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The plight of the Hen Harrier… and a special day for a special bird

Posted: Thursday 17th July 2014 by TheWildlifeTrustsBlogger

Hen Harrier (credit:Amy Lewis)

Steve Trotter on a bird on the brink - the hen harrier - and Hen Harrier Day (10 Aug), a public event to say no to illegal persecution of hen harriers

The illegal persecution of birds of prey is an issue that, sadly, has refused to go away. Despite the advances we’ve made as a society it keeps happening – see here , here , here , here , here and here for some examples from 2014, from all over the UK. However this year has also seen a renewed effort by campaigners to keep the issue in the spotlight, most noticeably through a campaign for a special day on 10 August – Hen Harrier Day - to draw attention to the illegal persecution this species suffers.

hen harriers should be lighting up the skies in some of our country’s wildest places.

The Wildlife Trusts are totally opposed to the illegal persecution of all wildlife – including hen harriers - and we have added our support to Hen Harrier Day to oppose the illegal persecution of one of the UK’s rarest birds. This is a peaceful demonstration on 10 August, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Mark Avery , against the illegal killing of hen harriers, with events taking place in the north of England. For more information and to register for the event go here .

The hen harrier is an iconic species. The combination of its beauty, charisma and rarity make this a highly cherished and valued bird. Hen harriers are particularly associated with heather moorland where they breed in deep vegetation like tall heather, rushes or bracken. They hunt by quartering the moors – almost floating across the hillsides in the search for prey rather like day flying owls. Hen harriers prey on a range of small animals – mostly mammals like voles but also small birds and insects.

For a few weeks in late May and June, hen harriers will predate on grouse chicks whilst the chicks are small, abundant and easy to hunt. This brings them into conflict with grouse moor managers who rely on plentiful supplies of grouse for shoots which will take place later in the summer and autumn. For the remainder of the year, red grouse are pretty much immune from predation by harriers because of their size.

The grouse shooting industry is sensitive to the presence of hen harriers because of the view that predation by harriers could reduce the numbers of grouse dramatically and make shooting uneconomic. So the hen harrier finds itself in a predicament faced by so much of our wildlife, trying to find a foothold in the face of competing demands for habitat, space and land.

But the hen harrier is closer to the edge – and in need of more help – than most species. In 2013, there were no successful breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – and in 2014 there are reports of just three nesting attempts. Assessments of the available habitat in England suggest that several hundred breeding pairs could be sustained (see here ). 

The Wildlife Trusts have a number of nature reserves in upland areas across the country to protect upland habitats and species like mountain hare, red grouse, peregrine falcon and curlew. In some places Wildlife Trusts also work in partnership with other moorland owners and managers who want to help restore habitats like peat bogs on the land they own. For example, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has worked with landowners to help to restore almost 100 square miles of damaged peatland habitat over the past five years through the Yorkshire Peat Partnership which it coordinates. As well as restoring habitats for wildlife, blocking drains and reseeding areas of exposed bare peat helps to lock up more carbon and store more water on the moors for longer. This can reduce flooding downstream and help to improve the quality of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

Almost everyone has an interest in preventing the illegal persecution of hen harriers. It will help the birds to recover, it will help conservation organisations and the police who can divert their resources to other much-needed work and it will help responsible land managers who do not tolerate crimes against birds of prey on their land, whose reputation would no longer be damaged by those who choose to act outside the law. 

Last year Robert Benson, Chairman of the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners and managers, said: " The Moorland Association condemns any act of wildlife crime .. " and in his view " the vast majority of those living and working in the uplands of England and Wales respect the law ." 

I'm pleased to hear this condemnation and we look forward to working with the Moorland Association and other moorland managers to secure the future health and vibrancy of our uplands complete with the full range of very special plants and animals which depend on them - including hen harriers. The Wildlife Trusts want to see the recovery of this master of the skies – people should have the right and opportunity to be inspired by the sight of a hen harrier lighting up the skies in some of our country’s wildest places.

Stephen Trotter is Director for The Wildlife Trusts in England. He is passionate about moorlands and spent many years working in the Peak District. He spends much of his life outside work tramping across the rooftops of England in search of wildness and wildlife. 

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