Found mainly across moorland throughout Scotland, hen harrier numbers were around 500 pairs in 2010. In many areas they are now struggling to breed, or absent. Elsewhere in the UK they are faring even worse. Factors accounting for these changes in distribution and numbers across Britain include illegal persecution, land use changes resulting in losses of moorland nesting habitat and feeding range, and predation of eggs and young by foxes, crows and other predators.
Natural factors such as lack of prey species and vulnerability to wet weather during nesting may also contribute to mortality, in addition there is ongoing work assessing the likelihood of impact with wind turbines.
Several projects on hen harriers are underway. The EU has provided LIFE+ funding to the RSPB for hen harrier nest and roost site monitoring, satellite tagging and community engagement. This builds on the highly successful RSPB Skydancer Project (winner of the 2014 National Lottery Award for Best Education Project). The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has now concluded, but the moor is still an important site for breeding harriers, with some monitoring work continuing. In the Cairngorms National Park, work is planned to secure better nesting success for harriers. In England there are well publicised discussions over how to revive hen harrier numbers there (six nests fledging eighteen young in 2015). There is evidence that these joint conservation efforts are working in some areas, with the a total of eleven Special Protection Areas (SPA') designated for hen harriers.
In Scotland we need to raise the profile of the hen harrier and learn much more about its whereabouts.
The Heads Up for Harriers project takes a partnership approach to identifying causes of nest failure on hen harrier nests, promote hen harrier nesting success and public awareness. The project is an outcome from the PAW Raptor Priority Delivery Group Hen Harrier Action Plan. Project partners are Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Land and Estates, RSPB, National Wildlife Crime Unit and Scottish Government.
The project uses overt nest cameras (installed with estate permission) to identify reasons for failure, especially on those estates where there has been a history of unexplained failures or breeding attempts have ceased in recent years. Cameras have revealed fox predation and weather to have caused failure in some cases, neither of which would have ordinarily been identified without the cameras.
In addition the cameras afford some protection against human interference at the nest.
Protocols are in place to direct work with estates in an open and transparent way.
We work alongside the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project, who have satellite tagged some of the birds from Heads Up for Harriers nests.
We issue media releases to raise awareness, with the project featuring widely on television, radio, magazine and national newspapers.
In 2015 the Heads Up for Harriers project began with five participating estates and a total of ten harriers fledging from three successful nests. In 2017 the project expanded to encompass twenty one estates across Scotland. Seven of these estates had hen harrier nests, fledging a total of thirty seven young birds. Two of the monitored nests failed, one due to fox predation and another due to natural causes.
In 2018 we are looking to expand the project to cover large areas of contiguous ground. This will allow us to work with a number of estates to promote hen harrier conservation and not just isolated estates across the country.
We would like all participating estates to continue in providing sightings, but more importantly to agree to retain some areas of long heather to encourage nesting, preferably to be formally built into estate management plans. Many estates promote the diversity of species on their ground and are willing to support harriers, but without at least some suitable habitat this will never become a reality.
Mairi Gougeon MSP has taken a keen interest and involvement in the project in her role as Hen Harrier Species Champion and everyone on the Heads Up for Harriers project is grateful of Mairi’s continued support.
A summary of the wider Hen Harrier Action Plan is available to download from this website.