As we are currently recruiting a new Skydancer Engagement Officer, I am acting as temporary caretaker for this blog.
My name is Chris Collett and I’m the RSPB’s communications manager for Northern England. It’s is my job to get our conservation projects in the pages of our regional newspapers and magazines, and on TV and radio.
Last week, I was kept very busy with the story about the missing Bowland hen harriers, Sky and Hope. As you are probably aware, these young satellite-tagged birds, stopped transmitting last month and have vanished without a trace.
There has been a huge amount of interest in Sky and Hope from the national and regional media. Our Head of Investigations Bob Elliot was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 and the story was covered on the BBC News website and in the Daily Telegraph.
Regionally, there was a report on BBC North West Tonight and several pieces on BBC Radio Lancashire, as well as many column inches in the local papers.
We also had a huge response on Twitter and Facebook, with loads of people expressing their sadness about the missing birds.
The Skydancer project is all about inspiring people about hen harriers so this level of media and public interest is heartening.
The disappearance of Sky and Hope has been devastating for the Skydancer team, particularly for the staff and volunteers who protected them around the clock on the United Utilities Bowland Estate when they were chicks. However, the fact that lots of people care enough to be upset by the news, gives us cause for optimism.
The English hen harrier remains teetering the brink of extinction as breeding bird but I believe it can and will recover. Generally, nature conservation works on the principles of democracy. If enough people call for a species to be saved, there is a much greater chance it will be.
Last week we were in high spirits, celebrating our National Lottery Award for Best Education project. This week though, we received some news that has left us devastated.
It has emerged that two of the hen harrier chicks that fledged this year on the United Utilities Bowland Estate have vanished. Gone without a trace.
Female birds Sky and Hope had both been fitted with satellite tags so we could monitor their movements over the next few years.
Sky being fitted with a sat tag. Photo by Jude Lane
Hope. Image by Jude Lane
But both of these tags stopped transmitting within a few days of each other. It is unlikely that this is due to technical difficulties as this technology is generally very reliable. This leaves two possible explanations: fox predation or human persecution.
We have searched for the birds but haven’t found them. We may never know exactly what happened to them. After months of protecting these chicks and their siblings with 24 hour nest protection, this is a cruel blow indeed.
And we are not the only ones who are gutted by these disappearances. Sky was one of five chicks that had been officially named and adopted by pupils from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School in Slaidburn.
When we told head teacher Charlotte Peregrine the bad news, this was her response:
"As a rural school we cherish our beautiful and unique environment at every opportunity. We felt really honoured to be part of the Skydancer project and wanted to help support the plight of the hen harriers. Naming the chicks and visiting the nesting site was really exciting and we have been following the progress of Sky & Highlander (another of the tagged chicks) intently at school.
"The children are truly upset about the disappearance of Sky and everyone at school is hoping that their worst fears are not confirmed. We will continue to follow the progress of Highlander and only hope he will remain safe and live a long life"
And here is what some of the pupils had to say when they heard about Sky:
“Sky was my favourite hen harrier, I felt happy when I saw him fly” Max, aged six
“I feel very worried that they might not come back” Charlotte aged eight
“I’m sad because I was one of the children from Brennand’s Endowed who went to see the Hen Harriers nesting and see them fly. To know that two of them are missing makes me really sad”
Matthew aged 11
“I feel it is such a tragic loss for such a rare and endangered species” David aged ten
“I feel very sad and miserable. What if they have been shot, it is hunting season” Sadé aged nine
Where Sky had been adopted by Brennand’s, Hope had a special place in the hearts of our Wildlife Explorer and Phoenix groups from Macclesfield and Leighton Moss. Young people from these groups had named Hope while making a film in Bowland with Chris Packham about Skydancer’s National Lottery Award.
Speaking to the BBC on the subject, 16-year-old Macclefield group leader Kat Mayer, 16, said: "It's really disappointing, because the ones that were radio tagged could have spread awareness through the blogs and social media so people could have learned about them and been able to follow them."
Her brother Will, 13, added: "It's really upsetting. It wasn't our bird, but it was a bird that we were close to because we had named it."
After months of build-up, excitement, and suspense, it finally happened – Skydancer appeared on the National Lottery Awards Show last Friday night at 10.45pm (11.30pm in Scotland)!
In case you missed it (and let’s face it, I doubt if anyone in Scotland could keep their eyes open long enough following a sleepless night of referendum results), you can catch it on BBC iPlayer here until Friday. After that, you’ll still be able to watch the short film we shot with Chris Packham in Bowland on YouTube here.
Skydancer receives a National Lottery Award for Best Education Project 2014.
It was an amazing feeling to see the work of the project celebrated on a national stage and especially to see hen harriers put firmly in the spotlight. After the award ceremony, the project team and I received loads of lovely feedback from other projects, celebrities, and guests, with one person even commenting, “Watching your film, I feel like I actually learned something tonight.” For a project whose main aim is to raise awareness, what more could we possibly ask for than that?
Those of you that did see it may have noticed the young man who came up on stage with me to collect the award. Perhaps my speech was too long, or perhaps too rambling (I didn’t think so), but the only pity of the night was that any mention of him or why he was there was cut from the final edit of the show. For me, his presence was one of the most important points of the night, so I want to take a moment to offer some explanation here.
The young man in question is Ryan Mort, a level 3 Gamekeeping student from Askham Bryan College in York. He is one of over 100 gamekeeping and countryside management students who’ve taken part in Skydancer workshops over the last three years, debating, discussing and exploring the issues of hen harriers and grouse shooting from all points of view (read more here).
The student feedback from these workshops has been fantastic with comments including:
"If I was an upland keeper, I would consider ways to promote hen harriers."
"I believe now that with the right attitudes and the right methods, hen harriers and gamekeeping can coexist."
"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."
Askham Bryan staff and students following a Skydancer workshop, June 2014.
At the end of every workshop, we take a vote in favour or against encouraging hen harriers to nest alongside grouse shooting. At the final workshop I ran back in June before leaving Skydancer, for the first time ever (and that includes when I’ve done these workshops with general high schools and youth groups) we had a unanimous vote in favour of hen harriers – from a roomful of gamekeeping students.
Brian Sweeney, who runs the gamekeeping course at Askham Bryan, was also with us at the Awards. Brian is a fantastic advocate for what he terms a modern, enlightened approach to gamekeeping – game management that supports a whole suite of biodiversity, including birds of prey like hen harriers – and he has played no small part in the success of these workshops.
Illegal persecution and intolerance remain the biggest threats facing hen harriers today. However students like Ryan, and the positive influence of Brian and his colleagues, give me real hope for a generational shift in attitudes towards these magnificent birds. Who’d ever have predicted that a member of RSPB staff and a gamekeeping student would be standing side by side to collect an award for education work to promote hen harrier conservation? It is not the whole solution but it is a significant step in the right direction and to me, that is definitely something worth celebrating.
Ryan Mort, Brian Sweeney and Blánaid Denman at the National Lottery Awards, 2014.
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!