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   Inside Out - South: Monday January 24, 2005

MONTAGU'S HARRIER, by Chris Packham

Montagu's Harrier
The Montagu's Harrier is one of Britain's rarest birds of prey

In the world of birds, birds of prey, or "raptors", are frequent favourites. Even the humble Kestrel hovering above the motorway draws admiring glances from people who have no direct interest in our birdlife.

But this affinity is relatively modern, throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth Century they were ruthlessly persecuted and carelessly poisoned.

The egg collectors

The upshot of this was that many of these predators became very rare.

This rarity brought them to the attention of egg collectors and other diabolicals and this in turn has led to extinction.

We lost the Osprey, Sea Eagle and Goshawk completely. Red Kites, Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons almost disappeared from the British Isles at the time as well.

Farmers and gamekeepers

Montagu's Harrier
Threats like pesticide poisoning have led to declining numbers

These days, however, it's mostly good news for Britain's birds of prey. Gamekeepers have been a traditional threat to the birds.

The keepers often see the birds as a threat to the game bird population. Since the Second World War the number of gamekeepers has fallen significantly and current keepers are far more sympathetic to the birds.

During the '50s and '60s the biggest threats to the "raptors" were pesticides, which were seen as a salvation for farmers. The story was very different for wildlife, and the toxins flowed up through the food chain, poisoning the hunter-birds.

Pesticides are now better tested and controlled, and not used in as large a quantity, thanks to the realisation that we are also at the top of the food chain and so are also vulnerable to the toxins passed up through the chain.

For birds of prey though the recovery has been slow, even the commoner more resilient species such as Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are only now recovering their former numbers.

Rising numbers

Other birds of prey though have truly prospered;

Peregrines are probably at their greatest number since the middle ages.

The Hobby, once restricted to the southern heaths, has spread its range far north.

The Red Kite has enjoyed a fabulous reintroduction as has the Sea Eagle.

Ospreys have spread from the Scottish Glens to again nest in England.

... but what about our Harriers?


Montagu's Harrier
Montagu's Harriers are migatory birds who winter in Africa

We have three species of these long-winged buoyant flighted lovelies and only one is having a good time.

The Marsh Harrier, a migratory doyen of reed birds is slowly spreading and increasing its numbers in suitable sites.

The Hen Harrier is not having as good a time though. This moorland bird is still unfortunately loathed by grouse moor owners and keepers. It is still shot and it's young or eggs are trampled in the nest.

Despite a string of prosecutions by the Police and the RSPB, it looks set to vanish from all its English haunts and retains a precarious toe hold in northern Scotland.

The Montagu's Harrier is a different case. This species is a full on migrant, disappearing back to Africa for the winter. It's on the northern edge of its range in the UK so has never been common.

Indeed the Montagu's Harrier, having undergone periods of a few years success, has dropping back to only a handful of pairs.

Because of their rarity, the Montagu's Harrier's eggs have been much prized by collectors, and when so few are nesting these thoughtless collectors have had a serious and disastrous impact.


These days the Montagu's Harrier is jealously guarded by naturalists. They try to protect the birds through two methods:

1. Protection from egg collectors
To guard the birds from the attention of these oologists (egg collectors) and their like, nesting sites are kept secret and often these sites are monitored 24 hours a day to keep egg poachers away.
2. Working with local farmers
To ensure the nest sites are not disturbed, conservationists liaise with farmers and landowners to ensure their activities do not threaten the nest sites. This is not helped by the tendency for the harriers to build their nests in crops which are cut before the young birds can leave the nest.

The nesting sites

Montagu's Harrier chicks
The chicks are vunerable because the harriers nest in crop fields

Now obviously I can't tell you where to see these birds. I'm not being smug. You could torture me to death and I wouldn't tell!

Because the secrecy is necessary and because I've been honoured with the trust of the team that works so hard to protect these and a lot of other rare raptors in the South.

Wayne Percy and his crew really are a band of backroom hero's whose dedication is unsurpassable. There were raised eyebrows about us even making our film, but if nothing else it aimed to celebrate their efforts and endeavours.

And the only reason these young Montagu's Harriers got into the air was through their unpaid, unsung work. Long may it continue!

Spotting other birds of prey

Other raptors are easily found: Visit the New Forest in spring to see Buzzards soaring over most of the major woodland blocks. In summer our southern heaths are the dragonfly hunting grounds of the Hobby.

Try Thursley Common in Surrey, keep a keen eye on your tit feeders for the local Sparrowhawk and over rough grassland where Kestrels are to be seen hovering above voles and shrews about to meet their nemesis.

Birding websites often carry news of rarer sightings, so for that elusive sighting it might be advisable to stay online.

See also ...

Inside Out: South
Chris Packham

On the rest of Inside Out
Hen Harriers
Birdlife in Merseyside
Animal sanctuary exposed

Montagu's harrier (Nature)

On the rest of the web
Montagu's harrier (
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Its good see someone who is genuinely well informed raising awareness about raptor numbers. It would bee good to see more footage like this on TV.

Pip Rowe
Just to say how much we enjoyed the Montagu's Harrier article tonight. I'd also like to applaud the BBC for contributing to the compensation paid to the farmer whilst the article was bing filmed. The only question I have is "Will the BBC sponsor that site again this breeding season please"

w n steven
i cannot understand how the BBC can display this article on a public website. Not only does it appear to be heavily biased against landowners, farmers,( and also gamekeepers), it shows a sycophantic relationship to "conservationists" i.e. read that as the RSPB. Can Mr Packham corroborate his statement regarding illegal persecution of the hen harrier? If he is either unable - or unwilling - to do so, should not the BBC withdraw the item and explain their reasons for so doing? As a matter of interest, what is Mr Packham's professional relationship to the BBC and RSPB?

jake fisher
hi i have watched the program on the montgu harrier if it is any interest to the people who are protecting, listing etc.i saw one of these last thursday morning, i was taking my daughter to college when it flew across us, it has the same colour as the one on the program, i can remember saying to my wife we've seen a almost white kestrel. I live in s.e. kent and would gladly take the person concernd to the location where we spotted it. if anyone wants to contact me,i would only be to pleased to help.

Kim Gurney
How likely is it that whilst out riding Spring/early Summer 2004 that I would have seen two male Montagu harriers? This was in a cornfield near Great Brickhill, Buckinghamshire.

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