Hawk Falls Prey to UK Grouse Hunters

KINCARDINE, United Kingdom, December 11, 2000 (ENS) - Grouse hunting is threatening the existence of a hawk known in the UK as the hen harrier.

At an international conference in Scotland last week, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) urged grouse moor owners to halt the killing of rare birds of prey, especially hen harriers (Circus cyaneus), on their land.


A hen harrier in its nest in the RSPB's Forsinard reserve in Scotland. (Photos courtesy RSPB)
During Grouse hunting season from August 12 to December 10, hunters accompanied by gundog handlers legally shoot and kill grouse, which are flushed by a line of "beaters" walking through the undergrowth.

Once common across the UK, hen harriers are illegally killed prior to the shooting season because they eat grouse.

After three years in which no young hen harriers have been raised on commercial grouse moors, the RSPB and other organizations fear the hen harrier is destined for extinction as an English breeding bird unless the illegal persecution can be halted.

Participants at last week's conference, "Birds of Prey in a Changing Environment" heard that only five pairs of hen harriers nested successfully in England this year.

This was at the RSPB’s Geltsdale nature reserve in Cumbria and on land owned by a water utility in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, where the utility, NorthWest Water is working in partnership with the RSPB.

The Game Conservancy Trust told the conference, hosted by the British Ornithologists’ Union and Scottish Natural Heritage, that the English uplands could support at least 230 nesting pairs.

The Isle of Man off the northwest coast of Wales supports around 50 pairs of these birds of prey in a far smaller area because persecution is unheard of.

In recent years, landowners and hunters have revived the debate concerning whether the 1954 ban on shooting birds of prey should be lifted. They argue that an increase in raptor populations has resulted in a decline in the number of grouse, with significant implications for local economies.


A hen harrier about to incubate her chicks.
But earlier this year the government’s UK Raptor Working Group rejected such calls and urged enhanced measures to protect birds of prey.

It reported that experiments to provide hen harriers with alternative food significantly reduced the number of grouse taken by harriers.

"Long-term declines in grouse numbers have been caused by a loss in area and quality of heather moorland," said Julian Hughes, head of species policy for the RSPB.

"Grouse stocks will only recover through enhanced habitat management, not by the illegal and unacceptable killing of raptors. Well managed heather moor can benefit a wide range of wildlife, including grouse and birds of prey."

"Only those hen harriers which are given individual protection in England are allowed to nest successfully. Hen harriers attempt to nest on English grouse moors annually but have failed each year since 1997, whereas they are mostly successful on other moors.

"We believe that systematic shooting of adult birds and the destruction of nests is widespread."

Peter Davies of Raptor Study Groups in the north of England, urged grouse moor owners and gamekeepers to "call a halt to the year on year slaughter of hen harriers."

"Providing alternative food for hen harriers, in the short term, can allow these magnificent raptors to flourish while grouse stocks respond to improved management," said Davies.


Five hen harrier chicks are visible.
The hen harrier used to be known by many names, a sign of its former abundance. Males were known as blue hawk, blue kite, blue sleeves, white hawk, white aboon gled, grey buzzard and miller. Females went by ringtail, brown gled and brown kite.

Ranging throughout the boreal and temperate zones of North America - where it is known as the Marsh Hawk - and Eurasia, and wintering in temperate to warm temperate zones, the hen harrier has experienced mixed fortunes because of human interference.

It is in widespread decline or hanging on in much of its range, where its preferred terrain is open, low lying country like rough grazing, heath land, moorland, marshes and boggy areas with a high rodent population.

Next year, the government funded English Nature group proposes to add the North Pennine Moors to a list of Special Protection Areas for hen harriers under the European Union Directive on Wild Birds.

This should help to release funds for practical moorland management to support a wide range of upland birds.