Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, female in flight against blue sky, Geltsdale, Cumbria

About the Skydancer project

Despite its status as England's most threatened bird of prey, most people have never even heard of a hen harrier. Though once seen, it is rarely forgotten.

About Skydancer

Hen harriers are graceful birds of prey, best known for their aerobatic spring courtship displays, known as 'skydancing', and the spectacular passing of food from males to females while in flight.

Skydancer was a four-year project (October 2011 - October 2015), with the aim of protecting and promoting the conservation of hen harriers across their remaining breeding stronghold in northern England.

A hearts and minds project, it focused on practical conservation and community engagement in communities in and around the Forest of Bowland, RSPB Geltsdale nature reserve and North Tynedale in Northumberland.

Throughout this project we:

  • Protected hen harriers and their habitat with nest protection schemes.
  • Worked closely with landowners, managers and game organisations to find solutions to conflict, so that hen harriers and grouse moors can thrive alongside one another.
  • Worked with local communities to educate and enthuse them about hen harriers.
  • Helped people learn more about hen harriers and experience these birds for themselves.
Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female perched on heather, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, June 2002

The history of hen harriers

Once present throughout the UK, hen harriers fell from grace with the rise of driven grouse shooting in the 19th century.

A ground-nesting bird of heather moorland, hen harriers mainly eat small birds and mammals like meadow pipits and field voles, though they will occasionally take red grouse chicks. This made them unpopular with Victorian gamekeepers and estate managers, who were keen to get rid of any predators that might reduce the number of grouse available for shooting.

The resulting persecution, coupled with lowland habitat loss, drove breeding hen harriers to extinction on mainland Britain by 1900.

Hen harrier, female at nest of eggs in heather

Back on the brink

Land-use changes following World War II and new wildlife protection laws helped hen harriers to naturally re-colonise England by 1958, but they face an uncertain future yet again.

A 2011 government-commissioned report, the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework, shows that although there is enough suitable habitat for more than 320 breeding pairs in England, ongoing illegal killing and disturbance continue to keep hen harrier numbers perilously low.

The situation is so critical that in 2011, there were only four successful breeding attempts in the whole of England, all on a single estate in the Forest of Bowland owned by the water company, United Utilities and co-managed by the RSPB. 

Research has shown that on some moors, in certain situations, when hen harriers are numerous, they can have an impact on the number of red grouse available to shoot.

We understand that driven grouse shooting is important to many people and recognise the concerns of grouse moor owners. However, if the present situation continues, breeding hen harriers could be lost from England for a second time.

We're determined not to let that happen.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, female manoeuvering in flight, Geltsdale, Cumbria

Finding a way forward

We will continue to campaign for the government to maintain and strengthen legislation relating to crimes against birds of prey.

Research is also ongoing, in partnership with a range of organisations through the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, to devise and test out practical solutions to the hen harrier-grouse issue.

However, this is only part of the solution. If hen harriers are to be saved we need to inspire people to value these magnificent creatures, winning over hearts and minds for a world richer in wildlife where hen harriers and grouse moors can thrive alongside one another.

That's where Skydancer comes in!

Skydancer was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, United Utilities, SITA Trust with additional support from the Forestry Commission.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult male perched in flight with twig, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve