The search for skydancers sparks into life

RSPB Media Release

A round-the-clock nest protection operation is once again ready to swing into action with the RSPB asking people who spend time in the uplands of northern England to keep their eyes peeled for hen harriers – England’s most threatened bird of prey.


Hen Harrier with her brood of 4 chicks. Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

Now in its eighth year, the Hen Harrier Hotline has been relaunched by the conservation charity with the aim of discovering where these rare birds of prey may be nesting.

Research has shown that the English uplands have enough suitable habitats to give a home to at least 320 pairs of breeding hen harriers, but last year there were only four successful nests in the whole country. Hen harriers breed in remote upland locations so the RSPB relies on walkers and cyclists to inform them of their location. The conservation charity can then put measures in place to protect the nest from harm.

Martin Harper, RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “Sadly hen harriers are a much rarer sight in the northern uplands than they should be, one reason being illegal persecution. But if you are lucky enough to see one, it’s an experience that will live with you forever. The male’s courting ritual is a particular stunning spectacle; a series of breathtaking swoops and somersaults that earns it the name skydancer.”

Hen harriers are in trouble largely because of ongoing illegal persecution. In addition to their diet of small birds and mammals, hen harriers sometimes eat grouse, which brings them into conflict with the driven grouse shooting community. This type of shooting requires huge numbers of game birds and some game managers feel they need to illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their business.

Martin Harper added: “Breeding hen harriers are so rare that any sighting is extremely important. We have dedicated staff and volunteers ready to protect nests around the clock but we can only do so if we know where they are. I would urge anyone who spends time in our uplands to keep an eye out for these stunning birds and get in touch with us if they see one.”

Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as “ghostbirds” because of the pale colour of their plumage.

Female hen harriers are slightly larger, owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have obvious horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname “ringtail” and a patch of white just above, on the rump.

The Hen Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be emailed to All reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible.

The Hen Harrier Hotline is part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and United Utilities, with additional support from the Forestry Commission. For more information about the project, visit

This year, Skydancer’s monitoring and protection work will be getting an extra boost from the RSPB’s new European-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, an ambitious, five-year project, which aims to expand on hen harrier conservation work across northern England, and southern and eastern Scotland. For more information about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit

Red Grouse Moor on fire 02 (1 of 1)

Moorland  set ablaze today by gamekeepers, former location of two nesting pairs of Hen Harrier.


2 comments to The search for skydancers sparks into life

  • Paul Tresto

    I thought it was illegal to destroy breeding sites of protected species – in fact is it not illegal to destroy nest sites of any birds? This looks like a deliberate attempt to stop ground nesting raptors from settling to nest. Where was the photograph taken? I expect it is the Abbeystead Estate as it it common to see the heather burning up there at the start of the nesting season. What about the upland waders, they will also be impacted. Of course they do not eat grouse whereas the target of the burning, the Hen Harrier, is perceived to be the primary predator of grouse (wrongly as it is man who kills the majority of them). How does this fit with the RSPB Media Release?? Do they support burning heather at this time of the year?

  • Kevin moore

    The photograph was taken on the abbeystead estate and as for the rspb, they will sit back and say nothing to the land owner as usual