Interview with Don Scott about the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland UK

Don Scott

Don Scott, © Marc Ruddock

Date of the interview: 05 October 2010

In this interview, Don Scott talks about the current situation of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland.
Don is an expert on Harriers and has studied Hen Harriers for 25 years. He has also traveled around the world to study and observe all other harrier species. He has written a wonderful book Harriers: Journeys Around The World about this studies and has also recently finished another book about his studies of the Hen Harrier (see the interview for details).

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: In Northern Ireland there are probably no more than 20-30 breeding pairs? In my study area of County Antrim (which was always regarded as their stronghold), where I have monitored breeding Hen Harriers for the past 25 years, numbers have been declining rapidly there since at least 2001.

Markus Jais: How has the population developed during the 20th and 21st century?
Don Scott: The population here has seen highs and lows during the course of the 20th century, considering that the first nest for Northern Ireland was not discovered until 1967. The Hen Harrier formerly bred here in the 19th century but was practically wiped out through blatant persecution, hence no breeding records prior to 1967. The 21st century has seen a definite decline, not only in Northern Ireland, but also in many parts of the UK as well, where the species is now considered a rare breeding raptor.

Close-up of an adult male Hen Harrier

Close-up of an adult male Hen Harrier
© Don Scott

Markus Jais: How many birds spend the winter in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: All too few birds spend the winter here for my liking, as quite a few of our resident birds remain in the uplands and only leave when the weather is really bad and when prey is in short demand. Then when the weather improves they will gradually return again to mainly the same areas and will only leave when conditions deteriorate. Unlike the UK, we rarely get large numbers of wintering harriers from Europe, so our wintering birds are likely to be from Scotland, Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, it is hard to put an exact figure on wintering harriers here, but the majority are likely to be from our own resident population?

Markus Jais: What is the preferred habitat of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: In County Antrim the preferred habitat for nesting, winter roosting and foraging is heather moorland, but over the past 20 years the Hen Harrier has moved into recently planted and mature conifer plantations to nest and roost, but they still prefer the moorland for hunting purposes. In recent years very few ground nests have been found on the open moorland due to continual over-grazing by numerous sheep, so-called agricultural improvement schemes and the illegal burning of the moorland by farmers and other rogue elements. There are also numerous Red Foxes in our uplands and they heavily depredate the nests of Hen Harriers and other moorland dwelling species. In the more westerly and southerly counties of Northern Ireland the Hen Harrier nests in deep tracts of heather moorland and only occasionally in new or mature conifer plantations, with this due to very few sheep and obviously less over-grazing.

Markus Jais: Is it known in which habitat the harriers have the highest breeding success?
Don Scott: I can only speak for my study area in County Antrim and the highest breeding success in recent years was attained in conifer plantations, with nests on the ground and in the tops of deformed Sitka Spruce trees, which ranged in height from 2-13m high. In the westerly and southerly counties nesting success is attained on the ground in good areas where the heather moorland is quite deep in many places – and nesting in trees does not occur in these areas. Tree nesting, has only occurred in County Antrim due mainly to the poor ground conditions and surprisingly it has never been recorded elsewhere in Ireland, the UK or Europe!

An incubating female Hen Harrier

An incubating female Hen Harrier
© Don Scott

Markus Jais: You discovered tree nesting Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland. How many pairs do breed in trees and has this behaviour also been document in other countries? What trees are the most popular?
Don Scott: Two years ago, tree nesting, ceased in County Antrim after almost two decades, but during its peak around 5-8 pairs nested annually, around 50% at one stage of the entire Antrim population and as mentioned above it has not been recorded elsewhere. The only tree the harriers ever utilised for this purpose was the deformed tops of Sitka Spruce trees. These trees had lost their leading shoot at some stage during their growth and the surrounding branches resembled an upturned umbrella without the handle, subsequently the harriers built their own nests in the tops of these trees and used the same materials as that found in a ground nest.

Markus Jais: Does nesting in trees affect the average breeding success?
Don Scott: Nesting in trees can affect the average breeding success, but in the absence of poor ground cover the harriers had no other choice in this area – it was either adapt to nesting in trees or desert the area for good, thankfully they chose the former option. In good years ground nests could contain up to 5-6 chicks, tree nests in the early years only contained one or two chicks and when the broods became larger, chicks started falling out of the tree nests and over the years I rescued and released over 20 Hen Harrier chicks into the wild again, which would not have survived below their respective nests, fox predation, hypothermia and starvation etc. etc. would have claimed them. A lot of time was spent finding and then monitoring these tree nests and not all of them were discovered each year and fatalities obviously occurred at the undiscovered nest sites!

Markus Jais: In Harriers, males can breed with either one female or with several females. When is which strategy chosen and how does this affect breeding success?
Don Scott: Until recently, polygyny or polyandry was rarely recorded in the Antrim population and I noted through my observations that both occurred when there was a known lack of females and similarly a lack of males. I have even had polygyny and polyandry occurring simultaneously at two forests which were no more than 8km from each other; one was a ground nest (polygyny), the other a tree nest where a polyandrous female had two willing grey males in consecutive years. A lot of these nests were doomed to failure, particularly the tree nesting efforts; whereas ground nests were more successful. Crazy birds, but all this was probably due to the sharp decline in the Antrim population. Sky-dancing, during the spring was not as vigorous by the resident males due to the lack of females and vice versa in these areas – basically there was no competition for a partner of either sex.

A conventional ground nest

A conventional ground nest
© Don Scott

Markus Jais: What is the preferred food of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland? Is there enough suitable prey?
Don Scott: I have written an extensive paper on the diet of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland, from 1991-2005, and in the absence of Field Voles, the preferred food is: Meadow Pipit, Starling and Skylark, with Rabbit also recorded, probably by the much larger females, Wood Mouse, Pygmy Shrew and Brown Rat are also utilised and in certain areas Viviparous Lizard is taken. In the UK, Hen Harriers rely heavily on Red Grouse and their chicks, in Northern Ireland grouse are an uncommon species in our uplands and are only about 1% of the harrier’s overall diet.

Markus Jais: In Scotland and England there is a lot of conflict with Grouse Hunting. How is the situation in Northern Ireland? Are birds illegally persecuted?
Don Scott: There is also conflict in Northern Ireland as well, but not on the same level as in parts of England and Scotland. The shooting fraternity here has whipped up intense feelings against harriers and several other raptor species in recent years, which has resulted in chicks being killed by rogue elements and purposely left in the nest, or the eggs are discreetly removed before they hatch. Adult birds have also been shot, particularly the female and then the males desert the nesting area, poisoned bait tied to fenceposts near a favourite perching post have also been used to kill harriers on the moorland. Only sad and uneducated people would persecute these elegant and beautiful raptors.

Markus Jais: How does the alteration of habitat and forestry management affect Hen Harriers?
Don Scott: Sadly, Forest Service in Northern Ireland, do not manage their forests to accommodate ground and tree nesting, or winter roosting Hen Harriers. In fact, over the years they have allowed car rallies, felling and the spraying of the forests by helicopter to occur during the breeding season. They have also felled known tree nest sites that were formerly used by the harriers and which the harriers have reused on many occasions. I tried in vain over the years to have all these problems shifted to the autumn and winter months and the early spring prior to the harriers returning to these forests to breed, but sadly my best efforts have fallen on deaf ears and there is also no management plan of the moorland either. This species has been failed, mismanaged and neglected over the years by all our so-called conservation bodies here, hence the low numbers that now exist in the uplands of County Antrim.

Markus Jais: What is the effect of wind farms on Hen Harriers?
Don Scott: My colleague Philip McHaffie and I have purposely monitored an operational wind farm site in County Antrim for three consecutive winters 2005/06, 2006/07 and 2007/08, to assess whether collision mortality is an issue for Hen Harriers. During our routine visits over this period, we have found the remains of 8 Hooded Crows, 6 Ravens and a Common Buzzard that had been killed by the turbines rotor blades. Then on 13th January 2007, we found the remains of an adult male Hen Harrier, below one of the more southerly turbines which had not been present during our last visit on 10th December 2006 – its right wing lay about 4m from the body! This serious incident was reported to conservation organisations here and to several consultants, both here and in Scotland, who specifically monitor wind farms for the companies who want to erect them. Regrettably, and not surprisingly this bad news was not taken on board or acted upon by the conservation organisation here that are responsible for granting planning licences and shortly afterwards a nine turbine extension was built on the same area, without further consultation. One UK consultancy denied that no Hen Harriers in England, Scotland or Wales had ever been killed at a wind farm site – and as Northern Ireland is also part of the UK, they totally dismissed this incident for obvious reasons – the money factor! Wind farms sited in the wrong areas can have a devastating effect on birds of prey and seemingly Corvid species as well, and I totally oppose their erection in any part of Northern Ireland! They are an eyesore to look at and ruin beautiful and scenic areas by their presence.

Three chicks in a rare tree-nest

Three chicks in a rare tree-nest
© Don Scott

Markus Jais: What should be done to secure the Hen Harrier’s future in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: I will tell you frankly what should be done to secure the long-term future of the Hen Harrier and also our rarest raptor the Merlin. A new conservation organisation should be formed here and given overall charge of birds of prey conservation and protection. The moorland habitat should be returned to deep tracts of heather moorland, which would mean the end of numerous over-grazing sheep which have continually decimated the Antrim Hills for decades and also an immediate stop should be put to peat-cutting which have devastated large areas of open moorland. The conifer forests are over-populated by nesting raptor and owl species and by returning the moorland to uniformity again would alleviate this problem. Only then can we return the Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-eared Owl, to where they should be nesting – on the open heather moorland and definitely not in alien conifer plantations!

Markus Jais: Are there any conservation programs for the species?
Don Scott: Unfortunately, there are no short or long-term conservation programmes to fully conserve Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland and our so-called conservation bodies are guilty of only playing at trying to fully conserve this species, particularly in the Antrim Hills. Even in parts of the UK, the Hen Harrier has been a neglected species for many years by the conservation organisations that operate there (similar to those found in Northern Ireland) and is now considered a rare breeding bird! This species as I have previously stated: has been failed, neglected and mismanaged for decades! When the Hen Harrier has finally gone from an area that it had inhabited for centuries will you ever hear these conservation organisations specifically mentioning it, whereas they should have been doing something positive to fully conserve and save it in the first place? It is always – too little too late!

Markus Jais: What gaps in our knowledge about Hen Harriers do still exist? Where should research focus in the coming years?
Don Scott: For me personally, the Hen Harrier is a species that I continually learn something different from its breeding ecology every year and I think we need to go back to basics to fully understand its enigmatic behaviour in the uplands of County Antrim, in particular. There are many gaps that still need to be filled in, as the Hen Harrier seems to lead a totally different lifestyle in the Antrim Hills to other parts of Northern Ireland, the UK and Europe and our research should focus on its long-term future here and not by continually counting their numbers and wing-tagging, or ringing the odd bird. The bodies here that are charged with counting Hen Harriers, year in year out, do nothing to help this species after these counts have been completed, even though they are aware and have been duly informed of its decline in certain areas, their research should be totally focused on this bird, sadly that important aspect is lacking from their agenda!

Markus Jais: What can bird watchers and other people do to help Hen Harriers?
Don Scott: Very occasionally, and I reiterate very occasionally, do birdwatchers ever intrude into the breeding territory of the Hen Harrier and that is probably due to the majority of our birds in County Antrim being confined to young and mature conifer plantations, with I may say only the odd pair breeding on open tracts of heather moorland. Every year I get welcome emails and phone calls from birders telling me where they observed Hen Harriers in my study area and this is most important due to the declining numbers in the Antrim Hills and probably in other parts of Northern Ireland as well. I have a great rapport with these birders over many years and their news is treated with respect and of the utmost importance even if they think it is just another innocent harrier sighting.

Markus Jais: How do you see the future of the Hen Harrier in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: I am sad to say that the Hen Harrier faces a grim future in Northern Ireland and a recent conversation with a harrier colleague and friend from the neighbouring Republic of Ireland – stated that the species had a poor breeding season in 2010 in his study area and I believe similarly in several parts of the UK as well. It is worth remembering, that if we lose this beautiful raptor again in Northern Ireland as a breeding bird – it cannot be reintroduced, it will probably be lost for many years to come and the worst scenario may suggest, forever!

Markus Jais: What is the status of other harrier species in Northern Ireland?
Don Scott: Until 2009, the Hen Harrier was the only harrier species to breed in Northern Ireland. Then the Western Marsh Harrier returned to breed at a wetland area in County Down, after an absence of over 150 years and successfully fledged two young. Two birds returned to the same area in 2010, but moved five days later to another location and then sadly deserted a week or so later, due to atrocious weather conditions. Hopefully, the birds will return again in 2011. Until recently we have only had two records of Montagu’s Harrier, a female in June 2005, followed by a male in April 2006, and no records of Pallid Harrier.

Markus Jais: You already published a wonderful book about the Harriers of the World and just finished a new book in the Hen Harrier in Ireland called The Hen Harrier: In the Shadow of Slemish. What is the book about?
Don Scott: My new book entitled: The Hen Harrier – In the shadow of Slemish, is based on my 24 years of unbroken study of this species in the Antrim Hills. It covers every part of their enigmatic lifestyle in this area and also mentions other species that I found breeding here as well for the first time: such as Goshawk, Red Kite and Short-eared Owl and of course the pair of Marsh Harriers in 2009. My encounters with Golden Eagle, Osprey and Merlin etc. etc. are also mentioned. This book is presently being published and will hopefully be on sale by the end of November 2010, priced at only £18-99 sterling.
At present I am also writing a book on: The Short-eared Owl and it includes my personal observations of the species breeding in Scotland and then finding it breeding here for the first time in the Antrim Hills in 1997, until the present day.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Hen Harriers?
Don Scott: I have several amazing experiences with the Hen Harrier over the past 25 years and I will hopefully be allowed to mention a few of them.

  • 1). Discovering the ‘first’ ever tree-nest, on 14th July 1991, was an incredible find, which at the time very few people here believed my story! Thankfully, harrier experts like the late Roger Clarke and Donald Watson were at hand and also Colin Shawyer, to confirm my extraordinary and unique find. Only in County Antrim has tree-nesting been recorded, but because of declining numbers no tree-nests have been found since 2008!
  • 2). Discovering a short time later that mainly male and female Hen Harriers, were roosting in the vacated tree-nests during the winter months in the absence of poor ground cover. This was another unique find, which like tree-nesting has not been recorded elsewhere in the UK or in Europe.
  • 3). The re-discovery of a ground winter roost site in deep heather at a mature conifer plantation high up in the Sperrins, County Tyrone, in September 1992. In its day up to 8 harriers utilised this site, a record for Northern Ireland, mainly grey males and only occasionally females. Sadly, in recent years, this site is now deserted, due to human interference. This was also the first winter roost site in Ireland to be fully documented in a reputable birding journal.
  • 4). During the winter of 1994/95, my colleague Philip McHaffie and I discovered a unique tree roost for Hen Harriers, at a large conifer plantation in north Antrim. Each and almost every evening for two consecutive winters the harriers roosted near the tops of 20m high conifers, in the absence of poor ground cover. Up to 6 Hen Harriers utilised the site, mainly grey males and very few females and ringtails. The harriers and several other raptor species were attracted to the area by a flock of over 3,000 Starlings and Thrush species which roosted nearby – but when the Starlings etc. moved to another location, the harriers and the other raptors involved also re-located.

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

Further Information about Don’s books:

“Harriers: Journeys Around The World”The Hen Harrier – In the Shadow of Slemish