Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey

Irish Raptor Study Group

Twitter @IrishRaptorSG @ihhws
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The Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey is one of Ireland’s longest running ecological studies. Ryan Wilson-Parr, provides here an overview, not only providing high-quality information to help protect the species, but also inspiring and giving opportunity to a whole new generation of harrier-philes and conservation scientists.

Ryan is currently undertaking his PhD on Hen Harriers at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

Thank you to Ryan for supplying this, my first guest blog, please take time to comment or ask any questions to Ryan who is happy to respond on this blog.

The Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey (IHHWS) was established in 2004 to explore what was until then a relative mystery; what do Hen Harriers do outside of the breeding season?

A new venture

When I came to Ireland in September 2009, one of my first hopes was to get involved in Hen Harrier monitoring and conservation on the island. I had completed my Master’s on Hen Harriers in Scotland and was keen to get involved!
One name synonymous with Hen Harriers is Barry O’Donoghue. I made contact with Barry and immediately realised that this was a person who, from a very young age had been dedicating his life to these birds and the conservation of their landscape. Barry was very supportive and facilitating and I soon began to check out a few suitable spots in my new home county of Sligo and contribute to the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey which he co-ordinated in his own time.
This brought me to some of the quietest and most remote parts of Ireland, watching over bogs and reedbeds at dusk in winter. For much of the time, it was a case of trying to find new roosts. Even in the worst of elements, those winter mornings and evenings provided a unique perspective and connection with nature. When a roost was found, it was hugely rewarding and big lift for the survey! Not alone would we have harriers to watch during winter evenings, but it would be a giant step towards protecting that site and yet another piece in the jigsaw, bringing us a bit closer to a fuller understanding of their non-breeding ecology.
I was one of hundreds of contributors to this study, which is still going strong after 17 seasons. During this time, numerous roosts have been made known to National Parks & Wildlife Service and a clear picture has emerged as to the species’ ecology and conservation requirements. Urgent attention is now needed in terms of translating this knowledge into policy to help a declining national population during this crucial period which accounts for two thirds of its annual lifecycle!

The Findings

Through a massive effort involving thousands of hours of coordinated surveys and thousands of records, great insight has been gained on Hen Harriers during the non-breeding period. More than 200 roosts have been discovered all across the island. Almost half of the roosts are in ‘upland’ locations, which is interesting because of the general assumption that Hen Harriers simply disperse to lowland/coastal areas in winter. More than half of the roosts are communal i.e. occupied by multiple birds on consecutive nights. The maximum number of Hen Harriers recorded at a communal roost on the one evening was 16!
Reliably counting multiple harriers at roost takes experience and skill, given the harriers will often drop to roost and rise again, meaning inexperienced surveyors might ‘double-count’ individual birds. Mostly, roosts hold about 1-3 Hen Harriers. It is important to consider that many of these roosts are not just important habitats for Hen Harriers, but for a range of species including Short-eared Owls, Merlin, Kestrel and Barn Owl.

Data provided from satellite tracked birds has identified new roost sites. A number of new roosts have also been located from tagged young birds dispersing from Britain, with two or three tagged Hen Harriers visiting and wintering in Ireland from Britain. These birds set up core wintering ranges around clusters of regularly used roost sites for several months between November to March. Some individuals have returned to winter in Ireland in consecutive years, finding their way to the exact same patch of bog as the previous year! The sat-tagged British birds often head back over the Irish Channel before the breeding season to their natal regions, or occasionally find new areas to attempt to breed. Similarly, Irish born birds have previously been recorded by Barry O’Donoghue to travel to Britain. Clearly, our Hen Harrier meta-population deserves more linked up conservation efforts between agencies and eNGOs in Ireland and Britain.

One of the most striking findings of the research has been that over the 17 years so far, almost a third (31%) of roost sites have been lost. Pressures and threats include the disturbance/removal of roosts (e.g. through burning and wind farm development) and changes to the surrounding landscape (e.g. agricultural intensification and afforestation with conifers). In a number of cases, roosts have been planted with forestry, even when these locations were made known to Forest Service. As things stand, there is effectively little by way of protecting hen harrier outside the breeding season.
A recent Bird Study publication arising from the IHHWS provides some positive and appropriate recommendations by supporting landowners to maintain roost habitats and improve habitat quality and prey availability in the areas surrounding roosts. This in turn could help farm income and boost wider biodiversity in the countryside.

“One of the most striking findings of the research has been that over the 17 years so far, almost a third (31%) of roost sites have been lost”

What now?

The IHHWS provides a solid platform on which to base necessary conservation action for hen harriers in Ireland. A holistic approach to conserving the hen harrier is now possible. One cannot protect a species by looking only at a quarter of its lifecycle or dependencies. It is known that the national Hen Harrier population is suffering from poor over-winter survival. Now that we know where Hen Harriers are, what they need and what threats and pressures they face throughout the year, measures can be put in place to address these.

Furthermore, it has been inspiring to watch a whole new generation of people getting to survey and know more about Hen Harriers, building their skillsets while simultaneously contributing to one of Ireland’s largest ecological studies.
I, myself am also grateful to the hard work of all these individuals, as I analyse in detail, the data that this long-running study has generated. Ultimately, it is hoped that all of this can help save the species here in Ireland.

Further information

A review of the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey published in Bird Study can be found here (this link is to be added soon)

The website of the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey is
Ryan Wilson-Parr is Honorary Secretary of the Irish Raptor Study Group and PhD candidate studying with Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). The research aims to investigate the wintering ecology of Hen Harrier and ascertain the seasonally and biogeographically disparate ecological requirements of Hen Harrier in Ireland and the implications for progressing an effective conservation strategy for the recovery of this declining species.

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The tale of two Buzzards, one Eagle Owl and a gamekeeper with a gun during lockdown.

The more this is shared to those that don’t realise what is going on in our countryside the sooner an end can be put to these illegal acts.
#ProjectCamTag is doing all it can to develop a CAMERA Satellite Tag to help move tag technology forward to catch the criminals killing our birds of prey.
Our crowdfunder needs everyone’s support so we can move forward with the project.
Please donate whatever you can afford – thank you
You can read all about the project here

Northern England Raptor Forum

The past twelve months have been very challenging for all of humanity as the Covid Pandemic spread across the planet. The scientists immediately realised that the virus was spreading out of control through human to human contact and this pattern of transmissibility had to be broken. The response from the Government was to impose a ‘lockdown’ throughout England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland followed the same route, as did most of the rest of the world.

The imposition of lockdown was a draconian but essential decision. Thousands of people were dying in England every week, snatched from families who had to grieve without the opportunity to say goodbye and follow our funerary rituals. Schools were closed, shops and factories were closed; only absolutely essential services were allowed to operate and even these were operating at a reduced level. Lockdown had, understandably brought England to a standstill and we, the general…

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For the Love of Raptors

(image: Shot-Common Buzzard, Buteo-buteo)

Who doesn’t love a Raptor?

It would appear, when you search the internet for ‘bird of prey persecution’ that there are page after page of results, (just one example here) there are many people that would prefer that there were no birds of prey around them at all.

Classing them either as vermin, pests or simply just a nuisance, they are exterminated with such an intensity that local populations could and possibly do disappear altogether. There definitely is no love for Raptors in some peoples eyes, many actually loath them. To someone who cares passionately about our wildlife and especially our birds of prey, this is nonsensical, these sociopaths do it because they feel they can, without impunity for their actions.

Please watch this video put together for me by Keith Ross (youtube)

The Voyage by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence.

Surely now you love Raptors?

Now, before people start saying Owls aren’t Raptors, lets leave that debate for another day, you can read this article from Kenn Kaufman in the meantime!
Short-eared and Barn Owls are known to be illegally killed on a regular basis, occasionally Tawny Owls too.

The RSPB’s Birdcrime 2019 report (and Appendices here) shows that out of the 85 confirmed Raptor/Bird of Prey persecution incidents, 45 involved shooting. 3 were Barn Owls and the Common Buzzard topped that list with 24.
In 2019 two of the UK’s most notorious Raptor Persecution blackspots were again in England & Scotland, namely North Yorkshire & Strathbraan and Strathdon

“Raptor persecution cases in Scotland almost exclusively occur on land managed for gamebird shooting, and particularly driven grouse moors”

Acknowledgement: RSPB Birdcrime 2019 ‘Raptor persecution blackspots 2019’

“In 2019, a hen harrier was found shot dead on a grouse moor in Nidderdale. The hen harrier, named River, had been fitted with a satellite tracking device…. It contained two pieces of shot; further proof of the criminality continuing unchecked on these moors.”

Acknowledgement: RSPB Birdcrime 2019 ‘Raptor persecution blackspots 2019’

Please tell me you love Raptors?

So, why do I go on about this? Because it’s so very important! I want it to stop, do you too? Our (yours & mine) Raptors, are being killed relentlessly around the UK, and as you can read from the links, large scale eradication takes place on driven grouse moors, but also (maybe/probably, due to much better general public awareness) individual birds are being reported, found shot around gamebird rearing estates and farmland all over the UK. You can read more about yet another shooting of a Common Buzzard, this time in Cambridgeshire very recently (here), written by the WAR ON WILDLIFE Project. During the three lockdowns we have had to endure over the past year, illegal persecution of Birds of Prey has been ‘given’ the green light, a free-for-all for those that are so inclined to go on a Raptor killing shooting spree.

As I said above, I want this illegal persecution to stop and I’m sure, and hope, that most of you reading this want it to stop as well. Together we, all of us, have a chance to at least do something to try to help turn the tide on these wildlife crimes. Until we do, none of our Raptors are safe, not even the mightiest of them all the White-tailed Eagle. It’s not scaremongering to say either, that if we don’t try to do something we could lose iconic species, such as Hen Harriers, from our skies altogether.

My project needs your help, if you haven’t already, please read all about PROJECT CamTag, a project aiming to use cutting edge technology, to produce a camera satellite tag that could help with the detection of those causing harm to our wildlife. If you are reading this then please help by spreading the word on social media, and making a donation to my JustGiving campaign would be very much appreciated. Our magnificent Birds of Prey are surely worth it?

Coincidently, as I was just about to start this blog last weekend, I found this skull locally, I believe from a Common Buzzard, it was not with the rest of its skeleton, lets hope on this occasion it died of natural causes.

Skull believed to be of a Common Buzzard

If you would like to contribute, it would also be good to hear what your thoughts are about my project through your comments.

Mark Avery

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Wild Justice

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Raptor Aid

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Northern England Raptor Forum

Speaking for birds of prey with one voice


Putting Eyes In The Skies