George’s Harrier Needs A Helping Hand

First, one important point. There is no such species as George’s Harrier. Not in name anyway. I am of course talking about the Montagu’s Harrier, named after the naturalist, George Montagu. Now, looking at the photographs, you would be forgiven for thinking that the bird shown is in fact the hen harrier. But I promise you I am not conning you (not yet anyway), as the hen and montagu’s harriers are different. Prove it? Happily. Our Montagu’s harrier is a medium, slim bird of prey (like the hen harrier), but unlike the broad winged hen, the montagu’s has very long, narrow wings. A male Montagu’s also has elaborate black marking on his wing tip and a black band that runs along the wing, both above and below. The hen harrier does not have this band. So, now that we have the details out of the way, let’s find out more about the Montagu’s harrier.

So, what’s the deal with the Montagu’s? How does he compare to his cousins? Well, when it comes to breeding status, the Montagu’s trumps his cousin the hen harrier and is in fact the rarest breeding bird in the UK. However, the two do differ, as the Montagu’s is one of our summer visitors, unlike the hen harrier, which can be residential in the UK. Across Europe, the Montagu’s harrier has a large range and a large population and in the UK the species reaches the edge of it’s Northern range. However, there have been a few little red flags popping up, as their population is now displaying a downward trend. Despite this, the decline is not considered large enough or rapid enough for the species to be considered vulnerable. But this does not change the fact that the Montagu’s is another amber species in the UK. Like many others, he is waiting at the traffic lights, stuck in limbo and we don’t know if he’s going to put his foot down and speed through to green, or be stuck hopelessly on red. But we can guess. With only 5 nests in 2015, we know that this species needs help if we want it to continue gracing our shores. Montagu’s harrier nests have been protected since 1982 and secrecy is of the upmost importance. As a result of their rarity in the UK, they are very valuable to the egg collector. Unfortunately, we don’t have a James Bond type character to defend nesting sites, chasing egg thieves in an Aston Martin, but we do have a humble collection of conservationists who stand vigilant, protecting nests.

In the past, this species has been under threat (like so many other raptors). In Europe, the use of organochlorine pesticides caused decline, whilst in Africa, winter declines occurred as a result of droughts and locust control. Typically breeding on open heaths and marshland, there has been an increase in the UK, of the species nesting on arable farmland. Another little red flag? Unfortunately so. Breeding in such areas of course puts this species at threat from harvesting and other farming practices. Due to this, the success of this species depends on a delicate balance between farmers and conservationists to ensure that these birds can breed peacefully and with minimal threat.  Though this species does have a strong population elsewhere, it does not mean we can ignore their struggles in the UK. Our country is already losing it’s biodiversity at an alarming rate, so any species we can conserve is important.

“One by one they can all disappear, only then will you shed a tear?”




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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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