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Issue 23 - Well and truly hen-pecked

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Well and truly hen-pecked

The hen harrier gets a hard time but keeps quiet about it. Graham Holliday reports

The hen harrier is the most persecuted bird of prey in Britain. It acquired its name because of its predilection for taking poultry and grouse.

The bird was driven to extinction from mainland Britain by 1900 and gamekeepers and landowners are still suspected of shooting the bird illegally.

The almost silent hen harrier is a dramatic bird to watch. Its large wings are held in a ‘V’ shape as it flies low hunting its prey, consisting mostly of voles, mice and small birds.

The male is nearly all grey with white underparts and the wings tipped black. The females are larger, brown in colour with a long barred tail.

The bird resides in the United Kingdom and Scotland all year but moves to lower coastal areas across the UK in winter. It prefers open expanses of countryside like moorland, marshes and river valleys and always breeds on heather moorland.

Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park near Lochwinnoch in west central Scotland is just 10 minutes from Glasgow airport, yet this is one of the best places in Britain to see hen harriers. The park has been home to harriers for more than 50 years. The population is small, but important.

“Populations go up and down, but on average we have about 10 breeding pairs out of a UK population in the order of 750 breeding pairs,“ says Charles Woodward, regional park manager.

For the last three years, with the aid of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other partners, the park has been trying to raise awareness about the plight of the harrier, the importance of heather for nesting and the problems of persecution through a conservation programme run from the Muirshiel visitor centre within the park.

For the past three years the park has had a closed circuit television camera at the nest of breeding harriers.

Live viewing normally begins in May and the colour images relayed back to the centre are exceptionally clear. Visitors can also learn about habitat and persecution problems facing the birds.

“This is unique in the United Kingdom,“ says Zul Bhatia, Lochwinnoch nature reserve manager.

“Nest camera viewing of hen harriers has also been attempted on the Isle of Arran, but sadly, for three years, they’ve had bad luck. Because the Clyde Muirshiel site is sensitive, we visit the nest as little as possible.“ Conservationists worry that any manual adjustments would disturb the nesting birds.

Hen harriers have been on the increase in Scotland. They are 45 per cent up over the last six years, with the strongest showings taking place in the far north.

The North Highlands hen harrier population has tripled since 1998, whereas in the East Highlands and Southern Uplands the population has dropped significantly.

The majority of the decreases have been in areas with a high concentration of grouse shooting.

Illegal persecution is implicated in the decrease in numbers on grouse moors.

This year the camera at Clyde Muirshiel caught dramatic footage of three chicks being born and of a fox taking one chick from the nest.

RSPB Lochwinnoch and the Cornalees Centre at Loch Thom, also in Clyde Muirshiel regional park, show video highlights of the harrier season throughout the year.


East Lochhead, Largs Road, Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, PA12 4DX
The award winning East Lochhead Country House & Cottages B&B has fantastic, spacious rooms for £35 per person per night. The food is some of Scotland’s finest and is homegrown and organic. Clyde Muirshiel is nearby.
Tel: +44 (0)1505 842 610

Foveran Hotel, St. Ola, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1SF
This family run hotel is two miles from Kirkwall and set within its own grounds with views over Scapa Flow. It’s well known for its food, which is sourced locally. From £46.50 per person per night. Birsay Moors and Cottascarth are both close.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 389

Dunain Park Hotel, Inverness, IV3 8JN
Georgian country house hotel in six acres of gardens including a kitchen garden. Elegant rooms, from £69 per person per night. Scottish and French cuisine. RSPB Loch Ruthven is 15 minutes away.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 230 512


The RSPB website carries more comprehensive information on the project and harriers themselves

Where to see hen harriers:

The Muirshiel Centre Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park.
The centre is five miles north of Lochwinnoch, signposted off the B786.The park runs free guided walks between April and the end of July. Entry to the park is also free and the visitor centre is open daily from 11am – 4pm (6pm at weekends)
Tel: +44 (0)1505 842 803

Birsay Moors and Cottascarth Near Finstown, Orkney
Tel: +44 (0)1856 850 176
The nature reserve is also home to Arctic skuas and red-throated divers. In summer hen harriers and short-eared owls nest on the moorland. Cottascarth is also home to many breeding curlews

Loch Ruthven, Near Croachy, Highland
Tel: +44 (0)1463 7150 00
This loch is surrounded by birch and open moorland. The rare Slavonian grebe is present as are osprey, peregrine and hen harrier