Hen harrier faces extinction, warns RSPB

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The hen harrier, England's rarest breeding bird of prey, has been persecuted to the brink of extinction, conservationists warned yesterday.

The hen harrier, England's rarest breeding bird of prey, has been persecuted to the brink of extinction, conservationists warned yesterday.

The large hawk, which flies with its wings held in a distinctive, shallow v-shape and glides low in search of food, has been the subject of painstaking conservation work in Lancashire's Trough of Bowland. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported a "disastrous decline" in the numbers breeding in 2004 and said the future of the protected species was in doubt if the trend continued.

A major cause for concern is the long history of conflict between the hen harrier and land-owners who manage grouse moor, who claim that, if left unchecked, the protected harriers take so many chicks they make grouse shooting unviable. This conflict makes the hen harrier the "most intensively persecuted" bird of prey in the UK and "threatens its survival", according to the RSPB.

In 2002, numbers were so low that English Nature set up a hen harrier recovery project, but despite a boost in numbers to 22 breeding pairs around England in 2003, last year only eight pairs bred - all in Bowland.

"We are talking about relatively low numbers already, so when there is a decline of over 50 per cent from one year to the next, it is very worrying," said Peter Wilson, RSPB project manager in Bowland.

The RSPB is wing-tagging young hen harriers to monitor where they go during the winter and how well they survive and Mr Wilson urged members of the public to look out for the birds and, if possible, to record the colour of their tags and the number or letter each tag carries. "Even sightings where only one wing tag is seen is useful," he said. (The male is pale grey; the females and young, brown.) Richard Saunders, English Nature's project officer, said he had received reports of birds being shot, and sightings of birds with shotgun damage to the wings. "Someone is definitely targeting the hen harrier," he said. "Now we only have breeding at one site in England. In terms of British birds the hen harrier is as rare as you get." To protect the bird, the Association of Chief Police Officers has launched Operation Artemis to enforce the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Anyone who destroys eggs or kills endangered birds faces a £5,000 fine and six months in jail. But the North Wales chief constable, Richard Brunstrom, recently admitted that efforts to win the co-operation of estates had backfired. The Duke of Westminster's estate at Abbeystead, within the Forest of Bowland, is among those that have refused to back the "heavy-handed" police operation. The Duke's estate manager said a police visit had been unnecessary because his staff already worked to protect the hen harrier.

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