FIVE years on from the launch of a monitoring programme and newly released figures show that numbers of England's most endangered bird of prey remain a pale shadow of what they could be.
Facing persecution - the hen harrier
Breeding is still more or less confined to one area of the country for the once common Hen Harrier and evidence of illegal persecution is still found year after year across northern England.
Today, English Nature's Hen Harrier Recovery Project has announced the 2006 breeding figures for the birds showing there were 22 breeding attempts, resulting in 12 successful hen harrier nests, which produced a total of 46 birds.
This is the highest number of fledglings recorded since the project began monitoring in 2002. Despite this success, the English population remains very low and reliant on one key area for successful breeding. This area is the Bowland Fells in Lancashire, which supported 50 per cent of the successful nests, and where the birds are monitored by an English Nature and RSPB team.
There is evidence of illegal persecution every year and we cannot tolerate or ignore this happening to such a rare species
Richard Saunders - English Nature
Illegally persecuting hen harriers by scaring, destroying nests and eggs or deliberate killing was the main cause of their near-extinction in England, and English Nature's monitoring over the past five years shows that persecution remains the biggest reason for their continuing low population.
This year two adult birds disappeared from nests, behaviour that is almost unheard of naturally and is highly suspicious according to the team at English Nature. Over the last five years no hen harriers have disappeared whilst breeding in Bowland, whereas on grouse moors elsewhere in England nearly 60% of nesting attempts fail as a result of adult birds disappearing.
Most of the illegal persecution of harriers takes place on moorland where grouse shooting is common, however, it is virtually impossible to link individuals to these acts, so there are very few prosecutions.
Hen harriers still pose one of the trickiest conservation dilemmas in the UK; hen harriers eat red grouse, amongst other things, and have been proven to affect numbers of grouse available for shooting.
This undoubtedly provides the motivation for their illegal destruction. Yet grouse shooting has protected some of our rarest habitats and breeding birds, and funds the management these habitats require. If the hen harrier population is ever to fully recover, it will only be with the co-operation of grouse moor owners and managers.
Bowland harriers fare well
Richard Saunders, English Nature's Hen Harrier Recovery Project Manager, said: "Monitoring such a beautiful and fascinating bird over the last five years has provided me with many wonderful experiences. At times though witnessing the effects of persecution has also been thoroughly depressing.
"There is evidence of illegal persecution every year and we cannot tolerate or ignore this happening to such a rare species.
"On a positive note, I wish to thank the gamekeepers and land owners who have been working with us, particularly those from Bowland who have helped so much since the project began.
"I would encourage other gamekeepers and land managers to help bring this striking bird back to much more of our countryside. This would be an excellent way to demonstrate that bird of prey conservation can work alongside grouse moor management and would help show the public the positive conservation benefits that shooting can bring."