Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers


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.
  • The fortunes of England's hen harriers in 2018

    As the breeding season draws to a close, we take some time to reflect on the breeding success of hen harriers in England in 2018.

    Hen harrier numbers have been declining steadily in England over the past few decades. It is well known from independent research that the main reason for this decline is illegal killing of these birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England.

    Last year, hen harriers were very close to extinction as a breeding bird in England, with just three successful nests fledging 10 chicks in 2017, all in Northumberland. We were hopeful that this population would be bolstered when the birds we tagged in the Scottish borders, Marc and Manu, flew south into Durham and Northumberland respectively. However, this optimism was short lived and we were devastated to find that these birds suspiciously disappeared over grouse moors just months after fledging.

    This year, we've had a similar number of birds in Northumberland with three successful nests and 11 chicks fledging. This is the fourth consecutive year that hen harriers have successfully nested in the north east, so our national nature reserves are becoming a real stronghold for them.

    Fortunately this isn’t the end of the story - we were overjoyed to find that we also had nesting attempts elsewhere in England, with three successful nests on United Utilities land managed for grouse shooting in the Forest of Bowland and one successful nest in the Peak District on land managed for grouse shooting and owned by the National Trust. This is fantastic news and shows what can be achieved when grouse moors are managed sustainably and legally. Through partnership working with the estate staff, gamekeepers and local raptor workers, we were able to monitor and protect these nests too. I feel really proud that our team played a direct role in the protection of seven of the nine successful nests in England.

    Natural England also reported today that we had two additional successful nests in England: one on a hill farm and another one on a National Nature Reserve. This gives us a total of nine successful nests out of 14 attempts, fledging 34 chicks. Unfortunately, we did have five attempts that failed. 

    Table showing successful breeding attempts in England in 2018.


     Number of chicks











    However, whilst it’s great to see a small increase in numbers, we must continue with our conservation efforts as we're still a long way from where we should be, with the government’s own study showing we have enough habitat for 300 nests in England. So where are our missing hen harriers?

    During a long summer of 24-hour nest protection and monitoring birds in all weathers, our Hen Harrier LIFE project team have worked hard to put satellite tags on hen harrier chicks from these English nests and we’ll be watching their progress very closely.

    With a survival probability of just 20% within their first two years, we wait anxiously to follow the fates of our young chicks as they make their way into the world. We also hope to understand what proportion of the birds are lost to natural causes, and what proportion to illegal persecution.

    If only we could have more estate owners like United Utilities and the National Trust, and their shooting tenants, who see the value of having hen harriers on their land. By allowing the birds to live sustainably alongside working grouse moors, these youngsters would have a much more assured future, allowing everyone the opportunity to see them in their moorlands. Imagine the joy of seeing skydancing hen harriers every spring across moorlands in the north of England – what a fantastic sight!

    Sadly for now, it’s clear that illegal persecution is continuing. This is why we are calling for licencing of driven grouse shooting and the introduction of vicarious liability into England and Wales, to drive up standards in the industry and ensure those responsible for breaking the law are held to account.

    If you’d like to do your bit to help our hen harriers, you should read our ‘Six ways to help hen harriers’ blog and help us secure their future, so that numbers can continue to increase in England and one day we might all have the chance to see a hen harrier. We can all play a role in protecting our hen harriers for future generations.


  • We Will Win

    Today we have a guest blog from Dara McAnulty, the young Fermanagh naturalist, who reminds us that there's always something we can do to help hen harriers.

    I remember the first time I wittingly saw a raptor, I was five and I became entranced. The RSPB visited my school soon after to talk about red kites and the fascination grew into obsession. I constantly scanned the skies for a glimpse of majesty.  

    The hen harrier was the holy grail, but I didn’t catch my first encounter until I was 12. After that point, my life was irrevocably changed. It wasn’t just the beauty and sheer brilliance of flight engineering - it was the iconic nature of the species. It was a symbol of the desecration of our wildlife and our countryside.  I followed these birds through the seasons and rejoiced in their offspring and their ever giving wonder and joy. Each visit made my life so much better. They never failed to amaze me. I kind of felt they were ‘my’ birds, I wanted to give them something back. Something for their persecuted comrades. 

    Relentlessly targeted and killed to fuel the grouse shooting industry, I followed in the footsteps of other campaigners to add my voice, my words, my determination. This determination was stifled though, I wanted to do more! I really wanted to help. 

    When I heard about how raptor satellite tagging could act as a deterrent at best, at worst give good data against wildlife crime, I hatched a plan with the help of Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group. There were no tagged birds here in Northern Ireland - I wanted to change that. I wanted to do something more! 

    In January I walked thirty miles in the depth of winter, over mountain, bog and uplands - a hen harrier saluted me on my way, always inspirational, always uplifting - the sight of it kept me going. Thanks to the generosity of many, I managed to raise £6,000 - which will be used to help fund the first raptor satellite tagging project ‘Hawk Eyes’,  (including hen harriers) in Northern Ireland. A feat which quenched my appetite to help.  Although I’m getting itchy again and feel the need to do more - there is always so much more we can do. 


    Dara raised just over £6000 through crowd funding towards hen harrier satellite tagging

    There’s no Hen Harrier Day in Northern Ireland this year, but I, like always, will be supporting you all from afar and I will continue to campaign for hen harrier conservation and against persecution. 

    We Will Win. 

    Dara McAnulty Age 14

  • Nos da to our tagged Welsh hen harrier: Lia’s journey is over

    Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, shares the sad news of the loss of a second tagged hen harrier in Wales in suspicious circumstances.

    At this time of year, our Hen Harrier LIFE project team are very busy monitoring birds, protecting nests and satellite tagging juveniles. As we get caught up in the elation and optimism that a new generation of this rare bird brings, it was a timely reminder of their potential fates when we received the post mortem results for Lia, one of our Welsh hen harriers.

    Hen harriers were once widespread in Wales, but following a long history of illegal persecution and eventual extinction on mainland Britain as a breeding bird, the hen harrier finally came back to Wales in the 1950s. Since then, the Welsh population has slowly recovered, but it continues to vary greatly in size from year to year due to a number of factors, including food availability and weather conditions. The latest survey in 2016 showed the number of pairs had fallen by more than a third over the past six years, from 57 to 35 pairs. This is the lowest population that has been seen in Wales for over a decade, hence our devastation when Lia met her demise.

    Lia was one of four chicks born on a nest on the National Trust’s Ysbyty Estate in north Wales in 2017, and we fitted her satellite tag at the end of June. After fledging, she headed south to the Brecon Beacons National Park, and in October she had a brief two-day trip across the Bristol Channel to Somerset, before returning and settling in mid-Wales.

    Lia, a hen harrier tagged in Wales

    Lia (image courtesy of Guy Anderson)

    Her tag was functioning regularly, showing us that she spent most of her time in Wales, until 18th April 2018, when RSPB staff monitoring the tag became concerned she had stopped moving over an area of lowland farmland near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes. An initial search of the area yielded nothing. However, on the 17th May 2018, a further transmission confirmed she was dead, and RSPB Investigations staff searched again and found her lying face up in short grass in a sheep field.

    Map of Lia's final journey in Wales        

    A map of Lia’s final journey and last known location

    RSPB Investigations staff retrieved both the bird and her tag, which were immediately sent to the veterinary laboratory at ZSL for post mortem. Although the bird’s body was ‘mummified’, the vet’s main finding of interest was a fractured tail feather. The report stated that fractures of this type “have previously been found in a hen harrier proven to have been shot with ammunition (Hopkins et al., 2015). No other signs of shooting were detected in this bird.”

    Lia’s fractured tail feather (image courtesy of ZSL)

    Sadly, we’ll never know for sure what happened to Lia due to her state of decomposition, but her death was reported to Dyfed Powys Police from the outset as suspicious and they have been investigating, as she was found in an area with a history of illegal raptor persecution.

    Lia was the first hen harrier ever to have been satellite tagged in Wales, and we had high hopes she would help us better understand the dispersal of Welsh birds. Alarmingly, she is the second bird to be lost in Wales this year in suspicious circumstances. Aalin, who was tagged on the Isle of Man in July 2016, spent last winter in north Wales, and disappeared in the Ruabon mountains near Wrexham in February 2018. The loss of both of these birds is heartbreaking, but the more we can learn about the fates of our hen harriers, the more measures we can put in place to protect them.

    If anyone has any information that might help us find answers to how Lia died then please contact Dyfed Powys police on 101 quoting the reference number 47 24 04 2018 or alternatively speak to the RSPB confidentially on 0300 999 0101.

    The Hen Harrier LIFE project team are tagging more birds in Wales this summer, so watch this space to follow their fortunes. Hopefully they’ll have a bit more luck than Lia.