National hen harrier survey reveals further decline

Press release from RSPB Scotland:

Hen harrier numbers have fallen by 9% in Scotland since 2010, according to the latest national survey of these birds, with the total population now estimated to be less than 500 breeding pairs.

The fifth national hen harrier survey was carried out in 2016 by the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group, along with a range of other UK partners, and covered the whole of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man.

In Scotland the results revealed a drop in breeding pairs to only 460, compared with 505 pairs from the previous survey in 2010. The UK population is now estimated at 545 breeding pairs.

This is the second successive decline in the Scottish hen harrier population revealed by national surveys, signalling a worrying trend. In the longer term, over the last 12 years, the number of breeding pairs has dropped by 27% in Scotland.

Known for their majestic skydancing ritual, hen harriers are one of the most threatened birds of prey in the country. Independent research has identified illegal killing as one of the main constraints on this species, along with a changing climate and the loss of heather moorland and other suitable nesting habitat to commercial afforestation and overgrazing.

Scotland is still a major stronghold for hen harriers, with 80% of the UK population. However, having a breeding population of fewer than 1000 birds makes this species vulnerable to the effects of habitat degradation and, in some areas, wildlife crime. The west Highlands continue to provide a home for the majority of Scotland’s breeding harriers (estimated 175 breeding pairs), while Orkney and the Hebrides were the only areas of the country to show a slight increase in the number of these birds.

According to the survey, similar hen harrier declines have been witnessed in all other parts of the UK as well. In England, these birds are on the brink of extinction as a breeding species, with the population falling from 12 pairs in 2010 to only four pairs last year. Meanwhile, Wales saw the number of pairs fall by more than a third over the past six years, from 57 to 35, and Northern Ireland recorded only 46 pairs in 2016 compared with 59 in 2010.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, said: “The hen harrier is an indicator of the health of our upland environment, and the fact that its population continues to decline is of major concern. The hen harrier is a high priority for our conservation work and urgent steps need to be taken to tackle illegal killing of this species and to improve their moorland breeding habitats.”

Eileen Stuart, SNH’s Head of Policy & Advice, said: “While Scotland remains the stronghold for hen harriers in the UK, the continuing decline is a serious concern particularly the low numbers found in parts of the mainland. We’re committed to continuing to work with a wide range of partners to tackle wildlife crime through PAW Scotland, including initiatives such as Heads up for Harriers, and General Licence restrictions where evidence supports such action. Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland have set up a joint Raptor Working Group to identify and promote the opportunities of forestry for raptors, including hen harriers, to sustainably deliver Scottish Government environmental and forestry policy.”

Wendy Mattingley, from the Scottish Raptor Study Group, said: “There is a very concerning trend of a long term decline in the number of breeding hen harriers in Scotland. For the population to begin to recover and expand over all suitable habitat, the intensively managed grouse moors of east and south Scotland must produce successful breeding hen harriers again. The hen harrier is a wonderful spectacular raptor and more action must be taken to ensure that its future is secure.”

Tim Baynes, Director of the Scottish Moorland Group, said: “Scotland is still the UK stronghold for the hen harriers by a huge margin. However, it is disappointing to see any indication of decline in Scotland – and much larger drops in Wales and Northern Ireland – even though the decline is regarded by the survey team as statistically insignificant. Harrier breeding fluctuates annually for many reasons – not all associated with wildlife crime. For example, 2016 was a poor year largely due to low vole numbers in Scotland with weather and predation shown to have played their part.  Fifteen of our members, covering an area of 325,000 acres, will be working with the Heads Up for Harriers project again this year to better to understand the reasons for poor harrier breeding and to help rebuild the harrier population.”

Simon Wotton, lead author of the study, said: “This survey required a monumental effort from a number of different funders, organisations and volunteers – without their help, dedication and expertise we wouldn’t be able to build up this accurate picture of these magnificent birds of prey. We hope these results will convince everyone in a position to help hen harriers to take positive steps to ensure their protection and rebuild the country’s population for people to enjoy for generations to come.”


If there’s anybody still wondering why approximately 2,000 pairs of hen harriers are ‘missing’ in the UK uplands, here’s a short yet instructive video which explains everything:

And let’s not forget, just two weeks ago Tim (Kim) Baynes of Scottish Land & Estates claimed that illegal persecution of hen harriers was an “historical controversy” and that “a better idea of current numbers [of hen harriers] will emerge when the results of the 2016 UK harrier population survey are published, but the overall picture is expected to be broadly the same in Scotland“ (here).

We’re thinking of changing his name to Duplicitous Tim.

22 thoughts on “National hen harrier survey reveals further decline”

  1. We know why Tim Baynes the SGA and SLE arr in denial over the drop in numbers of Hen Hartiers. We dont know why COPFS are protecting Gamekeepers from prosecution. Their explanation is as poor as that of Tim Haynes in my opinion. Please, will the Scottish government do the right thing. We need swift action.

  2. It’s worth noting that the only areas to report an increase, the Hebrides and Orkney (I live in the latter county) are not plagued by grouse shooting. I wonder if we can draw any conclusions from this?

    1. But neither does Wales, which, of course the grousers will claim, is proof that raptor persecution is insignificant even though the loss in Scotland is double that of Wales.
      Only with a total ban or at least a 20 or 30+ years moratorium will we see the true damage of DGMs

      1. It’s still hugely concerning that Wales has lost nearly 40% of its Hen Harriers with no grouse shooting at all. Leaving the anti-grouse-shooting narrative aside for one objective minute – that’s an incredibly sobering and depressing statistic.

        1. You can’t leave the ‘anti-grouse-shooting narrative’ aside – with the exceptionally high level of illegal persecution on driven grouse moors, of course the number of potential recruits to the wider population is going to be affected.

          1. Similarly you can’t equate it to a catastrophic decline in areas where there is none. I’m not defending the indefensible but I do object to the fallacy that its removal is the panacea to the current state of the population. I’m as happy to see the removal of illegal persecution as anyone else here but as someone living in Wales witnessing the decline in our hen harriers first hand I thoroughly object to any promoting of it being single-issue driven and that it’s somehow acceptable to dismiss the Welsh decline as minor or insignificant because it doesn’t suit a narrative. That’s not conservation-minded, and gives the impression that the decline of our hen harriers is of less of a concern if it can’t be directly linked to persecution.

              1. Don’t see many making any connection if it doesn’t open an avenue to driven grouse shooting. That’s hardly objective. I don’t want the decline in Welsh harriers drowned out in the clamour to pin everything on DGS. I’m also keen to hear from anyone willing to square the circle regarding Wales losing nearly half of its hen harriers without DGS. If it’s linked to population dynamics then why is it affecting Wales so drastically?

                  1. I assume David is referring to the sink effect, which operates both on the wintering grounds and attempted breeding areas. There are plenty examples of hen harriers declining in other parts of the country where there is no driven grouse shooting, and I suspect the sink effect is the reason. Some harriers will abandon any given area when vole populations crash, and wander widely seeking out other concentrations. During this exploratory nomadic behaviour, who knows how many end up dead on intensively keepered grouse moors?

                    1. Interesting that there is now a tiny population of harriers on Lewis where there are no voles.

        2. Jerry. Some of this trend looks like it is down to vole years. Both Wales and Scotland are about 10% down on the average of previous 4 surveys.
          In other word business as usual, with 2000 ‘missing’ Hen Harrier pairs from the UK.
          That is the ‘incredibly sobering and depressing statistic’.

          1. Thank you for the reply. So are you saying the virtually all of the declines in Scotland and Wales are due to a reduction in vole population density? As said previously I’m not going to defend the indefensible because I’m no fan of DGS but similarly if there is evidence that points to specific problems (even if they’re cyclic, such as Vole density) then shouldn’t that be the salient point of the recent study. I can accept the statement that persecution is limiting recovery but similarly other factors appear to reducing it further (and quite significantly in the example of the Welsh population).

            1. No that is not what i am saying at all.
              I am saying that the 10% drop across the UK could be because of a poor vole year but that would be on top of the normal level of persecution or in the Welsh case presumably non persecution. And as RPUK has pointed out there is also the source sink effect. It definitely doesn’t look like persecution is slowing down.
              See Mark Avery’s blog for stats for previous surveys. The Welsh population in 2016 was higher than 1988 and 1998.

              1. Never mind a poor vole year, in most of southern and western Scotland (and I suspect also NE Scotland), we are currently experiencing a poor vole decade. This is a natural phenomenon, but the prolonged and widespread nature of the field vole crash, which seemed to occur simultaneously around 2006, was set against the already unnatural low level of UK harrier populations, due to persecution on grouse moors. In some respects it surprises me that the 10% drop wasn’t even worse, but for that we have to thank the relatively secure harrier strongholds on the west coast islands of Scotland. So we have to take into account the greater significance of a 10% drop when the population was already far lower than it should be, critically so in England and some parts of Scotland. I believe it probably hit a low point in or around 2014. Due to the nomadic nature of harriers seeking out territories in spring, it is inevitable that higher concentrations will occur in areas with high vole numbers. This leads to natural geographic variation in breeding densities over time, but also makes the species susceptible to the sink effect by being slaughtered on the more intensively managed grouse moors. There is some concern among harrier surveyors that the national methodology could be significantly overestimating the population, especially where relatively inexperienced surveyors are deployed. It could be that the actual population is even less than the survey results suggest.

  3. I took part in this survey last year , I just a quick look and the area I covered was around 414 sq kilometres ,much of it excellent Harrier habitat,most of that given over to intensive Grouse shooting. Now of course some of it was not suitable habitat and some of it was not covered fully , that would be impossible but most suitable habitat was looked at and some marginal areas as well. Of course I never even saw a HH.
    I have taken part in HH days ,I have written endless letters to R Cunningham and her predecessors. The latest reply was the usual “we take wildlife crime very seriously “crap and the obligatory “grouse shooting being an important part of rural economy” nonsense. I have written back pointing out that land reform and alternative land use practices are the way forward , that the shooting industry employ a relatively small amount of poorly paid people whose wages are more than covered by the subsidies the estates receive from the tax payer. I have also pointed out the obvious alternative to keeping our uplands in a permanent state of degeneration , wildlife tourism and the benefits of a healthy ecosystem , but all to no avail.
    To effect real change is difficult and controversial and clearly none of them want to take it on .Where do we go from here? The recent legal setbacks show an unwillingness to take this matter seriously in the courts The shooting brigades arguments are paper thin and they would further loose credibility if we could really raise the profile. Imagine if you will Chris Packham , Mark Avery, Iain Thomson Duncan ,Orr- Ewing ,Logan Steel, George Monbiot up against who?Johnstone, Hogg ,Smith, Baynes. Linklater , Soames. A mass hike over some chosen Grouse moors on the 12 with the press tipped off gets my vote.

    1. Spot on about how really crap driven grouse shooting is for rural economies and that there are far better alternatives – this wee petition could help make that viewpoint official (if anybody signs they need to make sure they click on the black ‘Sign This’ box after, and under, captcha) still no signatures from any known grouseshooters

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