Rare birds of prey tagged in landmark project: Hen Harriers tracked via satellite to find out where they’re in trouble.




Image courtesy of Terry Pickford: Langholm Moor

Hen harriers, one of our rarest and most threatened birds of prey, are being tracked via satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, to protect them and gain better understanding of the threats they face, as well as identify the places they are most at risk.

The satellite tags1 transmit the locations of the harriers on a regular basis, and members of the public will be able to follow the movements of two individuals on a new website launched today2. For security reasons the information available online will be displayed with a two week delay.


Stephen Murphy the UK National Hen Harrier Coordinator holding satellite tagged Hen Harrier

Hen harriers used to be widespread in the British uplands but were viewed as a threat to game birds and pushed to the brink of extinction by 19003, prior to the introduction of legal protection. Following a partial recovery during the 20th century, population growth has faltered in the uplands of England and parts of Scotland where intensive management for grouse shooting predominates and illegal persecution is preventing their recovery. There are an estimated 662 breeding pairs in the UK and Isle of Man; the majority of these are in Scotland, whilst just a handful remain in England, where 6 pairs bred successfully in 20154.

“Holly”, the first female harrier, had her satellite tag fitted in June this year by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, assisted by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Police, and was one of three chicks from a nest located on high security MOD land at Coulport. She was named after a member of the production crew from BBC Scotland’s Landward programme, after appearing in a special feature about hen harriers and the threats these birds face from illegal killing. Holly fledged in August and has since left her nest area, and is currently in the uplands of central Scotland.

“Chance” is the second female hen harrier, named by RSPB Scotland, who was tagged in June last year by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group. Chance has provided a wonderful example of how young birds spend their first year. She travelled south from her nest in south west Scotland to the RSPB Wallasea reserve in Essex at the end of October (2014), before crossing the Channel to spend the winter months in the Pays de la Loire region of western France. Chance came back to the UK in spring this year and is currently back in France.

 Bea Ayling, manager of the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, said: “Hen harriers declined by almost 20% in the UK and Isle of Man between 2004 and 2010 so urgent action is needed to help conserve this species. Persecution linked to grouse moor management remains the main problem for these birds despite them having full legal protection for many years. This is because their usual diet of small birds and voles may also include red grouse, thus bringing them into conflict with gamekeepers. Several hen harriers have disappeared in unexplained circumstances from active nests in recent months in northern England, which then failed as a result.  One satellite tagged bird, named “Annie”, was found shot dead on moorland in south-west Scotland earlier this year.

“By fitting satellite tags to harriers we can track them accurately to see where they go and find out which areas they’re getting into trouble. We can also gain valuable information on breeding sites, nest locations and, should the worst happen, be able to locate and recover the bodies of dead harriers far more easily. The timely recovery of dead birds may also assist the police and prosecutors in bringing the perpetrators of crimes to justice.”

 The European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project was launched by the RSPB in July last year, and is unique in being the first truly cross-border, joint Scottish-English initiative aiming to achieve a secure and sustainable future for this species.


1.     All monitoring, ringing, and satellite tagging work is carried out under licence from the relevant UK statutory conservation agencies and under special licence from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), in strict accordance with the law and following protocols identified in Raptors: a field guide to surveying and monitoring. The satellite tags are extremely small, representing less than three per cent of body weight, and do not harm the birds.

 2.     Members of the public can follow the movements of Holly and Chance at http://www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife/

 3.     The hen harrier used to be a widespread and familiar bird in the uplands of Britain. However by 1900, Victorian persecution by game preservers and skin and egg collectors had pushed this bird of prey to extinction as a breeding species on the British mainland. Although the hen harrier has clawed back some of its lost ground, its diet of birds and small mammals, includes red grouse, thereby bringing the species into conflict with humans, despite special legal protection.

4.     At the last count during the National Hen Harrier Survey in 2010 there were 662 breeding hen harrier pairs in the UK; 505 in Scotland, 57 in Wales, 12 in England, 59 in Northern Ireland, 29 in Isle of Man. The next National Hen Harrier Survey will be carried out next year (2016).

5.     The Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project focuses on seven Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for breeding hen harriers in southern and eastern Scotland and northern England. The project is due to run for a total of five years. Find out more via this link: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife

 6.     LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument for the environment. It funds conservation and other environmental projects right across Europe. In 2014, the year in which this hen harrier project was funded, LIFE awarded a total of €17 million to organisations in the UK.

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