HEN harriers are ‘perilously close’ to being wiped out from their last remaining stronghold in the country — in the Ribble Valley.

No hen harriers are attempting to nest in the Bowland Fells the RSPB said.

Only four nesting pairs raised chicks last year, all in Bowland, where landowner United Utilities has encouraged the management of its estate to support the birds, the wildlife charity said.

If only one pair nests in England this year, it will be the worst breeding season since they recolonised the country in the 1960s after being driven to extinction in the late 19th century.

The hen harrier has suffered from illegal persecution since its return to England, in particular on grouse moors because it is a predator of the game bird, the RSPB said.

A Government-commissioned report found the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers, and that persecution was keeping numbers low.

Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, said: “After recolonising England, the bird is now perilously close to being wiped out in England again as a result of persecution.”

The RSPB said Bowland was a safe place for hen harriers to nest, but it was difficult to protect the birds away from their breeding grounds there.

Without an emergency recovery programme and a rapid and sustained reduction in persecution, the hen harrier will disappear again from English skies, the wildlife charity warned.

Mr Harper said: “We’re doing everything we can, but the Government, its conservation and enforcement agencies need to step up to the challenge of securing the future of hen harriers.”

The RSPB believes ways must be found to make grouse shoots viable without resorting to killing birds of prey, and that diversionary feeding — in which alternative food to grouse is provided for hen harriers — should be employed by gamekeepers.