The deep midwinter was traditionally the key time of the year for the determined birder to be rewarded with a fluttering glimpse of one of our most majestic predators.
Out on Lancashire’s frost-stiffened salt marshes and moorland, this slate-grey ghost of a bird would reveal itself briefly to the lucky few belligerently battling the cold.
But, over the recent years, the spectacle of the hen harrier sailing effortlessly through the frozen landscape like a giant, sleepy moth has become increasingly difficult to find.
Birds still drift in from further north and the east to escape the worst of the winter weather playing out elsewhere, but English harriers have all but disappeared.
Their absence marks one of the most worrying environmental failures in decades.
Their status is so precarious that RSPB bird of prey officer Jeff Knott believes one wet spring or a fire at the wrong time of the year could result in hen harriers falling extinct.
This catastrophe would represent a double tragedy, the bird has only been back in England for 50 years after re-colonising following extinction in the late 19th century.
A recent RSPB survey found just four breeding pairs left in England, all of these birds confined to a previous stronghold for the species in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. Habitat loss, as with all threatened species, has played its part in the hen harriers’ downfall.
But, amazingly, illegal killing is the major reason why the hen harrier could be absent as a breeding bird from England in as little as five years.
Hen harriers breed on moors and upland, which are also the key habitat exploited by the multimillion-pound grouse industry.
They prey on voles and pipits, but they will kill and eat red grouse if readily available. As a result, harriers and gamekeepers have been enemies for decades. To compensate for the alarming decline in the bird’s fortunes, they became protected by law – killing a hen harrier now carries a fine of up to £5,000 or six months in prison.
Yet the hen harrier still boasts the dubious title of being one of the most persecuted bird of prey in the UK.
The RSPB argues that the main hindrance into stopping the illegal killings is that gathering the evidence necessary to bring individual prosecutions is extremely difficult.
It now wants the laws protecting the birds to be beefed up by seeking a move to vicarious liability (already enshrined in law in Scotland), where landowners can be held accountable for crimes committed by staff acting on their behalf.
Not only would the loss of the bird be a tragedy for our landscape but it would also represent a huge embarrassment for the coalition, explains Knott, who adds: “Quite apart from the almost unbelievable situation that our modern society could allow a species to be illegally killed into English extinction, it would also result in the Government failing on its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to prevent any human-induced extinctions by 2020.
“Despite this, the Government doesn’t appear to have a coherent plan for how to save the species and it’s difficult to point to any meaningful action they are taking.”
The image of a hen harrier quartering and then lifting over frozen, dusk fields, as if controlled by some unseen puppeteer, is one of the most bewitching spectacles of our wildlife calendar, a sight that may once again become a distant memory.