THE magnificent hen harrier remains on the brink of extinction, despite the efforts of conservationists to stop it happening, and unless the situation is reversed, the birds - whose natural habitat is heather moors - will very soon disappear. Lesley Tate reports

CONSERVATIONISTS have reacted with despair after latest figures revealed the hen harrier remains on the brink of extinction.

Across the UK, the number of pairs of hen harriers recorded last year were just 545 - a drop of 88 pairs since the last national survey in 2010.

In England, including Craven and the Yorkshire Dales, there were just four pairs of the bird recorded last year - despite the efforts of the Moorland Association.

Across the UK as a whole, including Scotland, a stronghold for the bird, there were 545 pairs recorded last year, but that was a drop of 88 pairs since the last national survey in 2010.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “The hen harrier is one of our most wonderful birds of prey, to see one soaring through the air before dramatically diving down during its thrilling skydancing display is an iconic sight and one that will always take your breath way. These are sights that we should all be able to enjoy. Unfortunately, we are being robbed of the chance to see these beautiful birds flourish throughout the UK countryside.”

The reasons for the population changes are likely to be a combination of factors that vary from region to region.

From previous research, it is known that the main factor limiting the UK hen harrier population is illegal associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and parts of mainland Scotland.

Other pressures such as cold and wet weather conditions over a number of breeding seasons, changes in habitat management and low prey abundance could have all had an impact on numbers throughout the country.

Yorkshire Dales based Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, which cares for 860,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales for the shooting of red grouse, said the association was working with the government and others to secure a better future for the bird.

"Nesting attempts this year have been disappointingly few but collaboration with our members in the Yorkshire Dales where the birds have turned up has been excellent," she said.

The association says it is working closely with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and other partners for the sustainable breeding of hen harriers.

And to unlock the conflict on grouse moors, which make up just less than half of the country's suitable habitat for the bird, it supports a captive 'rear and release' programme.

The 'brood management scheme' is triggered when nests reach a pre-determined density to prevent pockets of nesting in any one area.

Chicks are removed by experts to an aviary where they are reared before being released in suitable habitat elsewhere.

It is hoped by the moorland association such a programme will minimise the impact successful hen harrier nests have on their prey in one area as well as increase their range in other areas.

The hen harrier survey was carried out from the beginning of April to the end of July last year and as a partnership between RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Natural Resource Wales (NRW), Natural England (NE), the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Scottish Raptor Study Group, the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group, Northern England Raptor Forum and Manx BirdLife.

It was co-funded by SNH, NRW and RSPB with the fieldwork being carried out by expert licensed volunteers and professional surveyors.

Simon Wotton, lead author of the study, said: “This UK-wide survey required a monumental effort from a number a number of different funders, organisations and volunteers – without their help, dedication and expertise we wouldn’t be able to build up this accurate picture of these magnificent birds of prey. We hope these results will convince all those who are in a position to help hen harriers to take positive steps to ensure their protection and rebuild the UK’s hen harrier population for people to enjoy for generations to come.”