Birds of Prey

Hen Harrier by Amy Lewis

Persecution, poisoning and the decline of birds of prey

The issue:

Birds of prey are fantastic, awe-inspiring and joyful to see but sadly they are disappearing from our local area. Some of these birds are in decline for a number of reasons including:

  • Suspected and confirmed illegal persecution through poisoning, shooting etc. of birds such as hen harriers, peregrines, buzzards, short-eared owls and goshawks
  • Declining moorland, woodland and a mosaic of habitat that supports these birds and their young
  • The use of rodenticide (rat poison) leading to the poisoning of birds such as barn owls that prey on affected small mammals

Hen harriers: the numbers just don’t add up

One of the most enigmatic and rare birds of prey in England is the hen harrier, also known as the ‘skydancer’ because of its acrobatic, aerial mating displays.

A Joint Nature Conservation Committee commissioned report in 2011 estimated that England could support a potential hen harrier population of more than 300 pairs. In 2013 there were 0 breeding pairs in England, and in 2016 there were 4 breeding pairs. There have been positive updates on hen harrier breeding this year from Northumberland Wildlife Trust and RSPB's Skydancer blog.

See ‘The Evidence and References’ below for information relating to these issues.

Our position:

  • We totally oppose all illegal killing of wildlife, especially our local birds of prey, many of which are internationally important or are locally rare such as the hen harrier, peregrine and goshawk. The illegal persecution of wildlife must stop now.
  • We support a vision of our local uplands as a mosaic of habitats supporting thriving populations of all the species that should be present in these inspiring places, including birds of prey. We want to see a healthy natural environment, a vibrant economy and thriving communities. Our uplands are wonderful ‘wild’ places but they could be even better for people and wildlife.
  • We believe that a new approach away from increasingly intensive grouse moor management is needed - something has to change soon. Ideally this will be an increase in breeding hen harriers and other birds of prey due to action from grouse moor owners to help conserve these important species. Licensing legitimate law abiding grouse shoots is another option put forward by the RSPB. Or alternatively vicarious responsibility of the landowner (as in Scotland) could be made law. But all depend on adequate policing, sentencing and resourcing to administer and monitor.
  • We are strongly against peatland burning, which has been shown to destroy sphagnum mosses, deepen water tables and damage underlying peat.
  • We are against the use of rodenticide – it should only be use as a last resort when all other methods have failed.

What we have done and will do:

  • Continue to work with and support land owners, land managers, organisations, groups or individuals who share our aim of wanting to see an increase in breeding pairs of our local birds of prey.
  • Continue to regularly update and raise awareness with the general public and our members about illegal birds of prey persecution in our patch – providing factual information and examples wherever possible.
  • Actively promote appropriate campaigns and petitions by others where they coincide with our own position and aims.
  • Regularly review the suppliers we use to ensure we do not support any that have a connection to or have been directly prosecuted for illegal wildlife activity.
  • Continue to manage our Nature Reserves, and the land that we manage on behalf of others, for the benefit of a diverse range of wildlife, including hen harriers, peregrine, buzzards, short-eared owls and goshawk.
  • Continue to work with and try to influence others - partners and land owners/managers - to actively manage their land for wildlife and our local birds of prey to thrive.
  • Continue to work with other Wildlife Trusts to influence national and regional policy makers about the importance of the upland habitat for birds of prey and the many other benefits the uplands provide for people and wildlife generally.
  • Celebrate and highlight cases of good practice by local grouse moorland owners and keepers.
  • Contribute to the prevention of the illegal killing of birds of prey by participating in NESTWATCH schemes, promoting ‘sighting’ reporting and raising awareness of what to look for.
  • Act on any reports we receive about potential wildlife crime.
    Work with the local Wildlife Crime Unit to encourage them to actively monitor for illegal activity across Sheffield and Rotherham and enforce existing wildlife legislation more effectively, investing in better detection and policing measures.
  • Only use rodenticide as a last resort and continue to regularly remind the public and our members about not using rodenticide, unless as a last resort when all other methods have been tried and failed.

What you can do:

  • If you are out walking the moors or woodlands and spot potential breeding pairs of peregrine, hen harriers 'sky dancing', short-eared owls or goshawks please call us on 0114 2634335 or the Hen Harrier Hotline (RSPB) on 0845 4600121.
  • If you are out walking and notice anything suspicious please try to take a photograph, note down that facts of what you saw and where carefully and then report it to your local wildlife crime unit. South Yorkshire Wildlife Crime tel no. is 101 (not 999) and let us know.
  • Volunteer on one of our work days – helping to improve the habitat these and other birds of prey need.
  • Many local habitats for birds of prey are currently protected by EU directives, the loss of which, after Brexit, could present significant long-term risks for our local wildlife and natural environment. Please write to your MP to ask how they will ensure the same level of legal protection for our internationally important species and local wildlife sites after Brexit. Visit our Brexit webpage for more information about this, and please email any replies you receive to us here.
  • Tell others about the impact of rodenticide (see details below in ‘The Evidence and References’– help to spread the message about the impact of this chemical on local wildlife and the environment.

Evidence and references:

1. Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey

1a. Hen Harriers

A Joint Nature Conservation Committee commissioned report in 2011 provided an estimate of the potential Hen Harrier population that England could support as 323–340 pairs. Notes of caution were given in the research e.g. because the model could not use English data to calculate the potential population in England because there is so little actual data to use.

Nonetheless because the modelling of potential population was based on data drawn from actual surveys eg in Scotland, where birds were subject to limiting factors such as illegal persecution, predation (which could affect productivity), prey densities (voles cycle) and habitat quality (heather cover for nesting birds), this potential population estimate was still felt to be conservative given the potential habitat available in England.

In 2013 there were no breeding pairs in England and in 2014 there were 3 breeding pairs.

The ‘missing’ hen harriers may be due to a number of reasons, and the 2011 report consider a number of constraints in turn eg grazing, predation, climate, wind farms. But the two main issues identified were persecution and, in one Scottish region, prey shortages. Nesting/foraging habitat and predation pressures may also be locally important eg buzzards preying on hen harrier chicks. The 2011 report concludes that ‘England is unlikely to achieve this (favourable conservation status for hen harriers) unless illegal persecution is significantly reduced’.

In 2016, Defra produced a Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan supported by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation, National Parks UK, Natural England and the RSPB. The RSPB later withdrew its support.

Our main concerns in supporting the plan are:

  • Brood management (removal of chicks to an alternative location)
  • Hen harrier re-introduction

Both seem to avoid the underlying issue of illegal wildlife persecution.


1b. Peregrines, buzzards, short-eared owls and goshawks

Within the Sheffield boundary, which includes the moors above Howden Reservoir, the South Peak Raptor Study Group (SPRSG) have monitored birds of prey in the Upper Derwentdale area since the late 1990s, and some of their members have monitored the area for more than forty years.

  • For the peregrine, their data shows that, despite growth in the White Peak from 6 successful nesting sites in 2000 to more than 32 sites in 2011, sites in Derwentdale remained between 2 to 4 over the same period.
  • For the buzzard, their data shows that, despite exponential growth in the White Peak from 11 successful fledglings in 2000 to over 37 in 2011, successful fledglings in Derwentdale remained at 0 over the same period.

The ‘missing’ birds of prey recorded by the SPRSG may be due to a number of reasons, but given the amount of habitat available and the success of sites nearby, it is suspected that illegal persecution has had a significant impact.

From RSPB Crime Report 2013, evidence for the decline in birds of prey from our northwest Sheffield moors is also indicated by the following data:

  • In 1998, there were 15 goshawk and 4 peregrine territories.
  • In 2013, there was just 1 goshawk and 1 peregrine breeding territory on the grouse moorlands between Sheffield and the Derwent Valley.
  • Away from the grouse moors, in the south of the Peak District, goshawk is still doing well, with 13 known breeding pairs.

Evidence has been collated by the RSPB that strongly points to illegal persecution across Sheffield and Rotherham:

  • Successful prosecution of a gamekeeper illegally baiting to take birds of prey in Upper Derwentdale (Police v Glenn Brown, Chesterfield Magistrates Court 2011)
  • Peak Malpractice published in 2007
  • RSPB Wildlife crime report 2013 p 14-15 etc.
  • Confirmed shooting of a buzzard in South Yorkshire (Bird Crime Report 2015)
  • Successful prosecution of an individual possessing two wild tawny owls and a homemade trap to capture wild birds (CPS vs Martin, Sheffield Magistrates 2015)
  • Robbery of a peregrine chick from a nest in South Yorkshire (RSPB Legal Eagle 78, P13)


2. Impact of Peatland Burning

There is growing evidence that peatland burning is damaging the ecosystems of the moorlands. See this research summary here as an example.


 2. Rodenticide

Last year was a poor breeding year for Barn Owls, but with marked geographical variation, consistent with survey results in 2015. The data received from 32 monitoring schemes shows that the number of nesting pairs in the UK in 2016 was 6% below the all-years average and the average number of young in the nest was 7% below.

You can visit the Barn Owl Trusts website to see the national data.
Barn Owls are affected by rodenticide, or rat poison, as they are at the higher end of the food chain and eat rodents so accumulate the poison in their bodies over time.

According to the latest government figures, 87% of barn owls contain rodenticide. Although the proportion that die as a direct result is thought to be low, sub-lethal doses may reduce their ability to cope during hard times. The UK Rodenticide Stewardship Regime came into force in 2016, which aims to achieve a substantial reduction in unwanted contamination by 2020. Barn owls are the ‘sentinel’ (indicator) species being monitored for the scheme, so this is a hopeful recent development which could help to improve the fortunes of these much-loved birds. 


Staff at Hen Harrier Day, August 2014


Hen Harrier Day, August 2014

Staff braved the weather to attend Hen Harrier Day on August 10th. The turnout was great, and the mood was positive.



FilenameFile size
Joint Nature Conservation Committee report, 20111.35 MB
UK barn owl population, 20161.48 MB
RSPB Birdcrime 2015 - Appendices147.52 KB