2012 - a year in review


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

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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!

  • Of course! The more people that read this blog and take an interest in hen harriers, the better! Thanks for passing it on, Seaman.

  • As Bowland Betty was found dead in the recording area of our small Dales bird club many were quite upset over the crime.Because of this I have forwarded  the e mail of the years review round our members,hope this was o.k.