Plight of hen harrier pits nature against climate policies

Possibility of extinction leaves message we cannot ignore: we have created an ecological mess

“Quartering” describes how hen harriers hunt across open country, flying just a few metres above the ground, hunch-shouldered with heads tilted downwards, waiting to spot a flicker of movement from small prey species below, before pouncing for the kill.

Nia O’Malley was walking her upland farm on the Slieve Aughties in Galway, where she has 60 hectares of mixed bogland, heath and wet grassland, when she saw a male hen harrier - distinctive for their grey-blue plumage - repetitively quartering over the land. His wings formed a loose V-shape as he glided up and down his predatory circuit, searching for food. It was, she told me, “peaceful and mesmerising” to see such a virtuoso display of power and grace.

Hen harriers are birds of expansive landscapes. Their long wings mean that manoeuvring through closed forestry to hunt for food is impossible; they need open spaces of heather and bogland, scrub and rough grassland. Here, they hunt for birds like the meadow pipit and skylark and small mammals such as mice and voles.

On the ground, concealed by heather, the larger, darker-coloured female builds a nest in April and lays up to seven white eggs. Newborn hen harrier chicks face a significant risk from predators such as badgers, pine martens and foxes are around, which are more likely around if forestry is nearby.


In the 1970s, when Nia’s mother farmed the land, hen harriers and other now near-extinct birds, such as the curlew, were common. The abundance that seems inconceivable today. There were 27 breeding pairs in the Slieve Aughties two decades ago; today, just six pairs remain. Across Ireland, numbers have plummeted by a third since 2015 - an accelerated loss on previous years. There are less than 100 confirmed breeding pairs left, and in some places, such as the Nagle mountains in Cork, the bird is now regionally extinct.

We’ve been here before. Hen harriers were widespread in Ireland in the early 20th century; by the 1950s, under severe pressure from persecution and habitat loss, they faced imminent extinction.

Around that time the State undertook a large-scale afforestation scheme on so-called “marginal” land on upland moorland and blanket bogs. These areas were fenced off, drained and planted, mainly with non-native conifers. This initially created a vast open space favourable to hen harriers, and their numbers increased to about 300 pairs by the 1970s. But as the young trees grew taller, the birds were pushed out. Scrubland was cleared for agriculture, furthering the Harrier’s decline.

On the Slieve Aughties, large-scale planting of forests on the upland blanket bogs and moorlands took place in the 1960s on private and State-owned land. It began a cycle of commercial plantation growth, felling and replanting, which continues today, even though the area is legally designated for conservation. All of this activity on our uplands, together with wind energy developments, recreation and an intensive model of agriculture, has led to the near-extinction of the hen harrier.

The State faces endless trade-offs between economic, environmental and climate policies. Our forestry industry, which is a significant local employer, needs timber. We need to plant trees to suck up carbon. Is the extinction of the hen harrier an acceptable price to pay to allow these to happen? Is our need for renewable wind energy on our uplands a greater priority than fulfilling our legal requirements to protect nature?

It’s assumed that planting trees is good for the climate, but this isn’t the case if they’re on peatlands; instead, this can release more carbon than it sequesters. Last December, the Edenderry power plant in Offaly stopped burning peat and switched to biomass. But what if this biomass is sourced from coniferous forests in upland areas - an activity that can emit carbon and is known to negatively impact hen harriers?

The plight of the hen harrier also pits dealing with nitrogen pollution against nature. An example is winter stubble. In the colder months, hen harriers often move to lowland areas to hunt for prey. Typically, they’ll choose fields of winter stubble, left in the ground by tillage farmers after the autumn harvest, to hunt for small birds and mammals who themselves eat the leftover seeds.

In 2022, the Department of Agriculture, under pressure to deal with excessive nitrogen - pollution that primarily originates in dairy farms - told tillage farmers to cultivate the stubble into the soil instead so nutrients wouldn’t leach into nearby waterways over the winter. A study in east Cork by ornithologist and tillage farmer Paul Moore, funded by Irish Distillers, has shown that leaving winter stubble is vital for species’ survival, including species the hen harrier depends on over the winter.

It’s a chaotic policy landscape. For Nia O’Malley, the answer to many issues on the uplands is simple: we need peatland restoration on a scale never before seen. Only by doing this, she says, will we be able to properly tackle, all at once, a plethora of problems such as carbon emissions, water pollution, the explosion in the deer populations, and flood risks. According to O’Malley, do this and life will return - including the hen harrier.

In the last six years, tens of millions of euro of public money has been spent to boost hen harrier numbers. But whatever the State is trying to do, it’s not working, and on the current trajectory the hen harrier will likely go extinct. Few of us will ever see one, so their absence won’t be noticed. But their disappearance leaves a message we cannot ignore: their presence is an indicator of the health of our uplands; when they go missing, it’s because we’ve created an ecological mess.

On some days, Nia would walk to the top of her hill and watch the male hen harrier swoop across her land, tracking the line of native hedgerows before flying buoyantly across a neighbouring farm. She’s done everything possible to share her land with this bird of prey, and, like many farmers, she’s willing to do more. But without tackling the forestry question in upland areas - a move that may limit economic profits in the short term - it probably won’t make a difference.

See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain

Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone

Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date

Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here