Hen Harriers - concern for monarchs of the moors

Sky-dancing champion: a nesting male hen harrier

Sky-dancing champion: a nesting male hen harrier - Credit: Archant

Out and about with Roly Smith

The sight of an elegant, silver-grey male hen harrier passing food to the larger, chocolate-brown female in mid-air over a misty Goyt Valley in the western Peak nearly 20 years ago is one I will never forget.

These powerful raptors, now officially Britain’s rarest bird of prey, were nesting in the Goyt for the first time in a century, and I felt privileged to see them. Named ‘sky dancers’ for their spectacular mating displays, food passes and hunting flights, hen harriers are masters of the air and truly the monarchs of the moors.

Hen harriers are long-tailed and long-winged birds of prey, smaller than a buzzard but larger than a crow. They are often seen gliding low over the ground, a manoeuvre known as ‘quartering’, with the wings raised in a shallow ‘V’.

But in recent years these beautiful birds have been unmercifully harried themselves almost to the point of extinction, to where it is thought there are only six breeding pairs in England. In 2013, for the first time since records began, no hen harriers fledged their young in England. And of the 350 to 400 pairs of hen harriers expected to be found nesting last year, only six pairs were found.

But there was heartening news last year when it was announced that five hen harrier chicks successfully fledged in the Upper Derwent Valley – the first time they have bred successfully in the Peak District for eight years.

The sad national plight of hen harriers was highlighted in a national Hen Harrier Day in August, with sell-out events being held in the Goyt Valley, at the Palace Hotel, Buxton, and at other venues throughout the country.

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Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who was at the Derbyshire meetings, said cases like Cecil the Lion showed how strongly the public felt about preserving wildlife.

He said: ‘People are tired of animal life being wasted, particularly when that life is becoming increasingly rare. Killing hen harriers is illegal. We are not here to voice our opinion, we are here to ask for the law of the land to be upheld so that this persecution stops.’

Chris added: ‘There’s a real danger that some of the children who have come along today won’t get the chance to see a hen harrier in their lifetime.’

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, speaking for landowning organisations said: ‘All of us welcome the spotlight on hen harriers, and we condemn wildlife crime. But severely cold and wet weather has been awful for all wildlife trying to breed on the moors this year, leading to a lack of prey.’

Amanda added that landowners supported the Defra-led, draft six-point Joint Recovery Plan for hen harriers, which they wished to see implemented. It would offer a mechanism to guarantee chick safety and spread the nests to avoid a colony forming in one location.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has been closely involved in the issue. Working with partners, including the RSPB, the National Trust, Derbyshire Police Wildlife Crime Unit and Peak District raptor groups, and it has been involved in monitoring birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, during the breeding season. w