Suddenly it’s March (where did February go??), which means that any moment now the breeding season will begin in earnest.  And of course the big question is hanging in the air is what will this year hold for hen harriers? I both love and hate this time of year – so much hope, so much possibility, and yet so much trepidation.

For the last three seasons, the award-winning Skydancer Project has funded and coordinated RSPB’s hen harrier monitoring and nest protection work in the north of England, and I’m delighted to say that this year, it’s going to be getting an extra boost.

Our new Hen Harrier LIFE Project represents an exciting and ambitious, five-year programme of hen harrier conservation, combining direct conservation action with community engagement and awareness-raising measures, to build on and extend the work of Skydancer, both into the future, to 2019, and geographically into southern and eastern Scotland.

We talk a lot about hen harriers in England but the reality is that there’s nothing separating hen harriers here from those in Scotland, Wales, or to a certain extent, Ireland or the Isle of Man. Bowland Betty showed us just how wide-ranging hen harriers can be and a few birds have even been tracked as far as France or Spain. Essentially, anything that affects hen harriers in one part of their range is likely to affect the population as a whole, and as birds don’t recognise boundaries, neither should we. The Hen Harrier LIFE Project is unique in being the first truly cross-border conservation initiative for this species.

The LIFE Project will focus on seven Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for breeding hen harriers, two in England and five in Scotland, illustrated below. Although these SPA designations constitute a legally binding government obligation to maintain favourable conservation status, it's worth noting that not one of those listed is currently meeting its designation criteria for hen harriers.

Map of project target SPAs designated for breeding hen harriers

It stands to reason that to protect hen harriers inside SPAs, we need to protect them outside SPAs. By funding satellite tags, the LIFE project will enable us to follow these birds wherever they go, facilitating better understanding of their movements and helping to identify where they’re most vulnerable. A few of these tagged birds will be made public each year and you’ll be able to follow their incredible journeys through an interactive map on our project website (watch this space). By telling these stories, we hope to raise awareness and understanding of  hen harriers, encouraging recognition that these magnificent birds "belong" to all of us, and we are all responsible for their protection.

Speaking of which, the LIFE project will be aiding direct protection of hen harrier nests and roosts by providing access to remote cameras and other vital monitoring equipment. We’ll also be working closely with the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) to monitor hen harriers populations throughout both breeding and wintering seasons. The project has employed two new Assistant Investigations Officers to focus on hen harriers and the uplands, who will work closely with police and statutory bodies to help address the ongoing issue of illegal persecution and disturbance.

It's a universal truth that all good things must come to an end but thanks to LIFE, Skydancer's fantastic community engagement work won’t just fade away when the project finishes in September. The LIFE Project will continue key elements of this work, working with schools, local community groups, and gamekeeping colleges to raise awareness and build support for hen harrier conservation in areas where these birds should be. We’ll particularly be looking for opportunities to work positively with landowners to champion best practice for hen harriers where it occurs.

Finally, if Hen Harrier Day last year has taught us anything, it’s that the issue of hen harrier conservation is bigger than any one organisation. So with this in mind, the LIFE project is already working to build links with other hen harrier projects such as Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, the PAWS Heads Up for Harriers scheme, and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project; not to mention the National Parks and AONBs, and other conservation organisations; to develop a coherent conservation network for hen harriers across the project areas.

Last year was a big one for hen harriers in England (see here, here, here, and here), placing this vulnerable bird of prey firmly in the political spotlight. Now, with the deadline for government pre-election shutdown only a few weeks away, it remains to be seen whether any decisions will be made on Defra's proposed Hen Harrier Action Plan (see here for RSPB's stance).

Whatever the outcome, both Skydancer and the Hen Harrier LIFE Project stand as clear demonstrations of RSPB's commitment to securing a sustainable future for hen harriers and our willingness to work positively and openly with anyone who feels the same.

So here's to 2015 and whatever the breeding season may bring - we're ready for it.

For more information on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife

If you're lucky enough to spot a hen harrier in England, let us know by contacting our Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or emailing henharriers@rspb.org.uk, with a description of the bird, where and when you saw it (including date, time of day, and grid reference if possible), and what it was doing (eg flying, hunting, displaying, carrying nesting material). For Scottish sightings, please email henharrier@snh.gov.uk.