The future of the hen harrier, one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey, remains uncertain, according to results from the 2023 hen harrier survey.

The survey shows how populations of hen harriers are faring throughout the UK and Isle of Man. It’s a mixed picture, with some populations doing better than in previous years, while others are in decline.

Northern Ireland recorded only 34 territorial pairs in 2023, which is a decrease of roughly 26%.

This can be linked to loss of habitat, increasingly poor habitat quality, and a range of disturbances – a decline which mirrors the 33% population decrease within the Republic of Ireland seen in 2022.

The results give some cause for optimism – the UK and Isle of Man population is estimated to be 691 territorial pairs, of which 653 are found in UK.

This is a 20% increase from the 545 pairs recorded in the last survey in 2016 and also arrests the trend of decline shown since the 2004 survey, when 749 pairs were recorded.

However, hen harriers remain far less abundant than they should be, and the new population estimate represents only a quarter of the potential population their ideal habitat can support.

Across the UK, there is huge variation between populations. England has seen the biggest increase since 2016.

Data from Natural England shows there were 54 hen harrier breeding attempts by 50 territorial pairs in 2023 – a substantial 1,150% increase from just the four pairs recorded in 2016.

While the 2023 figures may look encouraging, hen harriers remain absent from large parts of England, including the Peak District and North York Moors – where there are substantial areas of their ideal habitat per 100km sq.

Senior conservation scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Simon Wotton, said:

“As the results of the 2023 survey show, the UK has seen an increase in hen harriers, which is very welcome, but the overall population is still well below where it should be.

“The reasons for hen harriers continuing to be far below their potential population are complex, but one of the primary causes is that continuing illegal killing, typically associated with intensive grouse moor management, is stifling their full recovery.

“With the UK population at around a quarter of its estimated potential, there so much more to do to secure a meaningful recovery.

“The recent Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill includes specific monitoring and reporting of Hen Harrier populations on grouse moors in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament and will be an important step in assessing progress with their recovery in these areas.”