Return of the sky dancer – hen harriers breed successfully in Peak District for the first time in eight years

Return of the sky dancer – hen harriers breed successfully in Peak District for the first time in eight years

Female Hen Harrier in Upper Derwent 2014 credit Peak District Raptor Study Group

Image courtesy of Mike Price – Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group

Five hen harrier chicks have successfully fledged on National Trust land in the Upper Derwent Valley – the first time hen harriers have bred successfully in the Peak District for eight years.

This a  result of a wide partnership of people and organisations that have worked together to protect the birds and their nest as part of the National Trust’s High Peak Moors Vision for the area, which aims to restore birds of prey as part of a rich and healthy environment.


Hen harriers have been at serious threat in England for more than sixty years with numbers plummeting primarily due to illegal persecution. Last year, just two breeding pairs were reported in the country and no young fledged for the first time in over 50 years.

Male Hen Harrier 02 May 2014 by Dave Simmonite

Image courtesy of Dave Simmonite

From late April two male hen harriers and a female were seen sky-dancing – the hen harrier’s incredible aerobatic mating routine.  The birds then left the area but, in early August, a nest containing five healthy chicks was discovered by Geoff Eyre – a local National Trust shooting tenant – who alerted the Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative.



A nest watch team, providing daily monitoring, was then put in place by the Initiative – the partnership set up to help secure the future of some of the area’s most iconic birds.

Jon Stewart, the National Trust’s General Manager for the Peak District, said: “Having hen harriers breed successfully here in the Peak District is wonderful news and would not have been possible without the hard work and commitment of all the people and organisations involved, which has been truly inspiring.  Trust, collaboration and a protocol to limit unintentional disturbance have all played important parts.

“Our High Peak Moors Vision sets out a strong and clear commitment to increase the number of birds of prey on the land that we care for in the Peak District.  This can only happen by working closely with tenants and partners, including the grouse-shooting community, which has been very supportive of this successful breeding attempt.

“The vision for the land that we manage is all about enhancing the quality of the habitat, enabling nature to flourish.

“This success is the first step towards a sustainable future for these magnificent birds; a future that can only be achieved by everyone continuing to work together, both here and across the English uplands.”

Jamie Horner, Project Officer with the Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative, said “It’s been brilliant to see everyone working together to help this breeding pair of hen harriers succeed and I hope it bodes well for birds of prey and wildlife generally in the Peak District.  Of course we also want people to be able to enjoy these spectacular birds so please let us know of sightings but please also respect the birds’ space and avoid disturbing them.”

Hen harrier being sat tagged credit Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Image courtesy of Tim Birch – Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Satellite-tagging will enable the birds’ progress to be tracked through the National Hen Harrier Recovery Project led by Natural England, helping us learn more about their movements and behaviour. Sightings of the birds can also be reported via a hen harrier hotline (0845 4600121 – calls charged at local rate) and email  (  Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid       reference where possible.

The news of the hen harrier chicks follows the successful breeding of peregrines earlier this year.  In June, a pair of peregrines nested and two chicks hatched and fledged from Alport Castles, a traditional nesting site that has been unsuccessful for several years.  Early indications show that merlin and goshawk have also bred successfully in the area. 


The Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative

The Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative is made up of the National Trust, Natural England, the RSPB, Peak District National Park Authority and the Moorland Association. The Initiative was set up in 2011 after its members recognised the need for collective action in helping to improve the condition for birds of prey in this part of England.

The Initiative works together to provide experience and resource in monitoring and protecting birds of prey and their nesting sites, working locally with land managers and bird study groups, including the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, South Peak Raptor Study Group and Sheffield Bird Study Group.

The initiative also works closely with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

National Trust High Peak Moors Vision

The Trust launched one of its biggest and most ambitious landscape-scale nature conservation initiatives in the Peak District in 2013.  The vision aims to inspire people and involve them in restoring a landscape of healthy peat bogs, diverse heaths and natural woodland rich in wildlife.

The Vision and Plan Summary can be accessed here:

and there is more about it here:

Hen Harriers

The hen harrier (Circus cyaneas) is known for its ‘skydancing’ to attract a mate and its spectacular airborne food passes to the female.

Hen harriers are slim birds. The males are blue-grey with a white rump, pale underside and black wing tips. Females are brown above, streaky below, with a white rump and banded tail.

An adult hen harrier measures between 48-55cm with a wingspan of 1.1 metres. On average they have a lifespan of seven years. In the British uplands they feed on a variety of small mammals such as voles and small birds, such as meadow pipits as well as young red grouse and other ground-nesting birds.

The few hen harriers that continue to breed in England nest amongst heather on upland moorland, tending to spend winter in the lowlands. In the past hen harriers used to breed in heathlands and grasslands in the lowlands of England but were ‘shot out’ in Victorian times.  Hen harriers like to return to nest in the area in which they themselves were hatched. So although they frequently winter in the English lowlands, they no longer nest there. Sadly today they are the most endangered breeding bird of prey in England.

The Hen Harrier Recovery Project

Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project was established in 2002 to target conservation action and monitor the numbers of breeding hen harriers in England. Prior to 2002, conservation efforts for hen harriers focused primarily on protecting the birds at their breeding sites, even though most hen harriers spend less than a third of the year in breeding areas. Given their migratory tendencies it was agreed that in order to protect and conserve the hen harrier we first needed to know more about its movements and behaviour outside the breeding season. For the first time new tracking technologies were used to enable us to increase our knowledge of hen harrier dispersal ecology during the non-breeding season, and to identify important areas in which to focus future conservation efforts.

For further information, see Natural England’s feature about the satellite tracking project.

About Mike Price

A member of Sorby Breck Ringing Group and Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group
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1 Response to Return of the sky dancer – hen harriers breed successfully in Peak District for the first time in eight years

  1. Pingback: Details of 4th English hen harrier nest revealed | Raptor Persecution Scotland

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