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The Hen Harrier

(c) Richard T. Mills

By Tony Nagle
The Hen Harrier is one of the most distinctive and spectacular birds of our region. Few sites in the Irish countryside can surpass the magnificent display flight of the male Hen Harrier as it repeatedly 'loops the loop', barrel rolls and somersaults in its amazing mating ritual which has gained the very appropriate title of sky-dancing and all done to impress its mate and establish a territory. The hills of North Cork and East Kerry have been traditional strongholds for the species in Ireland and they continue to be so as the national survey of breeding Hen Harriers (1998-2000) has shown. Between 37-55 pairs of the 104-131 breeding (or suspected breeding pairs) were found in these areas or nearby in Co. Limerick. This represents 36-42% of the national population.

In late summer, many Hen Harriers leave the uplands to spend the winter at a number of mainly coastal locations including Ballyvergan Marsh (near Youghal), Ballycotton and Minane Bridge in Co.Cork and areas around Tralee Bay in Co. Kerry.

In spite of the relative importance of the region to the species, a considerable decline has occurred in common with most other parts of the country over the last 25 years or so. Two factors contributing to this decline immediately stand out. The maturation of conifer plantations, to which the species so readily adapted in the 1950s and 1960s (but rarely uses once the trees grow above nine feet), has rendered large areas of once suitable habitat virtually impenetrable to the species. Secondly, extensive land reclamation or improvement in upland areas has drastically reduced the amount of suitable nesting habitat available to the species, and has also severely impacted on the amount of foraging land available. Perennial rye grass holds far fewer Meadow Pipits (the principal prey species in Ireland) than the traditional rough grassland, which was once a feature of most upland areas.

Two positive developments have recently taken place in Ireland, namely tree nesting (i.e. actual nesting on the bole of deformed trees) and the use of restocked conifer plantations. Both of these practices are evidence of a species adapting to adverse situations and they provide hope for the future. Tree nesting by one pair was first noticed in Co. Antrim in 1991 and by 2000 up to eight pairs were involved. It is thought that the practice is a direct reaction to severe over- grazing and burning of the adjacent heather moorland, which was formerly the bird's preferred nesting habitat. The adaptation to nesting in restocked conifer plantations has probably even greater implications for the species' continued survival in Ireland. The body of evidence available from studies in Ireland and in the UK suggested that Hen Harriers rarely nest in second-generation forestry. The recent survey revealed that, at several locations around Ireland, Hen Harriers are now nesting in restocked conifer plantations. If this practice becomes the norm, it will ensure the persistence of suitable nesting habitat in areas where first-rotation planting no longer takes place. The suitability of second-rotation forestry as a foraging habitat is still unclear and awaits further investigation.

Early in 2003, just as the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) took the brave (albeit somewhat overdue) decision to face up to our international responsibility to protect this internationally threatened species by outlining potential SPA designation of substantial tracts of Hen Harrier breeding habitat, a previously unforeseen threat to the species suddenly became apparent. Some farmers in upland areas of North Munster perceive these potential designations as "a threat to their livelihoods" and an ill-informed and largely one-sided debate has subsequently ensued. Already, Minister Cullen's office has issued revised advice to the Forestry Service that proposals for forestry in the areas that NPWS has put forward as possible Hen Harrier SPAs should be considered as unlikely to impact on the birds unless greater than 20 hectares in area! What is the point of designating SPAs unless the necessary controls on forestry are having a significant impact? Blanket afforestation is, in itself, one of the most significant threats to the future of the species in Ireland, as the last remaining areas of suitable foraging ground continue to be engulfed by the dual threats of conifer plantations and land reclamation. All sorts of wild and dangerous threats to the future of the Hen Harrier in these areas have been made. A solution to this problem surely lies in a revised Rural Environment Protection Scheme for the designated areas.

The CNT is committed to the principals of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Renewable energy, which includes wind energy, is an essential component of Ireland's strategy to meet our requirements under the Kyoto Agreement. But we also believe that Ireland has a moral, legal and cultural responsibility to protect endangered and threatened species such as the Hen Harrier. Therefore we welcome these potential designations and we believe that wintering habitat should also be given adequate protection.