Support our Nation today - please donate here

Steady rise for Wales’ Hen Harriers – but more needs to be done

08 Apr 2024 4 minute read
Male Hen Harrier. Image: RSPB

The latest Hen Harrier survey shows that numbers of this charismatic and striking bird of prey have made an encouraging increase – although numbers in Wales have not recovered to the population size earlier this century.

Results of a survey led by the RSPB have shown an increase of 14% in Hen Harrier numbers in Wales between 2016 and 2023.

Hen Harriers are medium-size birds of prey that hunt for voles and small birds by gliding buoyantly over heather or grassland.

In Wales and across the UK, they nest almost entirely in the uplands. The smaller males are battleship grey with black wing-tips, while larger females are mottled shades of brown with a white rump at the base of their tail.

In spring, the males display by flying in a sweeping arc over the moorland, giving them the nickname “Skydancer”. In winter, Welsh breeding Hen Harriers move south, some staying in Wales and young birds travelling as far away as France and Iberia.

Mixed results

The survey, led by the RSPB and funded by Natural Resources Wales (NRW), found that 95% of pairs were found on heather dominated moorland, up from 86% in 2016.

Numbers of Hen Harriers remained stable across the Migneint–Arenig–Dduallt Special Protection Area (SPA) in Gwynedd with 10 territorial pairs, and there was an encouraging increase of six pairs to a total of 16 territories on the Berwyn SPA, Denbighshire/Powys, since 2016.

Across the UK and the Isle of Man, the picture is mixed. Although numbers overall showed an increase between 2016 and 2023, country variations differed significantly.

Natural England data 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.

Numbers also increased in the Isle of Man and Scotland, especially in the East Highlands where landscape-scale habitat restoration is underway.

However, Northern Ireland saw a 26% decrease linked to increasingly poor habitat quality.


The Hen Harrier is the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey in relation to its population size, and overall numbers are 14% lower than in 2004. In 2023, Hen Harrier numbers were only 25% of their potential across the UK, based on the available suitable habitat .

Julian Hughes, Head of Species for RSPB Cymru said: “The amazing display of Hen Harriers in springtime is a sign of a healthy moorland.

“It is encouraging that numbers have increased in Wales as part of their long-term recovery, but tragic that so many are killed across the UK each year.

“Restoring the Welsh uplands, for a suite of precious wildlife, as well as benefitting society by storing water and carbon to tackle the climate emergency, must be a key outcome for Welsh Government policy, and it’s vital too that the police investigate crimes that threaten our raptor populations”.

Natural heritage

Patrick Lindley, Lead Specialist Advisor, Terrestrial Ornithologist for Natural Resources Wales said: “Anyone witnessing the elaborate spring “sky dancing” display flight of a Hen Harrier in the uplands of Wales, can only be captivated and astounded in that moment.

“This sixth National Hen Harrier Survey provides a health check for one of our most majestic birds of prey that is a symbol of our natural heritage and of resilient uplands.

“It is encouraging to see both an increase within the Welsh Hen Harrier SPA network and a 14% increase in the total number of pairs since the 2016 survey.

“Worryingly however, the results from the 2023 survey suggest a northwards range contraction in Wales and a species that occupies only a fraction of the potentially suitable habitat available for breeding.

“The reasons for these trends are unclear and further research is required to determine key drivers.”

Support our Nation today

For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Our Supporters

All information provided to Nation.Cymru will be handled sensitively and within the boundaries of the Data Protection Act 2018.