Donal Hickey: Breeding habits of harrier

Some new insights into the extinction-threatened hen harrier have come to light in a study by a rural development group in Co Cork.

Donal Hickey: Breeding habits of harrier

Some new insights into the extinction-threatened hen harrier have come to light in a study by a rural development group in Co Cork, writes Donal Hickey.

The study aims to learn more about where harrier chicks go once they leave the breeding grounds; how many survive their first year and where and when they return to nest. A satellite-tagging programme was started, in 2016, by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the EU-funded RaptorLife project, based in the Newmarket headquarters of IRD Duhallow.

Satellite tags are attached to chicks just before they leave the nest. Birds have now been tagged in the Mullaghareirk Mountains, in north Cork and east Kerry; the Ballyhouras, in north Cork and south Limerick; the Knockmealdowns, in Waterford; and the Slieve Blooms, in Laois and Offaly.

Chicks spend up to a month in the breeding grounds after leaving the nest, although their parents disperse much sooner.

According to the IRD Duhallow project scientist, Dr Allan Mee, it had never been proven that female harriers could nest in their first year. This year, however, a female hatched at a nest in the Mullaghareirks, north of Ballydesmond, Co Cork, in 2017, and returned to breed at a site in east Kerry.

Having left her wintering grounds on the Wexford coast, she arrived at her breeding site on April 29. Within two weeks, she had not only found a mate, but had laid a clutch of four to five eggs. By late June, the pair were feeding their young typical prey, such as small birds. Though the drought posed a real problem for the pair, the nest progressed well, until the chicks were up to four weeks old. With just days to go until the young would themselves take their first flight, the nest was preyed on by a fox, an indication of the pressures ground-nesting birds like harriers face in trying to raise chicks in the wild.

Within a day of losing her brood, the satellite-tagged female had travelled some 110km east to Slievenamon, Co Tipperary.

While disappointed at the loss of this brood, the RaptorLife project team were delighted to see this female return to breed in her first year. Listed as major threats to breeding hen harriers are large-scale forestry, increased industrial-scale windfarms, human disturbance, and turf cutting.

Six special protection areas (SPAs) have been designated for hen harriers. Yet, numbers continue to fall and Dr Mee says conservation action is urgently needed. A Threat Response Plan is due to be published by the Department of Arts, Culture, and Heritage.

Meanwhile, a special scheme is operating to make payments to farmers in SPAs, based on the results of measures carried out to benefit hen harriers.

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