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Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) resident and passage migrant, nesting on moorland and moving to the lowlands in winter

Ring-tailed Hen Harrier © Pete Walkden
‘Ringtail’ Hen Harrier © Pete Walkden

Given the name ‘ringtail’, female and immature Hen Harriers are dark brown above with brown streaked breasts; they have a white rump and dark banding (rings) around the tail. The juvenile has more of a yellow tone to its underside. The male is blue/grey over much of its body, with a white rump and breast and black wing tips.

May be confused with the less common (in the UK) Montagu’s Harrier, although the Hen Harrier has broader wings and lacks the black band seen on the upperside of the wings of the male Montagu’s; differentation is easier between the juveniles of the two species.

Hen Harrier male
The magificent male Hen Harrier © Pete Walkden

Length: 45-55cm; wingspan: 100-120cm

Status in UK
617 pairs (2010); 20% decrease since 2004, RED listed; resident and passage migrant

Population Trends
By the first decades of the 20th century, Hen Harriers became restricted to the Orkney Islands. They have long suffered from persecution and didn’t return to breed in England until 1968.

The Hen Harrier has been relentlessly persecuted ever since and in 2012 just one pair attempted to breed in the whole of the UK. The ongoing conflict between the Hen Harrier and owners of Grouse moors is a contentious issue and although birds have been attempting to breed in this environment, tracking studies have discovered that even though nest sites are left undisturbed, breeding adults have been failing to return to the nests. The Hawk and Owl Trust have a strong Campaign Against Persecution

Habitat and Distribution
Hen Harriers can found in a number of moorland locations in the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; however, as mentioned above breeding is becoming extemely rare.

Hen Harriers move to more lowland areas in the winter including coastal marshes, heathland, farmland and river estuaries. Recent research sponsored by the Hawk and Owl Trust has indicated that the majority of wintering birds are of UK origin and not from continental Europe as previously thought; if this is the case the link between breeding birds and over wintering birds will become even more important.

Breeding
Hen harriers nest on the ground in heather and in young conifer plantations. Tree nesting occurs in Northern Ireland. Courtship display involves elaborate sky-dancing and food passing.

Feeding
Small mammals, most commonly voles, and ground nesting, grassland birds, such as pipits, especially young in the nest and fledglings are all taken. They also take game-birds and waders, and their young. More birds are eaten in years when vole numbers are low.

Joint research project with BTO
To monitor the movement of this nationally endangered species The Hawk and Owl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology have got together to run a survey programme the Hen Harrier Winter Roost Survey (HHWRS), a long running project yielding useful results.

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