Heads up for Harriers


An initiative aimed at conserving one of Scotland’s most charismatic birds – the hen harrier – is launched today.  

Environment Minister and chairman of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland) Paul Wheelhouse is urging bird-watchers, land managers, hill-walkers and all other members of the public to look out for and report sightings of hen harriers.

People are being asked to record details of gender, behaviour and place, date and time of sighting. This will help PAW Scotland to build valuable information on these birds, recording what happens to them in order to conserve the species for future generations. 

Some interesting facts about hen harriers that will also help people identify them include:

  • The male is grey above, white below, and with black wing tips. The female is much larger, and brown, with white streaks below.
  • The male performs a spectacular looping skydancing display to entice a female to mate with him
  • The male often feeds the female by flying close to the nest and then summoning her to leave the nest, fly toward him, and then back flip to catch the prey dropped by the male, from above
  • Scotland has the bulk of the hen harrier population across the UK

Mr Wheelhouse said:

“The hen harrier is one of Scotland’s most fascinating birds of prey – with the male’s skydancing display one of nature’s great sights. In the Year of Natural Scotland people deserve to see the best of our wildlife whether they are on holiday, or simply going about their day-to-day activities. Unfortunately these birds are not thriving in some parts of Scotland where we know they would find a suitable habitat and we are determined to take action to conserve them. This initiative will raise the profile of the hen harrier to provide us with important information about their activity and location, and I hope people across Scotland will join the efforts to conserve this alluring bird for future generations.”

Found mainly across moorland throughout Scotland, there were around 500 pairs of hen harriers in 2010. However, in many areas they are now struggling to breed, or are absent, and elsewhere in the UK they are faring even worse.  Factors accounting for these changes include land use changes resulting in losses of moorland nesting habitat and feeding range, predation of eggs and young by foxes, crows and other predators, and illegal persecution.

SNH will record the information and details of how to participate in the initiative are available on the PAW Scotland website.

Ron Macdonald, Head of Policy and Advice at Scottish Natural Heritage, added:

“The public can be of great help by reporting sightings and helping us build a picture of the reasons why these birds aren’t doing as well as we would expect.  Using sightings from the public, we can assess whether to use some of the new technology at our disposal such as satellite-tagging or camera monitoring, or even where necessary share information with the National Wildlife Crime Unit. We do want people to bear in mind though that these birds are specially protected under the law and nobody should approach hen harrier nests or disturb the birds without a licence from SNH.”

People are urged not to disturb the birds near their nests. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb a hen harrier (or its dependent young), whilst it is in or building a nest, or near a nest containing eggs or young. If the public see anything suspicious involving wildlife, they are advised to report this to the Police.

Instead, PAW Scotland is simply looking for sightings of hen harriers made whilst people are walking, birdwatching, driving, looking out of the window in a train or bus, or even whilst at work.

As part of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme many birdwatchers already report sightings to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Bird Track website – they should continue to contribute to these schemes and there is no need to report again to this initiative.

PAW Scotland is working hard to stop all crime against wildlife.  It is particularly determined to stamp out illegal persecution of birds of prey.