England has seen its most successful hen harrier breeding season for a decade, with 34 chicks fledging, Natural England said.
Nine out of 14 nesting attempts by England’s most endangered bird of prey across Lancashire, Cumbria, Northumberland and Derbyshire were successful, the government conservation agency said.
Hen harriers have come close to extinction as a breeding bird in England due to historic persecution and conservationists warn they are still targeted by gamekeepers because they prey on red grouse.
But in an often bitter debate, the shooting industry says estates spend millions of pounds a year to support wildlife and it wants to see a well-dispersed hen harrier population which co-exists with local businesses.
This year’s breeding success is down to high numbers of voles which are a main source of food, good weather, and efforts by a number of organisations to help the species, Natural England said.
Part of the efforts included “diversionary feeding”, offering supplementary food to the chicks since they have hatched to boost survival chances and divert the adults from taking chicks of other birds including red grouse.
The partnership between conservation groups, national parks and moorland managers has helped find and monitor nests and fit satellite tags on many of the young birds to track them as they take to the skies.
Three nests failed due to predation and two were unsuccessful because one male who had mated with two females was trying to provide for both nests, Natural England said.
Half the attempts, four of which were successful, were on national nature reserves.
Four nests were successful on land managed for grouse moor shooting, including three on United Utilities land in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, and one on land owned by the National Trust in the Peak District.
The increase in hen harrier chicks this year is truly remarkable
The final successful nest was on a hill farm just off grouse moorland.
Natural England chairman Andrew Sells, said: “The increase in hen harrier chicks this year is truly remarkable.
“These figures are a tribute to all those working hard for the survival of this breath-taking bird and show that responsible management of grouse moors must be part of the solution.”
He warned it would take more than one good breeding season to deliver a thriving population so there should be “no let-up” in conservation efforts.
A national hen harrier action plan by the Environment Department (Defra) has paved the way for monitoring numbers, protecting nests and diversionary feeding.
But it also includes controversial plans to trial “brood management”, in which young birds in areas with larger numbers of harriers are taken and reared in captivity before release.
The RSPB has been granted permission for a judicial review against Natural England on the decision to grant licences for brood management.
The wildlife charity welcomed the increase in the number of successful nests this year.
But head of species policy Gareth Cunningham said: “Whilst we acknowledge progress, this species’ population is still at critically low levels and still vulnerable to illegal killing once birds disperse.”
However Dr Adam Smith, of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, said it was “very important” the hen harrier has bred more widely in England than for many years and said the action plan was gaining traction.
He said: “That plan’s practical approach is helping confidence build in the land management sector that birds of prey can be part of our cherished sporting moorland landscapes.”
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association which represents grouse moor managers, said: “The hen harrier action plan has provided a blueprint that should deliver a sustainable and well-dispersed hen harrier population and unlock the predator-prey conflict to the benefit of both species.”