Hen harriers 'being wiped out' in England by persecution

Hen Harrier [Pic: RSPB Scotland]
Image caption Hen harriers had suffered many years of decline before the recovery

Hen harriers are close to being wiped out as a breeding bird in England, with just one pair showing signs of nesting this year, a wildlife charity said.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said none are trying to nest in Lancashire's Bowland Fells, their only recent English stronghold.

Only four nesting pairs raised chicks last year, all in Bowland.

The RSPB claims the bird has suffered from illegal persecution in areas used for grouse shooting.

Hen harriers have been shot, poisoned and had their nests destroyed, because the harrier is a natural predator of the red grouse, the charity said.

The RSPB said last year's breeding in Bowland had been helped by landowner United Utilities, who tried to support the birds of prey on their estates.

'Roller coaster flight'

It said if only one pair nests in England this year, it will be the worst breeding season since they recolonised the country in the 1960s after being driven to extinction by persecution in the late 19th Century.

A government-commissioned report found the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers, and that persecution was keeping numbers low.

Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, said: "The hen harrier is noted for its wonderful roller coaster display flight, but this bird's population in England is also on an extreme roller coaster ride itself.

"After recolonising England, the bird is now perilously close to being wiped out in England again as a result of decades of persecution.

"The problem of illegal killing is well understood - we now need government to bring solutions to the table."

The RSPB believes ways must be found to make grouse shoots viable without resorting to killing birds of prey, and that methods such as diversionary feeding - in which alternative food to grouse is provided for hen harriers - should be employed by gamekeepers.

The National Gamekeepers' Organisation said it supported research into efforts to manage both hen harrier and grouse populations, but denied its members were responsible for the former's decline.

"We are unaware of any instance of human interference with hen harriers in England in recent years," said a spokesman.

"We deplore any illegal activity and any member who is found guilty of bird of prey persecution faces expulsion from our organisation."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "The low number of breeding hen harriers is of great concern and we are currently looking at how to improve their populations in England."

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