Circus cyaneus

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Posted by on Jun 30, 2014 in Blog | One Comment
Circus cyaneus

For many birders the post title will be instantly recognisable as the scientific name for the Hen Harrier but we’re conscious that not everyone supporting our campaigns to reduce wildlife crime and raise awareness of the issues, including those surrounding the Hen Harrier, will know much about the ‘Hen Harrier‘ as a species. Even some birders, sadly, may not have been fortunate enough to ever encounter one of these special birds of prey in the flesh, so we thought as we start building up toward Hen Harrier Day we would provide a little introduction…

Hen Harriers occur in Europe, Asia, North and South America. A medium sized diurnal bird of prey with a wing-span of 1-1.2m they are smaller than the closely related Marsh Harrier (a wetland species with up to 380 pairs breeding in the UK) but larger than other harrier species in the family. The Hen Harrier favours open habitats, generally avoiding steep rocky terrain, dense forests and large areas of open water. Outside the breeding season they often roost communally in areas undisturbed by man. Some northern populations are migratory and numbers in Britain in winter may increase with arrivals from the continent.

Agile with a notably ‘buoyant’ flight, male and female Hen Harriers look very different to each other. Males have soft grey upperparts and white underparts contrasting strongly with black wing-tips. Females and juveniles are brown above, streaked black and buff below with an obvious white rump and a banded tail; the latter is where the colloquial term ‘ringtail’ derives from, a word often used to describe a Hen Harrier in female/juvenile plumage.

Hen Harrier courtship is spectacular. In Spring males perform an incredible undulating display flight in which they can ‘loop the loop’ as well as repeatedly drop and rise in repeated steep flight-rolls. This display is known as ‘sky-dancing’, and from this amazing display the Hen Harrier earned its nickname of Skydancer!

In recent times the ‘Skydancer’ has suffered, particularly in Europe, from habitat destruction and persecution by man. Here in Britain they were almost wiped out in the 19th century by gamekeepers and the expansion of game shooting as a sport; by the 20th century they were confined to breeding on Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. The temporary removal of persecution during the Second World War (when many gamekeepers joined the armed forces), reduction in gamekeeping activity since that period and the species ability to utilise young post-war upland conifer plantations as breeding sites brought a partial recovery and recolonisation into mainland Scotland, and occasionally Northern England and Wales.

harrierMHHen Harrier (courtesy and copyright Michael Leach)

Why are they persecuted though? Hen Harriers chiefly eat meadow pipits and voles, but their diet can include grouse chicks, particularly where grouse numbers are engineered to be at artificially high levels by management regimes designed to encourage grouse coupled with the widespread removal of their native predators. Unwilling to accept any natural losses of ‘their birds’, for many years Hen Harriers have been the focus of illegal persecution by those willing to resort to criminality to inflate the returns of grouse moors even further. These criminal activities – often carried out by the same individuals delivering legal predator controls –¬†succeeded in almost removing the Hen Harrier as a breeding species from England and suppressing the Scottish population way below the carrying capacity of the habitat available.

There is little debate now whether persecution really is a problem or not. The RSPB says on its website that “Of the UK’s birds of prey, this is the most intensively persecuted”. A Natural England review of breeding attempts during 2002-2008 concluded “Of all birds of prey, the Hen Harrier is the most heavily persecuted in relation to population size in the UK. The significance of persecution for Hen Harrier populations is well-established: populations in Scotland have been proven to be limited by persecution (Redpath & Thirgood 1997); and models suggest that in the absence of persecution, numbers in Scotland would rapidly recover (Etheridge et al. 1997). Potts (1998) estimated that in the absence of persecution the English uplands would support 232 territorial females.

Such are the levels of ongoing persecution that rather than there being hundreds of breeding birds in England, in 2014 the English breeding population has been reduced to just three breeding pairs. Each one requires 24 hour nest monitoring to protect them from the attentions of criminals who would still target their removal.

Under UK law the people who kill or injure hen Harriers are criminals. It’s illegal to even disturb one while it’s nesting.

When we – a group of predominantly middle-aged birders, many of us with children just setting out to explore the natural world – formed BAWC it was these sad facts that were one of the key reasons that motivated us to try and make a difference. Whether it is the ghostly vision of a grey male cutting across a grey winter’s day on an English Fen, or the flash of a white rump from a hunting ‘ringtail’ against deep summer-pink heather in search of prey, we want to ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity for frequent encounters with this charismatic raptor as we’ve been fortunate enough to have.

It is clear to us that a generation or more may never feel the sheer unbridled joy of watching a male Hen Harrier dance across an English sky unless action is taken now.


Hen Harrier, male (courtesy & copyright Pete Walkden)


Hen Harrier Day, then, is our way of raising awareness that these birds are missing from much of our landscape and they are lost due, in the main, to illegal persecution carried out by criminals. 

Set for August 10th this year, Hen Harrier Day is deliberately close to the start of the grouse-shooting season, the so-called ‘Glorious Twelfth’. We make no secret of the fact that we chose this date deliberately, as this is the one time of the year when the attention of both the public and national media turns to our uplands.

We want everyone to be aware of the true cost to Hen Harriers of the illegal activities that some people still inflict upon them.

  • So we want the public to call ‘shame’ on the criminals that rob future generations of one of our most incredible native wildlife spectacles.
  • We want to see the culture that encourages and protects these criminals (often associated with grouse moor management) changed.
  • We want government to do more to deter this illegal activity through robust legislation and stiffer penalties for the few that get caught.
  • We want birders and the public to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the law, watching for the signs of illegal activity and informed about what to do if they discover it.

Above all we want Hen Harriers back where they naturally belong: on upland moors, in habitats already specially listed as Special Protection Areas (SPAs). And we want them safe from persecution.



1 Comment

  1. Lawrence Jones-Walters
    July 28, 2014

    What a great idea! I watched a couple of male Hen Harriers over the Hoge Veluwe National Park here in the Netherlands earlier this year and they are magical birds. I wish you luck with this excellent initiative. On small plea – would love you to use more plain English (alternatives to “diurnal” and “natal”, etc).
    Lawrence Jones-Walters


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