Touring Skydancer Road Show


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.

Touring Skydancer Road Show

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*Phew*! Between April and July is definitely the busy season for people engagement and I feel like I've hardly been in the office at all - no bad thing given the recent bout of sunshine! With the help of some fantastic volunteers, I've been out and about visiting schools, running moorland field trips and attending events and shows, spreading the word about hen harriers far and wide!

So far this year, we've run assemblies, workshops and/or field trips with over 430 children in 8 schools and youth groups, debated the future of hen harriers in England with gamekeeping and countryside management students at Askham Bryan College and Myerscough College, taken the Skydancer Road Show to 5 big community events and county shows, and delivered 10 community talks to local interest groups... and there's plenty more to come!

Look out for us at the West Cumbria Game Fair on the 13th & 14th July and watch this space for updates on something very exciting happening at the end of the month in Northumberland that you could get involved in...! In the meantime, a few pictorial highlights from the last month or so:

Our Skydancer stall at Newcastle Green Festival...

...taking my hen harrier puppet for a skydance through the festival crowds... he certainly attracted attention!

Making a whole flock of flapping hen harriers at Brennand's Endowed Primary School, Slaidburn, Forest of Bowland...

Teaming up with RSPB Geltsdale at the Cumberland Show...

Beautiful day out on the moors in Bowland with hen harrier fun and games...

 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!

  • Hi Ian,

    There's no specific mechanism for updates at present but I believe the emergency recovery plan for hen harriers is due to be finalised this autumn and no doubt there will be a fair amount of publicity when it's announced. Be sure to watch this space!  

  • Blanaid

    thnaks for your recent comments about engagement. I am more hopeful about the Hen Harrier Recovery Group and we need to give it a chance. How can we get updates about progress? It will be interesting to see what sorts of actions are being planned.

    And the pressure on introduction of vicarious liability must be kept up. Like most laws, those who do no wrong have nothing to fear. Landowners that take a balanced approach to managing shooting estates (or any other kind of recreational activity on their property) with bio-diversity conservation in mind, should positively welcome legislation.

    I think making exemplars and role models of those people and organisations is a great idea provided it is based on tangible evidence of what they have done rather than good PR or soundbites. They can then spread the message and fight the corner within their own networks.            

  • Really enjoyed the Skydancer performance by Cirus Lexicon at Greenhead on Sunday 28th July.  Excellent and inventive way to promote the plight of Hen Harriers in the UK to the general public.

  • Hi Macaris,

    Thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in getting it online. For future reference, we will not post comments that could be considered libellous, an attack an individual’s character, or as spreading rumour or hearsay.

    It’s entirely understandable that the loss of hen harriers from Bowland has been felt even more keenly than elsewhere – as the logo of the AONB, these birds are a literal symbol of the area and Bowland has always been considered a stronghold when all other areas have failed.  The reality is that the decline of hen harriers in Bowland has very closely mirrored that of the English population as a whole and is far from the anomaly that you suggest. The Bowland population had been declining consistently year-on-year before the Raptor Group lost their licences .

    That hen harriers persisted as regular breeders for longer in Bowland than anywhere else is testament to the efforts and partnership working that has gone into their conservation in this area. Their absence is not solely due to factors on the ground in Bowland but is the product of a much larger problem – a dearth of breeding hen harriers in England as a whole.

    A way forward is actively being sought through the Defra Recovery Group, but you are absolutely right – people must be mobilised. We campaigned strongly for people to contribute to the Law Commission Review of wildlife legislation last autumn and RSPB members across the UK received a letter about the plight of the hen harrier in our appeal to support vital investigations work to combat wildlife crime.

    Through Skydancer, we are working hard to engage all levels of the general public as well as the shooting community. It is not enough to simply tell people about it and expect them to act (I wish it were - my job would be a lot easier!) , we have to persuade them to care. That is the whole point of the Skydancer project and if we can everyone else to care as much as you and I, there’ll be no stopping us.

  • I wish I could be optimistic about Defra's Hen Harrier Recovery Group.  The sudden disappearance of hen harriers from Bowland followed the removal of monitoring licences from members of the NW Raptor Group who, it seems, were the only people prepared to speak out about what was happening in the area. Natural England has been silent about where most of  the tagged birds they were monitoring stopped transmitting.  [This comment has been removed as it does not comply with moderator's standards]  In addition, it seems that only 2 peregrine territories in Bowland have nests this year.  There really is something rotten in the state of Bowland.  I fear that RSPB and United Utilities have been far too trusting of neighbouring estates.  After many years of attempting to "engage" with them, surely it is time for a change of approach.  The RSPB boasts a million members.  Rather than reassuring them  "that a way forward is actively being sought", they need to be mobilised!

  • I agree that illegal persecution continues to be a serious issue for hen harriers in the UK as the deaths of Bowland Betty in the Yorkshire Dales and another hen harrier in Aberdeenshire last year (both confirmed shot) highlight. This needs urgent addressing if hen harriers are to have a future here.

    The decision to walk away from the Environment Council Conflict Resolution Process or “hen harrier dialogue” last year was not one that we undertook lightly. However after six years of discussion, it became clear that while hen harriers continued to decline we were no closer to reaching a resolution. In recognition of the urgent need for action, Defra have now established the Hen Harrier Recovery Group, specifically tasked with establishing an emergency recovery plan for hen harriers in England. The group includes representatives from the RSPB, Natural England, and GWCT among others, and you’ll be pleased to know that a way forward is actively being sought.

    I also agree whole-heartedly with your hearts and minds comment. We need to celebrate those people within the shooting community that support birds of prey like hen harriers alongside management for shooting and encourage them to speak out against those whose continued illegal actions tarnish the reputation of shooting as a whole. Our Skydancing Circus Show next weekend (see next blog), sees the gamekeeper, initially wary of the hen harriers, ultimately come to their rescue. We’ve chosen to make him the hero of the story as a symbol of what we want to see across the board – gamekeepers as proud custodians of all wildlife including birds of prey like hen harriers.

    In addition, we are working together with agricultural and gamekeeping colleges like Askham Bryan in York, Newton Rigg in Penrith, and Myerscough in Preston, running workshops with their students and building positive relationships to demonstrate that shooting and conservation of hen harriers do not have to be mutually exclusive. And I have to say, the support from the colleges so far has been absolutely fantastic.

    We will also continue to attend local shows and game fairs, talking to people face-to-face and communicating with key land managers across all project areas as much as possible throughout the lifetime of the project and hopefully beyond. It’s a long game we’re in and we need to be coming at it from all angles. Whatever happens, I want to reassure you that we are pulling out all the stops on this one because let’s face it, it’s now or never for hen harriers.

  • Hi Jude/Blanaid

    many thanks for your replies. Much appreciated and reassuring. Despite what might be said about the whole range of factors that have effects on bird populations such as bad weather and loss of habitat, particularly pertinent for relatively small populations of birds of prey, it seems fairly self evident that persecution is the  primary cause of decline in Hen Harriers and other birds of prey in the Bowland Forest. While some have recovered over the years such as peregrine and buzzard, I suspect it won't be long before the persecutors turn their full attention to those. We saw that recently with the Natural England licences granted to effectively remove buzzards from certain locations and the Government proposal to pilot buzzard control.

    With that in mind, it is clear that engagement with the game shooting community is vital. I understand that both the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum has withdrawn from the "hen harrier" dialogue. I suggest that that is a backward step but understandable given the frustrations experienced. But in the Bowland Forest, it seems to me that we have an opportunity to put Natural England, Defra and United Utilities into the frame to ensure action is taken by re-engaging. We will only progress by continuing to challenge those who can bring about a change in what is an anti-raptor approach and mindset. We have laws to protect these birds but as you say, the likelihood of anyone being caught is remote. We have to change hearts and minds in the shooting fraternity.



  • Hi Ian,

    I hope Jude's comment answers your question about our protection and partnership work in Bowland with United Utilities. In relation to your question about the Skydancer project specifically, I'd like to add that on-the-ground practical conservation and nest protection work is an essential part of the Skydancer project across all three target areas (Bowland, Geltsdale, North Tynedale).

    The project (funded by HLF, RSPB, United Utilties and with support from the Forestry Commission) pays for at least four seasonal species protection assistants across the three areas each year who, together with a team of dedicated volunteers, spend all breeding season searching high and low for any potential hen harrier nesting attempts. Should a nest occur anywhere, we have the resources in place through the project to run a 24/7 nest protection scheme, working together with the relevant landowner and any other partners to ensure that those hen harriers have the very best chance possible of succeeding.

    As we can’t possibly be everywhere at once, the project also funds the Hen Harrier Hotline (0845 4600121 calls charged at local rates), through which we encourage as many people as possible to let us know if they think they’ve seen a hen harrier. Though active year-round, during the breeding season this phone is constantly monitored, and we are working closely with the Northern England Raptor Forum to ensure that any sightings can be responded to immediately either by RSPB staff, volunteers or an experienced raptor worker. Protecting hen harriers is not a job for RSPB alone – there are many dedicated and knowledgeable birdwatchers and raptor workers out there and the more we can work together to protect hen harriers, the better their future will be.  

    Thanks for following the blog and please do keep those comments and questions coming – always happy to answer!

  • Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The RSPB is working with United Utilities, Natural England and other partners in Bowland to try and deliver the best possible conservation outcomes for hen harriers and other birds of prey in the Bowland area.

    United Utilities and the RSPB have had a formal working relationship since approximately 1982. Since then United Utilities have provided annual funding, as well as free accommodation and office facilities for RSPB staff.

    This partnership approach has been a success. Since 1991, Bowland has hosted between 50 and 100% of all hen harrier nesting attempts in England including in 2011 the only four successful nests in England.

    However, the JNCC report acknowledges that the conservation of hen harriers cannot be achieved solely through designated sites. Sadly therefore the positive estate management by United Utilities and their tenants in conjunction with the monitoring conducted by the RSPB cannot guarantee breeding attempts.

  • The work you are doing to engage with kids and young people is fantastic and long may it continue. But the sad fact is that the Hen Harrier has all but disappeared from the Bowland Forest. Is the Skydancer project in particular or the RSPB in general doing any practical conservation work on the ground to protect harriers and other birds of prey in that area? What is United Utilities doing to help?