Collapse of Hen Harrier population underlines urgent need for habitat restoration on island of Ireland

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Slieve Beagh is an upland area which straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, spread across the counties of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Monaghan. The area is steeped in local myth and legend. It is also home to one of Ireland’s most iconic and endangered species of bird – the Hen Harrier.

 The mix of blanket bog, rough grassland  and wet and dry heath, found on Sliabh Beagh provide suitable habitat for the Hen harrier and as a result the site is a stronghold for Hen harrier on the island of Ireland. As a result the site is designated as a protected site for Hen harrier on both sides of the invisible border running along the rounded, rolling peaks of Sliabh Beagh. 

In the past extensive peat extraction has occurred both within and outside the site boundaries. Areas of the site have also been degraded by pressures like commercial forestry and upland burning. The CANN cross-border project (Sliabh Beagh Complex – CANN Project ( worked with local communities and NGOs to produce a Conservation Action Plan for Sliabh Beagh which helped rejuvenate, protect and enhance the habitat for Hen Harriers.

Unfortunately, the cross border initiative is a raresuccess story for the endangered species, known as the skydancer for its captivating aerial skydance.

Northern Ireland’s hen harrier population has dropped by 26% in 7 years. The devastating news should come as no surprise as it mirrors the collapse of the species South of the border where the population has declined by 33% since 2015.  

A survey last year of the hen harrier population in Northern Ireland recorded only 34 territorial pairs in the region, meaning that there could now be fewer than 120 breeding pairs of Hen harrier remaining on the island of Ireland. 

The Northern Irish Raptor Study Group has described the North’s hen harrier population as being under immense pressure from a range of land management activities and human-mediated threats. The group said this has led to extensive and ongoing losses of suitable habitats and widespread disturbances at nesting and foraging habitats. It reflects the situation in the south where a key reason for the collapse in the hen harrier population is the loss of heather and grassland habitats in our uplands due to forestry, wind energy development and agricultural intensification.

The drastic decline north and south is grim news for the iconic species. Without strong and swift intervention, the Hen Harrier faces the very real prospect of extinction in Ireland in just 25 years. This underlines the urgent need for habitat restoration across the island as well as a robust plan to save the Hen Harrier north and south. 

In the south, the draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan in its current form does not reflect that urgency nor is it sufficiently targeted to ensure that sufficient habitat is restored, according to BirdWatch Ireland, An Taisce and the Environmental Pillar.

The plan is vague and fails to outline clear targets to restore habitat within protected areas or safeguard habitat outside protected areas. 

In order to restore the Republic of Ireland’s Hen Harrier population, Minister Malcom Noonan must ensure that any plan must:

  •       Protect all nationally important Hen Harrier breeding and wintering grounds from afforestation, forest management activities, wind energy development and other pressures.
  •         Restore habitat across all nationally important breeding and wintering sites using clear restoration targets and timelines.
  •         Guarantee long-term support for farmers through well-funded results-based schemes across all nationally important breeding and wintering grounds.

These measures should be implemented as a priority on both sides of the border to help save the Hen Harrier. The Hen harrier and other threatened species on our shared Island don’t recognise borders. Governments on both sides of the political divide must ensure that borders are irrelevant for wildlife by working together to restore nature.  

 (Photo: Mike Brown)


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