Species on the edge
Described as one of the region’s most charismatic birds of prey, the hen harrier, also known as the northern harrier, was once widespread in the UK. However, this impressive species became extinct in mainland Britain at the turn of the 20th century as a result of persecution, only returning to England from Scottish island populations after World War II following land use changes and a decline in persecution.
Since the 1990s, populations of this species in England have fallen dramatically, with just 15 pairs breeding in the country in 2007. According to the RSPB, 2013 is the first year the species has not produced a chick in England since the 1960s, a situation which is considered by the organisation to be a huge setback.
The two nesting attempts, both of which occurred at sites in the north of England, were carefully monitored. At the County Durham nest site, although eggs were laid, the male deserted the site, forcing the female to abandon the nest in order to feed. In the second nesting attempt, which occurred in Northumberland, the eggs laid by the immature female were not viable, despite being incubated for the full term and the female being well tended to by the male.
“Just two pairs attempted to nest this year in England, but both failed,” said an RSPB spokesperson. “At one of these sites the RSPB was working with the landowner to ensure the nest was protected. Sadly, the eggs never hatched. While conservationists believe that this nest failed naturally, the government’s own wildlife advisers say that the population had been forced into this precarious position by illegal killing.”
A study carried out by government scientists reported that more than 300 pairs of hen harriers could be supported in England’s upland areas, but showed that illegal persecution through shooting, trapping and nest disturbance was preventing this species from flourishing.
Conflict with gamekeepers
The Moorland Association cites the long, cold winter as the cause of the failure of the nesting pairs this season, but the RSPB believes that gamekeepers working for rogue moorland estate owners are to blame for the hen harrier’s struggle to survive in England, persecuting the majestic birds of prey for killing grouse chicks.
“No new hen harriers this season means that the hen harrier is on the brink of extinction in England,” said RSPB spokesman Graham Madge. “Our belief is that on some estates there is a systematic approach to the removal of birds of prey. We are not asking that these people do anything more than respect the law. The loss is almost entirely due to the illegal persecution. It has to be by rogue grouse moor estates.”
While methods to control other grouse predators such as red foxes and crows have led to a boost in hen harrier numbers, this has also resulted in more grouse being taken. According to research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the loss of grouse could make grouse moor estates economically unviable.
The RSPB is involved in an initiative to provide alternative food sources for hen harriers to avoid such conflict, enabling the species to successfully live alongside managed grouse moors.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author