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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

More than 100 hen harriers fledge in England for the first time in over 100 years.

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Biodiversity, Hen Harriers, Licensing, Protected sites and species, Wildlife

By: John Holmes, NE Strategy Director

This year has seen another encouraging increase in the breeding population of one of our rarest birds of prey. Natural England and partners are pleased to report that a total of 49 hen harrier nests were recorded, and 119 chicks took to the skies. This is the first time in over 100 years that more than 100 hen harrier chicks have successfully fledged in England, showing real progress in efforts to protect and restore their numbers.

Hen harriers currently breed on moorland in upland areas of northern England. Lancashire remains the stronghold, with 18 nests in the Bowland region, and there was also a cluster of territories in Northumberland (nine nests). There were ten nests across the Yorkshire Dales and Nidderdale region, seven in the North Pennines, and five in the Peak District. This represents an encouraging increase in numbers across their breeding range compared to the recent past.

While 49 nests were recorded, not all were successful. Fifteen failed, including failures subsequently investigated by police, meaning the 119 chicks came from 34 successful nests. On a number of occasions, the same pair re-nested after a failure, and the total also includes polygamous groups where one male has several nests. The number of actual breeding pairs will therefore be smaller than the number of nests.

Hen harriers were driven to extinction in mainland Britain in the 19th century and have remained rare since recolonising England in the 1960s. This is due to illegal persecution and disturbance, primarily in areas associated with grouse shooting. The Hen Harrier Action Plan, published by Defra in 2016, sets out a number of actions aiming to increase hen harrier numbers, mostly designed to reduce conflict with grouse shooting interests and associated persecution. These include supporting police detection and enforcement of bird of prey crime, as well as licensing other activities intended to promote the coexistence of hen harriers and grouse shooting, such as the provision of substitute food to nesting harriers (diversionary feeding) and a trial of brood management. Work on all of these actions has been under way over the past six years, and careful analysis, particularly of survival rates, will be required to better understand which actions have helped to drive the increases in numbers we are seeing, and to set the direction for future work to sustain them.


Graph showing hen harrier breeding figures

A broad partnership effort
This year, hen harriers nested on land managed for a number of purposes, often in combination, including forestry, water quality improvements, carbon sequestration, amenity, nature conservation and driven grouse shooting. We are grateful for the efforts of all of our partners to monitor, protect and manage Hen Harrier nests and breeding habitats. We work closely with RSPB staff who monitor nesting attempts on RSPB reserves, and in Bowland through liaison with landowners and managers. We are also grateful for the contributions of volunteer Raptor Study Groups to nest monitoring, and to landowners and authorities including National Parks & AONBs, the National Trust and Forestry England.

Natural England field staff lead on liaison with privately-owned grouse shooting estates, working in partnership with those land managers that are encouraging hen harriers to nest successfully alongside their wider estate management for grouse and other wildlife. Natural England staff organise the monitoring and tagging of these nests, and provide support and guidance on diversionary feeding and brood management. We recognise the efforts put into these activities by these estates and their staff, as well as those of our other partners in the Brood Management Trial. The total number of 119 fledglings this year includes 13 brood-managed chicks, taken from four nests on grouse moors and reared to fledging in captivity. We were pleased that all 13 were released as healthy full-grown birds, and also to see brood-managed birds from previous years breeding successfully (five individuals, producing 10 chicks between them in 2022). A formal assessment and evaluation of both the practicalities of this technique and its role in changing attitudes to hen harriers will inform a decision on its future role.

Satellite tagging
Natural England field staff have fitted satellite tags to 18 of this year's fledglings to learn about their movements and causes of any deaths. The total includes 12 Moorland Association funded tags fitted to brood-managed birds (one was released untagged as a welfare precaution) and six tags fitted to nestlings from wild nests (named Jenny, Bernie, Craig, Reuben, Penelope and Nicola). All of these have been added to the table of tagged birds published on the update page. Together with the 14 birds tagged in previous years that are still alive and transmitting, we are now tracking 32 birds.

Since the last update in March six of the tagged birds monitored by Natural England have been lost; either confirmed or presumed dead. As covered in our previous blog, ‘actions taken when a tagged bird is lost’, no efforts are spared to find and determine the cause of death of tagged birds, working with our partners in the Police and always considering the possibility that they could have been illegally killed. In March, a 2021 brood-managed bird, R1-M2-21, was found dead. Tests including a post mortem examination were carried out, led by our partners at the Institute of Zoology, during which the bird was found to have been suffering from symptoms of respiratory disease and tested positive for avian influenza (AI) virus and Capillaria spp nematode worms, either, or both, of which may have been associated with death. This was a concerning finding, and we are considering the implications of AI on our investigations into bird deaths and our wider Hen Harrier work.

The four other birds lost since March are:

  • Lydia, who has not been recovered, but whose tag last transmitted from an area near a goshawk nest in Northumberland, where goshawks are known to predate hen harriers;
  • Free, who was recovered and the circumstances of whose death are under investigation by the police;
  • Harvey, who has not been recovered and whose fate is unknown; but whose disappearance is linked to an ongoing police investigation;
  • Dru, who was shown by nest camera footage to have been killed by a predator at the nest, defending her chicks who went on to fledge successfully.

Any further findings and results of investigations will be covered in future blog posts.

Next steps
Some elements of this hen harrier recovery work have remained controversial, but we remain committed to strengthening our partnerships to tackle persecution and effectively support hen harrier recovery. This increase in breeding numbers in 2022 is really encouraging and we would like to thank all those who are working to support a continued increase in breeding hen harriers.

These include: Natural England, Defra, RSPB, Forestry Commission, Moorland Association, United Utilities, National Trust, Hawk and Owl Trust, International Centre for Birds of Prey, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Northumberland National Park Authority, Peak District National Park Authority, Nidderdale & Forest of Bowland Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, local police forces and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, various Estates and their representatives, and individuals including landowners, farmers, academic researchers and volunteer raptor enthusiasts.

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  1. Comment by ALAN DICKINSON posted on

    Unless you and the police make greater efforts to prosecute the game keepers on the moors that are killing birds of prey this will be a hollow victory

  2. Comment by Deb Shaw posted on

    What proportion of the successful nests were on managed grouse moorland? I have seen a figure of 75%

  3. Comment by Rowena Millar posted on

    Good news on the whole but to me, driven grouse shooting seems wrong in this century, given the current need to restore peatland for protecting dwindling native wildlife, for retaining water in cases of drought or flooding, and also for carbon sequestration. Grouse shooting will soon, I hope, be considered an antiquated custom like bear baiting, badger baiting, man traps, cock fighting and caging native songbirds. What is the purpose of it? Both 'sport' and money?

  4. Comment by Debbie Shaw posted on

    I have read that 75% of the nests are on managed grouse moors. Is this true?

  5. Comment by rob yorke posted on

    Great news on the direction of travel towards restoring hen harriers across England and well done to all those involved.

    I was lucky enough to see some of these raptors last week on grouse moors in northern England; here’s a 1 min vlog I posted on twitter

    Best wishes

    Rob Yorke, indpt environmental dialogue broker

  6. Comment by Kevin Clements posted on

    It's great to see that the numbers of breeding attempts and fledged birds continue to increase, but such achievements will sadly be diminished by ongoing persecution of the species. Continued tracking of birds will help to tackle such crime and liaison with partners and prosecution of offenders must be sustained.

    What specifically has the £75k from BASC been spent on with regards to Hen Harrier conservation work this year?

    Thank you.

    • Replies to Kevin Clements>

      Comment by Natural England posted on

      It was announced by BASC in March 2022 that they were making a financial contribution to Natural England’s work to support hen harrier recovery (see here) over a three-year period. This funding is supporting a range of actions under the hen harrier action plan including winter roost monitoring and work by Natural England staff to provide practical advice and guidance to land managers in relation to the diversionary feeding of hen harriers.

      • Replies to Natural England>

        Comment by Debbie Shaw posted on

        Just to repeat my unanswered question- I have read that 75% of the successful nests are on managed grouse Moorland.
        Is this true? If so what is the difference in management techniques that contributed to this success rate

        • Replies to Debbie Shaw>

          Comment by Natural England posted on

          Natural England has not undertaken an analysis of the percentage of nests on land managed for grouse shooting. Birds have bred successfully on land managed for a range of different purposes (often multiple purposes on the same site), at a range of different intensities, and owned by a range of individuals and organisations committed to hen harrier recovery. Future work planned to evaluate the success of hen harrier recovery efforts will seek to review levels of persecution and breeding success both on grouse moors and away from grouse moors/on land managed for different purposes.

  7. Comment by Thomas shanta posted on

    This is extremely encouraging and hopefully indicates a change in long-term trends (finally) for the species and other birds of prey directly impacted by game bird management. Anecdotally, there has appeared to be more sightings of wintering birds on the moors of Devon and Cornwall (i saw several myself). I think whilst NE should take much credit for this, we should not forget the tireless and thankless roles the likes of Mark Avery, Ruth and Chris etc. They stuck their heads personally on the line for this, often criticised, ridiculed, even threatened. If it wasn't for them we would not be talking so positively now as they ignited the flame and forward progression our organisation (directors) needed.

    • Replies to Thomas shanta>

      Comment by Natural England posted on

      Thomas – we too are encouraged by these figures and truly hope that this represents a sustained change in the fortunes of this species. We are committed to continuing to work in partnership to boost hen harrier numbers and tackle illegal persecution.

    • Replies to Thomas shanta>

      Comment by nigel bastin posted on

      As an independent raptor researcher in the south west of England it's very encouraging to see more over wintering harriers let's all hope and prey that attitudes change within the shooting fraternity especially in northern England, I monitor Goshawks in the south west which seem not to be so targeted as in the past but again up north both harriers and Goshawk are still persecuted but attitudes are slowly changing for the better.

  8. Comment by Alan Cranston posted on

    In the section headed 'Satellite Tagging', the second para mentions 6 birds lost, but subsequently only 5 are mentioned. What happened to the sixth? Comparison of the spreadsheets does not seem to help.

    • Replies to Alan Cranston>

      Comment by Natural England posted on

      With apologies, the mention of six was an error on our part, this should read five. This can be seen on the update spreadsheet, which shows five birds with 'last contact' dates between March and August 2022

  9. Comment by Keith Cowieson posted on

    Excellent news, and an emphatic vindication of the Hen Harrier Action Plan (HHAP) for its designers and promoters - very well done!

    One question though, where are we with the Southern Reintroduction element of the HHAP?