Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

'Illegal threat' to hen harriers

Hen harrier
Natural England is considering siting the birds in lowland areas

Hen harriers are nearing extinction in England owing to illegal persecution in areas managed for rearing game birds, Natural England has said.

The conservation watchdog said the birds of prey were persecuted at communal winter roosts.

In a 12-month period it found six birds fitted with satellite transmitters disappeared from the north Pennines.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the birds of prey were "not pests to be killed out of hand".

A spokesman for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) said it condemned any illegal killing of protected species.

Natural England reported that hen harriers were particularly at risk from systematic persecution and disruption in areas managed for rearing red grouse or game-birds.

Just 26% of breeding pairs on red grouse moors managed to produce fledged chicks, it was reported.

The six missing birds vanished from parts of the north Pennines managed as driven grouse moors.

Natural England chairman Sir Martin Doughty said: "The hen harrier has unfortunately become the emblem of man's callous disregard for the spectacular and majestic wildlife that we have in England.

"Following seven years of intensive monitoring and detailed research, the picture is unequivocal - hen harriers are being persecuted while they attempt to nest and birds are simply not returning to their breeding areas the following spring."

Restricted

Since the 2002 start of a hen harrier recovery project in England, only a small area in Bowland, Lancashire, where Natural England and the RSPB work with private landowners and gamekeepers, has seen an increase in the birds of prey.

Bowland was home to 50 of the 72 successful nesting attempts by hen harriers in England in the last seven years.

RSPB and Natural England reported in September that chicks were successfully reared in 10 cases in England this year, from 19 attempts.

"The hen harrier should have a much wider range than it does, which begs the question why its breeding success is now restricted to one regular site," said Mr Doughty.

"The simple answer is that this magnificent bird is being persecuted to the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England."

RSPB director of conservation Mark Avery said "The findings of this report reinforce what the RSPB has been saying for years: the hen harrier is being driven to extinction in England by illegal killing."

He added: "The majority of those involved in shooting are decent, law-abiding people.

"This report puts the onus on them to root out those bad apples prepared to break the law and drag the good name of shooting through the mud."

BASC spokesman Dave Harper said: "We condemn any illegal killing of protected species.

"Anyone within the shooting community who persecutes hen harriers is damaging shooting sports.

"Members of BASC who break the law and bring the sport of shooting into disrepute are disciplined and may be expelled, with the loss of shooting insurance and potential loss of shooting opportunity."

The hen harrier became extinct in the UK in Victorian times, and was reintroduced in Scotland between the wars.

There are now 630 breeding pairs in Scotland, but despite a return to England in the 1970s, numbers there remain low.



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