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On a wing and a prayer.

A survey has found just four breeding pairs of hen harriers in England. Liam Creedon reports on how the bird faces the prospect of becoming extinct for the second time in recent memory THE deep midwinter was traditionally the key time of the year for the determined birder to be rewarded with a fluttering glimpse of one of our most majestic predators. Out on the frost-stiffened salt marshes and moorland, this slate-grey ghost of a bird would reveal itself briefly to the lucky few belligerently battling the cold.

But, over recent years, the spectacle of the hen harrier sailing effortlessly through the frozen landscape like a giant, sleepy moth has become increasingly difficult to find.

Birds still drift in from further north and the east to escape the worst of the winter weather playing out elsewhere, but English harriers have all but disappeared - in stark contrast to their fortunes in Wales, where numbers have gradually risen from a low base to approach 60 breeding pairs.

Their absence marks one of the most worrying environmental failures in recent decades: their status is so precarious that RSPB bird of prey officer Jeff Knott believes that one wet spring or a fire at the wrong time of the year could result in hen harriers falling extinct.

This catastrophe would represent a double tragedy, for the bird has only been back in England for around 50 years after recolonisation, following extinction in the late 19th century.

A recent RSPB survey found just four breeding pairs left in England, all of these birds confined to a previous stronghold for the species in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire.

Habitat loss, as seemingly with all threatened species, has played its part in the hen harriers' downfall. But amazingly, illegal killing is the major reason why the hen harrier could be absent as a breeding bird from England in as little as five years.

Hen harriers breed on moors and upland, which are also the key habitat exploited by the multimillion-pound grouse industry. They prey on voles and pipits, but they will kill and eat red grouse if readily available. As a result, harriers and gamekeepers have been mortal enemies for decades.

To compensate for the alarming decline in the bird's fortunes, they became protected by law - killing a hen harrier now carries a fine of up to pounds 5,000 or six months in prison.

Yet the hen harrier still boasts the dubious title of being one of the most persecuted bird of prey in the UK.

The RSPB argues that the main hindrance into stopping the illegal killings is that gathering the evidence necessary to bring individual prosecutions is extremely difficult.

It now wants the laws protecting the birds to be beefed up. The charity is seeking a move towards vicarious liability (already enshrined in law in Scotland), where landowners can be held accountable for crimes committed by staff acting on their behalf.

The loss of the bird would be a tragedy for the landscape and a huge embarrassment for the Coalition, explains Knott, who adds: "Quite apart from the almost unbelievable situation that our modern society could allow a species to be illegally killed into English extinction, it would also result in the Government failing on its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to prevent any human-induced extinctions by 2020.

"Despite this, the Government doesn't appear to have a coherent plan for how to save the species and it's difficult to point to any meaningful action they are taking."

The image of a hen harrier quartering and then lifting suddenly over frozen, dusk fields, as if controlled by some unseen puppeteer, is one of the most bewitching spectacles of our wildlife calendar, a sight that unfathomably is perhaps due once again to become a distant memory.

FACTFILE ? Experts believe that England's uplands have the potential to support at least 320 pairs of hen harrier.? Male birds are pale grey; females and youngsters are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail, which gives them the name 'ringtail'.

? The bird is named for its historical habit of preying on free-range fowl.

? For more information, visit


Hen harriers are fighting back in Wales - but on the brink of extinction in England
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 3, 2012
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