January, 2014


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.
  • Hen Harriers on BBC Winterwatch 2014

    Together, the BBC's seasonal wildlife series, Autumnwatch, Winterwatch and Springwatch, are watched and beloved by literally millions of people across the UK every year. From eagles to beetles, they're a fabulous showcase for inspiring and engaging people about all that is wonderfully wild about nature in Britain, and are a great means of raising awareness about some of our lesser-known species.

    When hen harriers were mentioned on BBC Autumnwatch, at RSPB's Leighton Moss, last November, our Hen Harrier Hotline was inundated with calls and emails from people across the country wanting to report their sightings. Not all turned out to be hen harriers of course, but the fantastic thing is that it sparked so many people's interest and got everyone looking! Of those that were definitely hen harriers, many of them were old records or from earlier in the year, as the people doing the reporting simply hadn't realised how threatened hen harriers were or how valuable reported sightings are for their conservation.

    So as BBC Winterwatch kicks off this coming Monday (20th January), it's great to see that hen harriers are once again going to feature!

    Here's what it says on their website:

    Help for Hen Harriers

    Hen Harriers effectively went extinct as a breeding species in England this year, and with numbers declining by 18% in the last 10 years across the UK they really aren’t doing very well. As one of our rarest birds of prey, they are becoming increasingly difficult to see in the wild - so Iolo Williams is on a mission to find one. Meeting up with researcher Stephen Murphy, they track down one of his satellite tagged birds to a grouse moor on the Scottish borders. Along the way, Iolo finds out what’s happening to our hen harriers and how Stephen’s new research could help us protect the species.

    Wintering hen harrier on the Dee Estuary (c) Mike Davenport, 2013

    Looking forward to tuning in!

    In the meantime, keep those hen harrier sightings coming by emailing details of the date, time and location (grid reference if possible) to henharriers@rspb.org.uk or calling 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates). For sightings in Scotland, there's a Scottish hotline you can report to - HenHarriers@snh.gov.uk - managed by the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland. The more information we have, the better equipped we'll be to protect these amazing birds.

  • The Year of the Hen Harrier?

    January 2nd, 2014 and already the excesses of Christmas seem a dim and distant (if fond) memory. As I type, the muscles in my limbs voice their objection in a series of aches, having been a) woken before 7am for the first time in weeks, and b) subjected to an early morning exercise class when they were clearly of the opinion they should still be tucked up in a nice warm bed. Bad habits can be painful (in this case literally) to break, but then isn't that what the New Year is all about? Resolutions, new beginnings, fresh starts - fresh hope that this time, things will be different.

    It may seem corny but I'm a firm believer in the abundance of possibility that a new year brings. However to look forward, one also has to look back and whether you're superstitious about numbers or not, there's no denying that 2013 was not a good year. Not for hen harriers at any rate.

    Female hen harrier (c) John Whitting, 2013

    You may recall my hope at the end of 2012, that 2013 would be remembered as the "Year of the Hen Harrier" and I think it's possible it still will, though admittedly not for the reason I had in mind. In 2013, for the first time in almost half a century, we didn't have a single successful hen harrier nest anywhere in England. Not one. After years of teetering on the brink, hen harrier breeding numbers in England have finally reached rock bottom.

    I could trot out the usual cliché and say "the only way is up," but that is patently not true. If things are going to get better, something has to change. Raising awareness is key and while Skydancer is working hard on that front, thankfully it's clear that many of you aren't taking last year's breeding stats lying down either. A spontaneous twitter campaign had great success in August and many of you have sent me copies of letters written to your MPs, which may even have contributed to the issue being debated in the House of Commons in October. This is excellent, as the more people are talking about this, the harder it will be to ignore.

    There has been some good progress (though let's face it, not nearly enough) between conservation and shooting communities, with several organisations and landowners working together to protect a nesting attempt in Northumberland. Sadly the nest failed naturally but had the eggs hatched, it would have been the first example of diversionary feeding in England and a tantalising demonstration of what could be. The RSPB regularly stands accused of pedalling bad news story after bad news story about shooting and birds of prey but give us an estate willing to work in partnership to protect and diversionary feed hen harriers and I promise you, we will shout and praise them from the rooftops! (I know there must be some out there - seriously, call me)

    It's trite but true to say that more often than not, you don't know what you've got til it's gone. Perhaps no one ever truly believed that it would come to this - a year without hen harriers. But now it's happened and the reality has hit home, it is essential that it galvanises people into action. If 2013 can't be the year that things changed, let it be the year that triggered the change.

    As I type, we await the results of Defra's Hen Harrier Sub-group, tasked with establishing an emergency recovery plan for hen harriers in England and due to publish their plan sometime in the coming months. What that will hold and what it will mean for the future of hen harriers remains to be seen, but I will keep you posted as events unfold.

    A new year means a new start and fresh hope for hen harriers in England. Let's make 2014 a year to remember.

    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!