for National Geographic News
Following centuries of persecution, England's hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) population had dwindled to only seven successful breeding pairs last year. Now, after three major fires at specially protected moorland breeding sites, one of the country's most spectacular birds of prey is at the brink of extinction.
Hen harriers have been heavily persecuted by gamekeepers, due to their perceived effect on red grouse populations. Red grouse is a commonly shot, and lucrative, game species, and also a typical hen harrier prey item.
"These fires will have a great impact on breeding success," said Julian Hughes head of species policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a conservation group based in Bedfordshire, England. "We've no doubt that illegal persecution is responsible for halting the recovery of hen harriers," he said. However, some gamekeepers advocates deny that fires are to blame for the decline.
One uncontrollable wildfire in heather moorlands at Bowlands Fell in the county of Lancashire, has burned out 750 acres (250 hectares) of high quality moorland habitat in the most important hen harrier nesting area in the country. According to the U.K. government conservation body English Nature, the fire, which happened in the week before Easter, has wiped out at least two active nests, and potentially a third in the process of being settled.
Farmers, carrying out legitimate moorland management, are thought to have started the blaze, said Hughes. Heather is burned off legally on private land, to induce the growth of fresh shoots, which are eaten by sheep and red grouse. However in this instance, due to unusually warm and dry spring weather, it got wildly out of control.
"Fire is a natural part of heather management, that has been used for thousands of years," said Hughes. "You do actually need some kind of burning to keep vegetation litter levels down and limit uncontrolled fires," he said. Nevertheless, inappropriate burning, combined with heavy grazing, can lead to erosion and encourage the spread of bracken, resulting in the permanent loss of heather, and species that rely on it.
The RSPB is calling on the government to change the law, so that the burning season ends before the nesting season begins.
However, some dispute the importance of moorland fires in depressing hen harrier populations. "The reality is that as one patch of over-mature heather is burnt to regenerate the grazing, so other patches reach maturity and hen harriers will move their nesting sites accordingly," said Tim Baynes, moorland policy and information officer with the Countryside Alliance, a rural interests lobbying group based in North Yorkshire, England. "The RSPB call for a shorter heather burning season, but fail to appreciate that in the wetter parts of the country that would prevent any burning being done at all in some years."
However, accidental fire is not the only cause of damage in recent weeks. Two fires in the North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area may have been intentionally set, English Nature said. One of the fires burned out heather in a very limited area surrounding a known RSPB-owned nest site from last year. The Pennine moors protected area stretches across 147,000 hectares (363,000 acres) from Harrogate in North Yorkshire to Carlisle in Cumbria.
In total, up to four of last year's seven breeding sites may have been destroyed, said Ian Carter, an ornithologist with English Nature in Peterborough, England. Breeding sites are restricted to moorlands in the U.K., where the birds make simple nests in mature, deep patches of heather.
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