Hen harrier Circus cyaneus

The hen harrier is a bird of prey which was once famous for predating fowl, giving the species its name. They are the one of the most endangered species of raptor in the UK. Males and females both have a white patch on their lower backs, but this is the only similarity. Males are pale grey, with slender wings that are tipped with black feathers. Females are mainly brown, with heavily streaked body, tail and wings, which are usually black or white. Juvenile hen harriers are bare similar colours and markings as the females. When a hen harrier spreads it wings you will see 5 distinct and separate tips also referred to as ‘fingers’.


Hen harriers are raptors (birds of prey), meaning they primarily feed on vertebrates. They will hunt their prey by slowly flying low over an area, dividing it onto quarters and listening for prey. They feed primarily on small birds and mammals but can adapt to insects, reptiles and amphibians when other prey is not available. Hen harriers often hunt on grouse moors meaning young grouse are often a crucial part of their diet. Juvenile hen harriers roam widely in their adolescent years before settling in one spot to breed.


  • Length: 44-55cm
  • Wingspan: 1 – 1.2m
  • Weight: 300-500g (females are large than males)
  • Average life span: 7 years


According to the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (2015) the Hen Harrier is classified as red status. There is evidence that the numbers of hen harriers in Scotland and the UK more generally have been declining in recent decades.


Hen harriers tend to be found on islands such as the Uists, Orkney and islands around Skye and Arran. There is also a small population on mainland Argyll.

When to see

January – December


  • Banding on a female hen harriers tail earned them the nickname ‘ringtails’
  • Hen harriers, particularly those on Orkney, are known to practice polygyny. This means that one male hen harrier will mate with several females and bring food to their nests throughout the breeding season.
  • During the 19th century, the hen harriers were eradicated on mainland Scotland due to the expansion of game hunting estates. Despite the best efforts of changing legislation to protect the species and the decline of game estates, this relationship remains tumultuous leading to illegal persecution of the hen harrier.

Common name

Hen harrier

Species name

Circus cyaneus

IUCN Red List status

Least concern

When to see in Scotland

January – December

Where to see in Scotland

The only Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve that a hen harrier has been spotted on is the Isle of Eigg

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