By Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland There is no denying that the hen harrier is one of our most spectacular and enigmatic birds of prey. It breeds in remote, out-of-the-way locations, often in the uplands, miles away from the biggest centres of human population. For me, it’s a bird that never fails to lift my spirits, one that always brightens a day out birding or hill-walking. I’ve been lucky. I was brought up in Aberdeen, and as a teenager going through my birding formative years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, was fortunate to be there at a time when the North-east Scotland Raptor Study Group (NERSG) was in the process of being created. The hills and glens of Deeside became a second home to me for several springs, with the chance of seeing golden eagles, merlins and peregrines. But, the monitoring of breeding hen harriers was always one of the highlights. My dominant memory of those days was being invited along one day to help with ringing the chicks at three nests in one of the glens that went off to the south of the main Dee valley. I’d never been to a harrier nest before, and could barely contain my excitement! I’d watched the adults on several occasions from a mile or so away, so the opportunity to see these birds up close was brilliant. But, at every nest, there were no chicks. There were no adult birds around. There were cold, dead eggs. “They’ve been done.” said one of my colleagues. At that time, I suppose, on reflection, I’d little concept of what that really meant. But fast-forward 35 years, and I now lead the RSPB Investigations team in Scotland, I know exactly what it meant, and days like that are why I do this job. A paper that I’m sure will be of great interest to many, but is particularly so to me personally, has just been published in the journal British Birds .“The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriers in North-east Scotland”  is a testament to the incredible efforts of a number of people in the NERSG in monitoring the fortunes of this species over the last 35 years. Several of the authors had been undertaking harrier monitoring before my first forays into the Aberdeenshire hills, and they continue to do so. It is however a depressing story that this paper tells. A peak population of 28 pairs in the area in the early 1990’s had declined to only one confirmed breeding pair by 2014. Year after year, raptor workers carry out hundreds of hours of unpaid fieldwork, driven on solely by their commitment to the conservation of their chosen species. And every year, raptor nests fail and adult birds disappear. It’s widely acknowledged that bad weather, food shortage and predation are factors in breeding attempts being unsuccessful. But we also all know that places like the moors of north-east Scotland, the southern uplands around the Borders, and the Peak District of northern England are areas where food for harriers is abundant. These are also the areas where we’re told that upland breeding waders are thriving because of the intensive predator control regimes undertaken by sporting estates. So, if there’s plenty of available food, abundant nesting habitat, very low numbers of predators and other ground-nesting species like waders (and grouse!) are doing well, why are hen harriers doing so badly in these areas? The answer is pretty simple – persecution. What proof is there of this? There have been very few proven recent cases of illegal killing of hen harriers… This is indeed true. But when you have a very small population, you’re not likely to get many proven cases of persecution. The damage has already been done. Raptor populations cannot withstand a level of attrition where year after year, adults are killed or nests destroyed. Suffice to say that in 2013, when the population of hen harriers in NE Scotland, as listed in this study, was only four confirmed pairs, by sheer luck, birds were witnessed being shot at two nest sites. In both cases, the perpetrators removed the dead harrier. That’s no surprise as why would a criminal want to leave evidence of their crime lying around to be found? But, many birds are being killed out of sight of witnesses? Population studies such as this give you a good idea. From 2004 to 2010, the population of hen harriers in Scotland fell by 22% to 525 pairs. In 2011, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee published “A conservation framework for hen harriers”  . The conclusions of this piece of work were that the potential hen harrier population of Scotland was estimated to be within the range 1467–1790 pairs, but that there was strong evidence that, in the uplands of eastern and southern Scotland, illegal persecution was causing the failure of the majority of breeding attempts, leading to fewer breeding birds and/or fewer successful nests. It was depressingly predictable that certain organisations that claim to represent land management interests dismissed the conclusions of this report, in part by claiming the findings were out of date. The good news for them is that the Hen Harrier framework has been revised, and is due for publication, hopefully very soon. I wonder if this revised version will elicit different conclusions? Or will this latest piece of work, monitoring and documenting the hen harrier population of NE Scotland be similarly disputed by those who are part of the denial culture that seemingly pervades much of the game bird shooting industry? But, I have news for those that seek to undermine the efforts of those who are out in all weathers monitoring Scotland’s birds of prey, and bringing the decline of these magnificent birds to the public’s attention. This report’s findings are the reality. I know. I’ve been there.  Rebecca, G., Cosnette, B., Craib, J., Duncan, A., Etheridge, B., Francis, I., Hardey, J., Pout, A., and Steele, L. (2016) The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriersin North-east Scotland. British Birds 109: 77– 95  Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. (2011) A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.
Bea Ayling (Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project Manager) In June and July, a number of hen harrier chicks across England and Scotland were satellite tagged as part of the RSPB’s new Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project. The project seeks to better understand the movements of these magnificent birds to help identify areas where they are most at risk.. This need became particularly pertinent in the 2015 breeding season when 5 nests failed in northern England due to the well-publicised, unexplained disappearances of the healthy male adult birds. As the new Project Manager (covering for Blánaid while she is off enjoying her own brood), I am on tenterhooks to see how the 2015 breeding season pans out having started the role smack bang in the middle. I am particularly excited about being able to track our birds online! A couple of the project’s satellite tagged birds will be made public here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife/ . The latest tag went on a female chick on the Isle of Man, named Hetty. It’ll be fascinating to see where she disperses to for the winter as hen harriers are known to range far and wide. Maybe she will encounter some of our other tagged birds across the sea in England and Scotland! Maps of her movements should be available on the website in the next few weeks. Hetty and her brother prior to ringing and tagging. Photo credit: John Hellowell I really hope that allowing the public to follow our tagged birds’ helps raise awareness and understanding of hen harriers, encouraging recognition that hen harriers are an intrinsic part of the UK’s uplands, and that we’re all responsible for their protection.
On Saturday 8 August, RSPB staff member Jenn Lane is doing a bungee jump to raise money for hen harriers in Bowland. Here she explains why. Ever since I heard about the plight of the hen harrier, I’ve been keen to do my bit. My day job for the RSPB is working as an administrator in our Lancaster office, however, every year we get the chance to volunteer for a day elsewhere in the organisation. In June I used this opportunity to take part in a hen harrier nest watch in Bowland. Following the disappearances of four males from active nests, I was protecting the last remaining one in the area. Seeing the pair hunt against the hillside was a moving experience and I realised the full extent of what these birds are up against. I decided I really wanted to raise the profile of this wonderful bird and what better way to do it than jumping 300ft through the air. Jenn Lane The RSPB is doing all it can to help the hen harrier breed successfully and thrive once again in the face of so many obstacles. Please donate to my JustGiving page today and help save hen harriers from the brink of extinction. https://www.justgiving.com/Jennifer-Lane2/
If you haven’t already seen our new Skydancer film, please a spare 10 minutes and watch it here . Made by Northumberland-based Haltwhistle Film Project , we hope it offers an engaging and inspiring introduction to hen harriers and the challenges they face. Filmed in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Derbyshire, the work features interviews from all sides of the hen harrier debate, as well as animations and scenes from last year’s Hen Harrier Day. We would really like to know what you think of the film. Love it or hate it, please email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org . We are going to evaluate the whole Skydancer project later this year and your views will feed into our final report.
This week we hear from the newest member of the Skydancer team who tells us a bit about himself and his new role, as well as giving us an update on our sat-tagged birds, Burt and Highlander. Hello. My name is James Bray and I have just started as the RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, and my role will be to help monitor and protect Bowland’s birds of prey. As Bowland has been so important for hen harriers in England over the years, this will be very exciting and challenging work. However, I am very fortunate to be joining an incredibly dedicated and skilled team of volunteers and staff from a range of different organisations. I have been made to feel very welcome and have been really impressed with the expertise and enthusiasm that I have encountered. I previously worked for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Scotland taking part in a varied range of research projects in a range of habitats and locations. This included monitoring the wader-filled fields of the machair on the Outer Hebrides, and carrying out bird surveys on the high tops of the Cairngorms. One thing that I will not miss is the sitka spruce plantations that we occasionally had to survey – needles is a very appropriate term. I was also responsible for BTO Scotland’s training programme, running bird identification and surveying courses for volunteers, and encouraging more people to take part in bird surveying and monitoring. On my second day of work here, my colleague Gavin Thomas gave me a great introduction to Bowland by taking me to monitor a harrier roost on the edge of Bowland. Clear skies and calm conditions provided beautiful conditions and we were soon watching a couple of ringtail hen harriers drifting over the grassy slopes. I never tire of watching harriers, they are endlessly fascinating as they rock slowly from side to side, flying low over moorland, with bursts of acceleration or sudden stalls quickly followed by a drop to the ground. With a Barn Owl quartering the hillside in the background, my trip out with Gavin was a sensational way to start my time in Bowland. These two photos, taken by a nest camera at one of the successful nests on the United Utilities Bowland estate last year, provide some idea of how spectacular these birds are. Meanwhile, Burt and Highlander, both seem to have taken a liking to their wintering grounds as they are still in the same areas that they have been in since before Christmas, with Highlander on the south-east Lancashire / Yorkshire border, and Burt in Cumbria. It is likely that the relatively mild winter has allowed good numbers of voles to survive in these areas, providing plenty of food for these two birds. It is great to see these two young birds doing so well in their first winter as it is in this period that natural mortality is usually at its greatest. This map shows that their autumn wanderings have given way to a more sedentary period, although they do cover relatively large areas within their wintering grounds. As we look forward a month or two, it is possible that both birds will attempt to breed this year, particularly as so much suitable habitat is available. This is in part due to the rather disgraceful fact that that there are so few hen harriers left in England. As I join the work to try to bring hen harriers back from the brink in England, let’s hope that Burt and Highlander continue to thrive and play a practical part in the species’ future. In the meantime should you be enjoying an early spring foray into the countryside and are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please report it to the hen harrier hotline at email@example.com or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.
Recently, I’ve been hearing about the fantastic fundraising efforts of the Liverpool Liverbirds RSPB Wildlife Explorers. Leader Elaine Caldwell explains: “Back in September we held a meeting all about hen harriers to raise awareness about these beautiful birds and the problems they are facing, what the RSPB are doing, and what we as a group could do, to help”. And help they have. To raise awareness, Tessa made leaflets about hen harriers and sold them to raise £23.44. Louis, aged 10, and Carys, aged 8, (both pictured below) held a homemade cake sale in their front garden and raised £64.52. Louis said “I really enjoyed selling cakes to give money to a good cause” . Carys agreed: “It was great fun doing our cake sale for the hen harriers and we sold all our cakes.” To collect the money from their fundraising exploits, the group even decorated their own homemade collection tins. Wildlife Explorer member Joel, aged 10, explains why he wanted to fundraise for hen harriers. “When I heard about hen harriers being shot and killed I wanted to do something to help before they are extinct. I did a sponsored bike ride with my brother Rafferty (aged 7) and we raised some money to send in.” Joel and Rafferty (pictured with their homemade collection tins above) rode over 15 miles between them, and raised £69.50. John did a combination of bike riding and cake selling at school and raised £40. The group have also made a poster with hen harrier facts, played Skydancing games, and made hen harrier habitat collages: Liverpool Liverbirds have so far raised over £200, a brilliant achievement! Leader Elaine said: “We have been staggered by the money they have raised. Their activities also helped spread the word about the plight of hen harriers among family, friends, neighbours and classmates, so a great effort and great results all round. We are really proud of their achievements. T he fact they really got behind the campaign in such a big way shows that young people care about nature and are just as passionate about protecting it for the future too. This a great message for us adults to hear”. I couldn’t have put it better myself, well done and a big thank you to the Liverpool Liverbirds – you are all true Hen Harrier Heroes. The Liverpool Liverbirds aren’t the only Wildlife Explorers group who’ve been fundraising for hen harriers – both Macclesfield and Leighton Moss RSPB Wildlife Explorers have too. I’ll tell you more about that soon. So, this is the final year of Skydancer and we have lots of great things coming up that I’m really looking forward to telling you about, but what’s happening after Skydancer? Well, let me set the scene, Blánaid Denman has moved on to project manage a new and exciting hen harrier project funded through LIFE, and with that to whet your appetite I’ll leave Blánaid to tell you more in the next Skydancer blog…
Hi everyone. This is my first outing on the Skydancer blog so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Julie Chrisp and I have recently started in post as Engagement Officer with Skydancer. I am absolutely delighted to be joining the team – I’m not completely new to Skydancer, I was involved during the development phase of the project – so it’s great to be back to take Skydancer full circle. I started just before Christmas, taking over from Blánaid Denman who had worked in the role since the beginning of Skydancer in 2011 – her time with the project culminating in Skydancer winning Best Education Project in the National Lottery Awards 2014. This was a fantastic achievement by Blánaid and the team and quite some shoes for me to fill. Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be posting regular blogs to keep you up to date with all the exciting community engagement work we’ll be doing through Skydancer with schools, agricultural colleges, community groups and the wider public and telling you all about the fantastic efforts and activities people are undertaking to help hen harriers. My first official duty as Skydancer Engagement Officer was to issue Springfields First School Nature Club, near Stoke-on-Trent, with their Hen Harrier Hero Awards . 21 children from year four were presented with their certificates in a special assembly before Christmas. The children also donated their Nature Club subscription to the Hen Harrier Appeal . To gain their Hen Harrier Hero award the group took part in various hen harrier-themed activities. They drew pictures, wrote stories and poems, made hen harrier posters with five facts about hen harriers that they pledged to show to at least five people. They investigated bird of prey food chains plus the group even staged their own assembly, informing the rest of the school and year four parents about hen harriers. A fantastic effort I’m sure you’ll agree. Image of a female hen harrier Bird of prey food chain Next time, I’ll be blogging about the amazing work of the Liverpool Liverbirds RSPB Wildlife Explorers.
This week we welcome guest blogger Findlay Wilde. A passionate young conservationist, Findlay has spent the past year campaigning for hen harriers. Here, he explains how he first got interested in the bird of prey and what he has been doing to help the species. Hen harriers. Aren’t they just magnificent? Whenever I see one, I feel totally “raptorvated”. I can still remember the first time I ever saw a hen harrier. I was out on the North Wales moors. The rain splattered my face and the low cloud limited my views over the vast landscape. Despite the rain, I resolved to walk even further until a grey ghost, elegant and effortless, glided past me within 10 metres of where I stood. I gazed at it for as long as I could, before it was a distant speck, gliding easily on the wind, appearing and reappearing through the sloping hills. I was simply captivated and inspired by such a spectacle of nature. As a young conservationist, I understand that there are huge problems facing British wildlife. One of these problems is the illegal persecution of raptors, and especially of hen harriers. As more and more information was being shared by the likes of the RSPB, Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Birders Against Wildlife Crime about the declines in our breeding hen harrier population, I knew that this was my next project. I made it my goal to work hard to raise awareness and to try to reach the people who had never even heard of a hen harrier. After experiencing such a wonderful bird out in the wild, it is horrible to think about how they are being purposely killed. I continued to learn all about hen harriers, the good and the bad. People talked about how positive it was to have four breeding pairs in England in 2014 after having none in 2013. But our uplands should support more that 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers, so four pairs is just not acceptable. People I meet at conferences, talks, reserves and events frequently ask why I think saving our English hen harriers is so important. The answer is simple; hen harriers have every right to be dancing in our skies and we have to protect them. I can’t understand how people can allow extinction to take place right on their doorstep and not do anything about it. In 2014, I began “Project Harry” to help the RSPB’s Skydancer project. Harry, a 6ft hen harrier, started off as a tiny thought in the back of my mind. He was built and bought to life for a local scarecrow competition in our village. Harry spent four weeks in our living room while his feathers were drying and he then he spent another four weeks on the roof of our house, number 52 in the scarecrow competition. There was a poster put up below him, telling people all about the persecution of raptors. Findlay with Harry the Hen Harrier I quickly realised that Harry was reaching people who hadn’t heard of a hen harrier before and who were shocked to hear about the near extinction of Harry’s English relatives. Harry won the competition and the prize money was given straight to Skydancer. At this point though, I had no idea how amazing the journey I was going to have with Harry would be. On 10 th August 2014, I took Harry to the first ever Hen Harrier Day, organised by Mark Avery, Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Chris Packham in the Peak District. It was amazing to see 570 people out in driving rain, coming together to speak out against wildlife crime. Since then, Harry has been to the Rutland Birdfair on the Wildlife Crime Prevention stand, raising even more public awareness. Visitors to the fair were asked to take selfies with Harry and post them on Twitter to keep hen harriers in everyone’s hearts. Findlay with Chris Packham at Hen Harrier Day Harry has also been to BBC Autumnwatch, appearing on Autumnwatch Extra. He was again a great focal point, and it was great for me to be able to talk about hen harriers, persecution and their declines. Currently, Harry is located at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, where he is staying for the rest of the hen harrier winter roost. He is on display for all visitors to see, and every week more Harry selfies appear on Twitter. The RSPB do monthly Skydancers on the Dee events throughout winter to raise awareness about hen harriers. On these days, I get up full of enthusiasm and head off to volunteer with the RSPB’s Dan Trotman and his team. During the afternoon we talk to passersby about hen harriers and, when possible, show the birds to them through the scopes. I really enjoy conversations with all these different people and love watching their faces when they see a quartering raptor close up for the first time. Sometimes though, I admit I get a bit distracted watching across the marsh myself. Hen harrier on the Dee In December, I used a picture of Harry with a snowy background and made Wishing You A Harry Christmas cards. 500 cards were sold in just two weeks and this raised another £525 for Skydancer. More importantly, it got the hen harrier story in to 500 homes over Christmas. Harry was just one small project, but he has made a very big impact. For a while, social media was filled with images of this 6ft imposing giant. I like to think that Harry has inspired people, and that some of them will do something positive to help protect our wildlife. This started out as just a small project and look how it’s turned out. Imagine if we did a larger-scale project; imagine if we all worked on something huge together. I have an idea or two of course! I am not sure what will happen to Harry after his winter roost; I hope he can continue to raise awareness, but I am bursting with great new ideas for the future. I feel more and more confident that all of us; NGOs and other organisations can work together to change things. I for one can’t wait to be a part of the movement making a positive difference and filling the skies with dancers. Read Findlay’s regular blog at http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/ Follow Findlay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/wildeaboutbirds
This week we’ve got a guest blog from Laurence Rose, former RSPB Northern England Director and a composer, who talks about his hen harrier-inspired composition, Skydancer. I first saw hen harriers skydancing in the late seventies. It was in the Forest of Bowland and the memory of the birds, and the place – which I came to know intimately in later years – is still vivid. I remember watching the effortless and buoyant flight of a male harrier and noting how it seemed to trace a gently undulating line that matched the shape of Tarnbrook Fell. Then a sudden burst of energy and a rocketing flight as a female appeared from nowhere. Both birds rose to describe a sharper curve, she twisted, he swerved and a speck of prey flew between them. Then, a serene separation as sudden as the dance itself. On another occasion, I was walking Clougha Fell, across the valley. It was June and the air was still and warm and peat-scented. My path took me past a gritstone outcrop where I was greeted by a sudden wind that threw ice crystals in my face before subsiding back to nothing. For years I was fascinated by these lines and rhythms. The shapes of the fells against the sky, how they change with the light. And the patterns of energy as the wind plays around the rocks or the birds play along the wind. As a composer, I never stop thinking about line and rhythm. Seeing it in a landscape is half way to writing it in a score: just add notes! Last weekend the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra (LCCO) premiered my Skydancer , a short piece that is a direct response to the grandeur and the minutiae of the fells and their inhabitants. For me, the most important rhythms in music are the big ones, the ones that define the structure of a piece and the flow of energy across its span: the landscape. Rhythm at a smaller scale, like the movements of birds or the sounds of the weather, characterise the moment. The LCCO had asked for a piece “playable by a good amateur orchestra.” I knew Skydancer would be borderline. I needed it to progress in gradually-shifting, hazy harmonies; no block chords to signpost the route. Bursts of energy had to be in the form of complex cross-rhythms, as they always are in nature. Difficult stuff, but “good amateur orchestra” turned out to be an understatement: it was an impressive performance. I just don’t write music that is about something, or so I always tell people. The decision to give this piece a title that even hints at what composers pompously call an “extra-musical idea” wasn’t easy. My music is supposed to be what it is and no more – notes on a page, or in the air if someone actually plays it: abstract music, like in the old days. But I heard that the RSPB Skydancer project had been nominated for (and has now won) this year’s national Lottery Award for Best Education Project. At the same time, momentum behind the inaugural Hen Harrier Day was picking up, while news of yet more atrocities against this wonderful species continued to filter through. Having written a piece that owes so much to my early experiences of fell-walking in what remains of England’s hen harrier country, I couldn’t really not call it Skydancer .
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that we have been trying to find out what happened to Sky and Hope, two young hen harriers that fledged from nests in Bowland this year. We were tracking the movements of these birds by satellite but their tags suddenly stopped transmitting last month, within days of each other. No bodies have been recovered. Satellite technology is normally extremely reliable so it is most likely that Sky and Hope were either victims of natural predation or illegal persecution. Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit were notified about the disappearance of these birds. However, without any sufficient evidence to work with, they are currently unable to progress any investigation. If you spend time in the Bowland area you might be able to help. Has anyone been talking about the fate of the birds locally? Gamekeepers, in particular, spend more time on the moors than anyone else and could have come across something. If you’re a member of this community, do you know anything about the fate of the harriers that you’d be willing to share in complete confidence? We are offering a £1,000 reward for any information that leads to a conviction, should it emerge that one or both birds were illegally killed. Here are the facts: Sky’s last transmission was at 7.33pm on Wednesday 10 September at Summersgill Fell, west of Thrushgill, in the Forest of Bowland. Hope’s last transmission was at 10.51am on the Saturday 13 September at Mallowdale Pike, also in the Forest of Bowland, 2.5km south-west of Sky’s last position. Blue squares show location of final transmissions from Hope (left) and Sky (right) If you have any information about either birds, please contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0845 466 3636.
As we are currently recruiting a new Skydancer Engagement Officer , I am acting as temporary caretaker for this blog. My name is Chris Collett and I’m the RSPB’s communications manager for Northern England. It’s is my job to get our conservation projects in the pages of our regional newspapers and magazines, and on TV and radio. Last week, I was kept very busy with the story about the missing Bowland hen harriers, Sky and Hope. As you are probably aware, these young satellite-tagged birds, stopped transmitting last month and have vanished without a trace. There has been a huge amount of interest in Sky and Hope from the national and regional media. Our Head of Investigations Bob Elliot was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 and the story was covered on the BBC News website and in the Daily Telegraph. Regionally, there was a report on BBC North West Tonight and several pieces on BBC Radio Lancashire, as well as many column inches in the local papers. We also had a huge response on Twitter and Facebook, with loads of people expressing their sadness about the missing birds. The Skydancer project is all about inspiring people about hen harriers so this level of media and public interest is heartening. The disappearance of Sky and Hope has been devastating for the Skydancer team, particularly for the staff and volunteers who protected them around the clock on the United Utilities Bowland Estate when they were chicks. However, the fact that lots of people care enough to be upset by the news, gives us cause for optimism. The English hen harrier remains teetering the brink of extinction as breeding bird but I believe it can and will recover. Generally, nature conservation works on the principles of democracy. If enough people call for a species to be saved, there is a much greater chance it will be.