Hen Harrier

Latin name: Circus cyaneus

Family: Accipitridae

The hen harrier is a bird of prey that in winter, can be found gliding effortlessly over a wide range of open grassland habitats from coastal saltmarshes to upland fell tops where they hunt a wide range of small mammals and bird species, primarily voles and meadow pipits.   In spring  they will return to upland areas where the males will undertake a spectacular aerial display performing an acrobatic series of steep ascents, tumbles and rolls as they ‘sky dance’ to try and attract a mate. 

It is their choice of nesting habitat that leads to one of the most controversial conservation issues in the uplands.  Hen harriers like to nest on heather moorland, the majority of which is managed for grouse shooting.  It is widely accepted that hen harriers will take adult and young grouse that in some circumstances, and at particular breeding densities, can impact on the surplus of grouse required for driven grouse shooting.  However, despite receiving full legal protection all the evidence indicates that human interference is the main factor limiting the population, and is the reason why there are so few nesting hen harriers in England.  To put this into context, there is sufficient suitable habitat for over 300 breeding female hen Harriers in northern England but only four pairs were successful in 2014 and six in 2015.    

Hen harriers recolonized northern England including the Yorkshire Dales in the late 1960's and since that time, a small number of pairs did attempt to breed in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in most years but there have been no further nesting attempts in the national park since 2007.   Details of more recent breeding attempts, between 2000 and 2007, can be found in our report on the status of hen harrier in the Yorkshire Dales National Park

A Defra-led stakeholder group comprising organisations representing both shooting and conservation interests are currently try to develop a plan that aims to see the hen harrier return to its rightful place in the English uplands. 

How You Can Help  - The Hen Harrier Hotline

If you think you’ve seen a hen harrier please let us know by calling or emailing the Hen Harrier hotline. Information on what it looked like, where it was (grid reference if possible), and what it was doing (eg flying north, hunting, carrying nesting material) can help us keep to track of these birds and identify where they might be nesting.

To report a sighting please call Tel: 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email henharriers@rspb.org.uk

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Wharfedale in Yorkshire is a valley favoured by nature and enriched by romance. From 'Wharfedale' by Ella Pontefract & Marie Hartley

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