Irish Government’s forestry strategy threatens to wipe out the Hen Harrier
Ireland is the most westerly outpost of the Hen Harrier’s global range. The species is in big trouble here and has been falling towards extinction as its habitat is being lost majorly by conversion to industrial forestry. If the Hen Harrier is lost from this frontier due to habitat loss, it will not return nor cannot it be re-introduced for that very reason – there will be no habitat.
There are already approximately 220 million non-native trees, covering more than half of the land within Special Protection Areas that are supposed to be the last bastion of Hen Harrier conservation in Ireland. These areas are designated in line with the EU birds directive and national law and within these areas, member states are supposed to “avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats…”.
Not many Rare Bird Alert readers will need this, but a quick science lesson: Hen Harriers, as with other harrier species, evolved in virtually treeless landscapes. Harriers are birds of open country – steppe, prairie, mountain, swamp, moorland. This is why they nest on the ground. The exception to this rule for Hen Harriers as it happens came in Ireland, where for a number of years Don Scott observed harriers nesting on the tops of stunted trees. This soon came to an end however, ultimately proving to be maladaptive, as when the young harriers fell from the trees and were hidden beneath the canopy, they could not be fed or rescued by their parents. Suffice it to say that Hen Harriers and industrial plantation forestry dominated by non-native sitka spruce do not mix well. Some private foresters with financial interests in planting more land will tell you otherwise, in the same way as chemical companies told us DDT was not reducing raptor populations for decades. However, as with DDT, there are volumes of scientific studies and evidence from the field as to who the silent killer is. Truth always wins out.