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Only four breeding pairs of hen harriers left in England, survey finds

28 June 2017

Hen harriers have nearly disappeared from England, with the number of breeding pairs falling from 12 to four in the past six years, a study has found. Hen harriers prey on grouse chicks, and gamekeepers have been accused of targeting them to ensure that there are plenty of grouse to shoot.

The fifth national hen harrier survey was carried out in 2016 by the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group, along with a range of other UK partners, and covered the whole of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. The west Highlands continue to provide a home for the majority of Scotland's breeding harriers (estimated 175 breeding pairs), while Orkney and the Hebrides were the only areas of the country to show a slight increase in the number of these birds.

Scotland, which is home to 80 per cent of the United Kingdom population of hen harriers, saw its number of breeding pairs drop to 460 in 2016 from 505 six years earlier.

Hen harriers are the most threatened birds of prey in the United Kingdom, with conservationists blaming illegal persecution as well as the historic destruction of vital heather moorland and forestry habitats.

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Known for their majestic skydancing ritual, hen harriers are one of the most threatened birds of prey in the country.

He added: "Without purposeful action from all, including governments across the United Kingdom and the shooting industry, we may see hen harriers once again lost from more parts of the country".

"The illegal killing of this bird of prey is a significant factor behind the diminishing numbers and a large barrier stopping their recovery".

In Wales, there were just 35 pairs - the lowest figure in a decade - while Northern Ireland had 46 pairs, compared to the 2010 population of 59. "Without purposeful action from all, including governments across the United Kingdom and the shooting industry, we may see hen harriers once again lost from more parts of the country". Despite making a comeback, the species has remained rare, with a breeding population under 1,000 pairs making it vulnerable.

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Illegal killings are partly responsible for a fall in the number of hen harriers in Scotland, conservationists say.

Mr Harper said: "The hen harrier is one of our most wonderful birds of prey, to see one soaring through the air before dramatically diving down during its thrilling sky-dancing display is an iconic sight and one that will always take your breath way".

"Other pressures such as cold and wet weather conditions over a number of breeding seasons, changes in habitat management and low prey abundance could have all had an impact on numbers throughout the United Kingdom".

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Only four breeding pairs of hen harriers left in England, survey finds