestion was ‘ Hides full of RSPB members so they can shout about this bird having seen it fly passed’. With 1.1 million members, as Delia Smith is quoted, rallying the troops at Norwich City ‘ Come on. Where are you.’ If you can’t get them in the hide Start the film shows around the country again. They were brilliant. There are many amateur film makers keen to make their names out their and even the RSPB would make money!

  • You are quite right Terry. The only way raptor persecution will decline is if the criminals responsible are jailed. But with this present Government, the pathetic body call Natural England & an appeasing shameful RSPB that will never happen. But I’ve been saying that for years. HH RIP.

    • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

      I recall a briefing I was asked to provide many years ago to RSPB staff at their headquarters in Sandy detailing the persecution of peregrines and hen harriers then taking place throughout Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. I recall the shock and horror on the faces of RSPB staff listening to what I had to say to them. This was years before the RSPB ever set foot into the Bowland area. What a fateful day that turned out to be considering how badly things have turned out for Bowland’s raptors today. Had I know then what I know now, in particular how the final result of my meeting with RSPB staff would turn out, I would have done better to stay at home and keep my own council. Throughout the 1970’s and even into the early 1980’s, prior to and just after the arrival in Bowland of the RSPB in 1984, raptors in the region were then far more numerous than they are today. What I ask myself has now been achieved by an RSPB presence in the Forest of Bowland? The hen harriers have all disappeared, the once viable population of peregrines (18 pairs) we have fought to protect have now been reduced to a single successful pair. The complete failure of every nesting pair of eagle owls in Bowland this year came as no surprise; the disappearance of the goshawk was the final nail in Bowland’s coffin. I shall never forget as long as I live the final piece of reassurance Richard Porter gave to me as I left the Sandy car park all those years ago – “don’t worry Terry we will have the situation in Bowland sorted within the next five years.” One additional memory of my invitation to the RSPB HQ was the lovely lunch I was treated to in the staff canteen. After 47 years campaigning to protect raptors throughout Bowland the only reward members of the North West Raptor Group received was Natural England’s decision to with hold our Bowland licenses facilitating the persecution ‘free for all’ of all raptors which has now taken place. Well done each and every one of you who supported this damaging initiative.

  • I have said it before and I will say it again, the RSPB are not fit for purpose, they are failing miserably to protect any raptor and this is made altogether worse in my opinion because we all supported their raptor petition by signing it and where has it gotten us? Nowhere.
    No wonder Mark Avery left this sinking ship of an organisation, he is now speaking out and from what I read is not overly impressed with the way things are going.

    I am certain that they have done more harm than good in the Forest of Bowland, you only have to read Terry Pickfords comments to see that. The North West Raptor Protection Group spoke out, told the truth and suffered greatly for it, this group were experienced, decent and honest people who had, and still hold a tremendous love and respect for the raptor population on Bowland, their home patch. How devastated their members must be to see the decline and persecution that the RSPB cannot seem to control and I have at ask the question do they even want to?

    Their presence in Bowland in not needed, there is nothing left to protect. I suggest they beat a hasty retreat and who knows when they leave, the raptors may fare much better, especially if being monitored by experienced field workers with no hidden agenda, just an honest love for the wonderful raptors that once frequented Bowland and, though I fear it is perhaps to late, may come back with more serious and knowledgeable help.

  • harrier man

    You know me not personally i am the hidden i know what happens on the grouse moors, i know the ignorance of Natural England staff at the high level reminds me of this government just look who they have appointed as the new head of this watery organisation. Its very sad that as a member of the RSPB for nearly thirty years to say that they have become much the same frightened to back the hen harrier.

    Editor’s Comment. Ask yourself why Natural England will not make public the locations where all the tagged Harriers have disappeared? Simple really, NE are preoccupied protecting the illegal activities of the landowners and their gamekeepers. So much for protecting the interests of wildlife; wasn’t this the reason NE were initially set up to do.