Hen Harrier edges closer to extinction in Ireland


The fifth survey of Ireland's Hen Harriers, conducted in 2022 and now published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), reveals shocking declines in the population of this iconic bird of prey.

Only 85 confirmed pairs of Hen Harrier were recorded throughout the country, translating to the most severe decline of any national survey to date.

Hen Harrier continues to suffer shocking declines in Ireland (Ian Bollen).

The survey was undertaken by a partnership of the Golden Eagle Trust, Irish Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland on behalf of NPWS. Similar to previous surveys, the 2022 national survey received enthusiastic support from a substantial network of voluntary surveyors including birders, farmers, wildlife rangers, foresters and biologists with more than 250 fieldworkers dedicating 7,700 hours to the survey.

Despite these collective efforts, the Hen Harrier has been pushed closer to the brink of extinction. The current national population estimate of 85-106 breeding pairs in 2022 represents a decline of a third since the 2015 survey, which recorded 108-157 pairs – itself a 27% contraction on the survey before that.

In total, the species has declined by 59% since the first national survey in 1998-2000. At the current rate of decline, population extinction could be expected within 25 years and there could be fewer than 50 breeding pairs remaining within the next decade.


Special Protected Areas failing Hen Harrier

In 2007, as a requirement under the EU Birds Directive, Ireland designated six sites in upland areas as Special Protected Areas (SPAs), based on their national importance for breeding Hen Harriers at that time. The 2022 survey revealed that harrier populations in five of these SPAs have declined by between 20% and 80% since then. Overall, the SPA populations have declined by more than half (54%) in the same period.

John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer at BirdWatch Ireland, who co-ordinated the survey alongside project partners, said: "We have reached crisis point at this stage, the situation could not be more serious, and we need to act accordingly if we are to stand any chance of ensuring Hen Harriers don't become extinct within our lifetimes.

"Hen Harrier is one of the best-studied bird species in Ireland. We know the main reasons why their populations have declined to such low levels, which has been primarily driven by land-use changes resulting in the loss of habitat for Hen Harrier in our uplands, due to afforestation on important habitats for Hen Harrier and other wildlife inside and outside the Special Protection Area network, as well as associated disturbances from forest management activities and other pressures including wind energy developments. These pressures in combination have affected the integrity of our uplands, which are some of our most important areas for biodiversity and we are now seeing the very real effects of poor spatial planning and management of our uplands on Hen Harrier populations."

Oonagh Duggan, Head of Advocacy with BirdWatch Ireland, commented: "We know what needs to be done to save this species. Government knows what needs to be done but it is not acting. Government recently issued a draft Threat Response Plan for Hen Harrier for public consultation which was 10 years in the making. During this time the species declined by a third. It has vague actions and is lacking ambition. It is just not good enough. This is a litmus test for government and its new National Biodiversity Action Plan which has an objective to halt the deterioration of 30% of species with unfavourable status by 2030.

"We will be launching a campaign soon so that members of the public can offer support to save the skydancing Hen Harrier from extinction. All national Hen Harrier breeding and wintering sites must be protected from afforestation, forest management activities and wind energy development. Habitat restoration for these important areas is also critical and we need long-term and well-funded agri-environment scheme to support farmers for their conservation efforts."