Results of the 2022 National Hen Harrier Breeding Survey now published

Date Released: Friday, February 2, 2024

The latest report on the status of breeding Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) in Ireland has just been published in the National Parks & Wildlife Service’s Irish Wildlife Manual Series.

The 2022 National Hen Harrier Breeding Survey was completed with a significant contribution of over 7,700 hours of fieldwork by approximately 250 surveyors. The National Parks & Wildlife Service, and survey partners, the Golden Eagle Trust, the Irish Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland, would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution made by all surveyors, particularly the eNGO volunteer network. In a change from previous national surveys, the Hen Harrier European Innovation Project (HHP, funded by Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine), in operation between 2017-2022, undertook the monitoring of breeding hen harriers across the six breeding Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and contributed those records to the national survey. The Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group also assisted in coverage in the border counties.

Key findings

The hen harrier is a territorial bird of prey, and known for its spectacular aerial courtship display, the ‘sky-dance’.  It typically bred in open habitats such as heath and bog, with areas of low-intensity farmed grassland also favoured.  The 2022 results indicate that:

  • the national hen harrier population has declined by one third since 2015, to an estimated maximum of 106 breeding pairs (i.e. 85 confirmed, 21 possible).
  • Its breeding range has contracted by 27% for the same period.  A review of data for those sites covered in each of the past five national surveys (i.e. 1998/00 to 2022) indicates a 59% long-term decline for those sites.
  • The magnitude of declines observed for the subset of sites surveyed across all five national surveys would likely prompt the Red-listing of hen harrier on the Birds of Conservation Concern of Ireland.

The conservation of Hen Harrier is considered one of the most urgent bird conservation priorities in Ireland and on January 12th of this year, Minster Noonan launched the Public Consultation on the Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan.  The consultation closes on 20th February 2024, having been previously extended from 13th February. This iconic bird of prey, once regarded as relatively common in the mid-19th century, now breeds in uplands affected by competing land-use pressures including forestry, agriculture, renewable energy and recreation.  Such changes have resulted in both losses in extent or area of open habitats and habitat features (e.g. scrub, hedgerows, copses, heather) for breeding Hen Harrier and in the suitability of what remains, with lower food availability, increased predation pressure and poorer overall habitat condition linked to declines.  Conservation challenges include development of effective measures to address sizeable landscape-scale deterioration in hen harrier habitats, caused by the extensive land-use changes that have precipitated lower breeding success, poor juvenile over-winter survival, and lower recruitment into the breeding population. 

This report makes a number of recommendations to halt further declines and support much-needed population recovery (more details provided in the published Irish Wildlife Manual), all of which will be considered in the finalisation of the Threat Response Plan.

Read the Hen Harrier Survey 2022 here.