Interview with Brian Etheridge about the Hen Harrier in the UK

Date of the interview: 06 September 2010

The Hen Harrier is an elegant and beautiful raptor of open landscapes. It has declined in several countries due to habitat destruction and also, sadly, because of illegal persecution.
In the United Kingdom the largest population can be found in Scotland, where it is in conflict with grouse hunting.

In this interview Brian Etheridge from the RSPB talkes about the current situation of the Hen Harrier in the UK. Brian is an expert on the Hen Harrier and has been involved in raptor conservation and research for many years.
Brian works for both the RSPB on Red Kites and the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme as a Raptor Monitoring Officer.

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the Hen Harrier in the UK?
Brian Etheridge: It is a widespread but scarce breeding species to the UK uplands, and a partial migrant and winter visitor. The breeding population of UK and Isle of Man in 2004 was an estimated 806 pairs. Scotland held 633 pairs, 79% of this total. A repeat survey by RSPB was held in 2010, the results are eagerly awaited.

Markus Jais: How has the population developed during the 20th and 21st century?
Brian Etheridge: Persecution by man in the 19th century, reduced the breeding population to just a handful of pairs in Scotland confined to the islands of the Outer Hebrides and Orkney. After the 1914-18 Great War, a few pairs became established on mainland Scotland and this recolonisation gathered momentum during the 1940s and 50s. By the 1960s, Hen Harriers were breeding in small numbers in northern England and Wales, but in recent decades, there has been some contraction in range in both in England and parts of Scotland.

Markus Jais: What is the preferred habitat of the Hen Harrier in the UK?
Brian Etheridge: Open heather moorland is the primary habitat with young commercial woodland planted in upland areas important in some locations, particularly in the west and far north.

Markus Jais: Is it known in which habitat the harriers have the highest breeding success?
Brian Etheridge: Hen harriers have their highest breeding success in open heather moorland that is not managed for game shooting.

Female Hen Harrier attacking

Female Hen Harrier attacking.
© Martin Benson

Markus Jais: Is there competition with other raptors like Common Buzzards or Golden Eagles?
Brian Etheridge: Hen Harriers apparently avoid nesting in areas where there are resident Golden Eagles. This may be linked to an increased risk of predation by the larger species rather than any competition for prey. In moorland areas and in young forestry, where both Hen Harriers and Common Buzzards are often present and exploiting very similar prey species, some competition must occur, though the impact of this on harriers has yet to be studied. Hen Harriers face other likely prey competitors in Scotland such as that from Merlin, Kestrel, Short-eared Owl and even Goshawk.

Markus Jais: What is the preferred food of the Hen Harrier in the UK? Is there enough suitable prey?
Brian Etheridge: Food varies with the season. When breeding, voles and young and adult songbirds, waders and game birds are important. At other times of the year, harriers will move to lower ground and hunt for mice, voles and small birds over agricultural land, overgrown fields and marshland. There appears to be no shortage of suitable prey.

Markus Jais: What is the effect of Hen Harriers on songbird species?
Brian Etheridge: This is currently unknown but unlikely to be severe given the current Hen Harrier population. During the breeding season by far the most important prey item are Meadow Pipits, the most abundant songbird in the uplands of Britain.

Female Hen Harrier attacking

Female Hen Harrier attacking.
© Martin Benson

Markus Jais: What is the effect of Hen Harriers on grouse species?
Brian Etheridge: Work carried out in the 1990s at Langholm in south Scotland in what is known as The Joint Raptor Study showed that when Hen Harriers together with Peregrines are at high densities they can have a negative effect on Red Grouse abundance. The study estimated that in the summers of 1995 and 1996, harrier predation removed on average 37% of grouse chicks and together with adult predation, reduced post-breeding numbers of grouse by an estimated 50% within a single breeding season. However, the 20 breeding females present on this moor was exceptionally high and this density has not been matched elsewhere.

Markus Jais: What is known about the annual movements of adult and juvenile birds?
Brian Etheridge: Ringing recoveries and sightings of wing-tagged birds show that many young male harriers leave Scotland in early autumn and move south to winter in southern England. Some cross to Ireland or winter on the Continent in France, Spain and Portugal. Young females made smaller journeys. Although some dispersed to Ireland and northern England, few went any further and none crossed to Europe. Many stay on the Scottish uplands moving on to lower ground only in severe weather. Most adults appeared to be resident, dispersing across neighbouring habitats outside the breeding season, though a few made longer seasonal movements within UK.

Markus Jais: How many Harriers are illegally killed each year in the UK and why does that happen?
Brian Etheridge: A study carried out by the RSPB during 1988-1995 using wing-tags found that breeding female harriers suffered a high level of illegal killing when they attempt to nest on moorland managed for grouse-shooting. The killing by gamekeepers was estimated to account for 55-74 females each year, 11-15% of their numbers in Scotland (excluding Orkney). Their nests and contents were destroyed at the same time. No estimate of the number of males killed was possible. There is no evidence that this scale of killing has reduced in recent years, moreover, range contraction and population declines in regions where grouse shooting is most prevalent suggest this illegal killing has intensified. Grouse-shooting is an important industry in upland areas of Scotland and northern England, both for economic and for employment reasons. Those who depend on this industry (I do not consider it a sport) view Hen Harriers (and most other raptors) as major threats to Red Grouse stocks. Most gamekeepers are under pressure to produce a surplus of grouse for the guns to shoot and any creature that they consider a threat to their stock, whether feathered or fur, protected by law or not, are classed as vermin and “killed”.

Markus Jais: How does the alteration of habitat affect Hen Harriers?
Brian Etheridge: Hen Harriers benefited from the large-scale conversion of open heather moorland to young forest plantation during the 1950s-1970s. The reduction in grazing led to an abundance of prey species such as voles and songbirds, and the elimination of illegal killing (foresters were interested in trees not game-birds) allowed the harrier population to expand rapidly. More recently, grouse-shooting has increased to popularity amongst landowners and many formerly redundant moors are back under grouse management with the resultant upsurge in predator control and an increase in the illegal killing of harriers and other species.

Female Hen Harrier

Female Hen Harrier.
© Martin Benson

Markus Jais: Is anything known about the effect of pesticides on Hen Harriers?
Brian Etheridge: Pesticides were not shown to impact on Hen Harriers in the way they affected Sparrowhawks, Peregrines and some other raptors. This is somewhat surprising as many harriers winter in agricultural areas and would have been exposed to these substances. Perhaps in the 1950s and 60s harrier numbers were relatively small and any impact difficult to detect

Markus Jais: What other threats exist for Hen Harriers in the UK?
Brian Etheridge: The proliferation of wind farms in Scotland could create an indirect problem. Not so much through the collision risk but through loss of hunting habitat, and the ease of human access to previously remote breeding areas and a resultant increase in breeding failure.

Markus Jais: What can be done to reduce the illegal killing of Hen Harriers?
Brian Etheridge: This destruction is carried out in remote areas, often after dark or in the early morning without witnesses. Reducing the level of killing at a time when grouse moor management is intensifying is a very difficult task when the views of gamekeepers on raptors are so entrenched. Obtaining evidence against individuals for illegal killing is even more difficult and there have been very few successful prosecutions. Improving wildlife law enforcement by the creation of more full-time specialist Police Wildlife Crime officers may help in reducing illegal persecution. Improved positive support from the gamekeeper and shooting organisations together with the rural landowning associations in stamping out illegal activity would greatly help.

Markus Jais: What else should be done to secure the Hen Harrier’s future in the UK?
Brian Etheridge: Introduce government licensing of grouse-moors, such that when an infringement of wildlife law is proven, the owners loose the right to operate the moor as a commercial concern, the licence is withdrawn and shooting is banned for a given period, depending on the severity of the crime. This could be tied into some form of “green” conservation endorsement to sporting estates, which will proclaim to visitors and others that no illegal killing of raptors takes place on the estate.

Hen Harrier habitat with wind farm

Hen Harrier habitat with wind farm.
© Martin Benson

Markus Jais: Are there any conservation programs for the species?
Brian Etheridge: For much of the current decade, English Nature (currently Natural England) have operated a Hen Harrier recovery programme in an attempt to increase the number of breeding pairs in England and provide protection to those pairs. So far, it has largely failed in the face of illegal killing and numbers of breeding pairs of Hen Harriers remain pitifully small outside protected areas and the proportion of successful nest tiny.

Markus Jais: What can bird watchers and other people do to help Hen Harriers?
Brian Etheridge: Appreciate the great beauty and value of Hen Harriers and tell their friends. Raise the issue of illegal killing by writing letters to the newspapers and talking to their local politicians. Join the RSPB and support their fight against the killing of raptors.

Markus Jais: How do you see the future of the Hen Harrier UK?
Brian Etheridge: I view the future with growing concerns as each year more moorland areas in Scotland are converted to intensive game management with the resultant loss of breeding harriers. This is one reason why it is vital that regular national breeding surveys (currently every 6 years) are carried out and funded by the statutory bodies.

Hen Harrier forest habitat

Hen Harrier forest habitat.
© Martin Benson

Markus Jais: What is the status of other harrier species in the UK?
Brian Etheridge: Marsh Harriers have slowly increased in recent years and there are now thought to be over 350 pairs, the great majority in eastern England. Montague’s Harrier remains a very rare breeder only 10-12 pairs in recent years and wholly confined to southeast England.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Hen Harriers?
Brian Etheridge: My first encounter each spring with a displaying male on the breeding grounds is always an exciting experience and I never cease to be amazed at this wonderful spectacle. Long ago, when I first started studying Hen Harriers, I spent a memorable couple of days with the late Donald Watson who took me to some of the breeding and communal roosting sites in Galloway recorded in his monograph. Another experience I remember with affection was a very angry and bold female Hen Harrier that used to nest near my home in the Highlands. I was wearing a tweed cap at the time and was walking away after visiting her nest. Whack! In one silent swoop from behind, she snatched the cap from my head and raked my scalp with her hind claw, drawing blood. She flew off over a nearby hillock carrying my cap in her talons with me in hot pursuit, only for her to return a few minutes later without it. The cap was lost until the following year when I came across it in deep heather when searching for the new nest.

Markus Jais: Brian, thank you very much for the interview.

Further Information

Royal Society for the proctection of birds (RSPB)

RSPB species account for the Hen Harrier