A Lancashire forest is home to England’s last successful breeding hen harriers, bird experts warned today.
The RSPB and Natural England said only four pairs of nesting harriers raised young in England this year, all in the Forest of Bowland.
Experts fear the birds of prey could face extinction without urgent action, as they have reached their lowest numbers since the 1960s.
The RSPB said a report showed illegal persecution on driven-grouse moors is the main reason for their declining numbers.
Hen harriers sometimes prey on red grouse on upland shooting estates, making them unpopular on many grouse moors.
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, said he wanted to see the government keep a pledge in the revised England Biodiversity Strategy to avoid any human-induced extinctions of wildlife before 2020.
He said: “With only four pairs of hen harrier in England, this bird only has four steps before extinction and the government has very little time to act to prevent breaking their promise.
“We believe the potential for diversionary feeding will provide a lifeline for the recovery of the English hen harrier and a way for grouse moor managers to maximise the number of grouse.”
The RSPB has been working in partnership with United Utilities in the Forest of Bowland for 30 years to help preserve hen harrier numbers, after the bird species was found on the firm’s estate.
Since 1981, United Utilities has funded a large amount of the RSPB’s work on the estate, including hiring field workers and providing accommodation. A full-time worker has been employed since 1999 to monitor the harriers over the breeding season and to work with members of the estate team and tenants throughout the rest of the year, providing land management advice.
Hen harriers used to be widespread in Britain but became extinct on the mainland in the late 19th century.
They recolonised England in the 1960s. The RSPB and Natural England are calling for more grouse moor owners to support a new diversionary feeding technique which is being trialled to reduce the number of grouse chicks being eaten by harriers. It involves providing the harriers with another source of food so they will be less likely to prey on grouse.