Metabarcoding-based dietary analysis of hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) in Great Britain using buccal swabs from chicks

Nota, Kevin, Downings, Stephen and Iyengar, Arati (2019) Metabarcoding-based dietary analysis of hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) in Great Britain using buccal swabs from chicks. Conservation Genetics, 20 . pp. 1389-1404. ISSN 1566-0621

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The hen harrier is a heavily persecuted bird of prey in Great Britain since its diet includes Red grouse, a game bird shot in driven and walked-up grouse shooting. Unlike walked-up shooting where shooters walk up moors and flush grouse with dogs, in driven grouse shooting the grouse are driven by beaters towards static shooters. Driven grouse moors (DGMs) are increasingly being managed to sustain high densities of Red grouse intensifying a long-standing conservation conflict between conservationists and grouse moor keepers. A metabarcoding approach was used with degenerate universal cytochrome oxidase I and cytochrome b primers along with hen harrier blocking primers. A novel sampling method was used to detect prey in buccal swab samples from chicks from broods across Great Britain from both managed and unmanaged moorland habitats. This resulted in detection of 62 species of prey across 51 broods with Meadow pipit, Red grouse, Wren, Skylark, and voles being most frequently detected. Frequency of occurrence data and species accumulation curves reveal high incidence of Red grouse and low prey species richness in the diet of hen harriers in DGMs but low incidence of Red grouse and high prey species richness in walked-up and unmanaged moors. Waders were only detected within walked-up and unmanaged moors and not within DGMs where they have been reported to occur at high densities. Regional species detected included endemic species such as the Orkney vole seen only in Orkney. This study represents the first metabarcoding-based dietary analysis in a raptor using buccal swabs.

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