Hen Harriers Under Pressure Says Major Survey

The RSPB, NIRSG and DAERA have conducted a major field study on the declining population of hen harriers

The enigmatic ‘sky-dancing’ Hen Harriers are a rare sight in most places throughout the UK, especially in Northern Ireland with only 34 territorial pairs recorded here in 2023. This figure shows a drop of over 26% since 2016.

The 2023 Hen Harrier survey in Northern Ireland was conducted in partnership with RSPB NI, Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

It was assisted by a team of volunteers to understand more about the numbers and distribution of this rare species.

A 2011 independent government report had previously estimated that there should be around 150 pairs of Hen Harriers breeding in Northern Ireland, with the 2023 survey finding being approximately just 20% of this potential breeding population.

Drs Eimear Rooney and Marc Ruddock, survey co-ordinators from the NIRSG, praised the efforts of the volunteers who undertook many hundreds of hours surveying this rare species, often finding no birds in areas that once held the species.

The NIRSG said: “The Hen Harrier population in Northern Ireland is under immense pressure from a range of land management activities and human-mediated threats.

A hen harrier in flight. (Photo by Peter Morris).

“These pressures leading to extensive and on-going losses of suitable habitats and widespread disturbances at nesting and foraging habitats.

“The population has been displaced and disturbed for too many decades – things need to change.”

Andrew Muir, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister for Northern Ireland said: “I am concerned to learn of the declining population of Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland.

“I appreciate there are several factors contributing to this including loss of suitable breeding habitats, habitat degradation, the climate, predation and wildfires.

“Action needs to be taken to stop the decline of this iconic bird,.

“But it can only be achieved through working in partnership with landowners, farmers, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and all other stakeholders, to restore and enhance breeding habitats.

“It will also be necessary to appropriately manage activities which have the potential to cause disturbance and displacement to these birds.

“While the overall picture is not encouraging, I am pleased the survey showed that the number of Hen Harriers within the two designated Special Protection Areas, approximately half of the population, remained relatively stable since the 2016 census.

“My thanks go to all the voluntary fieldworkers and staff from NIRSG, RSPB, NIEA and other organisations, who took part in the survey.

“This survey helped provide excellent coverage of the Hen Harrier breeding range in Northern Ireland,” said Minister Muir.

Gregory Woulahan, Operations Director and Head of Land at RSPB NI said: “This is a drastic decline in numbers of Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland. One of the main reasons for this decline was loss of habitat.

“This coupled with the landscape scale threats and pressures to the species means we need a coherent, practical and policy based restoration strategy for the needs of the Hen Harrier and it’s habitat.

“Unfortunately, this recent decline mirrors a similar population decrease within the Republic of Ireland in 2022.”

The observations of the fieldworkers and the survey findings have shown that Hen Harriers and their habitats need greater protections and support to retain valuable and biodiverse scrub and heather habitats across the uplands.

There needs to be landscape scale restoration of peatlands and habitats for this species and its prey. The devastating effects of wildfire and inappropriate land management needs reversed through robust policy and support for landowners, and wider awareness amongst the public to minimise disturbing activities.

Whilst some population increases were recorded by the survey results in other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have both exhibited substantial declines since the last surveys.

The public have an important role to play in helping keep our birds of prey safe. 

If you notice a dead or injured bird of prey in suspicious circumstances, call the police on 101 or 999 if it is an emergency situation.

If you have information about anyone killing birds of prey which you wish to report anonymously, call the Crimestoppers Charity on 0800 555111.