Natural England
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England’s rarest bird of prey perilously close to being lost

Only six successful hen harrier nests in 2009

Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, together with the RSPB, has recorded the worst hen harrier breeding figures since monitoring work began and its status as an English breeding bird is now on the brink.

A harsh winter and a possible shortage of prey in spring meant some pairs failed to breed, while those that did had fewer chicks.

While there is no evidence of illegal killing or nest destruction associated with this year’s breeding failures, illegal persecution has led to today’s critically low breeding numbers and patchy distribution.

As a result, hen harriers are even more vulnerable to chance natural events. Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “We always feared that with hen harrier numbers kept so low, the English population was extremely vulnerable to a bad year like this. There can be no place in England's future for the illegal killing of birds of prey. Land owners and other shooting groups need to show real commitment and start working with Natural England, RSPB and BASC to implement legal solutions such as diversionary feeding.”

In contrast to the dismal breeding success in the uplands of northern England, one ray of hope for the hen harrier came with the news that for the first time ever a pair was found nesting in a cereal field in southern England. The hen harrier was once found throughout the English lowlands and is not, as its current range might suggest, a bird solely of mountains and remote moorland.

Although there have been two other nesting attempts in southern England in recent years, this was the first time a crop-nesting pair has been recorded. With help from the farmer, a committed group of volunteers from local bird clubs ensured the birds’ behaviour was carefully monitored and they were able to successfully rear a chick.

Dr Tom Tew, Chief Scientist for Natural England, said: “This isolated nesting site in southern England is a massive leap from the hen harrier’s recent restricted distribution. Single birds occasionally loiter around suitable habitat in the early spring but rarely attract a mate, as hen harriers have a strong natural tendency to return to the upland areas where they were reared.

“Although this was just one pair, which may or may not return next year, their success hints at the potential for the hen harrier to be re-established in southern England, however this would not mean giving up on hen harriers in the uplands."

John Swift, Chief Executive of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said: “A bad winter has left the hen harrier population even more vulnerable than before – this means that everybody must concentrate on doing what they can to ensure that the moorland habitat continues to be well managed and that persecution is confined to history.

“It is imperative that we find a solution to the conflict between grouse shooting and birds of prey and those who manage grouse moors must continue to be vigilant against persecution of harriers.”

Notes to editors:

For further information, please contact:
Beth Rose, Natural England senior press officer: 0300 060 1405 / 07900 608052
John Clare, RSPB media officer 01767 693582 / 07738 881359
Helen Shuker, BASC press officer: 01244 573031 or

1. Hen harrier breeding stats 2009:

Bowland 8 4 10
North of England (other) 2 1 4
Northumberland 1 0 0
Southern England 1 1 1
Total 12 6 15

2. Natural England works for people, places and nature to conserve and enhance biodiversity, landscapes and wildlife in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. We conserve and enhance the natural environment for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people, and the economic prosperity it brings.

3. The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing - help us keep it that way. Visit the RSPB website to join today.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654

4. The RSPB is running a campaign to stamp out the illegal killing of birds of prey. People can get more information and to pledge their support for the campaign at

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