ENGLAND’S most threatened bird of prey has taken a small step back from the brink of extinction in Lancashire.

Last year, hen harriers across the country suffered their worst breeding season for decades, failing to produce a single chick anywhere.

However, the RSPB has said that this year is shaping up to be ‘marginally better’ with a pair currently raising chicks on the United Utilities Bowland Estate in Lancashire.

There is also a second nest on the estate with the female sitting on eggs.

The news comes following the launch of a four year £300,000 RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands.

Bowland used to be the English stronghold for hen harriers and the upland bird of prey is even the symbol of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

However, the current nests represent the first breeding attempts in the area since 2011.

The RSPB and United Utilities have monitored and protected hen harriers in Bowland for more than three decades.

Both nests are being watched by dedicated staff and volunteers, as well as CCTV around the clock.

The RSPB’s hen harrier monitoring and protection work in Bowland forms part of the Skydancer project, which as well as protecting nesting sites also includes awareness raising and education about the plight hen harriers.

The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with a grant of £317,700, and United Utilities, with additional support from the Forestry Commission.

Jude Lane, the RSPB’s Bowland project officer, said: “After years of bitter disappointment, I am delighted and relieved that hen harriers have returned to nest in Bowland.

However, the species is still in serious trouble and at risk from extinction as a breeding bird in England.”

The plight of the English hen harrier stems from the fact they sometimes eat red grouse, which brings them into conflict with the grouse shooting industry.

This particular type of shooting requires large numbers of grouse so some game managers feel they must illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their stock.

For more information about the project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/skydancer