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Soaring numbers of England's most persecuted bird of prey found on grouse moors in the north


Hopes for British birds of prey rose this week after moorland estates across the North of England reported an encouraging number of hen harrier nests on their land.

These included six nests in Lancashire, four nests in Cumbria and two nests in Yorkshire. All were found on estates managed for red grouse.

The hen harrier, a medium-sized raptor with a grey plumage in males and a brown in females, is Britain's most intensively persecuted bird of prey according to the RSPB.

Although the species has been protected by law since 1952, its habit of preying on grouse has made it the target of illegal hunting on commercial grouse moors.

This, together with habitat loss, has made the species endangered in Britain, with only 617 pairs recorded in 2012, a 20 per cent fall since 2004.

More recently, however, the birds have enjoyed a resurgence, with successful nests increasing by 100 per cent since 2015. 

While males are a pale grey colour, females and juveniles are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail which earned them the name 'ringtail'. 

They fly with wings held in a shallow 'V', gliding low in search of food, which mainly consists of meadow pipits and voles. 

The Orkney population is famous for being polygynous, with males sometimes mating with multiple females on the island. 

The dozen nests reported so far this year already matches the total number of successful nests in 2019 – which was in itself a record-breaking year, with 47 chicks fledging from 12 nests, the majority on grouse moors. 

Hen harriers are notoriously poor survivors in the first year, with natural mortality affecting at least half of the birds. 

Satellite tagging of birds has enabled scientist to understand their movements after they leave the moors, with extraordinary journeys recorded to Spain and France. 

Of the birds tagged last year in England, 12 are alive or presumed alive, six are dead or presumed dead, and the fate of five is unknown.