Sunday book review – The Hen Harrier (2nd edition) by the late Donald Watson

This is a classic book – and one which was given to me by a girlfriend as a Christmas present 40 years ago.  It has been with me ever since and right now it sits within reach on the shelf above my desk.

I was asked to write the Foreword for  this book and was delighted, and honoured, to do so. But when a hard copy of the new edition arrived through the post a while ago I was keen to see how it looked and how the plates had been reproduced.

Donald Watson (1918-2005) was a fine artist and this book contains most of the original edition’s line drawings and the colour plates. They show Watson’s skill at depicting birds in their landscapes and as portraits. I’m not so sure about the jacket illustration for this new edition – it’s a striking cover but in a style very far from Watson’s own. Does it complement or jar – your choice, and I’m undecided?

Why reissue a book from the 1970s now? Well, first of all the interest in Hen Harriers is higher than ever before and second hand copies of this Poyser volume are both rare (probably because, like me, owners wouldn’t want to part with them) and expensive. But the book also deserves a wider audience now. I’ve re-read the whole volume and there are very few places where the book feels dated. The information is still a useful source, the anecdotes are still interesting and the artist’s insights are fascinating.  This is also partly an account of a field study and it gives a good flavour of how it feels to be studying a bird of which the author was clearly very fond.

Watson’s study of forest-nesting Hen Harriers was breaking new ground at the time and it remains a fine record of this aspect of their ecology.

Even then, the Hen Harrier was a controversial bird and Watson sets out a lot of the arguments and issues that still occupy us four decades later.

I’m very pleased to have this attractive new edition of a Poyser classic sitting next to the first edition as I sit at my computer.

And, in case you are wondering about the girlfriend…reader, she married me.


The Hen Harrier (2nd edition) by Donald Watson is published by Bloomsbury on Thursday 13 July.


What would Donald Watson have made of the clutch of Hen Harrier Day events that are planned for this year on the 5th August and 6th August? I think he would have been heading off either to Loch Leven on 5th or the Forest of Bowland on 6th to show his support for the bird he loved.

I’m pretty sure he would also have supported Findlay Wilde’s thunderclap. as have so many others who love this bird and want its persecution to end.







Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury for reviews see here.  ‘A powerful indictment of the grouse-shooting industry and its illegal shooting and propaganda war against the Hen Harrier‘ – The Guardian




4 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Hen Harrier (2nd edition) by the late Donald Watson”

  1. The prints in this volume must be very similar to the ‘In search of Harriers’ published by Langford Press except many of the prints in the older volume are 10″ by 12″ making Donald’s work even more appreciable.

    1. John – the Langford Press book is delightful too (and thank you for reminding me of something). But it isn’t the ‘older volume’ as the book reviewed here is a reprint of a book from the 1970s (as the review states) with the illustrations that Watson chose to accompany his words.

  2. And that girlfriend even dresses up as a hen harrier for you! There’s devotion.

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