December, 2012


Get the latest news on our hen harrier conservation work, including the five-year Hen Harrier Life+ project.

Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers

Follow the efforts of RSPB staff during the breeding season, as they attempt to monitor and protect one of England's rarest breeding birds of prey - the hen harrier.
  • 2012 - a year in review

    Christmas is just a week away. A further seven days hence, and the world will quietly slip into the New Year, with all the hopes, anticipation and promises of fresh starts that brings. But what of 2012? What lessons can we take with us from this, The Year that Almost Wasn’t for hen harriers in England?

    As the last Skydancer blog of the year, it seems only right that we should stand back and take stock of where the last 12 months have taken us. It has been a bumpy road, that much is certain. On the one hand, it seems fair to say that the situation for hen harriers in England has never looked bleaker. Despite intensive and widespread on-the-ground monitoring by RSPB staff and dedicated volunteers, and reports of sightings from members of the public, ultimately only one successful hen harrier nest was recorded across the whole of England this year. That’s down from four last year and 13 the year before. To say that the population is in trouble would be putting it mildly.

    Female hen harrier in flight (c) James Leonard, 2008

    Of course you could say, what is England to a hen harrier but a theoretical line on a map? The English population is really just the southern edge of a much larger Scottish population (~500 pairs at last count) and so surely that’s not so bad. Well, perhaps... if the same downward trend wasn't also in evidence north of the border. Truly, this is a cross border issue - Betty's adventures have shown us just how wide-ranging hen harriers can be. And how vulnerable. Intolerance of hen harriers in England is not just a problem for English hen harriers, but for Scottish and Welsh birds too, not to mention the odd traveller from the continent. The same is also true in reverse. In the last five months, there have been three confirmed shootings of hen harriers, one each in England, Scotland and Ireland.

    Of course it goes without saying that not all hen harrier mortality comes down to illicit activity. Like many birds of prey, over-winter mortality in their first year can be quite high for young hen harriers. But those who would argue that illegal persecution is a thing of the past and that natural mortality alone is to blame, must surely concede the point under such a burden of proof. For a vulnerable species in which natural mortality is already high, and individuals don’t breed until their second or third year, the illegal killing of even just a few harriers can have a disproportionate and significant impact on the whole population.

    2013 must be where we draw the line.

    The continued killing of hen harriers is disgraceful, it is illegal, and quite frankly, it gives countryside sports a bad name. BASC (the British Association for Shooting & Conservation) have shown great leadership in their strong public condemnation of the recent hen harrier killings and what is needed now is for the rest of the shooting community to follow suit – in actions as well as words. The frustration amongst the shooting community is palpable and completely understandable when any good work they do for conservation is continually overshadowed by reports on the illegal acts of those who consider themselves above the law. These so-called bad apples need rooting out, but this is a change that has to come from within. It is therefore heartening to see that the estate where the Scottish hen harrier was found shot not only reported the incident in the first place, but is proactively assisting the authorities with the investigation.

    Wintering hen harrier on the Dee Estuary (c) Andy Davis 2012

    And that’s not the only glimmer of hope we’ve seen this year. Despite everything, there have been numerous positive and uplifting moments amidst the doom and gloom that give me genuine hope and inspiration for the year to come.

    A group of local Northumberland school children, so moved by the hen harrier story that of their own volition, they wrote to local landowners and gamekeepers asking them to protect and look after any hen harriers that might appear on their land.

    A gamekeeping student arguing the case for intrinsic value and the simple right for hen harriers to exist, in the midst of an insightful and productive debate at a local college.

    Positive comments and meaningful conversations with people from all areas of the shooting community at the West Cumbria Game Fair.

    The image of over 300 white hen harriers on a school playing field, made by local school children as a symbol of hope and peace, calling people from all walks of Bowland life to come together to restore and protect these iconic local birds.

    And the overwhelming response by wildlife supporters across the country to the Law Commission review and consultation on wildlife laws in England and Wales – an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and meaningful difference to the protection, conservation and management of our countryside.

    These are just a few of the moments that shine through all the bleakness and give me hope. I have a growing sense that the issue of hen harriers is actively stirring in the public consciousness and I can’t help but feel that 2013 will be the turning point for these birds in England...

    So here’s to the New Year, to resolutions, renewed hope and fresh starts. May 2013 be remembered as the year things changed for good - the Year of the Hen Harrier.

    We would love to hear your thoughts on the blog and all things Skydancer. To leave a comment, simply register with RSPB Community by clicking on the link at the top righthand corner of the page. Registration is completely free and only takes a moment. Let us know what you think!

  • The Ghost of a Ringtail by Gavin Jones

    In response to my guest post on Martin Harper's blog on Monday, Gavin Jones, who lives near the Forest of Bowland, was inspired to write a beautiful yet haunting poem.

    Thank you Gavin for sharing it with us.

    You can read it for yourselves by visiting Martin's blog here.

                                                                                                         © RSPB Images

  • Bowland Betty - final update

    Those of you who followed the Skydancer blog over the spring/summer this year will have been familiar with hearing about the exploits of the female hen harrier 74843 or Bowland Betty as she was known to us locally.

    The reason I've been unable to provide you with regular updates since my last post in June is because in July, Betty was found dead in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She was recovered by the North Yorkshire Police and Natural England after fixes from her tag indicated that something was wrong and since then the Zoological Society London have been undertaking state of the art tests to determine the cause of her death.

    We've just received the results, which confirm that she was shot and that the resulting injury was directly responsible for her death.

    Gutted. That's how I feel at this news. I was privileged enough to have been present when she had her sat tag fitted. I also had, what I felt to be, the honor of placing her back in the nest once the job had been done. As I placed her back in the nest with her siblings that day, I made sure to wish her luck; silly as it may sound it's something I always do. The natural world is a harsh place for young harriers, even without any threat from illegal persecution. So, superstitious as I may be, in my mind they need all the luck they can get.

    Betty was the first harrier I had 'known' to have had a satellite transmitter fitted. I, like so many others had watched her grow from a little (kind of ugly if I'm honest!) vulnerable white ball of down to a fine young female via video footage recorded at her nest in 2011. The prospect of being able to follow her progress for the next few years and learn a little more about hen harrier behavior from a bird I had actually held was incredibly exciting.


    Betty being fitted with her satellite transmitter in 2011 © Jude Lane, RSPB

    Normally I never know whether the young birds that have fledged from nests I have monitored survive or not, so knowing she had made it through the winter was fantastic and had me hoping that she would go on to fledge broods of harriers herself, maybe even on the United Utilities estate this year.

    In my mind, Betty was England's symbol of hope for hen harriers. She had become quite the celebrity here in Bowland and indeed across northern England, with almost everyone I came in contact with asking what she was up to. No satellite tagged females have ever proved so mobile, especially during the breeding season, so the information she was providing us with was not only entertaining but incredibly valuable. It angers me that someone has taken the life of this beautiful creature and with it our ability to understand more about the behaviors of these incredible birds.

    I want the death of Betty, the young bird I was privileged enough to hold in my hands, to have significance. It already has by proving that hen harrier persecution is still occurring - we need Government and its agencies to use this knowledge to redouble efforts to protect and ensure the recovery of this species.

    If Betty's death is to have a silver lining, it must be in persuading the Government to take illegal persecution seriously and to act to bring this intolerable Victorian practice to an end. We urgently need Government to implement an emergency recovery plan to bring the hen harrier back from the brink, as extinction in England for a second time beckons. A vital first step is to ensure that the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which works to ensure the laws protecting birds of prey are enforced, has a future beyond this March.

    Like so many people, I feel privileged to have known Betty in her short life. Her sad, untimely death may not be in vain if it means other young hen harriers avoid a similar fate.