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Hen Harriers

Hen Harrier - Chris BainesHen Harrier in flight: Chris Baines

Unfortunately there have not been breeding pairs in Derbyshire in 2015 - which makes our work more important than ever.


Hen harriers - the Skydancer

Hen harrier chick from the nest at Upper Derwent 2014 credit Derbyshire Wildlife TrustHen harriers are a medium-sized bird of prey which nest on the ground among heather on upland moorlands – they feed on small mammals and occasionally young grouse. In spring, males perform a spectacular, undulating display flight, ‘looping the loop’ and dropping and rising repeatedly. This phenomenon is known as ‘skydancing’. Sadly, this is now a rare sight as numbers of hen harriers have dropped due to illegal persecution.

In 2013 there were no successful breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – and in 2014 there are reports of just a small number of nesting attempts. In 2015 three male hen harriers disappeared and only a few pairs remained. Assessments of the available habitat in England, by the Government, suggest that there could and should be several hundred breeding pairs in England.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust would like everyone in the county to have the opportunity to be inspired and excited by the sight of a hen harrier lighting up our skies. We call on everyone to help us bring these iconic birds back to their natural upland home.

Frequently asked questions about hen harriers and Wildlife Trust position:

What do Derbyshire Wildlife Trust think about the alleged killing of hen harriers by grouse moor interests?

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is totally opposed to the illegal persecution of all wildlife – including hen harriers. We have added our support to Hen Harrier Day to oppose the illegal persecution of one of the UK’s rarest birds. We are also concerned about the illegal persecution of other upland birds of prey such as peregrine and goshawk.

Males perform a spectacular, undulating display flight, ‘looping the loop’

What is Hen Harrier Day?

This is a peaceful demonstration on 7 August, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime,  Mark Avery and RSPB against the illegal killing of hen harriers, with events taking place at a number of locations across the north of England. For more information and to register for the event visit

Why are hen harriers special and important?

The hen harrier is an iconic species. The combination of its beauty, charisma and rarity make this a highly cherished and valued bird. Hen harriers are particularly associated with heather moorland where they breed in deep vegetation like tall heather, rushes or bracken. They hunt by quartering the moors – almost floating across the hillsides in the search for prey rather like day flying owls. Hen harriers prey on a range of small animals – mostly mammals like voles but also small birds and insects.

combination of its beauty, charisma and rarity make this a highly cherished and valued bird

What is the problem?

For a few weeks in late May and June, hen harriers will predate on grouse chicks whilst the chicks are small, abundant and easy to hunt. This brings them into conflict with grouse moor managers who rely on plentiful supplies of grouse for shoots which will take place later in the summer and autumn. For the remainder of the year, red grouse are pretty much immune from predation by harriers because of their size. An additional issue for grouse shoots is that the presence of adult hen harriers flying over a moor on a shoot day can spook the grouse and make it difficult to shoot. The whole return for a year can depend on just a few days shooting and so this is a sensitive issue.

The grouse shooting industry is sensitive to the presence of hen harriers because of the view that predation by harriers could reduce the numbers of grouse dramatically and make shooting uneconomic. So the hen harrier finds itself in a predicament faced by so much of our wildlife, trying to find a foothold in the face of competing demands for habitat, space and land.

What is the status of the hen harrier population?

The hen harrier is closer to the edge – and in need of more help – than most species. In 2013, there were no successful breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – and in 2014 there are reports of just three nesting attempts. There are more reports of nests this year – with up to 16 nests (to be confirmed). There are around 600 pairs across the UK – mostly in Scotland. Independent scientific assessments of the available habitat in England suggest that between 70 and 82 pairs could be sustainably Hen Harrier by Tim Birchsupported on grouse moors without affecting the viability of shooting. Several hundred breeding pairs could be sustained on all suitable habitat in England. There were once several thousand hen harriers in the UK across a wide range of lowland and upland habitats but they were targeted by Victorian game interests and have become a rare species.

What are Wildlife Trusts doing in the uplands?

The Wildlife Trusts have a number of nature reserves in upland areas across the country to protect upland habitats and species like mountain hare, red grouse, peregrine falcon and curlew. In some places Wildlife Trusts also work in partnership with other moorland owners and managers who want to help restore habitats like peat bogs on the land they own. For example, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has worked with landowners to help to restore almost 100 square miles of damaged peatland habitat over the past five years through the Yorkshire Peat Partnership which it coordinates. As well as restoring habitats for wildlife, blocking drains and reseeding areas of exposed bare peat helps to lock up more carbon and store more water on the moors for longer. This can reduce flooding downstream and help to improve the quality of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

Several hundred breeding pairs could be sustained on all suitable habitat in England

The Wildlife Trusts are working for the recovery of upland habitats that support a wide diversity of wildlife; we want to see thriving populations of all the species that should be present in these inspiring wild places, including hen harriers, but also merlin, peregrine and the full range of healthy natural habitats. We want to see healthy ecosystems, a vibrant economy and thriving communities in our uplands.

Why should we protect hen harriers?

In addition to the message that these are precious and iconic birds worthy of conservation in their own right, almost everyone has an interest in preventing the illegal persecution of hen harriers. It will help the birds to recover – and recreate the full range of species which should be present on English moorlands, it will help conservation organisations and the police who can divert their resources to other much-needed work and it will help responsible land managers who do not tolerate crimes against birds of prey on their land, whose reputation would no longer be damaged by those who choose to act outside the law.

What do the moorland owners say officially?

In 2014 Robert Benson, Chairman of the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners and managers, said: "The Moorland Association condemns any act of wildlife crime .." and in his view "the vast majority of those living and working in the uplands of England and Wales respect the law."

The Wildlife Trust view on grouse shooting

The Wildlife Trusts want to work with moorland owners and managers to secure the future health and vibrancy of our uplands - complete with the full range of very special plants and animals which depend on them. This includes hen harriers. The Wildlife Trusts want to see the recovery of this master of the skies – people should have the right and opportunity to be inspired by the sight of a hen harrier lighting up the skies in some of our country’s wildest places.

At the moment The Wildlife Trusts are not calling for a ban on grouse shooting or for shooting to be licensed. We recognise that sensitive moorland management for grouse can be beneficial for other wildlife including:

  • Increasing the populations of other moorland birds of conservation concern, particularly waders, which also benefit from the legal control of crows and foxes carried out to reduce grouse predation.
  • The maintenance of the open character of moorlands which have a high proportion of dwarf shrubs.
  • A reduction in the risk of accidental moorland fire through controlled burning.
  • An income which provides an incentive to maintain and manage moorland habitats.
  • Grouse moorland management tends to produce habitats which support a more diverse range of wildlife than intensive conifer afforestation or sheep production in the uplands.

We remain extremely concerned about the documented impacts of intensive grouse moor management which include:

  • Illegal persecution of protected species like hen harrier, goshawk and peregrine.
  • Regular burning on deep peat soils causing erosion, loss of peat and poor water quality.
  • Drainage of wetland areas.
  • Loss of rare plant species including mosses and bryophytes.
  • Losses of invertebrate and other animal species associated with old growth heather and dwarf shrubs.
  • The potential environmental impacts of the widespread use of anti-helminthic drugs.

We recognise and welcome the work that forward-thinking landowners and managers are already doing to enhance the conservation value of upland habitats. We encourage other landowners to follow their lead in improving the management of moorland for wildlife across England. In a number of places Wildlife Trusts are already working with landowners to restore upland habitats and increasing their value to wildlife and people, for example by blocking drains to re-wet and restore areas of upland peatland.

We recognise there is much concern over the continued illegal persecution of wildlife, and in particular of birds of prey. The Wildlife Trusts believe that a clear message must be sent to land owners and managers (including grouse moor owners and managers), policy-makers and the public that the illegal persecution of hen harriers and other birds must stop now.

Concern over the continued illegal persecution of wildlife, and in particular of birds of prey.

The Government has prepared a joint hen harrier plan that is currently unpublished and which we have not seen. In principle, we support a collaborative approach but the plan must include effective and practical measures, supported by good evidence that will see the return of the hen harrier to the moorlands of England by addressing illegal persecution. If it offers this as a realistic prospect, we will be pleased to help deliver it where we can. We do not support proposals for brood management and the priority must be for landowners to enable the natural recovery of hen harriers by the cessation of persecution.

We also call on the relevant regulators to take action:

  • Police Services should enforce existing wildlife legislation more effectively and invest in better detection and policing measures to bring an end to wildlife crime in general.
  • Defra and Natural England must urgently coordinate and facilitate positive partnership action for the recovery of hen harriers before it is too late.
  • Natural England and Defra should use their existing powers to review the consents for burning on deep peat as required by the Climate Change Committee Adaptation Sub-Group. Inappropriate burning over deep peat must be ended, especially in moorland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Areas of blanket bog subject to inappropriate burning should be excluded from all publicly funded management agreements, especially in relation to cross compliance and higher level stewardship scheme agreements.
  • The Wildlife Trusts accept the careful burning of upland heath as this can be an important part of the management required to maintain this very special and unique habitat but we are strongly against the burning of blanket bog as it destroys Sphagnum that is at the heart of well-functioning blanket bog and damages the underlying peat.
  • We call on OFWAT to examine whether it is acceptable for water payers to pick up the cost of burning related water pollution of drinking water and to provide more financial incentives and opportunities for water companies to restore peat in upland catchments.

Our uplands are wonderful wild places but they could be even better for people and wildlife.


We want to see our uplands supporting the full range of wildlife species and habitats that should be present. Our uplands are wonderful wild places but they could be even better for people and wildlife.

We recognise and respect that there are a broad range of views on the best way to bring about the hen harrier’s recovery. Our attendance at any Hen Harrier Day does not mean we support all these views but we believe it is essential that a clear message is sent to land managers - including grouse moor owners - policy-makers and the public. 

Photos, Tim Birch.