Birds of prey boom - but eagles and harriers still face persecution

Michael McCarthy,Environment Editor
Tuesday 12 September 2006 00:00 BST

Britain's birds of prey are doing better than ever before in modern times - with two notable exceptions.

Many of the 15 species of eagles, buzzards, hawks and falcons that currently breed in Britain are on an upward curve, expanding both their numbers and their range, some spectacularly.

But their success is thrown into sharp relief by the continuing struggle of one raptor to survive - the hen harrier, a bird of the heather moorlands which comes into direct conflict with grouse-shooting. It remains dangerously vulnerable to persecution despite a record number of chicks hatched in England this year, conservationists said yesterday.

The other raptor suffering sporadic persecution is the most majestic of all, the golden eagle; two eagles have been poisoned in Scotland in the past six months and last week a £10,000 reward was offered for information leading to the conviction of the culprits.

However, most of the other species are flourishing, as is interest in them. Last year, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, nearly half a million people visited RSPB viewing sites specially set up for birds of prey.

"Many of our birds of prey are enjoying fantastic success with increasing populations after years of sustained declines," said an RSPB spokesman, Graham Madge. "The success of bird protection laws and reintroduction schemes have helped birds like the red kite, osprey and white-tailed eagle regain a talon-hold on parts of their former range. It is believed that Mull's white-tailed eagles bring more than £1m to the island's tourism economy.

"Sadly, some of the deep-seated attitudes which led to the historic decline of birds of prey are still badly affecting some species, notably the hen harrier and golden eagle. Persecution is still a major threat to these species and is hampering their recovery."

English Nature, the Government's wildlife agency, said yesterday that the hen harrier was still threatened by persecution and the population was a "pale shadow" of what it could be.

It said 46 chicks hatched this year in 12 nests - the highest number since monitoring began in 2002. But the organisation warned that breeding was limited to one area, the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, and birds continued to disappear from their nests in suspected attacks.

Away from the area monitored by English Nature and the RSPB, about 60 per cent of nesting attempts had failed, and persecution was suspected.

A major cause for concern is that the hen harrier is disliked by many estate owners because it eats red grouse chicks, affecting the number of grouse available to shoot during the autumn.

How many raptors are there?

* Golden eagle: 442 pairs, stable, concerns over large gaps in range, especially near grouse moors.

* Hen harrier: 806 pairs, mainly in Scotland. England population still perilously low because of persecution.

* White-tailed eagle: 33 pairs, increasing slowly after reintroduction.

* Buzzard: 39,000 pairs, spreading and increasing.

* Honey buzzard: 60-plus pairs, probably stable.

* Osprey: about 200 pairs, increasing and range expanding in Scotland, England and Wales.

* Red kite: 600-plus pairs, increasing everywhere.

* Sparrowhawk: 34,500 pairs, stabilised in past decade.

* Goshawk: 400-plus pairs, increasing in association with conifer plantations.

* Marsh harrier: 350 breeding females. 200-year high, up from one pair in 1971.

* Montagu's harrier: 13 pairs, probably stable.

* Peregrine: 1,440 pairs, increased from low point in 1960s. Spreading in England, but going down in Scotland.

* Hobby: 1,000-plus pairs, rocketing population. The only raptor to be significantly more common than at any other time in history.

* Merlin: 1,330 pairs. Population probably stable after earlier increase.

* Kestrel: 36,800 pairs. In trouble, but for natural reasons, not persecution. A quarter have disappeared since 1970, largely because of the loss of rough grassland.

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