Continued illegal persecution of hen harriers is pushing the bird of prey to the brink of extinction in England, the Government’s conservation body warned following satellite tracking trials.
A report by Natural England said hen harriers were particularly at risk from systematic persecution and disruption in areas managed for red grouse or gamebird rearing.
As a result, there are critically low numbers of breeding pairs on areas which provide suitable habitat and could support healthy populations.
Natural England chairman Sir Martin Doughty said the hen harrier had become the “emblem of man’s callous disregard” for the country’s wildlife.
Only a quarter (26%) of breeding pairs on red grouse moors manage to produce fledged chicks, while Natural England said there was “compelling evidence” that persecution continued at communal winter roosts.
In one 12-month period, six birds fitted with satellite transmitters were tracked from the hen harrier stronghold of Bowland Fells into parts of the North Pennines managed as driven grouse moors – and literally disappeared off the map.
They have not been recorded subsequently, while in another incident three signals “went dead” in one geographical area between 2007 and 2008. Monitoring work since 2002 revealed that the relative tiny area at Bowland, Lancashire, was the site of more than two-thirds of the 127 breeding attempts by the once-common hen harriers during that time.
Bowland, where Natural England and the RSPB work with private landowners and gamekeepers to manage the area in a way that supports the birds, is the only place in England where the bird has increased since the hen harrier recovery project started in 2002.
Sir Martin said: “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.
“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.”