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.
  • Skydancing with Gill Lewis

    Community Engagement Officer for England, Aimée Nicholson, talks about her experiences of working with children's author Gill Lewis.

    One of the greatest parts of being a Community Engagement Officer for the Hen Harrier LIFE project is being able to go into a school on a morning with children who know nothing about hen harriers and leave the same children, at the end of the day, Skydancing and singing about Harry the Harrier. It is a wonderful thing to behold a future generation of naturalists getting enthused over a very special bird of prey.

    Children’s author Gill Lewis has spent the past few years doing the same whilst researching and writing her book Skydancer. This is a story about young people living on the moors and their experiences when they encounter hen harriers on this moorland, which is managed for driven grouse shooting. The tale is told from the perspective of Joe, the son of a gamekeeper, and revolves around his friendship with wealthy landowners daughter Araminta and his ‘towny’ neighbour Ella with whom he shares a big secret!


    Sky Dancer book cover


    When I was asked by Gill to accompany her on her book tour in autumn, across Northern England and the Borders of Scotland, I jumped at the chance. Gill was visiting schools to tell children all about Sky Dancer and what it is like to be an author. I went along and introduced the children to the birds by presenting an interactive assembly prior to Gill’s talk to explain to the pupils how important and special hen harriers really are, with the aid of our trusty hen harrier puppets!


      Aimée and Harry the hen harrier (Thomas Jefferson, Scottish Book Trust)


    The first day of the tour was organised by the Scottish Book Trust and took place in the borders of Scotland with four primary schools. We had some very entertaining displays from the school children showing us how food is passed from the male to the female accompanied by some excellent bird calls and lots of laughter! The children were so enthused by the story of Sky Dancer that many went home clasping hold of their very own copy of the book, signed by Gill at their own personal book signing after the talk.


    Gill Lewis with pupils from Kingsland Primary School (Aimée Nicholson)


    Gill’s book tour continued across England and Scotland in October, where Gill attendedmany events spreading the word about the issues hen harriers are facing in the UK and engaging as many young people as possible. These school visits were an excellent opportunity for the Hen Harrier Life Project to work alongside Gill on her tour and allowed us to engage with over 500 young people, in the Borders of Scotland.

    Aimée and Gill preparing to Skydance –(Harriet Bayly, Oxford University Press)


    It was so rewarding to see hundreds of pairs of eyes watching our presentations and I would like to think that at the end of the day the pupils Skydanced their way home - I know I did!

     Aimée flying for pupils at Tweedbank Primary School  (Thomas Jefferson, Scottish Book Trust)

    Sky Dancer is published by Oxford University Press and can be found in all good bookshops.

  • Two more hen harriers go missing

    RSPB's Project Manager for Hen Harrier LIFE, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, provides an update on the class of 2017.

    Through a career in conservation, you have the privilege of working with some amazing wildlife, but you also have to face the reality that most individuals will never fulfil their full potential, due to the threats they face on a daily basis. As I’ve followed the journeys of the juvenile hen harriers in the class of 2017, it’s been difficult to remain hopeful for our youngsters, in the face of an uncertain fate.

    First we lost Calluna, whose satellite tag transmissions stopped abruptly on 12th August on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park, then on 14th August there was Mannin’s failed sea crossing from the Isle of Man. I’m sad to report that we have now lost a further three birds.

    Sirius was a male hen harrier, who along with his sister Skylar was one of three chicks to fledge from a nest in Argyll, on land owned and managed by Forestry Enterprise Scotland in July 2017. Sirius and his siblings were the first offspring to be produced by our female, DeeCee, who fledged from Perthshire in 2016.  On 11th October, our Investigations team monitoring Sirius’ tag saw that he had stopped moving. The team carried out a search and were able to locate and recover his body from a hillside near Loch Lomond. He was taken to the veterinary laboratory for post-mortem tests and we’re still awaiting the results, which we will share in due course.

    We now also have two missing birds. Manu was one of two male hen harriers to fledge from a nest in the Scottish borders this summer. He explored the area around his nest for a few weeks before moving to the Northumberland coast in early August. His tag data showed that he quickly moved back inland to explore the uplands of Northumberland, where he was also seen several times in the field by local raptor workers.

    In mid-September, Manu moved west towards the Cumbrian border. He settled in an area of moorland near Denton Fell, and was briefly joined by one of our 2016 satellite tagged birds from the Cairngorms, Harriet. Manu’s tag was functioning perfectly, with his last known fix at 09:58 on 18th October on Blenkinsopp Common, before transmissions abruptly and inexplicably stopped and we haven’t received any transmissions since. Northumbria Police were informed but their enquiries have so far yielded no leads as to what might have happened to Manu. Our Investigations Team searched around the area of Manu’s last known location, but found no sign of him. We have now put out an appeal for information, alongside Northumbria Police and the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, and urge anyone with any information to come forward.


    Manu (image by Tim Jones)


    A map of Manu's final journey

    We then also lost Tony. He was one of three chicks to fledge from a nest at HM Naval Base Clyde’s Coulport site in July this year. The security at the base that protects the submarine service also provides a sanctuary for hen harriers and the local MoD Police help to monitor nests, alongside experienced local raptor workers. Tony was named by MoD Police Officer John Simpson, in memory of his brother.

    After fledging, Tony headed west towards Dunbartonshire, where he spent some time exploring central Scotland.  In early September, he headed down to south Wales, then he continued on to Cornwall. We then watched in awe as he continued his journey southwards and on 23rd September, he began a long journey, heading south away from the UK and over the next five days Tony travelled through the Brittany region of France, across the Bay of Biscay and ended up in the Galicia region of Spain. Tony’s tag was functioning perfectly, with his last known fix on 22nd October on a peninsular west of Cambados, before transmissions abruptly and inexplicably stopped and we haven’t received any transmissions since.


    Tony (image by Dave Anderson)


    A map of Tony's final journey

    By satellite tagging birds, we can build up a picture of the lives of hen harriers, yielding new insights into their behaviour and identifying their roosting and foraging areas, but they also allow us to learn more about the fates of these birds. In cases like Sirius, the tag is a powerful tool that allows us to locate the body so it can be sent for a post-mortem and we can investigate the cause of death. However for Manu and Tony, it is sad and frustrating that tags that are functioning perfectly suddenly and inexplicably stop, and we may never find out what happened to them.



  • Introducing Cathleen

    Our new(ish) Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas reflects on her first few months in the role.

    Avid followers may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately. Some of you will know that Blánaid Denman left the Hen Harrier LIFE project in August to become the RSPB’s Area Conservation Manager for the North East and Cumbria. Blánaid has done some great work on the project and we’re sad to see her go, but the baton has been passed on and I now have the privilege of managing the Hen Harrier LIFE project through to its end.

    I’ve had a mind boggling couple of months getting up to speed with our hen harriers as the project reaches the halfway point. This year we satellite tagged more birds than ever before and it’s amazing to see how much we’re learning about their dispersal and range, providing vital evidence to help protect this beautiful and threatened bird of prey. It’s particularly interesting for me as during my PhD I studied movements of ladybird populations. Since we didn’t have the technology to put tiny tags on ladybirds, I had the laborious task of analysing DNA to estimate movements between populations, so I’m really excited to see the amazing ecological insights we can gather as technology advances.

     Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas - image by Nicola Thomas

    As we follow the birds we can start to explore individual differences and build up a picture of how they move around the UK and beyond. You may be familiar with DeeCee, a female hen harrier who was born in Scotland in 2016 and was fitted with a satellite tag just before she fledged from her nest last summer. We’ve been able to follow her movements and saw that she spent the winter at a roost in Mull, travelled down to Argyll this summer, then returned east to Aberdeenshire where she successfully raised three chicks with her partner, two of which we tagged this year -  Sirius and Skylar. Whilst DeeCee remained in Scotland, other Scottish birds have travelled to the continent, such as Chance who travelled to France and Tony who travelled to Spain. This is an amazing feat, particularly when you consider that these birds are often only a couple of months old when they make these journeys.

    Following the birds during their lifetimes shows us some interesting things, but sadly we also see that first year mortality is high for hen harriers. Satellite tags allow us to build up a picture of the lives and fates of hen harriers. Whilst some have gone missing without explanation, the birds we are able to retrieve allow us to investigate the cause of death. Birds that have been found shot in recent years and video footage of hen harriers being persecuted serve as reminders of the risks faced by these young birds. Tagging so many birds will hopefully allow us to better understand the risk factors for young birds, where they face the biggest threats and what proportion of them survive their first year and beyond.

    The project focuses on seven Special Protection Areas in the UK, and to support this direct conservation work we’re in the process of carrying out a public attitudes questionnaire, to help us understand how much people know about hen harriers in and around areas where they are protected. This will help us to target our community engagement work to make the biggest difference for our hen harriers and find more hen harrier heroes to champion the species.

    All in all, it's an exciting time to be joining the Hen Harrier LIFE project and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds over the coming years!