The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriers in North-east Scotland

Published on 04 February 2016 in Main articles

By Graham Rebecca, Brian Cosnette, Jim Craib, Alistair Duncan, Brian Etheridge, Ian Francis, Jon Hardey, Alastair Pout and Logan Steele

Abstract The Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus recolonised North-east Scotland in the 1940s and expanded its population and range into the 1990s. Coordinated survey and monitoring during 1980-2014, together with supplementary records, identified 118 discrete breeding areas. The vast majority were on moorland managed for Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus sport shooting. Peak numbers of at least 28 breeding pairs in the 1990s declined steadily to just three pairs in 2010-12, five in 2013 and one in 2014. Illegal persecution and grouse-management practices are believed to be the main causes of that decline, which occurred despite ample suitable habitat and prey. Two raptor recovery projects were not successful in reversing the decline, and proposed designation of the best site as a Special Protection Area for Hen Harriers stalled. If current habitat management continues, and prey availability is maintained, the area has the potential to hold around 100 breeding pairs in the absence of persecution. Aspects of Hen Harrier ecology led to conflicts with grouse-shooting interests and a greatly constrained harrier population. This is one of the most controversial conservation issues in the UK, and we suggest that Scottish Natural Heritage and Police Scotland are best placed to lead on overseeing a recovery plan for North-east Scotland. A number of options to aid any potential recovery are also suggested.

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Female Hen Harrier, Highland, July 2016; pic by Mark Hamblin

Female Hen Harrier, Highland, July 2016; pic by Mark Hamblin