The news that four pairs of hen harriers nested in England this summer has been very welcome. Nine chicks were reared from the pair of nests located in the Forest of Bowland (Lancashire), five from a nest in the Derwent Valley (Derbyshire) and an unreported number from a nest at an unspecified location in northern England. While the figure of four pairs is nowhere near the number that should breed in England, the situation is an improvement on last year; 2013 was the first year in nearly four decades with no hen harriers reported breeding in the country.
The lack of breeding hen harriers underlines the levels of persecution still impacting on this and other scarce birds of prey. Hen harriers breed on heather moorland and in the early stages of plantation forest; their breeding populations in these habitats are influenced by the availability of food and by deliberate human interference and illegal killing. The latter is a particular problem on driven grouse moors, where harriers are viewed as an unwanted predator of young grouse, destined to be shot.
That illegal persecution of our bird of prey populations still continues is revealed by the recent case in which a worker on Norfolk’s Stody Estate was found guilty of the illegal poisoning of 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk. Then there is the case of the disappearing Montagu’s harrier. Several of these rare birds have been fitted with satellite tags, allowing researchers the opportunity to follow their movements, and one of the birds – a three-year old female nicknamed ‘mo’ – disappeared shortly after leaving a roost site close to Great Bircham. The sudden loss of the tag signal is an exceedingly rare occurrence with this type of tag and the researchers suspect that she may have suffered illegal persecution.
The issue of illegal persecution is, at last, catching wider attention. There have been high profile campaigns against the persecution and, additionally, calls to ban driven grouse shooting. Back in August, the national Hen Harrier Day protest attracted much media interest and celebrity support. A growing number of people now recognise that we need to address the persecution taking place here; after all, how can we challenge the appalling illegal slaughter of birds in Malta when we allow persecution to continue here.