How best to protect Lancashire's hen harriers?

Bowland was home to the majority of hen harrier chicks born in England back in 2007
Bowland was home to the majority of hen harrier chicks born in England back in 2007
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A bird of prey which is “emblematic” of the Forest of Bowland could benefit from the area being given a special status, a group of rights of way experts has been told.

A bird of prey which is “emblematic” of the Forest of Bowland could benefit from the area being given a special status, a group of rights of way experts has been told.

The Lancashire beauty spot was a haven for hen harriers until just over a decade ago and was home to 38 out of the 45 harrier chicks born in England as recently as 2007. But those numbers later collapsed, eventually falling to zero - and have shown no significant sign of recovery.

Natural England’s lead ornithologist, Steve Murphy, told the Lancashire Local Access Forum that Bowland should be designated as a wintering Special Protection Area (SPA). The site is already classed as an SPA during the breeding season over spring and early summer.

“It would increase protection [for the hen harrier] - and the evidence is there for all to see,” Mr. Murphy said.

“There are 13 hen harriers on Salisbury Plain and they are cock-a-hoop with it [as a protected area in winter]. We’ve got 30 birds around here...so why isn’t Bowland a wintering SPA?” he asked.

SPAs are designed to protect wildlife and their habitats. But forum member and Lancashire county councillor Cosima Towneley warned about the implications of the status.

“It must not affect access [to an area] which makes a livelihood for some people. This is not a panacea to save one species - and it’s often best when humans don’t interfere,” County Cllr Towneley said.

Steve Murphy agreed that hen harriers value areas which are not subject to intensive management, but added that wintering SPA status would “not result in a massive influx of people”.

The forum also heard that a controversial trial which sees hen harrier chicks temporarily removed from Bowland during the height of the grouse shooting season has “engendered trust” with local gamekeepers. Harriers are natural predators for grouse and are vulnerable to persecution, but their relocation has angered some conservation groups.

“People thought that the birds were being permanently sent down south,” Mr. Murphy said. “But estates can apply to have chicks taken away to a creche - even if just for a month - and then they are released back in the same area.

“We’ve tried other ways for 15 years and there was no active resurgence of the hen harrier population. This [move] has given gamekeepers a safety net and they respect that,” he added.

The meeting was also told that satellite tracking had given a much more accurate picture of the winter activity of hen harriers than previous radio controlled monitoring.

While females which had nested in Bowland largely stayed in Pennine areas, males were found to travel as far a afield as Spain and Denmark.