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Birdwatch Ireland/Mike Brown

Opinion The Hen Harrier is the canary in the coal mine for upland biodiversity in Ireland

Ciaran Brennan of Environmental Pillar says the beautiful bird, known as the skydancer is being sacrificed in the middle of a biodiversity crisis.


IT IS NEARLY five years since Dáil Éireann voted upon and declared both a National Climate and Biodiversity Emergency.

Central to April 2023’s Citizens’ Assembly Report on Biodiversity Loss recommendations was the need for the State to take prompt, decisive and urgent action to address biodiversity loss and restoration.

In a report last December, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Action recognised the importance of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly to halt biodiversity loss and restore our degraded natural landscapes, fauna and wildlife and stressed the need for action.

We are now starting our fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan – the first was published in 2002, the latest just last month. 

Time to get real

And yet, despite all of the reports, plans and declarations, we start the year with the stark and grim warning that the Hen Harrier could be extinct in Ireland within 25 years.

We are in danger of seeing an iconic bird of prey disappearing from the Irish landscape before our eyes and on our watch. It feels like the Government is “quietly quitting on this iconic bird”, Birdwatch Ireland’s Head of Advocacy Oonagh Duggan recently told Morning Ireland.

Hen harrier7060 Mike Brown(1) Birdwatch Ireland / Mike Brown Birdwatch Ireland / Mike Brown / Mike Brown

And while the Government quietly quits, nothing screams ‘biodiversity crisis’ like the loss of an iconic and once healthy species. Unfortunately, the potential extinction of the Hen Harrier is not an exaggeration or hyperbole.

According to the latest survey released in recent weeks which highlights that the Hen Harrier population in the Republic of Ireland has plummeted to 85 – 106 pairs in 2022, a decline of 30% since 2015 and of 59% since the first national survey (1998-2000).

Why is it under threat?

The Hen Harrier, known as the ‘skydancer’ for its spectacular aerial courtship displays breeds in open upland habitats, nesting in scrub, heather and woodland.

A key reason for the collapse in its population is the loss of heather and grassland habitats in our uplands due to forestry, wind energy development and agricultural intensification. Since the 1960s, over half of the land surface area of the six Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have been afforested, including on peatlands and formerly important open habitats for Hen Harrier.

The 2010 national Hen Harrier breeding survey identified 313 wind turbines within surveyed 10km squares. Almost one quarter of the 10km squares that contain the known winter range of Hen Harrier in Ireland overlap with wind energy developments.

The impact on the Hen Harrier population from the failure to properly regulate the forestry and wind energy sector in particular is well understood and in response to concern from the European Commission the Irish government initiated a Threat Response Plan to address the decline in the species in 2013. Over a decade later, the government’s plan is open for public consultation.

The Hen Harrier is the canary in the coal mine for upland biodiversity in Ireland. The Sky Dancer could disappear from our skies in the coming decades unless the government takes effective action to protect its habitat from forestry and wind energy developments.

Unfortunately, many working to protect the Hen Harrier say that the plan as it exists has been appropriated by the forestry and wind energy sectors and will fail to restore the species unless guarantees are given that no further afforestation and wind farm development will happen in the Hen Harriers remaining holds and that significant habitat restoration occurs. 

BirdWatch Ireland, An Taisce and the Environmental Pillar are concerned by the actions listed in this plan which, due to being vague and not sufficiently targeted, will fail to protect the Hen Harrier from the key pressures of forestry and wind energy. The plan fails to outline a clear plan to restore the species habitat, which essentially make it impossible to measure the adequacy of the plan and mean it will not deliver for Hen Harrier, they say.

To save this beautiful bird, the Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan must be ambitious and fit for purpose, according to the three organisations which have launched a campaign to restore Ireland’s Hen Harrier population.

They say any plan must:

  • Protect all nationally important Hen Harrier breeding and wintering grounds from afforestation, forest management activities, wind energy development and other pressures.
  • Restore habitat across all nationally important breeding and wintering sites using clear restoration targets and timelines.
  • Guarantee long-term support for farmers through well-funded results-based schemes across all nationally important breeding and wintering grounds.

We are urging people all across the country to make a submission to the draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan public consultation letting the National Parks and Wildlife Service know that the Hen Harrier is important to them and supporting their three key asks.

The Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan clearly is a litmus test for the Government’s new National Biodiversity Action Plan and the wider commitment to genuinely address the biodiversity and climate crises we face.

If we are serious about protecting and restoring biodiversity, then putting in place a credible and workable plan to safeguard a threatened iconic species and restore the habitats it depends on is essential.

Ciaran Brennan is communications officer with Environmental Pillar which is a group of 32 national independent environmental NGOs. Submissions can be emailed to or in writing to: Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan Consultation, Agri-Ecology Unit, National Parks and Wildlife. Submissions must be made before 5 pm on Tuesday, 20 February.

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