Hen harriers have 'record' breeding season as chicks fledge across Lancashire

020920 Hen harriers PA
Rare hen harriers have had their best breeding season in England, conservationists have said. Credit: PA

Rare hen harriers have had their best breeding season in England for years, with 60 chicks fledging from 19 nests, conservationists have said.

Chicks successfully fledged from nests across Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria and Lancashire in the best breeding season on record since a recovery project began in 2002, Government agency Natural England said.

Once found across upland and lowland Britain, including in many English counties, hen harriers became extremely rare as a breeding bird in England after 1830 as a result of persecution.

Despite protection, today they remain England's most threatened bird of prey, coming into conflict with commercial shooting estates because they catch red grouse chicks to feed their young.

Hen harriers remain England's most threatened bird of prey. Credit: PA

This year's success, which means that 141 hen harrier chicks have fledged over the past three years, has been put down to factors including high numbers of voles, which are a key food source, and good weather.

Natural England also attributed the record year to strong partnership working with groups including the RSPB, Forestry Commission, Moorland Association, United Utilities and the National Trust.

It is a marked improvement from a low point in 2013 when there were no successful nests or fledged chicks, raising fears that the bird was becoming extinct as a breeding species in England.

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper said there has been "great progress" in boosting numbers but warned that too many birds still go missing in unexplained circumstances and called for persecution of them to stop.

A study released by Natural England last year analysing satellite tagging data found that young hen harriers suffer abnormally high death rates, with illegal killing the most likely cause.

An action plan to boost hen harrier numbers since 2016 includes monitoring, diversionary feeding and, more controversially, "brood management" options to remove and rear chicks in captivity to prevent their parents preying on red grouse chicks.

Since 2013, 43 hen harriers are known to have been killed or "gone missing" after fledging. Credit: PA

Mark Thomas, the RSPB's head of investigations, said: "The news that 60 hen harrier chicks have fledged in England this year is encouraging, and testament to the crucial monitoring from raptor workers."

But he said there is enough habitat and prey to support more than 12 times this year's total and illegal persecution is still the most serious threat to the species.

Since 2013, 43 hen harriers are known to have been killed or "gone missing" after fledging, he said.

"If this painfully slow recovery is to gather pace, and these beautiful birds are to become as common across our landscapes as they should be, the illegal persecution must stop."