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Heads Up for Harriers


Have you seen hen harriers?
How can you help?
What would we like you to do?
Why are hen harriers so interesting?
Hen harriers in Spring and Summer
Hen harriers in Winter (Updated November 2015 - new request for winter sightings of hen 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.

The Heads Up for Harriers project aims to better understand the threats facing Scotland’s hen harriers –and ultimately promote recovery of the species - by working in partnership with land managers.

Found mainly across moorland throughout Scotland, hen harrier 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 in distribution and numbers across Britain include illegal persecution, land use changes resulting in losses of moorland nesting habitat and feeding range, and predation of eggs and young by foxes, crows and other predators.

Natural factors such as lack of prey species and vulnerability to wet weather during nesting may also contribute to mortality, in addition there is ongoing work assessing the likelihood of impact with wind turbines.

Several projects on hen harriers are underway. The EU has provided LIFE+ funding to the RSPB for hen harrier nest and roost site monitoring, satellite tagging and community engagement. This builds on the highly successful RSPB Skydancer Project (winner of the 2014 National Lottery Award for Best Education Project). The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has now concluded, but the moor is still an important site for breeding harriers, with some monitoring work continuing. In the Cairngorms National Park, work is planned to secure better nesting success for harriers. In England there are well publicised discussions over how to revive hen harrier numbers there (six nests fledging eighteen young in 2015). There is evidence that these joint conservation efforts are working in some areas, with the a total of eleven Special Protection Areas (SPA') designated for hen harriers.

The Heads Up for Harriers project saw some notable success in 2015, with five estates involved and a total of ten harriers fledging from three successful nests.  Building upon the success of 2015, thirteen estates from across Scotland have joined the Heads Up for Harriers project for 2016 and agreed to have nest cameras installed, to help better understand the reasons behind nesting success and failure. In Scotland we need to raise the profile of the hen harrier and learn much more about its whereabouts. A national survey has been undertaken in 2016 by specialist surveyors, with the results expected to be published in 2017. But we also need to tap into sightings made by the public. In 2015 we received over 100 sightings from the public, including several pairs which had not been previously recorded. We are extending the project to gather information on the whereabouts of wintering birds.

A summary of the wider Hen Harrier Action Plan is available to download from this website.

Have you seen hen 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: 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 by people; or

  • Harriers may have settled to nest and then been overlooked (they can be inconspicuous).

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 hen harriers and other birds of prey.  Many birdwatchers report sightings to the Bird Track website. We already tap into this information to build up a better picture of the whereabouts of the birds. Fieldworkers working with these schemes 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.

People are urged not to disturb the birds near their nests or roosts. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb a hen harrier (or its dependant young), whilst it is in or building a nest, or near a nest containing eggs or young or to harass it at any time.

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 / female / pair together?

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. name from OS map of the nearest hill or burn, footpath, road or other details so that we could revisit the area to make follow-up observations where needed), with date and time.

You can report sightings by phone to 07767 671973, email to: HenHarrier@snh.gov.uk (it’s not case sensitive), or post to: Heads up for Harriers, Scottish Natural Heritage, Great Glen House, Leachkin Road, Inverness IV3 8NW

If e-mailing sightings please make sure you provide your name, contact email and phone number so we can get in touch to follow up your sighting.  We pass these records to Wendy Mattingley, a hen harrier expert, who will follow up on these with fellow experts throughout Scotland.

Any questions? Please do not hesitate to contact our Project Leader: Andy.turner@snh.gov.uk

This project only covers Scotland. Please report sightings from England to the RSPB via their hen harrier hotline on 0845 4600121 or email henharriers@rspb.org.uk.

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.

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.

Hen harriers in Spring and Summer

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.  Skydancing generally occurs between late March and early May. Displaying seen late in the season may well indicate a failed nest and should be reported as quickly as possible.

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.com

Food 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, in addition to other prey. 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



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 video footage. We thank you for taking the trouble to help us with this work.


Hen harriers in Winter

Hen harriers are found over a wide range of open habitats in winter. They can often be seen drifting low over rough grassland, inland and coastal marshes, farmland and moorland, searching for small mammals and birds. They can also occur around open forestry plantations. Most move away from upland moors during the winter but some do winter here if the weather is mild. Some birds move long distances with satellite tagged Scottish birds being seen in France and Spain.

Harriers are a little smaller than buzzards but can appear quite large due to their long broad wings and long tails. Adult males are white below with pale grey upperparts and distinctive black wing tips. Younger males often have more mottled/dirtier looking grey upperparts. Females are mottled brown with a brown tail with darker bars. Juveniles are similar to females in appearance, though sometimes more buff-coloured on their underparts. All ages and sexes show a white rump patch which is most striking on females or juveniles as it stands out more clearly against the brown plumage. Females can be noticeably larger than males.

They are most often seen on their own, but they do roost communally in the winter, so you can see a few birds associating with each other at certain times. If you see birds together in mid-late afternoon they may be gathering to roost and it is important that you report the location as roosts are sensitive to disturbance and have been subject to persecution.