Look out for hen harrier in Lancashire hills

A male Hen Harrier in flight
A male Hen Harrier in flight

The RSPB is asking people who spend time in the uplands to let them know if they spot a hen harrier, England’s rarest breeding bird of prey.

Now in its sixth consecutive year in operation, the conservation charity has relaunched its Hen Harrier Hotline in the hope of finding out where these birds are potentially breeding in Northern England.

A female Hen Harrier in flight

A female Hen Harrier in flight

It is estimated that the upland heath and blanket bogs of England should have at least 320 pairs of nesting hen harriers, but last year there was only one confirmed breeding attempt in the whole of England. 2011 was not much better, with only four successful nests, all of which were on a United Utilities’ Bowland estate.

This lack of breeding success is not through lack of trying. In spring, the male commits himself into a spectacular courtship ritual called “skydancing” in which he soars repeatedly to a great height and dives towards the moor below pulling up just before impact. Then, if he is actually lucky enough to find a female, he shows off his prowess as a hunter by passing her food while they are both in flight.

Sadly, the species is affected by continuing illegal persecution, normally associated with the grouse shooting industry. This is reinforced by the government-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.

Last year, this issue was brought to national media attention when a hen harrier known affectionately as “Bowland Betty” was found shot dead in the Yorkshire Dales. Betty had fledged in Bowland in 2011 and her satellite tags had helped conservationists to begin uncovering the secret lives of hen harriers beyond the nest.

Amanda Miller, the RSPB’s Conservation Manager for Northern England said: “It’s just not possible to give every hen harrier a satellite tag, but that’s where the public can help us. By calling or e-mailing the hotline, they can help us keep track of these precious birds and help prevent the tragedy of Bowland Betty from being repeated.

“The English hen harrier population is on the brink of extinction so we need to find out where, if any, birds are attempting to nest. This way we can focus our efforts on giving them the best chance to breed successfully.”

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 Ordnance Survey map grid reference if 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. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and United Utilities, with additional support from the Forestry Commission.

For more information about Skydancer visit www.rspb.org.uk/skydancer.