Keep an eye open for hen harriers in Northumberland

The RSPB is calling on people who spend time in Northumberland's remote hills and moorlands to look out for hen harriers, England’s most threatened bird of prey.

By Janet Hall
Monday, 01 April, 2019, 10:13
A male hen harrier in flight. Picture by RSPB

It has relaunched the Hen Harrier Hotline with the aim of finding out where these birds might be nesting in the region.

In spring, the male hen harrier performs his courtship display known as skydancing, involving a spectacular series of swoops and somersaults. If he attracts a female, he attempts to further impress her by passing food offerings in mid-air.

A female hen harrier. Picture by Tim Melling

Experts estimate there is enough suitable habitat in England for around 300 pairs of breeding hen harriers. But last year there were only nine successful nests in the whole country, three of which were in Northumberland.

Hen harriers are teetering on the verge of extinction in England because of ongoing illegal killing. As they sometimes eat red grouse, they are often unwelcome on moors managed for driven grouse shooting. This form of field sport requires huge numbers of red grouse and the RSPB says some game managers resort to illegally killing or disturbing harriers to protect their business.

A recent scientific study found that hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in areas with grouse moors than elsewhere.

The RSPB is calling for the introduction of vicarious liability (making game managers legally responsible for the actions of their staff) and a licensing system for driven grouse shooting, which would help stamp out illegal persecution and improve standards in the industry.

Amanda Miller, conservation manager for the RSPB in Northern England, said: “Last year’s breeding season was the best for a decade with nine successful nests, seven of which we played a key role in protecting. However, this is just a fraction of the number there should be and birds are continuing be illegally killed.

“We are asking farmers, wildlife watchers, walkers, fell runners, mountain bikers and anyone else who spends a lot of time in the hills in the North East to keep an eye out for hen harriers and let us know if they see one. It’s vital that we find out where they are breeding so we can protect the nests and give their chicks the best chance of survival.”

Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are also known as ghostbirds because of the paleness of their plumage.

Female hen harriers are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have 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 henharriers@rspb.org.uk Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.

The Hotline feeds into RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, a five-year programme of hen harrier conservation in England and Scotland. For more information, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife