On the third day of Christmas…

What’s that screeching into view for day three of our Twelve Days of The South Downs?

Chasing away the French hens, it’s the hen harrier!

One of the UK’s scarcest breeding birds of prey they are recorded each year in the National Park over winter but are usually single birds that don’t stay in one place for long.

The hen harrier favours open areas with low vegetation. They spend their breeding season in the upland heather moors of Wales, North England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In winter they move to lower ground which gives us the chance to spot them. Though those seen on South Downs farms and heaths are most likely visitors from mainland Europe.

Male Hen Harrier
Male Hen Harrier

Male hen harriers are a pale grey colour, while females and juveniles are indistinguishable from each other; brown with a white rump and a long tail which gives them the name ‘ringtail’. They fly with their wings held in a V shape, gliding low searching for their favourite dinner of meadow pipits and voles.

If you’re very lucky (and extremely patient) you may catch a glimpse of the hen harrier at Pulborough Brooks during most winters with other occasional sightings on the Downs at such sites as Cissbury Ring, Steep Down (Lancing) and The Burgh (Burpham). If you need even more of a reason to brave the cold this winter, a rare sight of the magnificent hen harrier is it.

Photos by Bruce Middleton