November, 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.
  • Shooting & Conservation - meeting in the middle

    Lesson 101 of nature conservation - whatever the issue, there will always be a range of people with vested interests, who will always have widely differing opinions about it. Hen harrier conservation is no different. We all know the proverb about walking a mile in another man's shoes but the reality is it's something much easier said than done. How often do we actually take the time and effort to put ourselves on the other side and genuinely try to relate and understand another person's viewpoint? It's tough thing to do with sincerity and it gets tougher the further that person's viewpoint or realm of experience is from your own.

    On Wednesday this week, we ran a hen harrier workshop with Level 1 gamekeeping students at Newton Rigg College, Penrith. Rather than stand at the top of the classroom and tell them what to think, we gave the students roles (gamekeepers, landowners, local business owners, raptor workers, conservation scientists,local tourist board) and encouraged them to debate the issue for themselves. The aim of the workshop was to facilitate that most difficult of things - stepping out of their own realms of experience and seeing the issue of hen harriers not just from another person's point of view, but from everyone's point of view, every angle, every consideration. Here are a few of the comments we got in the feedback:

    "Made me think about what could be done to get the balance between keepers and harriers."

    "Very informative, gives another side of things, hears another point of view, not shooting based. All information is good info as keepers we should take care of all aspects of wildlife."

    "Didn’t know much about hen harriers before but know a lot now. Found it very helpful and it changed my opinion slightly as I seen it from another point of view."

    Of course this isn't something reserved for gamekeeping students. It's somethng we've done with college students on countryside management and animal care courses, and with over 150 secondary school students over the last two years, and the outcome has always been overwhelmingly positive.

    By attempting to understand things from another's viewpoint, we can start to find areas of common ground, things that we agree on and areas that we can agree to work on together, but the most important thing is being willing to simply start those conversations in the first place. Because if we don't actually speak to eachother, all we're doing is making assumptions about what the others are thinking and let's face it, that's about as much use to anyone as a chocolate teapot.  

    I'm a firm believer in practising what you preach and the lessons here are not confined solely to the classroom. Last week, we hosted an Upland Management Open Day at RSPB's Geltsdale reserve, inviting a wide range of people with an interest in the uplands, from major landowners to local gamekeepers. In the end, it was attended by representatives BASC, Yorkshire Dales National Park, Lake District National Park, College Valley Estate, Croglin Estate and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, and subjects touched on included the economics and practicalities of hill farming, predator control, moorland management for a range of species, and of course, the perceived conflict between hen harriers and grouse moor management.

    Did we agree on everything? Of course not. But we did have plenty of constructive conversation and it's safe to say that by end of the day, everyone left with a different viewpoint than then one they came in with.

    Simon Lecester from Langholm Moor demonstrates diversionary feeding for hen harriers, at RSPB's Geltsdale reserve.

    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!

  • Actions speak louder than words (guest post)

    When it comes to the big conservation issues like hen harriers, it's all too easy to feel powerless. News stories seem unrelentingly negative and it can be hard to see how any one of us can make a difference. But here's the thing, you are not alone. Through Skydancer I've met all kinds of people who feel passionately about hen harriers and who are all doing something, however big or small, in their own capacity to raise awareness and make a difference. As part of an ongoing series of blogs, I'll be sharing some of these stories with you. United we stand - let's get that positivity going!

    Today’s post comes from Brian Moorhead, a long-term RSPB volunteer and Local Group member, who is determined to encourage as many people as possible to stand up and take action for hen harriers.

    I am passionate about birds and wildlife. I have to say however that few bird species can make me as excited on seeing one in the wild or as angry as to their demise in England as the Hen Harrier does. I was lucky enough to watch a male Hen Harrier hunting over Holy Island (Lindisfarne), Northumberland in recent days. My thoughts at the time were a mix of sadness, as I had to think hard as to when I had last seen a Hen Harrier, and anger because I’m very much aware as to the reasons why they are not seen as often as they ought to be. On a happier note I did have the joy of watching the look on the face of a young companion of mine who was enjoying the sight of a male Hen Harrier for the very first time.

     A few thoughts went through my mind as I later reflect upon the sighting. I wondered just how many folk out of the dozens who had watched this bird and so enjoyed the experience, are actually aware that not a single pair successfully bred in England in 2013? I wondered out of those who do know of the depressing plight of this bird have actually taken any individual or group action in an attempt to help the species or inform others of the situation? I wondered how many people actually know enough to care at all? I wondered what I could do as a member of the RSPB to help Hen Harriers and to help spread the word about the problems these birds face?

    Female hen harrier (c) Linda Lyon, 2013

    Well, my first step was to email all Newcastle RSPB Local Group committee members and suggest some group action. We have a forthcoming presentation about the ‘Skydancer Project’ in the next couple of weeks. I feel that my negative thoughts will only increase if such a presentation comes and goes and that the group simply carries on as normal without action being taken. In my mind it is simply not good enough that members of the RSPB listen and agree, but then simply walk away and take no further action. Being a member of the RSPB is important, but there are times when positive action is required and where better for it to come from, but the members?

    As well as the watching the Hen Harrier hunting over the area of Holy Island I do have some fond memories of other sightings. Oddly enough one of them was in Poland in an area where in fact the Hen Harrier is very uncommon. I have watched a sky dancing bird on the isle of Mull whilst watching the nest of White Tailed Sea Eagles and listening to the haunting calls of Red-throated Divers. I have watched as a bird came in to roost on a dark cold and misty late afternoon at an RSPB Reserve in Cumbria. I’ve watched a pair at their nesting site at Langholm Moor and I have watched an unexpected ringtail flying over the pond at a local nature reserve which I frequently visit. That’s a few of the sightings I remember. There are more and I only hope many more to come. To ensure that there will be more, there needs to be action and we mustn’t sit back and leave the action to others!

    What do you think? 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.

    Do you have an inspiring story or experience of hen harriers that you’d like to share? Perhaps you remember the first time you saw one, or learned about them? Maybe you’re still searching? Have you been doing anything interesting to raise awareness about them? Tell us how these birds have inspired you and you could have it published here – memories, poetry, creative writing are all welcome. Simply email 

    Please note, all editorial rights are reserved and submissions must abide by RSPB Community standards.