Adopt

Facts about the

Hen Harrier

Scientific name: Circus cyaneus

Bird Family: Kites, hawks and eagles

UK conservation status: Red

At a glance

  • Sexually dimporphic, the pale males are sometimes called ‘grey ghosts’, the brown females ‘ringtails’.
  • UK’s declining breeding population now almost entirely confined to the uplands.
  • One of the UK’s most persecuted birds of prey, many are killed illegally on grouse moors.

 

The once widespread Hen Harrier is one of three harrier species breeding in the UK (though for the first time in decades no Montagu’s Harriers bred in the UK in 2022 or 2023). The species is strongly sexually dimorphic: the males are largely a pale silver grey and sometimes known as ‘grey ghosts’, while the females are largely brown. Unlike the similar Marsh Harrier, both sexes have white rumps, leading the female Hen Harrier to be known colloquially as a ‘ringtail’.

Hen Harriers are birds of expansive, open landscapes – moorland in the breeding season and lowland hills and saltmarsh in the winter. Their long wings mean that they can’t manoeuvre through closed forestry to hunt for food (like for example Northern Goshawk). Instead they typically ‘quarter’ low over the ground, head down, looking for small birds and rodents.

On paper at least a highly-protected bird of prey, Hen Harriers have become a symbol of the wildlife crimes routinely committed on grouse moors. The breeding population here is now almost entirely confined to our uplands where it is relentlessly targeted and illegally killed.

Its ‘crime’? Amongst a diet that largely consists of small mammals like voles and small birds like Meadow Pipits, Hen Harriers take grouse chicks which they find in abundance on moorland shooting estates (where grouse numbers are kept unnaturally high for shooting). For that reason – and that reason alone – they have become one of the UK’s most heavily persecuted raptor species.

Research published by Natural England using lightweight satellite tags that track individual birds’ movements states that the likelihood of Hen Harriers dying or disappearing is ten times higher in areas covered by grouse moors (tagging has also provided compelling evidence of the link between suspicious Golden Eagle deaths and grouse moors in Scotland).

Across the UK as a whole, which has the habitat and space for as many as around 2600 pairs around a third of that number nest, and the population has declined by 13% since 2010. The situation in England is particularly bad. The Hen Harrier is close to extirpation (local extinction) as a breeding species – in some years no chicks at all are raised. On the English uplands the population should be 330 pairs: in 2014 there were just three.

There is no doubt at all, based on multiple field studies providing good evidence, that the main driver of declines in Hen Harrier populations is illegal persecution, causing a reduction in nesting success, annual productivity and the survival to breeding age of females. 

Female Hen Harrier

In 2021 there were 31 Hen Harrier breeding attempts with 24 successful, fledging 84 chicks. 2021 was hailed as a ‘record breeding year’ for Hen Harriers by shooting lobbyists.

However, their greenwashing attempt failed to also note that this ‘record’ was based against historic lows or that what was being counted was Hen Harrier chicks – once those chicks leave the relative safety of well-monitored nests their chances of survival out on the grouse moors are slim: providing of course they get to leave the nest at all and aren’t stamped to death in the nest like the four chicks (belatedly) highlighted in a North Yorkshire press-release in December 2022 (see Hen Harrier nest attacked and chicks stamped to death) which emerged six months after the event took place.

In November 2023 it was announced that 56% of all satellite-tagged hen harriers that have been brood meddled since 2019 are ‘missing’ in suspicious circumstances / have been illegally killed.

 
Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland.
A 2023 study concluded that Northern Ireland’s Hen Harrier population had dropped by more than a quarter in seven years.

Only 34 territorial pairs were recorded in Northern Ireland in 2023 – a drop of more than 26% since 2016.

A 2011 independent government report estimated there should be about 150 pairs of hen harriers breeding in Northern Ireland.

The study blamed “a range of land management activities and human-mediated threats, leading to extensive and ongoing losses of suitable habitats and widespread disturbances at nesting and foraging habitats”. 

 

Hen Harriers in Ireland.

In early 2024 BirdWatch Ireland warned that action was needed to prevent the extinction of the Hen Harrier in Ireland, after the population of the bird declined in many parts of the country, including the Slieve Bloom mountains in Laois and Offaly.

In Ireland, the Hen Harrier is now regarded as being more endangered than the Curlew and the Corncrake, two species whose threatened status has been highlighted in recent decades.

The charity said that any recovery plan must:

  1. Protect all nationally important Hen Harrier breeding and wintering grounds from afforestation, forest management activities, wind energy development and other pressures.
  2. Restore habitat across all nationally important breeding and wintering sites using clear restoration targets and timelines.
  3. Guarantee long-term support for farmers through well-funded results-based schemes across all nationally important breeding and wintering grounds.

 

Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) bird in the natural habitat.
The Raptor Persecution UK website keeps a running tally of Hen Harrier persecution.
In January 2024 the site stated that since 2018 at least 122 Hen Harriers have either been illegally killed or have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, most of them on or close to driven grouse moors. It went on to say that “there is no question that the grouse shooting industry is simply taking the piss”.
Many of these harriers are known to be young birds that have never had the chance to breed. Little wonder that the number of breeding age adults being seen on England’s moors are far fewer than would be expected if persecution wasn’t taking place.

The shooting industry should have no say whatsoever in what birds of prey get to live or die in the UK, and as we have said elsewhere, professional investigators are quite clear: if the grouse shooting industry didn’t exist, neither would crimes against the raptors that breed in our uplands.