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Report shows persecution is a significant factor stopping the spread of hen harriers - 17-FEB-2011 : Press Release Details


Report shows persecution is a significant factor stopping the spread of hen harriers


A new report by the UK's nature conservation co-ordinator on hen harriers in the UK says that persecution is a significant factor limiting growth of the hen harrier population. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) report, released today by Scottish Natural Heritage, considered scientific evidence on the distribution and nesting success of this bird of prey across all four home countries.

Scientists writing the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework, to be published this Friday, looked at a range of factors affecting the distribution of hen harriers (Circus cyaneus) throughout the UK. The report's authors looked at eight factors which could affect the hen harrier population, ranging from grazing pressure, which might reduce the heathery habitat important for prey species, to wind farms. Results showed that illegal persecution is a significant constraint on hen harriers in some areas, preventing them from achieving healthy populations in suitable habitats throughout large parts of the country. In some regions there are other constraints, such as shortage of prey and suitable nesting habitat; and predation by other animals, such as foxes and crows, can be a constraint on breeding success.

Persecution was considered to be a particular problem in areas associated with grouse moor management in Scotland, notably in the northeast and central Highlands, the Cairngorms, the western Southern Uplands and the Border Hills. In England, illegal persecution is such a constraint that the hen harrier is threatened with extinction as a breeding species. There is some good news in Wales, Northern Ireland and The Isle of Man, as well as the western and northern Isles of Scotland, where hen harriers are increasing in numbers.

The report identifies key areas of further research needed, particularly on the effect that foxes and other predators have on hen harriers and on the management needed to support prey and nesting habitat for harriers. The report is also clear about some of the data and therefore modelling limitations notably in relation to habitat quality and numbers of predators.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "Hen harriers are one of Scotland's special birds and an important part of our biodiversity. It is pleasing to see that Scotland remains a stronghold for hen harriers, however we cannot deny that persecution, amongst other issues, remains a live threat. This Government continues to take a robust approach to persecution of birds of prey. The Government's inclusion of vicarious liability in the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill will ensure that those who direct or turn a blind eye to persecution can be held to account."

The bird has been identified as a priority species by the UK Government in terms of combating wildlife crime. The last survey (2004) estimated there to be 633 pairs in Scotland, 11 pairs in England, 43 pairs in Wales and 63 pairs in Northern Ireland. A survey of hen harriers was carried out again in 2010, and once the data are collated an updated version of the framework will be produced. The bird is included on the red list of birds of conservation concern in the UK. In addition, because it is considered vulnerable within Europe, it is included on Annex I of the EU Birds Directive, which means that special conservation measures must be taken to protect the bird and its habitat.

Professor Des Thompson, SNH principal adviser on biodiversity, said: "This report identifies persecution as a significant problem hitting hen harriers hard across some parts of the country. Providing more evidence to tackle this issue is a key aim of this framework. This report will feed into the strenuous efforts that are being taken to conserve this bird, and to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and red grouse management which underlies persecution. The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, the Natural England-led Environment Council harrier project and various activities under the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) have to work if we are to arrest the problem."

The hen harrier is one of the extroverts of the bird world. In spring, they display exuberantly over breeding territories in the uplands of Scotland, flying steeply upward then tumbling back towards the ground, or soaring in ever-increasing circles, gaining steady height over their moorland haunts. This has led to their informal name of skydancer.

Patrick Stirling-Aird, secretary of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups.said: "The Scottish Raptor Study Groups welcome publication of this report following its lengthy process of preparation and note that the report confirms that criminal persecution of hen harriers in the interests of red grouse management for shooting purposes is the overriding cause of their dire population status in much of the UK."

Stuart Housden, Director RSPB Scotland , commented:

"This report serves as a wakeup call to the grouse shooting industry, builds on the best and most comprehensive scientific evidence available, and confirms the huge gaps in the distribution of hen harriers that are now apparent to many ornithologists. It reveals the true impact of the systematic and illegal persecution associated with the industry, which is having severe consequences for the species' fortunes in Scotland, and pushing it close to extinction in England. This is a sombre moment, and a challenge for the industry to put its house in order. The question is are grouse managers prepared to accept the seriousness of the challenge before them and take firm action to stamp out this criminal activity? We sincerely hope so, but more fine words and letters of denial are not the answer; a significant recovery of hen harriers on grouse estates is."

See for a full copy of A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441.


For more information, contact SNH press & public relations office:

Vicki Mowat on 0131 316 2659 or (Wed)

Calum Macfarlane on 01463 725020 or (Thurs and Fri)

Airson na meadhanan Gàidhlig cuiribh fios gu / For Gaelic media enquiries contact:

Emily Edwards, SNH Inverness, 01463 725 148,

Notes for editors

1.Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. 2011. A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough. Scottish Natural Heritage is the government's adviser on all aspects of nature and landscape across Scotland. Our role is to help everyone understand, value and enjoy Scotland's nature now and in the future. For more information, visit our website at

2.The report was supported by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Raptor Study Groups and other members of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Group. The RSPB, SNH, the Scottish Raptor Study Groups and Brian Etheridge provided the hen harrier data. Ian Thomson (RSPB) provided a database of hen harrier persecution data. The CORINE for land cover 2000 (CLC2000) data was produced by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and its member countries in the European environment information and observation network (Eionet). The SRTM DEM data was obtained from the Global Land Cover Facility (GLCF). Detailed comments on a draft of this report were provided by two members of the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee, Professor Bob Furness and Dr Malcolm Ogilvie, and members of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Group, in particular Dr Arjun Amar, Patrick Stirling-Aird, David Stroud and Professor Des Thompson. Subsequent detailed comments have been made by staff in the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and BASC.

3.Methodology of the hen harrier conservation framework:

The approach taken in the framework was to develop a species distribution model to predict the potential distribution of hen harriers in Scotland and the UK, and to compare this against the known distribution, identifying regions of suitable habitat which are unoccupied. Population growth models were developed to better understand when, in the harriers' life-cycle, constraints are likely to have the most impact. The population models were used to identify regions in which population growth appears restricted by either adult survival rates or the failure of nesting attempts. As well, three tests were developed to determine if the hen harrier populations in particular regions are in a favourable state, based on their abundance, distribution and demography.

The analyses focus on Scotland's population of hen harriers, as this is the area for which most data are available; Scotland is also the UK stronghold for this species. The regions used for this analysis were Natural Heritage Zones (NHZs): 21 bio-geographical regions (based on the distribution of land form, plants and animals) of Scotland as identified by Scottish Natural Heritage. Broader scale assessments of favourable conservation status were also carried out for other parts of the United Kingdom.

Author: Vicki Mowat/Calum Macfarlane
Contact: SNH Press Office