One of UKs most persecuted birds is returning to the Peak

Female hen harrier with nest material
Female hen harrier with nest material

Volunteers from the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group look out for hen harriers, alongside National Trust staff and Natural England representatives.

This year, the ‘skydancer’ has returned to the Peak District.

After four years of absence, a hen harrier nest was found this spring by a volunteer on local moorland owned by the National Trust, and the four chicks began fledging last week.

“It’s great news about this fantastic bird,” said Jon Stewart, the National Trust’s General Manager for the Peak District.

“The hen harrier has been one of the most illegally persecuted birds of prey in Britain for a long time, and we have been on a mission for some years now to work with other moorland lovers to create the conditions for the harrier and other raptors to thrive again in our uplands.”

The hen harrier is famous for its spectacular ’skydance’, where the silver and black male dives and climbs over and over again to attract a female.

“Harriers feed on small mammals like voles along with ground nesting birds, such as pipits,” said National Trust ecologist Chris Wood. “But they can take game birds like red grouse and their young, particularly when vole numbers are low. Despite being protected by law, scientific studies have found that hen harrier numbers in the UK have been constrained by illegal population control associated with grouse moor management. Working with our tenants we are trying to show it doesn’t have to be like this.”

Shooting, trapping or poisoning the birds, destroying their nests, or just deliberately disturbing them are all forbidden by law across the UK.

The National Trust leases much of its High Peak moorland for grouse shooting, and all shooting tenants have signed up to actively support the conservation charity’s High Peak Moors Vision, which specifically calls for the protection and encouragement of all birds of prey.

The gamekeeper working for the tenant of the moorland where the nest was found has joined volunteers from the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group in looking out for the birds, alongside Trust staff and volunteers, members of the South Peak Raptor Study Group, and Natural England.

Nest cameras bought by the Trust’s Peak District and Sheffield Association Members Groups cover the nest day and night, and also show the food brought in by the adults.

Chicks from the nest were ringed and fitted with small satellite trackers last week under the RSPB and European Commission funded ‘Hen Harrier LIFE+’ project. The tags will monitor the birds’ movements as they leave the nest and grow into adults.

“This means we will be able to track the birds wherever they go, and hopefully we might see them return to breed successfully in the Peak District again,” said Jon Stewart adding that the public will soon be able to follow the young hen harriers’ movements via social media and the RSPB LIFE+ project’s internet site.

2018 looks like being a good year for breeding birds of prey across the High Peak Moors, said Chris Wood.

“Thanks to the tireless work of the local raptor monitoring groups and our own volunteers, we know there are successful nests for goshawk, peregrine falcons, merlin and buzzard, and the short-eared owl seems to be breeding on the moors in the largest numbers for quite a few years.”

It’s likely the warm weather has been good for prey like voles and pipits, he added.

In the past, the hen harrier would have been plentiful on Peak District moors, said Chris, but years of persecution have led to their dramatic decline, with research estimating there is sufficient habitat in England to sustain at least 300 pairs of hen harrier - but last year there were only three successful nests in England.

Jon Stewart said: “We hope the partnership working in the Peak District and changing attitudes among grouse moor managers will mean the skydancer is now here to stay on the High Peak, and elsewhere in England.”

“I have never yet seen a hen harrier,” said the National Trust’s Helen Wright. “The bird’s nickname comes from its acrobatic flight, and it’s exciting that more of us will now be able to see the skydance of a bird that’s been rare for such a long time.”

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Pictures by: John Beatty; Dave Simmonite; Danny Green; PDRMG; Laurie Campbell; Peter Brown; National Trust; Andrew Capell.