Seeing raptors in flight is a breath-taking experience – the way they glide, pirouette and dive is among the most spectacular behaviour in the animal kingdom. Some of the most intricate patterns come from the Hen Harrier as it ducks and weaves to find small mammals like voles and mice. For those who aren’t aware it is the most endangered bird of prey in the UK, due to repeated illegal hunting by gamekeepers on shooting estates, particularly in red grouse areas in which the bird hunts. Since 2000, 20 gamekeepers have been found guilty of raptor persecution.
Despite their status as the UK’s most endangered bird of prey, few people know about them as they are so rarely seen. Hen harriers can be recognised by distinctive colours for males and females. Males are blue-grey with a pale underside and black wingtips. Females are brown on top with a white rump and banded tail. As recently as 2013 hen harriers failed to nest successfully despite an abundance of habitat areas. Last year there were only four breeding pairs in the UK.
A recent dispute has cropped up in Bowland, with claims that grouse hunters are deliberately killing hen harriers to protect the grouse for the coming season. The Forest of Bowland is a popular hunting area in which the RSPB has called for better management. RSPB representative, Graham Jones said “there is just the perception that having harriers around is bad for grouse” and that the birds contribute to actively flushing them out.
The RSPB has sought to raise awareness by introducing the Skydancer campaign in October 2011. The four year project was devised to protect and promote the conservation of hen harriers across Northern England. They recently worked with The Haltwhistle Film Project to create an informative and beautiful hen harrier awareness video you can watch here.
You can help protect hen harriers by becoming active in campaigns like Skydancer and report on the sighting on the birds. Current locations have them set in Northern Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Wildlife Trusts are also working with farmers and landowners towards a network of habitats across the UK called a ‘Living Landscape’ aimed at conserving harrier habitats.
Outside of the UK, hen harriers are under less risk. We should take the opportunity to help reintroduce the bird while we still can, otherwise they could be gone altogether from the English countryside in a few short years.