Heads up for Harriers


Female Hen Harrier Flight. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.comAs the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland) we want to stop all crime against wildlife. We are particularly determined to stamp out illegal persecution of birds of prey.

The hen harrier is one of these birds. It is also one of our most alluring raptors - with the male’s skydancing courtship display one of nature’s great sights.

Found mainly across moorland throughout Scotland, numbers were around 500 pairs in 2010. In many areas they are now struggling to breed, or absent. 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. 

To increase our knowledge, we need to know more about the hen harrier’s whereabouts. We are launching a pilot scheme to raise the profile of this special bird, and to help us develop a clearer picture of where harriers occur.  We will continue to develop this work in 2014.

The whereabouts of harriers

We want a clearer picture of where hen harriers are being seen in early spring and then evidently disappearing later on. There may be several reasons for this:

  • Harriers may have settled to nest and then been overlooked (they can be inconspicuous);
  • They may simply have moved on for natural reasons, or been harassed and forced to move (which is illegal); or
  • Birds may have been killed naturally by large predators such as golden eagles and foxes, or illegally. 

We are fortunate in having a well established, formal monitoring scheme for hen harriers and other birds of prey.  The Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme has several hundred skilled volunteers and professionals recording and reporting details of attempted nesting and subsequent success of these birds. Many birdwatchers report sightings to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Bird Track website and its new ‘What’s up’ project. We can tap into this information. These fieldworkers need not report their sightings to us.

Many other people, including bird watchers, see hen harriers but do not report their sightings to formal schemes. We want to hear from you so that we have a much better picture of where birds are present and then evidently disappearing.

How can you help?

We are looking to members of the public to report any sightings of hen harriers during April – June.

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.
Instead, we are 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!

What would we like you to do?

We would like your records sent to us as follows:

Hen harriers seen? Male and/or female?

Behaviour? Was the bird flying low when hunting (they quarter just a couple of metres above the ground, dropping quickly on a vole, young rabbit or small bird), or higher up moving from one area to another. Was it calling by ‘chittering’, or skydancing?

Place, date and time of sighting? Six figure grid reference ideally (or details of location e.g. footpath, road or other details so that we could revisit the area to make follow-up observations where needed), with date and time.

These records should be emailed to: HenHarrier@snh.gov.uk (it’s not case sensitive), or posted to: Heads up for Harriers, Scottish Natural Heritage, Great Glen House, Leachkin Road, Inverness IV3 8NW.

Please make sure you provide your name, contact email and phone number so somebody can get in touch to follow up your sighting.

If you see anything suspicious involving wildlife, report it to the Police:

We want to see many more hen harriers in Scotland – adding to our enjoyment of wildlife in moorland Scotland.

Acknowledgements. We are grateful to Laurie Campbell for supplying the images of hen harriers which are copyright of www.lauriecampbell.com and cannot be reproduced without his permission, and to the RSPB for providing us with the video footage. We thank you for taking the trouble to help us with this work.

Why are hen harriers so interesting?

Appearance - The male is grey above, white below, and with black wing tips. The female is much larger, cryptic brown and streaked-off white below. She has a white ring marking at the base of her tail (the scientific name for harriers, Circus, may come from the Greek word for a ring, kirkos, referring to the female’s ringtail).  Most other birds of prey species have less marked differences in appearance and size between the sexes.

Male Hen Harrier. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.com

Female Hen Harrier. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.com




Courtship display – The male performs a spectacular looping skydancing display to entice a female to mate with him. This involves the male circling over the breeding grounds before plummeting earthwards, only to sweep upwards at the last moment, roll over on his back at the top of the climb before diving downwards again.  Repeated dozens of times, this can last for up to quarter of an hour at a time.

Harems – Some males pair with up with several females, and have to work phenomenally hard to provision each of them whilst incubating their eggs, and then helping feed the chicks.

Food pass between Hen Harriers. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.comFood passes – 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 from above. These food passes may occur only twice or thrice a day, and close to the nest.

Roosts – As darkness falls in autumn, some harriers roost communally in reed beds, marshes or on heaths. With up to a dozen birds milling over the roost site as darkness sets in, this is one of our finest but increasingly rare wildlife spectacles.

Migratory movements - Most hen harriers leave the moor in early autumn, moving south to lowland farmland and coastal marshes. Some of Scotland’s birds, mainly males, migrate to France and Spain in the winter – we are using satellite tracking to reveal these movements.

Conservation – Scotland has the bulk of the British population. Unfortunately, there is a long history of persecution of hen harriers, especially on grouse moors where they take young grouse. By the end of the 19th Century hen harriers were found only in Orkney and the Hebrides, where they were not persecuted. The return of the birds to the mainland was slow, with the population reaching a peak in the 1960s and 70s.

Nesting facts – Hen harriers lay 4-6 eggs during late April–May. Incubation lasts 30 days, and their young fledge in 28-32 days, beyond which they depend on their parents for a further month.

Male Hen Harrier Flight. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.comFemale Hen Harrier Closeup. Copyright Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.com