The Last of the Sky Dancers?

There’s a ghost haunting the moorlands of the UK. A ghost of moorlands past, almost present and probably future. The hen harrier. A spectacular bird for any to behold, whether professional or amateur, child or adult, man or beast. Arguably the most persecuted bird of prey species in the UK, the hen harrier is most highly persecuted on grouse shooting moorland. However, over the decades he has not been alone. Buzzards, red kite, marsh harriers and countless other bird of prey species have been persecuted at some time in their history. But many of these other species have shown some signs of recovery. We all know how successful the red kite reintroduction program has been, with release programs proving successful across the country. So why not the hen harrier? What’s this bird doing wrong?

A male hen harrier perched on dead branch

Well, in all honesty, this species had the audacity to choose heather moorland as their feeding and breeding habitat. Shocking I know. Don’t they know that us humans want those? But how do we really know the state of this species? Are we all just kicking up one big unnecessary fuss when actually, there are pairs dotted about but we’re just not aware? The short answer? No. But let me expand. I have lived in an area of Northumberland surrounded by heather moorland for 22 years of my 23 years of life. I shouldn’t be able to move for hen harriers! I shouldn’t be able to walk out the front door without rolling my eyes and saying ‘More hen harriers!’ as I step over them angrily but ever so gently. Unfortunately, this is not and never has been the case. They’re just not here. Around three years ago, driving home over the moors, I saw a single male and it was the first time I had ever seen the bird. It was a passing glimpse, but it did not stop me from yelling ‘A HEN HARRIER!’ so that those on the London tube knew what I had seen. At this point I would like to point out that I was not in control of the vehicle, had I been I would have slammed the brakes on with little regard for the cars wheels or my own safety and jumped hastily, yet agilely and ever so subtly (I can dream) to stare at him a little longer.

Female Hen harrier

Though since then, he rather suddenly and ominously,   disappeared. Raptor persecution has been illegal since 1954 (except the sparrow hawk; 1961), but its the elephant in the room that we all know its still there. It must be. Last year alone  7 male hen harriers just vanished, like puff of smoke. They had trackers, they were monitored meticulously, but there is no trace of them, not even bodies. Suspicious? I’d say! It’s a running theme. Don’t believe me? Come to Northumberland and spend a day at the moors (even without harriers they’re rather breathtaking). You’ll be lucky if you see any species of raptor other than the odd kestrel. I confess I have seen a red kite and a couple of buzzards, but they are very few and far between. A lot less than there should be. This is a problem. Fact.

However, do not think me ignorant of what grouse shooting does for the rural community. Red grouse shooting has been practised in the UK for 150 years and brings around £35-40 million in investment and worth a massive £1.6 billion to the UK economy. Nobody can deny those figures and I for one am not going to attempt it. Whether you identify with the sport or not, it happens and it will continue happening. But why do our dynamic species have to suffer? We are a small country and a small country that has already lost some of its spectacular, native species  (bears, wolf, lynx) and we are in danger of losing more. Obviously hen harriers are predators and they will take grouse and grouse chicks. But with some moorlands boasting almost 3000 grouse shot per day, can we really be so greedy as to deny a few hen harrier pairs the right to survive? The idea that the species will desecrate the population of grouse is ridiculous, they will lower it to an extent, but they will also take sick and weak birds, that would likely meet their end before being shot.

Living in such an area and owning two gun dogs, a sprocker and a springer spaniel (I don’t hunt!), I have been brought several specimens of grouse (courtesy of my dogs) that have been shot dead and have been left! So if we can afford to shoot them and not be so stretched that we have to collect every single specimen, then the argument against the hen harrier is shaky at best.


I’m not going to point the finger, but persecution is still happening. We’re aware of it, but we’re not doing anything about it. But how can we? How can we possibly police hundreds of miles of moorland? Honestly? I don’t know. But something drastic has to be done and has to be done soon, otherwise we WILL lose another magnificent, dynamic and spectacular species and lets face it, all because of our own greed.
























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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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