IT’S Britain’s most persecuted bird, yet one of its most beautiful.
The hen harrier, once the pride of the Peak District winter, no longer soars over the peat and heather of Derbyshire’s moorland.
A new survey shows just four breeding pairs in England.
Such is the threat to its survival that Royal Society For the Protection of Birds officers believe a wet spring or a fire at the wrong time of year and the hen harrier could become extinct.
Birds still drift in to escape the worst of the winter weather elsewhere, but English harriers have all but disappeared.
Star wildlife columnist and world-renowned authority on environmental issues Professor Ian Rotherham sees the threat to the harrier as a major environmental issue.
“The hen harrier is the most charismatic bird of the high moors, drifting effortlessly over peat bog and heather in search of small birds and mammals,” said Ian, Director of the Tourism and Environmental Change Research Unit at Sheffield Hallam University.
“Surprisingly, the Peak was the place to see them in the 1970s and 1980s, with breeding birds and especially winter roosts of 10 or more. The almost white, silver-grey males and the contrasting brown females and juveniles known as ‘ringtails’ due to their characteristic white rump, would gather at a very few favoured sites in the late afternoon.
“It was worth every minute of the bitter winter chill to see these beautiful birds.
“Birders came from all over the north and midlands to witness these remarkable gatherings.
“Sadly today you have little chance of seeing a hen harrier as numbers have plummeted nationally and locally. It would be great to get them back.”
The absence of the birds marks one of the most worrying environmental failures in recent decades.
Though not all will mourn their passing.
Illegal killing is the major reason why the hen harrier could be absent as a breeding bird from England in as little as five years.
Hen harriers breed on moors and upland, which are also the key habitat exploited by the multi-million-pound grouse industry.
The harriers prey on voles and pipits, but they will kill and eat grouse. As a result, harriers and gamekeepers have been mortal enemies for decades and in recent years Derbyshire has had the second highest number of crimes against birds of prey in the country.
The 14 alleged crimes in the county in 2008 included the suspected poisoning of buzzards, the unexplained ‘disappearance’ of hen harriers and the shooting of peregrine falcons.
The birds are protected by law and killing a hen harrier now carries a fine of up to £5,000 or six months in prison.
The RSPB says that the main hindrance in stopping the illegal killings is that gathering the evidence necessary to bring individual prosecutions is extremely difficult.
It now wants protection laws to be beefed up by a move towards ‘vicarious liability’ where landowners can be held accountable for crimes committed by their staff.
The bird has only been back in England for around 50 years after recolonising after extinction in the late 19th century.
But there is hope that the birds could one day be re-established in the Peak District.
A project at Langholm Moor, in the Scottish Borders, is trialling a measure known as ‘diversionary feeding’, where an alternative food supply is left for the harriers, so they won’t be tempted to take grouse chicks.
Preliminary results show no grouse chicks have been brought to monitored hen harrier nests in four years.
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: “With only four pairs of hen harrier in England, this bird only has four steps before extinction and the Government has very little time to act to prevent breaking their promise. We believe the potential for diversionary feeding will provide a lifeline for the recovery of the English hen harrier and a way for grouse moor managers to maximise the number of grouse.”
The loss of the bird would also represent a huge embarrassment for the Government, explains RSPB bird of prey officer Jeff Knott.
“Quite apart from the almost unbelievable situation that our modern society could allow a species to be illegally killed into English extinction, it would also result in the Government failing on its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to prevent any human-induced extinctions by 2020.
“Despite this, the Government doesn’t appear to have a coherent plan for how to save the species and it’s difficult to point to any meaningful action they are taking.”
The image of a hen harrier quartering and then lifting suddenly over frozen, dusk fields is one of the most bewitching spectacles of our wildlife calendar.
Sadly it’s a sight that may soon become a distant memory once more.
The conflict on the moors today is hen harriers versus grouse
IT’S a tough life for a hen harrier.
Of the UK’s birds of prey, the hen harrier is the most intensively persecuted.
Once feeding on free-range fowl, earning its name, its effect on the number of grouse available to shoot is the cause of modern conflict and threatens its survival in some parts of the UK, particularly on the driven grouse moors of England and Scotland.
While males are a pale grey colour, females and immatures are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail which give them the name ‘ringtail’. They fly with wings held in a shallow ‘V’, gliding low in search of food, which mainly consists of meadow pipits, voles small birds and mammals.
The Orkney population is famous for being polygynous, with males sometimes simultaneously mated to multiple females.
The hen harrier lives in open areas with low vegetation.
In the breeding season UK birds are to be found on the upland heather moorlands of Wales, Northern England, N Ireland and Scotland (as well as the Isle of Man). Once a regular visitor to the Peak District, they are rarely found in our region today.
In winter they move to lowland farmland, heathland, coastal marshes, fenland and river valleys.
Those found in eastern and south-east England are probably mostly visitors from mainland Europe.
They arrive back on upland breeding areas from late March and stay there until August and September.
Away from breeding areas birds can be seen from October to March and continental birds will join residents in October and November.
Hen harriers - the facts
Latin name: Circus cyaneus from the family of Hawks, vultures and eagles (Accipitridae).
Experts believe that England’s uplands have the potential to support at least 320 pairs of hen harrier.
The bird is named for its historical habit of preying on free-range fowl. For more information, visit www.rspb.org.uk
The RSPB has recently launched the Skydancer project with over £300,000 financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project, which is designed to help the hen harrier recover across northern England, will provide a mix of community engagement and direct conservation work over four years.
The Skydancer project is named after the male hen harrier’s rollercoaster aerial display, known as ‘skydancing’.