Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers

Skydancer

Skydancer
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 breed in Bowland

    Recently, it’s been one bad news story after another on this blog with many reports of our satellite-tagged hen harriers disappearing in unexplained circumstances. 

    So, it makes a nice change to give you some good news.

    I’m delighted to report that, for the first time since 2015, there are hen harrier chicks at Bowland in Lancashire.

    RSPB wardens discovered two hen harrier nests on the United Utilities Bowland Estate in early spring and have been monitoring them closely ever since. The nests were visited recently by the wardens under licence who were delighted to find four healthy chicks in each of them.

     One of the two hen harrier nests  with chicks in Bowland. Photo by M Demain

    A single male hen harrier is responsible for both of the nests and he is currently taking food regularly to them.

     Bowland used to be known as England’s last remaining stronghold for breeding hen harriers. But, until this year, hen harriers hadn’t bred successfully there since 2015 when a single chick fledged.

     We now hope that the arrival of these eight chicks may mark a reversal in the fortunes for the hen harrier in Bowland. It’s a nerve-wracking time for all involved in protecting these birds, especially for the team that have been constantly monitoring the birds since they arrived on the estate in April. The male hen harrier is doing a fantastic job of keeping the chicks in both nests well fed and we’re doing all that we can to ensure that they fledge safely.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Silent spring? Saorsa, Finn and Blue all suddenly disappear

    Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, reports on the sudden disappearance of three tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances

    With the arrival of spring, we look forward to the warmer weather kickstarting the growth of new flowers as buds burst into life. Animals start to appear again, some rousing sleepily from their hibernation. We dust ourselves off after the long winter, ready for a summer of activity.

    Our hen harriers become more active too as they begin to move away from their winter roosts, making longer flights towards upland areas to scope out potential nesting sites, ready to pair up and raise a brood of their own. Here at the Hen Harrier LIFE project, we already have reports of skydancing males, pair bonding and nest building. We watch with anticipation to see if our tagged birds will settle and try to raise a family.

    Sadly, the more active and visible they are, the more vulnerable they are to illegal persecution. Whilst 95% of their diet comprises small mammals, hen harriers also eat a small proportion of other birds, including grouse, which brings them into direct conflict with moorland that is being managed for grouse shooting, and particularly those with intensive grouse rearing for driven shooting. I’m devastated to report the sudden disappearances of three birds in suspicious circumstances, two in Scotland and one in England, reminding us of the perils they face every day.

     

    Saorsa was one of four chicks to fledge from a nest on a private estate in Ross-shire in June 2017. After fledging, she headed north towards Lairg then on to Wick, and stayed in this area until the end of October before heading south and visiting our RSPB reserve at Insh Marshes. By November she had headed further south to the Angus Glens and stayed there for the rest of the winter, until her tag suddenly and inexplicably ceased transmissions in this area on 16 February 2018, with no indications of any technical problems with the tag. A search was conducted by Police Scotland, assisted by RSPB Investigations staff, but no tag or body was found. 

       

    A map of Saorsa's final journey

    Balnagown Estate, near Tain in Sutherland, expressed their sadness at losing this special bird. They told us: “Saorsa hatched and fledged from Balnagown Estate and it was fascinating following her progress online since she was fitted with a satellite tag in June 2017. The Estate strives hard to assist with conservation and protection of our wonderful wildlife.”

     

    Saorsa's last known location

    Finn and her three brothers fledged from a nest on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland in 2016, one of only three successful nests in the whole of England for that year, and we fitted her satellite tag in early July. After fledging, she travelled west into southern Scotland and spent her first winter in Ayrshire. She successfully raised and fledged one chick in the summer of 2017. She then remained in southern Scotland, making a couple of brief trips over the border with England, and her tag was giving us good data. Then on 25 March 2018, transmissions suddenly and unexpectedly stopped near Moffat. RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search, but again no tag or body was found, and her disappearance was reported to Police Scotland.

      

    A map of Finn's final journey

    Finn was named after young conservationist Findlay Wilde who told us “I always knew following Finn's journey would be a rollercoaster of emotions and felt she was probably living on borrowed time, but she seemed to soar through all the challenges that came her way. In the short time we followed her, we went through every emotion possible; from the excitement of knowing she had safely fledged to the nagging worries that she was settling in high risk areas; and then of course to the worst news of all. Finn isn't just another statistic in growing listing of missing hen harriers. Her life mattered, and she mattered to me."

    Having survived her first year and even raised a chick, we had high hopes for Finn going into 2018. We had only three nests in England in 2017, and we were waiting with anticipation to see if she might pair up and settle with a male there to raise her own brood, but those hopes are now sadly dashed.

      

    Finn's last known location

     

    Blue and his two siblings fledged from a nest in South Lanarkshire in 2017 and his satellite tag was fitted in early July. After fledging, Blue remained in south west Scotland until October, before settling in Cumbria. In January, Blue headed north again, back to Dumfries and Galloway where he remained until March and his final journey saw him head back down to Cumbria. His tag was functioning perfectly, until 31 March 2018, when transmissions suddenly and unexpectedly stopped near Longsleddale in Cumbria. RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search, but no tag or body was found, and his disappearance was reported to Cumbria Police as suspicious, due to the sudden stop of transmissions.

    A map of Blue's final journey

    After the sudden disappearances of satellite tagged brothers Marc and Manu in similarly unsettling circumstances just a few months earlier, parts of the north of England are a dangerous place for our hen harriers to visit.

        

    Blue’s last known location

     

    Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said: “As we followed our tagged birds, we were overjoyed to see they had survived the winter, showcasing their adept hunting skills to find prey even in deep snow, so it’s difficult to put into words just how devastating it is to lose so many in such rapid succession across the country and with no explanation – it seems our hen harriers are not safe in many parts of the country due to illegal persecution, and taking action to protect them is more important than ever”.

    If you want to help hen harriers, there are lots of things you can do: you can support our work by sharing your sightings, purchasing hen harrier pin badges, volunteering with the RSPB, your local raptor group or conservation organisation, contacting your local MP or MSP to raise your concerns, talking to your friends and family, finding out more about the LIFE project on our website, and joining the conversation on twitter to help raise awareness.

    Tackling raptor crime is a priority for the RSPB. Through the Hen Harrier LIFE project, we are tracking hen harriers, and protecting and monitoring them at roost and nest sites, as well as documenting and reporting incidences of wildlife crime. We are working with communities to raise awareness of hen harriers. We work alongside Police Wildlife Crime Officers to follow up reported incidences of wild bird crime and develop new strategies for tackling this conservation problem. We work with UK Governments to develop policies for sustainable moorland management. The RSPB is completely opposed to brood management of hen harriers in England and has applied to the High Court for permission for a judicial review of Natural England’s grant of consent for a hen harrier brood management trial.

    If you have any information relating to any of the incidents described above, please call the Police on 101. Alternatively, you can call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline confidentially on 0300 999 0101. All calls are anonymous. If you find a wild bird that you suspect was illegally killed in England and Wales, contact RSPB Investigations on 01767 680551 or in Scotland call 0131 317 4100. Alternatively, you could fill in the online form: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/wildbirdslaw/reportform.aspx

      

  • Same Old Story?

    Today we have a guest blog from Findlay Wilde, a 16 year old conservationist, ringer, birder, environmental blogger and campaigner. Findlay is working hard to protect nature, and raise awareness about hen harrier persecution.

     

    Whenever I get asked to write a blog about my thoughts and feelings towards hen harriers, I start with such enthusiasm, but as I get into the detail I feel my energy start to fade, in just the same way our hen harrier numbers are fading away. As I write this, the news that Aalin has gone missing is fresh in my mind. News like this instantly turns my thoughts to Finn, and when I heard about Aalin going missing I automatically checked my emails to see if a recent update had come through on Finn’s whereabouts. Fortunately she continues to do well; against the odds.

     

    When this blog is posted, I can almost sense some of the words from certain people saying “oh here he goes again, same old story, same old words”. But guess what, it is the same old story, as the persecution just doesn’t let up. It would be amazing to be able to write about a positive change, about how hen harrier numbers have started to increase, about how more prosecutions are taking place; but that time is sadly not right now.

    In November 2017, Findlay was invited to 10 Downing Street to talk about environmental policy with the prime minister’s environmental advisor.

     

     

    Skydancers should be starting their dances, if not already, then very soon across our uplands. They should be soaring in good numbers, they should be pairing up with ease, but this is not the “same old story” we can tell.

     

    But do you know which “same old stories” I am fed up of hearing? Well for one it’s the denial that raptor persecution is even happening. Let’s think about that for a minute. The habitat is available in England to support over 300 pairs of hen harriers. We know the food source is there. We hear that grouse moors are great for ground nesting birds. So where are the hen harriers? Just 3 pairs bred successfully in England last year. Such a disgraceful statistic.  

     

    Another “same old story” I am fed up of hearing is that global hen harrier numbers are not at risk, so there is no need to worry about the UK decline. I can’t believe that people think this is okay on any level. Firstly, there are reports that indicate European numbers of hen harrier are actually in slow decline. Secondly, and more importantly, this in no way excuses allowing a species to become almost extinct as a breeding bird in England.  If that theory was acceptable, then why try to protect any species in the UK if it is a species that is native to other countries. It is the most infuriating and small minded argument that I repeatedly hear.

     

    We are so quick to criticise other countries for declines in iconic species, and yet we have serious issues on our own doorstep that are being caused by illegal activity. We must keep calling this out.

     

    So when this blog gets posted, I will be ready for the excuses some people will tweet, I will be ready for the insulting private messages that always follow, I will be ready for the people that will tell me I am wrong; but as I have already said, I have heard these “same old stories” too many times.

     

    The tide is turning. Awareness is building. Change is coming. The story is being re-written.

     

    Findlay recently created this card to raise awareness of hen harriers, capturing the words that came into people’s heads when he said ‘hen harrier’.