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Hen harriers 'persecuted to verge of extinction'

PUBLISHED: 17:27 23 December 2008 | UPDATED: 08:29 28 March 2014

DECEMBER 22, 2008: One of Britain's best-loved birds of prey is being persecuted to the edge of extinction, according to an official report.

Although the hen harrier is a favourite of bird watchers on the moors and uplands of Britain, it is hated by gamekeepers for killing grouse and other birds on shooting estates.

In recent years conservationists have fought to boost numbers through multi-million pound projects across the country.

But the latest figures from Natural England show successive breeding programmes have failed to boost the tiny population.

The Government agency in charge of protecting the countryside claim eggs are being destroyed, nests burned and birds may even have been poisoned on game estates managed for grouse shooting.

The seven-year study looked at hen harriers in the few remaining areas of England where the bird still survives.

It found that two-thirds of the 127 breeding attempts were in the comparatively small area of Bowland in Lancashire, which is closely monitored by Natural England.

In the rest of England success was patchy with just 19 breeding attempts on grouse moors, despite the suitability of habitat. Of the 72 successful breeding attempts, 50 were on Bowlands where 65 per cent of nests reared chicks, while just a quarter of nests on grouse moors produced chicks.

The report found evidence nests have been burned and eggs taken. There were also sightings of armed people around nesting sites.

Over 12 months, six birds fitted with satellite transmitters were tracked from the Bowland Fells into parts of the North Pennines, managed principally as driven grouse moors, where they disappeared. In another incident in one confined geographical area, three signals "went dead" between 2007-2008.

Sir Martin Doughty, chair of Natural England, said the birds are being persecuted.

"The hen harrier should have a much wider range than it does which begs the question why its breeding success is now restricted to one regular site. The simple answer is that this magnificent bird is being persecuted to the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England.

"The hen harrier has unfortunately become the emblem of man's callous disregard for the spectacular and majestic wildlife that we have in England.

"Following seven years of intensive monitoring and detailed research, the picture is unequivocal – hen harriers are being persecuted while they attempt to nest and birds are simply not returning to their breeding areas the following spring."

Mark Avery, RSPB director of conservation, added: "It is unacceptable in a modern society like ours that such crimes continue to be committed at all, let alone on such a scale. Hen harriers belong to the skies and to all of us; they are not pests to be killed out of hand by a selfish minority.

"The majority of those involved in shooting are decent, law abiding people. This report puts the onus on them to root out those bad apples prepared to break the law and drag the good name of shooting through the mud."

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