August, 2013


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.
  • We're not giving up

    If you haven't come across it yet, see Martin Harper's blog here for a guest post by Jude Lane on our determination to bring hen harriers back from the brink.

    We are down but not out. We're not giving up.

  • #HenHarrier – the power of a tweet

    In case you haven’t found it already, the Skydancer project now has its very own Twitter account @RSPB_Skydancer. You probably know this already. In fact, you probably linked to this blog directly from there.

     We deliberated long and hard over whether or not to go the Twitter route – to tweet, or not to tweet? It’s something I’d so far avoided in my personal life but with social media playing a bigger and bigger role in the every day, I was persuaded to tentatively set up my own account and see what all the fuss was about. You can follow me if you like, I don’t post much. The mundanities of my life, while interesting to me, are hardly worth broadcasting to the public at large.

     That said, I confess to being bowled over by the breadth of information suddenly available at my fingertips. I find it amazing that Twitter, a word once used to mean inane and trivial chatter (and ok, there’s still plenty of that on there), has also rapidly become an incredible forum for knowledge sharing and awareness-raising, a means of generating instant debate and discussion, and a starting point for a whole new kind of activism that to my mind, had never previously existed.

    Take what happened a few days ago for example. When the news broke last Friday that hen harriers had hit rock-bottom in England this year without a single successful nest, the issue received widespread national media attention. Twitter (or at least the little corner of it in which our project sits) just about exploded.

     News articles from national papers were tweeted and re-tweeted and as the word and feelings of disappointment and disbelief spread, a group of people were moved to action. Monday 12th August, the first day of the grouse shooting calendar, was spontaneously declared Hen Harrier Day, with tweeters everywhere encouraged to celebrate and raise awareness about this beautiful bird by posting tweets using the #henharrier. This was not (as I interpreted it at least) a move of aggression, but rather one of sadness for a beautiful part of our natural heritage that’s being lost, and a desire to raise awareness and show the world that there are people who care and that hen harriers matter.

     The hashtag was quickly picked up by a number of prominent tweeters, including Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Simon King and by Tuesday it was estimated to have reached well over 588,000 people! It’s now Thursday and it is still being tweeted. As a (presumably) unintended side effect, the number of Skydancer followers just about doubled over the same period. If you are among the many that have just recently joined us, thank you and welcome.

     By far and away the most remarkable result though has to be the amount of genuine discussion that “Hen Harrier Day” generated. Yes, there was a certain amount of the usual nonsense-mongering and mud-slinging, but at the core of it there was a surprising amount of honest, reasoned debate happening. I say “surprising” because I’ve always heard people say that Twitter is the absolute worst place to have an argument, but then maybe that’s it – people weren’t arguing (most of the time), they were discussing and debating. And overwhelmingly at the heart of it all, there was a real recognition from both sides of the urgent need to work together and find that common middle ground for the sake of hen harriers and the future of our uplands.

     After all, in what other forum can you have RSPB, GWCT, SNH, Shooting Times and other such organisations side by side with individual members of both birding and shooting communities, all able to have their say, and all on completely equal footing? It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I hope there’s much more of it to come, and not just on Twitter.

     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!


  • Bowland 2013

    When I first met with performance maker Louise Ann-Wilson last February (2012) she was wanting to know more about the ‘home’ of the hen harrier, its ecology and its history as a breeding bird in the UK. Bowland obviously plays an important part in the story of English hen harriers and has long been known as the stronghold for the species in this country – you are probably well aware that the bird is also the logo for the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even though it was only February, I was slightly optimistic that Louise and I might be treated to an early sighting of a male, back in the fells scoping out a potential territory.    

    As part of the Lancashire Witches 400 Programme, Louise put on an art installation on the United Utilities estate called Ghost Bird, the name giving duel reference to the “ghostly grey feathers of the male hen harrier” and its increasing absence in Bowland due to persecution taking place on a national scale. Louise used the hen harrier as a means to reflect on the final journey, between Pendle and Lancaster, made by the persecuted Pendle Witches.

    How ironic then that 2012 was the first year, certainly since 1982, that harriers failed to breed in the Forest of Bowland.

    Maybe it was just a gut feeling but, heading out into the hills the first few weeks of the breeding season this year, wrapped up in waterproofs and fleece trying to keep out of what felt like an incessant wind, I already sensed this wasn’t going to be a good year for harriers. It almost made my head hurt constantly willing the unmistakable silhouette of a male harrier to appear over the horizon or trying to listen out for the ‘chek-ek-ek-ek’ of a female across the valley calling to her mate. My watches were always in vain. I was beginning to think I’d forgotten what they looked like.

    At the beginning of the year I had been feeling optimistic, you have to right? Yet the weeks with only individual birds being seen slowly turned into months; a single consorting pair in mid April resulted in nothing. By the beginning of May I was fully resigned to the fact that we were not going to have harriers breeding on the United Utilities estate. That resignation is a sad and empty feeling.

    It turned out my gut feeling was correct, no hen harriers bred in Bowland again this year.

    Back in January, as I sat in the office planning for this season, my phone rang and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that I nearly fell over when the voice at the other end of the phone introduced itself as Mr Richard Benyon, Minister for the Environment. It turned out that Mr Benyon had read my blog about the death of Bowland Betty and wanted to assure me that he and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were committed to taking the issue of hen harrier persecution very seriously and that he wanted to ensure that I and other colleagues on the ‘front line’ had the support and resources necessary to do our job.

    I was encouraged; perhaps the message about the appalling plight of England’s hen harriers had hit home. Betty’s death had had the effect I had hoped for, the government had sat up and taken notice.

    Unfortunately, I have been left disappointed. So far this commitment hasn’t translated into anything on the ground yet. Not only have no harriers bred in Bowland this year there were no successful breeding attempts in England.

    A year and a half ago the Scottish Government introduced Vicarious Liability making landowners , managers and senior staff on estates potentially responsible for the criminal activities of their staff. Last year the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that this piece of legislation be introduced in England. The Government’s response to this was to state that they wished to see how it worked in Scotland before considering it here.

    Although, as I have stated before, the introduction of Vicarious Liability here would not mean ‘problem solved’ for our hen harrier population it could certainly help. Landowners may well think twice about condoning their employees to shoot a hen harrier if there is a chance that harrier is satellite tagged and could be linked to their estate. Progressing this piece of legislation as a priority must be a major step in not only demonstrating the government’s commitment to, but actually working towards, ending bird of prey persecution.

    The RSPB will continue to work with other stakeholders through the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Group to establish a long term recovery plan but this needs to be coupled with urgent action by the Government whilst we still have the chance to save England’s hen harriers.