With spring around the corner, the RSPB is asking people who spend time in the Peak District to keep their eyes peeled for hen harriers, England’s most threatened birds of prey.
The nature conservation charity has relaunched its Hen Harrier Hotline with the aim of finding out where these birds might be breeding.
There is enough suitable habitat in the English uplands to give a home to at least 320 pairs of breeding hen harriers but last year there were only four successful nests in the whole country.
Amanda Miller, Conservation Manager for the RSPB in Northern England, says: “Sadly, hen harriers are a much rarer sight in the Peak District than they should be. But if you are lucky enough to see one, it’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry. The male’s courting ritual is a particularly stunning spectacle; a series of breathtaking swoops and somersaults that earns it the name Skydancer.”
Hen harriers are in trouble largely because of ongoing illegal persecution. In addition to their diet of small birds and mammals, hen harriers sometimes eat grouse, which brings them into conflict with the driven grouse shooting community. This type of shooting requires huge numbers of gamebirds and some game managers feel they need to illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their business.
A government-commissioned scientific report, published in 2011 (see note 1), found that illegal persecution continues to be the biggest single factor preventing the hen harrier’s recovery in England.
Amanda Miller continues: “Breeding hen harriers are so rare that any sighting is extremely important. We have dedicated staff and volunteers ready to protect nests around the clock but we can only do so if we know where they are. I would urge anyone who spends time in our beautiful uplands to keep an eye out for these stunning birds and get in touch with us if they see one.”
Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as “ghostbirds” because of the pale colour of their plumage.
Female hen harriers are slightly larger, owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have obvious horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname “ringtail” and a patch of white just above, on the rump.
The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reports
of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible.
The Hen Harrier Hotline is part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and United Utilities, with additional support from the Forestry Commission. For more information about the project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/skydancer.
This year, Skydancer’s monitoring and protection work will be getting an extra boost from the RSPB’s new European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, an ambitious, five-year project, which aims to expand on hen harrier conservation work across northern England, and southern and eastern Scotland. For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife. .