Ireland's Biodiversity Awareness Campaign

Hen Harrier

 

Hen Harriers are medium sized birds of prey that are widely distributed throughout Ireland though in very small numbers. 

Adult male Hen Harriers are pale grey with black wing tips, while the females are larger, brown in colour and have a white rump and bars on their tails. Birds of both sexes look similar to adult females during their first year, and the term ‘ringtail’ is often used to refer to birds that could be either juveniles or adult females. Hen Harriers are rare in Ireland throughout the year, although they are more widely distributed during autumn and winter. During this time, some birds may leave Ireland to winter abroad while others arrive here from overseas.

(Picture courtesy of Richard Mills)

Breeding

During the summer months they breed in upland areas, predominantly in the south and west of Ireland, particularly in Cork, Limerick and Kerry, which hold approximately a third of the breeding Irish Hen Harrier population. Hen Harriers establish their nests during the spring, with each producing between 1 and 6 eggs.

Females are responsible for brooding eggs and incubating the chicks when they are young, and for the first 5 weeks of the nestling period they spend most of the time on the nest. During this time, males provide nearly all of the food required by both adults as well as the chicks. In Ireland, the Hen Harriers diet is comprised mostly of small birds and mammals. Males returning from a successful hunting trip deliver food to their mates in a spectacular aerial manoeuvre called a ‘food pass’. As he approaches the nest area, the male calls to the female, who rises to meet him. The male then either drops the food for the female to catch, or delivers it to her directly in mid-air, his mate swinging upside down beneath him to take the prey from his feet into the grasp of her own talons.

The earliest broods of Hen Harriers may leave the nest during June, but most chicks fledge during July, and are independent by August. Once fledged, the young will follow the adult birds to milder lowland areas for the winter. In contrast to the scattered nature of birds during the breeding season, it is possible to see numbers of birds together during the winter, as they congregate in the evening at communal roosts. They typically use wetland areas, particularly coastal reedbeds, because of the shelter and protection from predators that such habitats afford them.

 
Female Harrier incubating egges and newly born Hen Harrier chick.

Pictures taken by Mark Wilson & Barry O'Mahony, from left to right

Conservation Issues

These birds were once widespread in Ireland but their numbers have been declining here, and throughout much of their European range, due to habitat destruction and human persecution. They are predominantly ground-nesting birds, whose traditional breeding habitat is open moorland, but they use young plantation forests for both nesting and hunting. Habitat-related threats to Hen Harriers in Ireland are various and include agricultural intensification and declining proportions of young forestry in the landscape.

The Hen Harrier is a species of conservation concern in Ireland and is the subject of intense research aimed at informing us about its habitat requirements in order that these can be provided for.

 

If you see a Hen Harrier...

 

 

A scheme has been developed to find out where the Hen Harriers are going and coloured tags on the back of wings will help tell us where.

Click here to find out more

 

If you spot a Hen Harrier at any time of year, please contact:

Dr. Sandra Irwin at s.irwin@ucc.ie

or

Barry O Donoghue – 0879110715, harriers@environ.ie

Look very closely as the Hen Harrier it may bear a wing tag which could assist with this research. Sightings of non-tagged Hen Harriers are also welcome.

©2007 Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government