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The search for skydancers sparks into life

Last modified: 18 March 2015

Female hen harrier in flight

The hen harrier is the UK's rarest bird of prey

Image: Steve Round

A round-the-clock nest protection operation is once again ready to swing into action with the RSPB asking people who spend time in the uplands of northern England to keep their eyes peeled for hen harriers – England’s most threatened bird of prey.

Now in its eighth year, the Hen Harrier Hotline has been relaunched by the conservation charity with the aim of discovering where these rare birds of prey may be nesting.

Research has shown that the English uplands have enough suitable habitats to give a home to at least 320 pairs of breeding hen harriers, but last year there were only four successful nests in the whole country. Hen harriers breed in remote upland locations so the RSPB relies on walkers and cyclists to inform them of their location. The conservation charity can then put measures in place to protect the nest from harm.

Martin Harper, RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “Sadly hen harriers are a much rarer sight in the northern uplands than they should be, one reason being illegal persecution. But if you are lucky enough to see one, it’s an experience that will live with you forever. The male’s courting ritual is a particular stunning spectacle; a series of breathtaking swoops and somersaults that earns it the name skydancer.”

Hen harriers are in trouble largely because of ongoing illegal persecution. In addition to their diet of small birds and mammals, hen harriers sometimes eat grouse, which brings them into conflict with the driven grouse shooting community. This type of shooting requires huge numbers of game birds and some game managers feel they need to illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their business.

Martin Harper added: “Breeding hen harriers are so rare that any sighting is extremely important. We have dedicated staff and volunteers ready to protect nests around the clock but we can only do so if we know where they are. I would urge anyone who spends time in our uplands to keep an eye out for these stunning birds and get in touch with us if they see one.”

Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as “ghostbirds” because of the pale colour of their plumage.

Female hen harriers are slightly larger, owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have obvious horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname “ringtail” and a patch of white just above, on the rump.

The Hen Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be emailed to All reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible.    

The Hen Harrier Hotline is part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and United Utilities, with additional support from the Forestry Commission. For more information about the project, visit

This year, Skydancer’s monitoring and protection work will be getting an extra boost from the RSPB’s new European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, an ambitious, five-year project, which aims to expand on hen harrier conservation work across northern England, and southern and eastern Scotland. For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit

How you can help

Persecution is still causing the deaths of hundreds of birds of prey every year. A donation to our appeal will help us put these awe-inspiring birds back in the skies where they belong.

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