Sadly, according to a recent RSPB report, the skydance will become an even rarer sight - the decline of this magnificent bird of prey as an English breeding species is reaching a critical phase as the hen harrier is ‘pushed towards extinction’, writes Linda Moore.
The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) appears to have spread steadily throughout the British Isles as the dense medieval forests were cleared, giving way to heathland and rough pasture. Known in literature and folklore by a host of names (a sure sign of enduring presence), – the ‘hen harroer’ was recognised as a pest by the 16th century.
Until the 19th century, confusion over male and female plumage led to the belief there were two species. The male was often known as a ‘blue hawk’ in recognition of his colouring, whilst the female was commonly known as a ‘ringtail’ – a term still in modern use.
By the late 18th century, the advance of agriculture across the southern counties of England, with the resultant drainage and enclosure of land, had begun to destroy habitat. Meanwhile, hill farmers and game keepers of the north and west, following contemporary dictates of good husbandry, routinely persecuted the hen harrier alongside most other ‘hook beaks’.
By the 1860s, the remaining breeding strongholds were in the Scottish Highlands and Eire. By 1900, apart from isolated reports, the hen harrier was no longer breeding in mainland Britain, with the residual breeding population located in Orkney and the Western Isles.
Continuing persecution kept numbers low, but a large part of Scotland was recolonised by the 1950s - it is believed forestry plantation, plus agricultural neglect during the Second World War, favoured this resurgence. Isolated pairs of breeding birds began to spread southwards back into Wales and northern England during the 1960s and further upland forestry in Scotland boosted numbers there in the 1970s.
During the latter half of the 20th century, enlightened attitudes towards wildlife brought protective legislation and pro-active conservation by national wildlife organisations and government into play. Land was acquired and set aside as conservation areas and nature reserves, allowing controlled public access benefiting wildlife and humans alike.
Specific moorland areas in Scotland and northern England became protected breeding areas for hen harriers, sometimes co-managed by conservation groups and sympathetic estate managers. However, tensions persist between grouse-shooting interests - held responsible for continued illicit trapping, poisoning and shooting - and conservationists, accused of harbouring ‘grouse killers’.
Legislative protection continues to deliver hope of a brighter future. The Hen Harrier Framework (2011), a government study, suggests England could sustain around 300 pairs of hen harrier in upland areas and highlights illegal persecution as the prime cause of the hen harrier’s decline and precarious status. In Biodiversity 2020, published in 2011, the UK government declares there should be ‘no extinction of an English wild species at the hands of man’.
Nationally, the work of the RSPCA, RSPB, National Trust and similar organisations protects harriers and other wildlife from persecution and environmental threats. Individuals too can support this work at a local level in a number of ways, as suggested below:
Membership - active membership of national and/or local wildlife and birding groups can help to sustain ongoing projects vital to arrest the decline of harriers and many other species.
Volunteering - many groups will offer opportunities for like-minded individuals to undertake a host of hands-on support tasks.
Observation - wintering hen harriers can be seen in many areas England from October to March and the public are encouraged to record and report sightings (include details of gender and behaviour). Any sightings during the breeding season, late March to September, are, of course, especially significant.
Report crime - disturbance and other illegal activities are extremely harmful and wildlife organisations recommend all such incidents should be reported.
Hen Harrier Hotline
If you think you’ve seen a hen harrier please let us know by calling or emailing the RSPB. Information on what it looked like, where it was (grid reference if possible), and what it was doing (eg flying north, hunting, carrying nesting material) can help the RSPB keep to track of these birds and identify where they might be nesting.
To Report a sighting
Tel: 0845 4600121*
Author Bio: Linda Moore works at livingwithbirds.com, she is passionate about the environment and particularly the wildlife of the avian variety.
Linda often travels around the UK volunteering with the British Trust for Ornithology.