Skydancer returns

four grey hen harrier chicks in nest

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 the High Peak moors, and the four chicks fledged successfully.

The bird’s nickname comes from its amazing acrobatic flight, and now it’s really 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.

We have been on a mission for some years now to work with other moorland lovers to create the right conditions for the hen harrier and other birds of prey to thrive again on the High Peak moors.

Harriers feed on small mammals like voles along with ground nesting birds, such as pipits, but they can take game birds like red grouse and their young, particularly when vole numbers are low. Despite being protected by law, 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.

Male hen harrier 'skydancer' in flight
male silver and black hen harrier in flight grey sky
Male hen harrier 'skydancer' in flight

We lease much of the High Peak moorland for grouse shooting, and all shooting tenants have signed up to actively support our High Peak Moors Vision, working to improve numbers of 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 National Trust staff and volunteers, members of the South Peak Raptor Study Group, and Natural England. With support from our our members we bought nest cameras to watch the chicks and parents.

We asked the public to suggest names for one male and one female- the most popluar choices via social media were Octavia and Arthur, after Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust and Sir Arthur Hobhouse who proposed the National Parks Legislation Act. You can look out for updates on their progress online, on our social media channels:.https://www.facebook.com/PeakDistrictNT/ or https://twitter.com/peakdistrictnt

Female hen harrier in flight
female brown hen harrier in flight carrying grass in beak
Female hen harrier in flight

Chicks from the nest have been ringed and fitted with small satellite trackers under the RSPB and European Commission funded ‘Hen Harrier LIFE+’ project. The tags monitor the birds’ movements as they leave the nest and grow into adults so we are be able to track them wherever they go, and hopefully see them return to breed successfully in the Peak District again. You can follow the young hen harriers’ movements via social media and the RSPB LIFE+ project’s internet site. 

Update September 2018:

There was great delight and optimism when the young fledged their nest in August. Sadly this was short lived, as just a few days weeks later the RSPB told us the satellite tag Octavia was wearing had suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting. Her last known location showed she had moved to an area of privately-owned land which is managed for driven grouse shooting, and despite people searching, no sign of it or her have been found. Octavia’s disappearance is being investigated by the police, and we are doing everything we can to help with their investigation.

This is a huge disappointment for us. There was a huge collective effort from the Trust and our partners, including our grouse shooting tenant, to see these birds got the start in life their species so badly needs.  We’ve shown over the last few years we are more than ready to play our part in restoring the fortunes of one of Britain’s most spectacular and rare birds of prey.  As part of that we are trying to help show that grouse shooting can be compatible with healthy bird of prey populations.  To sustain this aim we need results and we believe everyone involved in grouse shooting needs to be on the same page.

Despite this incredibly sad news, 2018 has been a good year for many breeding birds of prey across the High Peak Moors. Thanks to the tireless work of the local raptor monitoring groups and our own volunteers, we know there are have been 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. The remaining chicks’ progress will continue to be monitored via their satellite trackers funded through the  ‘Hen Harrier LIFE+’ project, and we very much hope that we might see them return to breed successfully in the Peak District once more.