Posted 26th Apr 2018 by Peter Byrne
With spring finally making an appearance, wildlife fans who enjoy exploring the North East's remote moorlands are being called upon to look out for one of England's rarest birds of prey
This time of year, the male hen harrier will perform a courtship display, which is known as skydancing - it involves a stunning series of swoops and somersaults. If he proves successful, he will then prove his worth as a mate, passing her food offerings in mid-air.
Experts are estimating there is sufficient habitat in England to provide a home for around 300 pairs of breeding hen harriers. However, last year there were only three successful nests in the whole country, all of which were in Northumberland.
Hen harriers are suffering due to ongoing illegal persecution. As they will sometimes eat red grouse, they will be unwelcome on moors that are managed for driven grouse shooting.
With the field sport requiring a large number of red grouse, some game managers have resorted to illegally killing or disturbing harriers. To prevent this, the RSPB is calling for a licensing system to be introduced, which would help to stamp out illegal persecution, improving industry standards in the process.
Amanda Miller, Conservation Manager for the RSPB in Northern England, said: "The hen harrier is one of our most graceful and spectacular birds of prey but it remains on the edge of extinction in England. If you see a hen harrier, please let us know by contacting the Hotline. If we now where birds are breeding we can deploy round-the-clock protection to give the nest the best chance of success. We can also fit satellite tags to the chicks so we can find out more about where they go after they fledge and launch an investigation if they disappear".
Male hen harriers are ash-grey in colour, with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They have also been known as ghostbirds, due to the paleness of their plumage.
Female hen harriers are slightly larger, with an owl-like appearance, and with a mottled brown plumage. This camouflages them when they nest on the ground, and they have a nest on the ground. With horizontal stripes on their tails, they have the nickname ringtail, and a patch of white just above, on the rump.
Image courtesy of Tim Melling / RSPB Images