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Hen harriers return to the Dales

Bainbridge, 1 August, 2017

One of England’s rarest breeding birds, the hen harrier, attempted to nest in the Yorkshire Dales National Park this spring for the first time in 10 years.

The National Park has large areas of potentially suitable nesting upland habitat for the birds of prey, but several factors – including persecution – have precluded breeding.  

Several hen harriers, however, lingered in the Cumbrian part of the National Park this spring and started to display.  One male paired up with two separate females: an adult female and an immature female.  This behaviour – called polygyny – is rare in most bird species but is often found in hen harrier breeding populations.  

Both females laid eggs in nests sited on the edge of a moor managed for grouse shooting.  The birds were watched by a small team of staff and volunteers from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) and Natural England. The monitoring was undertaken with the close co-operation and support of local landowners, including the shooting estate, and residents.  

Unfortunately neither nesting attempt was successful.  One failure happened very early in the season, the other midway through the incubation period. Both attempts are thought to have failed because of predation by foxes.  There was no evidence of human interference.  The male and both females were seen in the area after the nesting attempts had failed.

The YDNPA’s Chief Executive, David Butterworth, said: “Given it had been ten years since hen harriers nested in the National Park, the presence of these birds was extremely welcome.  It was, therefore, incredibly disappointing that the nesting attempts failed, despite the best efforts of all involved.

“The Authority is fully aware of all the issues surrounding hen harriers in the uplands, so it was really encouraging that the birds’ presence was welcomed by all stakeholders.  We would like to thank them all for their cooperation during the nesting period.  We hope that the enlightened attitude towards the presence of these birds is the start of a more positive outlook for this species, which will lead to the hen harrier returning as a regular breeding species within the Yorkshire Dales National Park”.

Rob Cooke, Director, Terrestrial Biodiversity at Natural England said:  “After a decade, we're delighted there are now nesting hen harriers in the Dales. I'd like to pay tribute to the teamwork between all our partners, and especially our dedicated volunteers. Although on this occasion the nests failed we are optimistic that the adults will return next year.”

As well as the hen harriers, an adult male pallid harrier was also present intermittently in the area during the early part of the breeding season. The bird was first seen, displaying and carrying nest material, on 27 April, at the start of the daily watch of the hen harriers.  Given that their normal breeding range is in the Russian steppes and north-west China, this was an exceptionally rare event.  That said, another male pallid harrier was present in the Forest of Bowland around the same time.

Please note:  The hen harriers’ nesting attempts – and the pallid harrier sightings – have been made public only now, rather than in the spring, to protect the prospecting birds from excessive attention.  The hen harriers’ nesting attempts were made in a remote location, with poor access and no nearby parking.  Details of the birds’ presence were restricted to a small number of people directly involved in the nest monitoring work.

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