Joy as 22 hen harrier chicks fledge from nests in Forest of Bowland

A hen harrier chick in the nest  on the United Utilities Bowland Estate 'PIC: RSPB
A hen harrier chick in the nest on the United Utilities Bowland Estate 'PIC: RSPB

More than 20 hen harrier chicks have fledged from five nests in the Forest of Bowland. The RSPB said it was “delighted” to see that 22 chicks had fledged this year.

This is the second year in a row that hen harriers have nested successfully in Bowland, after 13 chicks fledged from three nests in 2018.

This follows six years of little or no consistent breeding success in the AONB.

Conservationists are now hopeful that this could mark the start of the return of these rare and beautiful birds of prey to an area once considered a stronghold for them in England.

Hen harriers breed on hills and moors, and are best-known for the male’s breath-taking courtship display known as skydancing. However, they are on the verge of disappearing as a breeding bird in England owing to ongoing illegal persecution associated with driven grouse shooting. Scientific research published in March this year, based on data from Natural England, showed that 72 per cent of satellite-tagged hen harriers were considered or confirmed to have been illegally killed, and were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over grouse moor than any other type of land use.

Although experts estimate there is enough habitat in northern England to support over 300 pairs, last year there were only nine successful nests in the whole country.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult male perched in flight with twig, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, Scotland. June

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult male perched in flight with twig, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, Scotland. June

Thanks to a unique partnership, United Utilities Estate in Bowland is bucking that trend. Since early spring, RSPB’s staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities, their shooting and farming tenants, and the Forest of Bowland AONB, have put everything into protecting and supporting the five hen harrier nests on this estate, through close monitoring, diversionary feeding, habitat management, and careful avoidance of disturbance.

However, hen harriers are known to travel widely, and concern still remains for the birds once they leave the estate.

Prior to fledging, a number of this year’s chicks were fitted with satellite tags, which were provided by the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project. This will allow RSPB conservation staff to continue to monitor the progress of the birds once they have left Bowland.

Members of the public can follow the progress of two of these – young male, Apollo, and female, Cyan – as their journeys will be added to the LIFE project website HERE, in the coming weeks as they leave their nest areas.

Like many of the UK’s hen harriers, those satellite-tagged in Bowland have not always met with happy ends.

In 2012, Bowland Betty died from an injury resulting from a shot gun wound and in 2014, barely two months after leaving their nests, Sky and Hope disappeared without trace when their tags suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting within a few miles of each other.

Tragically, two of the young hen harriers tagged in Bowland just last year have already died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances – Thor’s tag stopped transmitting near the same location as Sky and Hope, and River’s body was found in North Yorkshire, lodged with two shot pellets.

James Bray, RSPB Bowland Project Officer, said: “I feel really proud to have been involved in helping these chicks to fledge. The RSPB team of staff and volunteers, United Utilities and their tenants have all worked incredibly hard to make this season a success and we all want to see them thrive. It has been such a joy to see this small local population grow from three to five pairs over two increasingly successful years, having endured two terrible years before that, without any nests at all.

“The increase this year is likely to be a combination of many factors but sensitive management of the estate, ensuring plenty of good nesting habitat, and the fact that hen harriers nested successfully last year, will both have helped. I live in hope that one day soon we’ll see a return to the 20-30 hen harrier nests that were a common sight in Bowland in the 1980’s.

“As a partnership, we’re doing everything we can here and are all excited to see where these birds travel to once they leave the estate, however, we can’t help but remain anxious about their future.”

Matt Upton, Catchment Manager for the United Utilities Bowland Estate, said: I would like to thank everyone involved for their continued conservation efforts. All the hard work and dedication has paid off again this year and it’s a real joy to see these magnificent birds of prey are one again choosing to make Bowland their home.

Elliott Lorimer, Forest of Bowland AONB Manager, said: “This year has seen such a great partnership effort and this latest success is testament to all those involved. It has been a pleasure to see these very special birds back and raising chicks in the Forest of Bowland.”