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Peregrine with chicks Credit: Chris Gomershall

Birds of Prey

Juvenile peregrine Malham Cove

Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus

Family name: Falconidae

The Peregrine is a large falcon renowned for being one of the fastest flying birds that has reliably been recorded, reaching speeds of 350 kph (217 mph).  It reaches these incredible speeds when hunting a range of medium sized birds, as it dives down knocking unsuspecting prey to the ground. 

The Peregrine, like many other birds of prey, has had rather a chequered history.  It was revered for many hundreds of years as the favoured bird for falconry and in the Middle Ages was protected by royal decrees to ensure that only the nobles were allowed to fly these magnificent birds.  Declines in the 19th and 20th centuries were attributed to persecution and although protected by law, Peregrines were legally controlled in certain areas during the Second World War to ensure that they didn’t take homing pigeons carrying messages vital to the war effort.  The Peregrine population crashed in the late 1950s due to agricultural chemicals such as DDT accumulating in the food chain causing egg shell thinning and reduced breeding success.  These chemicals were banned and from the mid 1960s the Peregrine population began to slowly recover despite persecution and the threat from egg collectors.

During the 1960s, the Peregrine disappeared as a breeding species in the Yorkshire part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and was restricted to perhaps one or two pairs in the North West (now in Cumbria).  The first pair to return to Yorkshire nested in 1978 and thanks to the diligent efforts of a number of organisations in protecting these birds; they have continued to spread so that there are now around 20 sites where Peregrines have been known to nest within the National Park.  However, problems still persist, as recent research has shown that the number of Peregrine chicks raised from nest sites on grouse moors in the Dales is much lower than nest sites away from grouse moors.  Subsequent monitoring work has shown that occupancy of traditional sites on grouse moors in the Yorkshire Dales National Park has continued to be extremely low, with no successful breeding on this land use type since 1997.  This contrasts with a relatively stable population away from grouse moor sites. There are no natural factors that can explain the differences between site occupancy on and away from grouse moor sites.    Whilst it is not possible to publicise most sites, a viewing scheme run by the RSPB and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is in place at Malham Cove during the breeding season as part of the RSPB ‘Aren’t Birds Brilliant’ project.  Wardens are on hand with telescopes to show visitors the Peregrines and other wildlife in and around Malham Cove from early April until late July.  To date, over 250,000 visitors have stopped to watch these stunning species, generating a direct income to local tourism businesses of over £1.7m,  and has had a significant role in bringing around £3.5m into the local economy.      

Further information can be found on the RSPB website – Peregrine falcon


Hen Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Family: Accipitridae

The Hen Harrier was formerly a widespread breeding bird in Britain, occurring in lowland and upland heathland habitats.  The loss of these habitats, particularly in the lowlands, along with widespread persecution on grouse moors led to such a retraction in range that by the 1900s, the mainland  population had been lost and breeding was restricted to the Western Isles of Scotland and Orkneys.  Since the 1930s, there was a slow recolonisation of mainland Scotland and by the late 1960s, they had returned to breed in northern England including parts of the Dales.

The Hen Harrier is at the centre of one of the most contentious conservation issues in the uplands.  This is because the preferred nesting habitat for hen harriers is heather moorland, the majority of which is managed for grouse shooting.  The problems arise because hen harriers take adult and young grouse, from moors that are managed specifically to provide the maximum number of surplus grouse each autumn that can be shot.  At very high densities, harriers can suppress the number of grouse and driven grouse shooting is not sustainable.  It is also reported that birds of prey flying over moorland on a shoot day can cause disruption by scattering grouse and making if difficult for them to be ‘driven’ towards the guns.  

Despite full legal protection, and measures such as diversionary feeding that has been shown to reduce the loss of grouse to extremely low levels, illegal persecution has been cited as the main reason for limiting the Hen Harrier population in northern England and parts of Scotland.  However, proving it is incredibly difficult.  An indication of the impact this has on this species can derived from looking at the number of pairs there could be, and the number of pairs that actually breed.  The JNCC Hen Harrier Framework published in 2011 determined that there was enough suitable nesting habitat in northern England to support between 323 and 340 breeding pairs.  In 2018 the population was limited to only nine successful nests out of 14 breeding attempts, with 34 chicks fledged.  The main problem is low survival rates of both adult and young birds outside the breeding season.  In 2019 analysis of data from satellite tracked hen harriers, showed that “72% were either confirmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly with no evidence of a tag malfunction”.  In addition the report concluded that the” likelihood of harriers dying or disappearing increased as their use of grouse moors increased”. 

Monitoring work has shown that Hen Harriers have been present at favoured potential breeding sites in the Dales in most years, where the spectacular ‘sky dancing’ display of the males can be observed.  After the last pair bred in the national park in 2007, hopes were high that two breeding female harriers that settled in 2017 would be successful.  Unfortunately, despite the full cooperation of all stakeholders including the shooting estate, both nests failed due to natural causes.  In 2018, one pair watched over by Natural England and YDNPA staff fledged six young.  It is hoped that with more enlightened attitudes, there will be a gradual increase in number of breeding pairs of this charismatic raptor in the Dales.   

A Joint action plan to increase the English Hen Harrier population has been published by the Defra Uplands Stakeholder Forum, hen harrier sub-group

In addition the following objective is included within the Yorkshire Dales National Park Management Plan to “Work with moorland managers and other key stakeholders to devise and implement a local approach to end illegal persecution of raptors, including independent and scientifically robust  monitoring, and co-ordinated hen harrier nest and winter roost site protection”.

YDNP Birds of Prey evidence report.