‘Devastating decline’: Hen harriers close to extinction in Ireland

‘Devastating decline’: Hen harriers close to extinction in Ireland

HEN HARRIERS could become extinct in Ireland within 25 years shocking new figures have revealed.

The results of a fifth national survey of the birds, which was undertaken in 2022, were released this week, showing a maximum of just 106 breeding pairs remain in the country.

That represents a decline in their numbers of one-third in just seven years since the last national survey.

“The report provides a stark warning that under the current rate of decline, Hen Harriers may be extinct within 25 years and that urgent interventions are now needed if we are to stand any chance of saving Ireland’s Skydancer,” Birdwatch Ireland have said in a statement.

One of Ireland’s rarest birds of prey, hen harriers are known as ‘skydancers’ for their impressive aerial acrobatics.

Their ‘sky dance’ is a courtship display in which the male bird shows off extraordinary agility to a potential female partner.

“It is one of the most magical natural spectacles in the Irish countryside, where the male rises to dizzying heights before suddenly plummeting towards the ground in a series of impressive twists, tumbles and turns while calling to the female, before pulling up just before impact with ground,” Birdwatch Ireland states.

Their mid-air food pass is another example of the breed’s remarkable flexibility.

“The male arrives to the nesting area with prey while calling to the female,” Birdwatch Ireland explained.

“She flies up to meet the male and summersaults upside-down to collect the prey from him in mid-air.”

Hen Harriers are known as skydancers

The 2022 hen harriers survey was undertaken by a partnership of the Golden Eagle Trust, Irish Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

It found only 85 confirmed pairs of hen harrier recorded throughout the country, representing the most severe decline of any national survey to date.

John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer at BirdWatch Ireland, who coordinated the survey, said: ‘We have reached crisis point at this stage, the situation could not be more serious, and we need to act accordingly if we are to stand any chance of ensuring hen harriers don’t become extinct within our lifetimes.”

He added: “Hen harriers are one of the best studied bird species in Ireland.

“We know the main reasons why their populations have declined to such low levels, which has been primarily driven by land-use changes resulting in the loss of habitat for hen harrier in our uplands, due to afforestation on important habitats for hen harrier and other wildlife inside and outside the Special Protection Area network, as well as associated disturbances from forest management activities and other pressures including wind energy developments.

“These pressures in combination have affected the integrity of our uplands, which are some of our most important areas for biodiversity and we are now seeing the very real effects of poor spatial planning and management of our uplands on Hen Harrier populations”.

The national population estimate of 85-106 breeding hen harrier pairs in Ireland in 2022 represents a decline of one-third (33 per cent) in the total population since the 2015 national survey which previously recorded 108-157 pairs and also showed a 27 per cent contraction in their breeding range for the same period.

A comparison of hen harrier numbers in specific surveys reveals that they have declined by 59 per cent since the first national survey in 1998-2000.

“At the current rate of decline, population extinction could be expected within 25 years and there could be fewer than 50 breeding pairs of hen harrier remaining within the next 10 years,” Birdwatch Ireland confirms.

In 2007, as a requirement under the EU Birds Directive, Ireland designated six sites in upland areas as Special Protected Areas (SPAs), based on their national importance for breeding hen harriers at that time.

The 2022 survey revealed that hen harrier populations in five of these SPAs has declined by between 20 per cent and 80 per cent since 2007, when they were identified for designation. Overall, the SPA populations have declined by 54 per cent in the same period.

“We know what needs to be done to save this species,” Oonagh Duggan, Head of Advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland, said.

“Government knows what needs to be done but it is not acting.”

She explained: “Government recently issued a draft Threat Response Plan for Hen Harrier for public consultation which was ten years in the making.

“During this time the species declined by a third.

“It has vague actions and is lacking ambition. It is just not good enough.

“We will be launching a campaign soon so that members of the public can offer support to save the skydancing hen harrier from extinction.

“All national hen harrier breeding and wintering sites must be protected from afforestation, forest management activities and wind energy development.

“Habitat restoration for these important areas is also critical and we need long-term and well-funded agri-environment scheme to support farmers for their conservation efforts”.