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.
  • 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’.

  • Another Skydancer lost: Aalin disappears in Wales

    Dr. Cathleen Thomas, RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager explains that today we have more sad news about another bird, this time from the Hen Harrier Class of 2016.

    The population of hen harriers on the Isle of Man almost halved between 2004 and 2010, dropping from 57 to 29 pairs. No one was quite sure why this might be, but one theory was that young hen harriers could be migrating to the UK mainland and not returning, so we hoped that putting satellite tags on birds born on the island would help us to solve the mystery.

    In July 2016, we tagged a bird named Aalin, on the Isle of Man, in collaboration with Manx Birdlife. Aalin left the island that year, and spent the winter of 2016 in Shropshire, before heading to Wales in the spring of 2017. The regular transmissions we received from her tag showed that she stayed in north Wales, until the tag suddenly stopped transmitting on the morning of 9 February 2018 in an area of moorland around Ruabon Mountain near Wrexham. Our project team headed out to search for her, but no tag or body was found and she has not been seen or heard of since. Sadly her loss has shown us that some birds move away from the Isle of Man, never to return. We were hopeful that heading towards the breeding season Aalin would have nested in Wales and successfully reared chicks this summer, so her loss is also devastating for future generations of this rare and beautiful bird in Wales.


    Aalin (Image by James Leonard) and the location of her tag’s last known transmission near Wrexham

    A map of Aalin's final journey 

    Neil Morris, Managing Director at Manx Birdlife, explains what the loss of Aalin means to him, and the community on the Isle of Man.

    It is with a heavy heart that I sit here writing this post.

    In the last month, I have witnessed the best and worst of people’s interactions with wildlife. My Twitter feed is abuzz with news of disappearing golden eagles and hen harriers and is brimming with images of wildlife persecution. Thankfully, it is also peppered with stories of the tireless endeavour by many caring souls to protect, rescue, nurture, conserve – and to simply enjoy observing the antics of – the creatures that share our natural world. Every one of you deserves a medal.

    The disappointment (dare I say outrage?) I feel at the continued loss of our wildlife and wild places came well and truly home to roost this month when I learned of the loss of Aalin.

    Aalin was satellite-tagged in the summer of 2016 in the hills of the Isle of Man. She has been successfully tracked ever since. Having quickly gained her strength after fledging, Aalin left the island. A late summer sojourn took her past Blackpool, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and on into Wales. She took up residence in the north-east Welsh uplands for more than a year, surviving two harsh winter seasons.

    This year, with her second summer season within reach, hopes were high that Aalin would settle to nest. After a brief dalliance with a potential mate last spring, it looked highly likely that she would stay to breed in Wales. Of course, there were a few of us that wondered (nay, hoped) she would return to her native uplands in the Isle of Man. What a fantastic story that would have been! And what a novel and valuable insight we would have gained into the behaviour of the island’s hen harriers.

    As with so many bird of prey disappearances, the circumstances are worrying. The tags employed by RSPB’s LIFE Project are proven to be robust and reliable over long periods of time, so the sudden loss of signal is highly unexpected. And the pattern of disappearances in areas where grouse shooting takes place speaks for itself.

    Everyone associated with Manx BirdLife is deeply grateful to the RSPB’s dedicated staff. It is our sincere hope that as the Hen Harrier LIFE project continues we can achieve our shared goals of learning more about the lives of these wonderful birds and how best to protect them.

     If you have any information relating to this incident, please call North Wales Police on 101 quoting the reference WO28466. 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, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form:


  • Blood brothers: Manu's brother Marc also disappears

    RSPB Investigations Liaison Officer, Jenny Shelton, sheds more light on the disappearances of two hen harrier siblings, Marc and Manu, in similarly unsettling circumstances.

    Manu (left) and Marc (right) as nestlings (image by Tim Jones)

    If a mother hen harrier could give her chicks any words of wisdom, it might be this: stay away from grouse moors. Moorland is the natural habitat of these birds, but a number of them have disappeared over moorland areas managed for driven grouse shooting.

    The latest casualty is Marc, a bird who was satellite tagged in the Scottish Borders in 2017, along with his brother Manu, as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project. Marc’s tag had been functioning perfectly, showing him flying around hills and upland farmland all winter. Then, at the end of January 2018, he decided to explore a new area, moving 10km north west to a grouse moor near Middleton-in-Teesdale in the North Pennines. On 5 February, this is where his tag suddenly stopped transmitting, with no indication of any technical problems with the tag.

    If the bird had died naturally, we would expect to continue to receive transmissions from its tag, with the data signal showing the bird was stationary. We’d also expect to be able to recover the tag, as we have done with many of other birds like Mannin and Sirius, yet when investigations officers searched the area of Marc’s last transmission, they found no sign of the bird or his tag.

    Marc's last known location, with the circle indicating the area of his last known transmission

    What’s worse is that this has happened before and to Marc’s brother Manu, who were both named after a colleague’s grandchildren. The siblings grew up together in the Scottish borders, then fledged and went their separate ways, but both flying south into England: Marc settling near Durham and Manu in Northumberland. We’re devastated to see that the two brothers disappear in similar circumstances. In October 2017, Manu’s tag stopped transmitting over a grouse moor on the Northumberland/Cumbria border. After a search, neither his body nor his tag were found.

    As well as Marc and Manu, a number of other hen harriers have gone missing in similar circumstances both in England and Scotland since the Hen Harrier LIFE project began in 2014, most recently Calluna, who disappeared on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park on 12 August 2017, coinciding with the first day of the grouse shooting season.

    Sadly, our hen harriers are facing a difficult future as the population continues to decline. In England, there were only three successful nests in 2017. This small English population could have really benefited from additions like Marc and Manu. Losing them less than a year after they hatched also means losing any young they and their potential partners may have had.

    Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, says: “It’s absolutely devastating to have both siblings disappear, one in Northumberland and one in Durham, particularly with the low number of hen harriers in England. Not only were we down to a tiny number of successful nests last year, but even those birds moving in to help bolster the population are vanishing. You can’t help but wonder, is there any hope for the English population, or will we be facing the very real prospect of their extinction as a breeding bird in England in 2018?”

    Tim Jones was the RSPB Investigations Officer who tagged Marc as a chick. “I got to visit my first hen harrier nest in 2017 and it was such a privilege to protect and monitor Marc and Manu's nest, seeing them when they were still white and fluffy at a week old to just before fledging when we fitted their tags. I’ve watched closely as they grew and spread their wings, checking on where they were and if they were ok every day for the last seven months. The loss of Manu was a real blow, and now knowing that Marc has disappeared too is completely gutting.”

    Currently there are fewer than half of 2017’s satellite tagged chicks still alive after six months. We really hope these birds stay safe: we’ll be keeping a close eye on our remaining hen harriers, and undertaking protection and monitoring of birds across northern England and Scotland.