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The Hen Harrier Carnival comes to town

Last modified: 19 July 2013

Female hen harrier in flight

The future of hen harriers in England currently hangs by a thread.

Image: Steve Round

The RSPB has teamed up with a North East circus troupe to create a new spectacular outdoor performance inspired by England’s most threatened breeding bird of prey, the hen harrier.

Developed by Newcastle-based Circus Central, the Hen Harrier Circus Show uses aerial acrobats, jugglers and unicyclists to tell the fictional story of the last remaining pair of these moorland birds in England and the gamekeeper who, inspired by their graceful flight, comes to their rescue.

Blánaid Denman of the RSPB explains the inspiration behind the project: “Hen harriers are famed for their aerobatic courtship displays and mid-air food passes so circus is the perfect medium to celebrate these amazing birds and draw attention to their decline. Their Latin name is Circus cyaneus so you could say that this is a Circus circus.”    

Helen Averley, Director of Circus Central, says: “We hope to inform and inspire people to be concerned about the plight of the hen harrier, while at the same time entertain them.”

Hannah Thompson, who is directing the show, says: "It's wonderful to work on something that is so close to home and to be able to make a difference through art and performance, engaging with people on matters that affect us today.”

It’s a fictional story but one that is close to the bone, as the future of hen harriers in England currently hangs by a thread. It is estimated that the upland heath and blanket bogs of England should have around 320 pairs of nesting hen harriers but last year, there was only one breeding pair in the whole of England and this year is shaping up to be an equally disastrous season for the species.

Blanaid continues: “Unlike buzzards and kestrels, which are familiar, everyday sights to many people, hen harriers exist in remote and often inaccessible locations. Through the Hen Harrier Carnival, we aim to bring the magic of hen harriers and the moorland landscape to people in a celebration of this incredibly unique part of North East wildlife. We hope these events will inspire people to want to save these beautiful birds while they still can.”

Sadly, the species is affected by continuing illegal persecution, normally associated with intensively managed aspects of the grouse shooting industry. A recent Government report concluded that illegal killing and disturbance is the biggest single factor limiting the population of this species in Northern England.

Blánaid explains: “We know that there are people in the shooting community who like us, feel that there is no place for these illegal practices in modern gamekeeping. In choosing to make the gamekeeper the hero of the day we want to celebrate those who value birds of prey like hen harriers as a natural part of the moorland.”

The show is the centrepiece of a range of fun, hen harrier-themed family activities at The Alnwick Garden on Saturday 27 July, and will be performed again at the Greenhead Village Duck Day on Sunday 28 July. It forms part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project which aims to work with the shooting community and the wider public to raise awareness and promote the conservation of hen harriers in the English uplands.

The Hen Harrier Show will be performed between 10am and 4pm at The Alnwick Garden on 27 July. The show and activities are free but normal entrance fee to the Garden will apply. The Greenhead Village Duck Day on 28 July starts at 1pm and is free (postcode CA8 7HB).

For more information about the Skydancer project, visit

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