A record-breaking year for hen harrier breeding
Natural England has recorded the best year for hen harrier breeding in England since Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project was established in 2002, with 60 chicks fledged from 19 nests across Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria and Lancashire in early summer 2020.
The success has been down to a number of factors including high numbers of voles which are a key food source, good weather, and strong partnership working between Natural England, RSPB, Forestry Commission, the Moorland Association, United Utilities, the National Trust, and others.
Hen harriers were once found across upland and lowland Britain including throughout many English counties, however after 1830 it became an exceptionally rare breeding bird in England due to raptor persecution, which was then made illegal in 1954. The hen harrier is now one of England’s rarest birds of prey.
Hen harriers are one of our most distinctive birds, with a characteristic owl-like face and stiff facial feathers that direct sound toward their ears to enable them to hunt more effectively.
Tony Juniper, Chairman of Natural England, said:
“2020 has seen the best breeding season for England’s hen harriers in years and I thank all those who’ve helped achieve this wonderful result, including landowners and managers, campaigners, conservation groups, police officers and our own Natural England staff and volunteers.
Despite the great progress there is though no cause for complacency. Too many birds still go missing in unexplained circumstances and I urge anyone who is still engaged in the persecution of these magnificent creatures to cease at once.
Hen harriers remain critically endangered in England and there is a long way to go before the population returns to what it should be.”
This year’s success means that 141 hen harrier chicks have fledged over the past three years alone. Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project was established in 2002 to monitor hen harriers and work towards improving their numbers in England.
Although persecution is thought to be the main factor limiting hen harrier numbers in England, other factors including the suitability of local habitats and food availability are also significant in some areas.
Natural England is involved in a number of initiatives to help ensure hen harriers recover including through Defra’s hen harrier joint action plan.
- satellite tracking to improve understanding of the bird’s movements and behaviour;
- supporting wildlife friendly habitat management in the uplands; and,
- working with a range of partners to protect the current population and extend its range across England.
Dr Adam Smith of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), said:
“This is a very promising result for a pragmatic conservation project. Management options for bird of prey conservation rather than just legal enforcement is very forward thinking approach. The GWCT has studied the very real tension between harrier conservation and grouse shooting for over 30 years. Until this managed approach was adopted – at no small risk to the reputations of all involved – there was a damaging deadlock.
“If this trend can be maintained and hen harrier conservation status further improved, whilst supporting the red grouse management that best delivers our unique heather uplands, it will be a real breakthrough for practical, working conservation.”
Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, added:
“Yet again, it has been a fantastic year for hen harriers and we have now seen significant increases in successful nests and chick numbers for three years running as part of the hen harrier Recovery Plan which includes the innovative Brood Management Scheme trial.
Twelve of the nests reported today are on land managed for grouse shooting and this reflects a genuine commitment from moor owners and managers to work with others and help rebuild the harrier population.”
Hen harriers lay 4-6 eggs during late April–May, with incubation lasting 30 days. Hen harrier chicks then fledge in 28-32 days. Both females and males attend the young, with the males providing food which is often passed mid-air to the female in a distinctive display of ‘throw and catch’.
A high proportion of this year’s chicks have been fitted with satellite tags, which will allow Natural England to monitor the progress of the birds as they move away from their nest areas.
There’s always plenty to say about Hen Harriers, Natural England and their mates in the shooting industry but let us start with the facts of the case – this has been a good year for Hen Harriers and it does look as though there is an upward trend in nesting numbers and fledged young. That is to be welcomed and we should thank all those Field Voles and all that good weather that made this year’s success possible.
The last three years’ data are:
That is an increasing number of nests and fledged young and I welcome that – I think we all should. It looks like progress, slow progress, but progress nonetheless. And do have a look at previous years back to 2002 (see here) – there is no doubt that things have got better (not good enough, but definitely better).
Leaving aside for now (I’ll come back to them) the quotes from GWCT and the Moorland Association, it’s not a bad press release although it is a bit thin on information.
We’re not given a breakdown of where the nests were which is a bit of a shame, but we know that 6 of the nests were in Northumberland and produced 18 of the fledged young. We can expect that several of the others were in Bowland and maybe the RSPB will release those data some time soon. Also we know that there were two brood-meddled nests, and those had three close neighbouring nests, and that these were in North Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Dales. We also know that the two brood-meddled nests produced 8 fledged young but we don’t know how many young fledged from the neighbouring nests. And we don’t know whether the brood-meddled nests are included in the figures above (because the press release doesn’t say) but I assume that they are.
So 6 nests in Northumberland, at least 5 nests (including two brood-meddled) in Yorkshire, at least 1 nest in Cumbria (because the press release says so) and some in Lancashire (presumably in that part of Bowland which is in Lancashire). Would a table of nests by county be too much to ask?
If, again, one simply ignores the quotes from GWCT and the Moorland Association there is no mention of how great grouse moors are and there is no mention of broodmeddling being anything to do with this increase – in fact Natural England, quite sensibly, ascribe the good year to vole numbers and good weather (and partnership working which is a bit difficult to see as a causal factor in the demography of any species).
And Tony Juniper’s quote isn’t bad in that it celebrates the good year, says there is a long way to go and castigates those responsible for persecution of Hen Harriers.
It’s a pity that Natural England (and, of course, DEFRA) can’t ever bring themselves to say that persecution is the main reason for Hen Harrier’s low numbers and it is overdue for Natural England to say so at moments like this – after all it is Natural England’s own study, analysed cleverly, eventually, by others, that nailed this as ‘known to be’ in that there is no strong competing explanation (see here) rather than ‘thought to be’. It can’t help that Natural England still aren’t allowed a press office and they send everything out through DEFRA.
So, a good year for Hen Harriers in England is to be welcomed. And a half-decent press release from Natural England (though lacking some of the most basic of factual details and not quite being able to admit the role of crime in the uplands) is to be seen as a small improvement too.
But there are other things to say about Natural England’s press release and I’ll come back to them.