Hotline opens to report sightings of hen harriers

An adult female hen harrier
An adult female hen harrier

A HOTLINE has opened to encourage people to report sightings of England’s rarest breeding bird of prey, the hen harrier.

Refreshed and updated for its fifth consecutive year in operation, the Hen Harrier Hotline is being relaunched by the RSPB in the hope of discovering more about where these birds are potentially breeding in northern England.

An adult male hen harrier

An adult male hen harrier

One of the rare bird’s few strongholds is known to be United Utilities’ Bowland Estate. It is estimated the heather moors of England have the potential to hold at least 320 pairs of nesting hen harriers, but in 2011 there were only four successful nests, all of which were confined to this one area of Lancashire.

The hen harrier is one of our most awe-inspiring birds of prey, with the male harrier performing a magnificent aerobatic courtship display in spring known as skydancing, and providing food to the female in spectacular mid-air food passes.

Sadly, the species is also affected by illegal persecution, a fact reinforced by agovernment-commissioned review – the hen harrier framework – which concluded that illegal killing and disturbance is the biggest single factor limiting the population of this species in Northern England.

Harriers are smaller than a buzzard and larger than a crow, with a 100 to 120 cm wingspan. These long wings are complemented by long tails and an obvious white rump. They are usually seen flying low over the ground with wings slightly raised in a characteristic V-shape.

Male and female hen harriers have strikingly different plumage, so much so that they were once thought to be separate species. The male is a ghostly pale blue-grey, with black wingtips, while the larger female is dark brown with a series of horizontal stripes on her tail, earning her the nickname “ringtail”.

The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to henharriers@rspb.org.uk. Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible.

The Hen Harrier Hotline is part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands. For more information visit www.rspb.org.uk/skydancer