Natural England - Persecution is prime cause of hen harrier disappearance, says Natural England

Persecution is prime cause of hen harrier disappearance, says Natural England

22 December 2008

Grouse moors linked to persistent nesting failure in major Natural England study

Hen harriers in England continue to be persecuted and their recovery as a species hangs in the balance as a result, said Natural England today (Monday 22 December) as it published the results from the first phase of its national Hen Harrier Recovery Project.

The report - A Future for the Hen Harrier in England? - outlines the results of hen harrier monitoring since 2002 which provides compelling evidence of illegal hen harrier persecution in England. View the report here pdf document

Detailed monitoring work since 2002 has shown that the critically low breeding numbers and patchy distribution of the hen harrier in England is a result of persecution - both in the breeding season, and at communal roosts in the winter - especially on areas managed for red grouse or with game rearing interests.

The statistics make stark reading:

  • Between 2002-2008, the comparatively tiny area of Bowland in Lancashire accounted for over two thirds of all the 127 hen harrier breeding attempts recorded by Natural England as part of its intensive monitoring programme. Throughout the rest of England, only 19 breeding attempts were recorded on grouse moors, in spite of the suitability of the habitat.
  • Natural England's report shows that, outside of Bowland, persecution is the reason for the systematic disruption of hen harrier breeding attempts in areas that provide extensive and very suitable habitat and would otherwise support healthy hen harrier populations.
  • Of the 72 successful nests where hen harriers produced fledglings during the last seven years, 50 were in Bowland.
  • With the exception of the Bowland Fells grouse moors  nesting  attempts on grouse moors elsewhere were more than twice as likely to fail In areas managed for red grouse, only  26% of nests produced fledged chicks, compared with landholdings in the Bowland Fells where 65% of nests were successful.
  • The persecution continues for the small number of birds that do actually fledge from successful nests. There is further compelling evidence that this persecution continues during the winter at communal roosts.
  • Using tracking technology, Natural England has been collecting evidence that shows many birds are simply disappearing off the map. Over a 12 month period, six birds fitted with satellite transmitters have been tracked from the Bowland Fells into parts of the North Pennines managed principally as driven grouse moors, and have not been recorded subsequently. In another incident in one confined geographical area, three signals “went dead” between 2007-2008.

Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of Natural England said: “The hen harrier has unfortunately become the emblem of man’s callous disregard for the spectacular and majestic wildlife that we have in England.

“Following seven years of intensive monitoring and detailed research, the picture is unequivocal - hen harriers are being persecuted while they attempt to nest and birds are simply not returning to their breeding areas the following spring.”

Sir Martin continued:
“The hen harrier should have a much wider range than it does which begs the question why its breeding success is now restricted to one regular site. The simple answer is that this magnificent bird is being persecuted to the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England.

“Natural England is now looking to improve the fortunes of this species by examining the feasibility of reintroducing hen harriers to the lowland part of its former range.  We will be working with stakeholders to take this work forward in the New Year.” 

Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project monitors the remaining breeding birds in England.  One of the best places to catch a glimpse of the hen harrier is in Lancashire, on the Bowland Fells, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  This is the only area in England where the hen harrier has increased as a breeding bird since the start of the Project in 2002.

Bowland’s hen harriers have consolidated largely due to sympathetic gamekeepers and landowners including grouse moor owners and United Utilities plc.  Management and monitoring is carried out by staff from Natural England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and volunteer raptor workers.


Notes for editors:

Interviews with hen harrier experts, copies of the report and photographs of hen harriers are available from the Natural England press office on 0845 603 9953, out of hours 07970 098005.  For further information about Natural England please visit:

1. Hen harrier facts

Current status
The hen harrier breeds widely across Eurasia and North America.  About 800 pairs nest in the UK and Isle of Man, with most in Scotland.   The species has an unfavourable conservation status in Europe, is a red-listed UK Bird of Conservation Concern and appears on the Government’s section 41 list of priority species.


  • The hen harrier was once a widespread and fairly common bird in Britain and there are breeding records from many English counties from the early part of the 19th century. Numbers declined as a result of changes in habitat, for example the drainage and cultivation of marshes and heathland, and because of persecution by those seeking to protect poultry or gamebirds.
  • By the end of the 19th century the hen harrier had been lost from mainland Britain  and only a small population survived in the Hebrides off western  Scotland and on Orkney.
  • After the Second World War the hen harrier started to make a comeback, probably due to a reduction in the number of active gamekeepers and a corresponding drop in the intensity of persecution.
  • Northern England was re-colonised in the mid-1960s and in the 1970s and 1980s up to 25 nesting attempts were made each year in Cumbria, Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. It was hoped that this was just the start of a more complete recovery but this was not to be. The population did not increase further and, to the contrary, from the mid-1990s there has been a significant decline in the bird’s fortunes and a marked contraction of their breeding range.


  • Most hen harriers arrive back on their breeding grounds in March or April and the males and to a lesser extent females soon begin to indulge in spectacular, aerobatic display flights in order to attract a female.
  • Aerial displays between paired birds include turning over in flight with talons outstretched, rapid, roller-coaster chases and dramatic stoops towards the ground on folded wings.
  • Some males are polygynous and may be paired’ to as many as six different females in extreme cases. In Bowland and other parts of England this is a rare occurrence with most birds opting for a monogamous relationship.
  • The hen harrier has a strong association with heather moorland in England and nests are almost always sited so that the surrounding mature heather provides cover and protection.
  • Moorland management ensures that a range of heather ages is in place,  burning is a management tool used to burn off tall degenerative vegetation to ensure fresh heather growth, a food source of red grouse.
  • A clutch of 4-6 eggs is laid, usually in May, and incubated only by the female for about 30 days.


  • The chicks spend 30-40 days in the nest and are dependent on food brought in by the adult birds until they have learnt to hunt for themselves.
  • The male does the majority of the hunting until the chicks are about a fortnight old; he is then helped by the female who hunts in the nest vicinity while the male hunts usually further afield (up to 7 kms from nest). When returning with prey the male transfers food to the female at the nest in a breathtaking display of agility known as the food-pass. This involves the female flying up from the nest and snatching the prey in mid-air with her feet, just after it has been dropped from above by the male.
  • Although the hen harrier takes a wide range of different prey species, the diet in the breeding season is dominated by small birds and mammals. Voles and meadow pipits are important, particularly early in the breeding season, and skylarks, gamebirds and wader chicks are also taken regularly.


  • A small number of hen harriers remain on the moors outside the breeding season, but most move south to spend the winter in lowland areas within England or further south on mainland Europe. Flat landscapes with wide expanses of unbroken wetland, farmland or heath are favoured as they provide ideal conditions for the bird’s long foraging flights, low over the ground.
  • The English population is boosted in winter by variable numbers of immigrants from northern and central Europe and, in some years, the population is thought to be as high as 750 birds. Communal roosts often form and up to 20 birds may gather together to spend the night resting on the ground, concealed from potential predators within a reedbed or other rank vegetation.

2. Reasons for Hen harrier breeding failure in England 2002-2008

Failure reason - Definitions/qualifiers:

Persecution - (i) Bird or birds settle in an area and build a nest then leave the area/disappear or settle elsewhere, (ii) Nest built then destroyed, birds in area, (iii) Eggs/Chicks destroyed/removed

Fire- Active nest sites burned

Weather - Nests washed out, deserted nests, parents in area

Predation - Tangible evidence of natural nest predation such as tooth/mandible marks in smashed eggs, dead chicks

Lack of provisioning - Female not provisioned well by male, deserted eggs, lack of male sightings (food passes) female away from nest for long periods

Infertility - Eggs fail to hatch despite full incubation and subsequent analysis results

Unknown Instances - where no hard evidence was found at an empty nest that was once active

3. Birds of Prey Pledge
On 23 October this year, Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra and representatives from Natural England, RSPB, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and the National Trust put their names to a pledge recognising the importance of birds of prey to our natural heritage and stating there should be no place in England's future for the illegal killing of birds of prey. View the Natural England press release here.

4. The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime
Natural England is a member of The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW).  It is a multi-agency body comprising representatives of the organisations involved in wildlife law enforcement in the UK.  It provides opportunities for statutory and non-Government organisations to work together to combat wildlife crime. Its main objective is to promote the enforcement of wildlife conservation legislation, particularly through supporting the networks of Police Wildlife Crime Officers and officers from HM Revenue and Customs and UK Border Agency. A full list of partners can be found here

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