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Hen harrier report focuses on illegal persecution

20/02/2011 17:15:02 Report shows persecution is a significant factor stopping the spread of hen harriers

February 2011. A new report by the UK's nature conservation co-ordinator on hen harriers says that persecution is a significant factor limiting growth of the hen harrier population. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) report, released by Scottish Natural Heritage, considered scientific evidence on the distribution and nesting success of this bird of prey across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Factors preventing Hen harrier increases
Scientists writing the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework 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 a 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 a major issue around grouse moors
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.

Wildlife crime
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."

Wake up call
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."

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