Sunday, 12 February 2017

Those Thought Provoking Hen Harriers

Circus cyaneus, the hen harrier. The bird at the centre of so much controversy, and yet it is a bird that once seen is never forgotten.  It has the power to stop people in their tracks and take them to another place as you will see when you read through this blog post.  

This blog post is, at a simple level, just a collection of thoughts on seeing a hen harrier (I asked a few people to write 100 words on how they feel when they see a hen harrier). But as you read through you will see that it is so much more than that. When I first thought about putting this post together, I knew that people would have great things to say about how seeing a hen harrier makes them feel, but I totally underestimated just how beautiful everyone's words would be. It's almost as if people felt that they really had to do the bird justice, and they all really have.

So please enjoy a blog post that no-one can argue with, no-one can disagree with, no-one can say is wrong; a post about how a single moment in nature can make you feel.  


There’s no other moment quite like it. No matter how many times I see this bird, I am silenced as I watch in awe. This majestic figure floats effortlessly over the landscape, with the ability to stun all observers. No one forgets their first, the anticipation is immense and moment is treasured. You can almost feel the tension when this ghostly character appears, prey fleeing from the undergrowth. This is soon replaced with excitement as its pristine plumage twists and turns through the air. The Hen Harrier is a special bird.
Daniel Gornall @Dan_Gornall

Picture by Daniel Gornall


All wild life always captures my heart and my mind. My wellbeing is measured by exposure to nature. A dose of the wild keeps me happy, challenged and inspired. Then you discover an animal that beyond expectation adds some extra wonderment. My first experience of seeing a hen harrier did just that. This handsome creature was a robust, energetic, masterful male, and, I have to admit that I was totally entranced. Its shape, colouring and self confidence in its abilities all hit that soft spot. Electric and exciting. The perfect concoction. A female would have crushed me too. Love at first sight is guaranteed. Believe me. Go see!
Alexia Fishwick @AlexiaRFishwick


When I first saw a hen harrier I was 10 and it was probably one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me! It soared through the air, barely even flapping its wings. I also felt so angry that people would persecute this graceful, amazing bird. It enlightened my heart to see it hunting for its prey, with no persecution in sight. As we had been on a long walk over RSPB Geltsdale moor, the sight of this magnificent bird would stay with me for life! It was truly magical.
Jack Farrell @NatureBoyJack11


On 29th May, 2013, whilst on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, I was standing in a lay-by, from which Short-eared Owl and Black Grouse could be seen, when pal Jim called out ‘Hen Harrier’. Heading down the valley towards us, beautifully illuminated in the early evening sun (it was 18h49), was a magnificent male Hen Harrier.  All thoughts of owls and grouse were immediately dispelled as it continued and flew at low level, to pass us at distance of about 500 metres – my most memorable moments of a bird-filled holiday.
Richard Pegler @RichardPegler1

Picture by Richard Pegler

Yomping up a heather clad hill, reminding myself how unfit I am and that I’m not cut out for fieldwork these days. But the thought of glimpsing a bird I spend so much time talking about, but so rarely see keeps me going. Jumping at every shape coming out of the mist, but no, it’s just a heron. And then there it is. A grey shape emerging and disappearing as quickly as it came, filling me with euphoria tinged with sadness at such a rare sight.
Jeff Knott @jazzy_jeff44


There I was literally sat on a fence overlooking a rough grassy sludge tank with patches of phragmities choking the last of life from a once productive muddy area. I was in my teens and I was about to take the long walk home with my beloved border collie 'Pele'. Across the fields a ghostlike phantom appeared gently floating above the gathering mist. The brown plumage and white band above the tail immediately told me it was a 'rintail' Hen Harrier. This bird for me is a mythical waif that appears rarely but when it does it's always warmly welcome.
Bill Morton @FrodshamBirder


Its about buoyancy, about pushing against gravity with feathers, those lightweight, fragile wefts which make wings and things, which throw beauty high into the sky, to frolic, to roll and sweep and slide, to ring up and stall, with the confidence to fall, earthwards fast and then to find that invisible trampoline to bounce back to dance again, to dance in the sky, that great volume beyond our rooted reach, to where our hearts can be flung by the simple thrill of watching this bird.
Chris Packham @ChrisGPackham


A chilly, early morning on Mull - we'd already heard the bellowing of red deer stags and we were taking the long route back to the car. Suddenly, across a small valley, perhaps 150 yards away a male hen harrier low to the ground. The sheer pleasure at seeing this ghost was overwhelming - all the more because it was unexpected - gave way to admiration of its hunting skills. Remembering to breath and willing it to stay longer, the only disappointment was felt as it disappeared from view. Then elation again at the remembrance.
Paul @vivthesetter


The last time I saw a hen harrier was just over Christmas with my son in the tower hide overlooking Wicken Fen at dusk. While a starling murmuration began to build and a parliament of rooks created a cacophony, we were captivated by the grace and steel of a male hen harrier. We watched it fly away from us until our eyes strained and we could see it no more. It was a fitting climax to a great day. But, walking back we talked about the conflict that has engulfed this species and threatened its future. A conflict that has polarised opinion, created anger and passions on both sides and led to seemingly endless debate about its future. But, in the end it is just another species threatened by the actions of humans – and that is why it is why the best adjective to sum up hen harrier is “totemic”. It is a reminder of how our species continues to exploit the millions of other species with which we share this planet which, in turn, threatens our own survival. Save the hen harrier and we may just learn to save ourselves.
Martin Harper @martinRSPB


Never had I seen a Hen Harrier - or really thought about one, until meeting Finn at our Ecotricity young Green Briton Debate in 2015. It was truly very special to see my first with Finn and his family, last April (2016). The build-up was like waiting for the start of a Show – one that you’ve been dying to see but you’re not really sure what to expect, other than knowing it’s going to be spectacular! It really was! First, we observed a short-eared owl, redshank and water rail – and then, at last – we saw what we’d hoped for, our first Hen Harrier – in fact more than one! They were so elegant as they glided backwards and forwards. It felt as if they were teasing us, as if they knew we’d been waiting a while, just for them - and their shop-stopping performance. Ever since that day I’ve taken to watching the skies - in the hope that I’ll see my next...........................
Helen Taylor @HelenTaylor_eco


I always go home happy if I see a Hen Harrier. They are rare, they are beautiful and they are exciting. Always on the move, always actively searching for prey, they draw the eye like no other raptor. You have to watch them when they are in sight and you hope for their return when they are gone. Seeing a Hen Harrier makes my day.
Dr Mark Avery @MarkAvery


Emotions when I see a HH. Joy and wonder are the first words that spring to mind when I see a hen harrier. Nowadays I usually see them at a roosting or foraging site in Essex. The feelings of joy and wonder quickly subsides when I ponder the fate of these magnificent birds when they return to their upland breeding grounds.
Dr Rob Sheldon @_robsheldon 


I first saw a hen harrier (two actually!) on Sunday 19th July 2015 at RSPB Geltsdale. I'm still not sure what gave me the most joy, the spectacle of the hen harriers themselves or the fact I shared it with my husband and children. But I do remember my heart stirred and soared watching those magnificent hen harriers. However the joy was also mixed with other emotions - sadness at the uncertainty of ever seeing a hen harrier in flight again, and anger at those who wilfully set out to persecute our wonderful birds of prey, and deprive my children of them.
Samantha Farrell @BlackLabrador10

Jack & Lucy at RSPB Geltsdale


I've never seen a hen harrier. I live in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, perfect upland territory for raptors of all sorts and in five years the only raptors I've seen are a few buzzards, and that felt miraculous. I have booked a holiday to Islay because I can't bear the idea I might die before I see a Hen Harrier in the wild. I'll let you know how I feel when I see one. Right now I mostly feel furious about the lack of raptors in our National Parks.
Nick Miles @nick_miles_


My first hen harrier sighting was fleeting. It came 20 years ago when I was standing on the summit of Mt Yoash in Israel as part of a team counting the spring raptor migration. My binoculars were trained on the thousands of gliding steppe buzzards & black kites, trying not to lose count, when a lone male hen harrier flapped through my field of vision and was gone. I didn’t think twice about that first one; it was a tiny part of a much wider picture. It’s ironic that these days I treasure every single glimpse I can get, precisely because this species has itself become symbolic of a much wider tragedy.
Ruth Tingay @RuthTingay 


Drifting through the mist of a January dusk came my first hen harrier. Grey wings quartering the reeds on a grey winter’s day. Years later, starting a job in conservation, my first hill had revealed just how unfit I was. As I recovered, sat in the heather a merlin flashed past. In the distance those grey wings again, now catching the sun as over and over a male hen harrier threw himself into his skydance. With my eye in, two more on nearby hill tops. Hen harriers animate the landscape, their presence thrilling as I share their world.
Andre Farrar @andrefarrar


Driving along a well-used upland road there it was. Not far over the fence a little way up the moor a ghostly pale grey shape shining bright against the dark end-of-winter heather. We just had to pull over to enjoy the spectacle. Almost in awe I watched as it wafted effortlessly low over the ground like a child’s kite on a short string, taking advantage of little updrafts of air it gracefully kept airborne without stalling. How amazing it looked as it gave a thrilling display of just doing what they do best - precision flying. An unexpected treat!
Dave McGrath @DaveyManMcG


Early morning and the light was just enough for me to see through the twisted branches of a Hawthorne hedgerow. A large pale bird was flying low to the ground, it couldn't be, my heart started pounding as I tried to get a better view. I ran along the hedge to a clearing as a moonlit pale grey male Hen Harrier banked left and glided right in front of me, its piercing yellow eyes giving me a stare. It flew away from me and hugged the ground at a height of a couple of feet, then with a slight flick of its tail it turned left again and quartered the meadow. I watched in awe for 5 minutes before it headed for the other side of the reserve and out of view. I was shaking and realised I'd never even thought of lifting my binoculars or camera, the whole experience was raw and unforgettable. I've seen Hen Harriers since and its always a real treat but that first UK bird was so personal as it was on my patch.
Stewart Abbott @birdman1066


I’d been waiting and watching in the cold for well over an hour on a hilltop in my local Hertfordshire with 2 pals and another birder who I didn’t know. Suddenly my reward appeared in the form of a ring tailed hen harrier ghosting along the bottom of the hill. I’d seen rarer birds but none had given me the sense of euphoria that this one did. It was special, iconic, enigmatic, magnificent. I failed to contain my excitement and had to explain to the stranger that this was my first hen harrier. Needless to say he understood.
Paul Frost @FrostyBirding


The first time is an unforgettable moment, suspended in a place reserved for monumental things. It rose from the Sitka like a shadow and shot out and upwards, a second later it was joined by another male and they artfully twisted, turned and jubilantly soared. If I had a superpower it would be to fly, in those 2 minutes I did because I'm sure I soared that day too. I was amongst them, or at least my heart was, it still is. I will continue to be an advocate for the Hen Harrier, when you give your heart to something you need to fight for it, to keep it alive, so that others can fall in love too.
Dara McAnulty @naturalistdara


I was walking alone on the Hebridean island of Eigg this summer when I spied a pallid shape hugging the contours of the moor on long thin wings. A hen harrier – a souped up hot rod assembled from bits of owl, hobby, swift and hawk – like no other bird in Britain. Its owl-like face swivelled, it knew I was there. Then it expertly banked, threatening to land, violently, on a hidden vole, before disappearing over the edge of the mountain. For once, I could simply enjoy it, with none of the usual anxiety: there are no grouse moors on Eigg.
Patrick Barkham @patrick_barkham


The first time I realised that Hen Harriers existed was when I thumbed through my first field guide, aged eight. I was sucking on a Murray mint at the time as I flicked onto the harrier plate. I thought that the male’s grey plumage was absolutely stunning and immediately my desire was fired to see one in the flesh. I had to wait until I was 18 before I saw my first live one, a ringtail in Norfolk. A few years on from that, I saw my first male wafting over a wintry marsh. I remembered the taste of that mint then. It’s a taste that I hope to forever associate with Hen Harriers.
David Lindo @urbanbirder


I’ve seen magnificent marsh and Montagu’s harriers in summertime, but sadly, I’ve never seen a skydancing hen harrier. And it’s not because I’ve been in the wrong habitat; it’s because they are so often ‘missing’. The hen harrier is teetering on the edge of extinction as a breeding bird in England. Could this tragedy happen in 2017? I feel intense sorrow and outrage each time another hen harrier is illegally killed, which is predictably common. I yearn to see my first skydancers. More than this, I yearn to see the day that this majestic, beautiful and aerobatic bird is safe in our uplands. Thank you to all who tirelessly work to try and safeguard our hen harriers.
Emily Joachim @emilyjoachim


And then sadly for those who have yet to experience the sight of a hen harrier in its natural habitat, the thoughts are naturally all about what has taken this bird from them:

The dramatic sight of a hen harrier in flight is something I have yet to experience. With only four breeding pairs in England, this most threatened of our birds of prey has become a lightning rod issue when it comes to the debate over who controls the future of our countryside and the precious wildlife that inhabits it.

All too often is it a combination of ignorance and greed that it leading to the destruction of wildlife at home and abroad and this is most definitely the case when it comes to the hen harrier. 

With a grouse shooting industry valued at over £67 million a year, gamekeepers are coming under increasing pressure to kill hen harriers to protect grouse for their employers. With hen harriers targeting grouse chicks as well as rodents, these birds of prey which are known as sky dancers for their elaborate aerial displays, are not a welcome sight over the grouse moors.

It has been illegal to kill hen harriers since 1954, but like others forms of wildlife crime including badger baiting and hare coursing, illegal persecution of the species continues to take place in secluded wild parts of the country

Since 2000, 20 gamekeepers have been found guilty of "raptor persecution" or poisoning offences on grouse moorland but this is only the tip of an iceberg, as most crimes go unreported, in 2013 alone the RSPB logged 238 reports of birds of prey being illegally killed. 

However, the caring compassionate wildlife loving British public are now making a stand for the hen harrier. Wildlife broadcasters and campaigners such as Chris Packham and Mark Avery have taken the fight to protect this beautiful species to Westminster into the National Parks and into the media. Despite the misinformation and propaganda of the landowning and shooting industry, Hen Harrier day has now become one of the largest wildlife campaigns in the UK, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime with the support of the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts it brings thousands of people together for events across the country.

2017 will continue to see growing public awareness of the scandal of widespread illegal persecution of Hen Harriers on upland grouse moors. We cannot remain silent whilst one of our most iconic birds of prey faces extinction as a result of the negligence and greed of the shooting industry. 

As a wildlife protection campaigner I will continue to add my voice to the calls for their protection and hopefully will be fortunate to see a beautiful hen harrier in the wild for the first time in the year ahead.
DominicDyer @DomDyer70


So how are you feeling after reading all that?  A massive thank you to everyone who took part and for helping to create such a positive and heartfelt blog post.

Please join in and use the comments to write your own 100 words about how seeing a hen harrier makes you feel. And come back and visit this blog soon, as I need you all to help with another big hen harrier awareness campaign starting very soon.

Linking to Wild Bird Wednesday


  1. The first time that I saw a hen harrier made me think that I had entered some ethereal world. I was at the Dee estuary (Wirral) and suddenly someone shouted, 'There's one'. Then I saw it: the distant grey profile scouring intently the marsh in search of food. I've been privileged to see many since, but their growing rarity makes me angry that those after me may not see this glorious bird.

    1. Thank you for your post. The power these birds have to inspire is just amazing.

  2. I have never had the pleasure of seeing a hen harrier and I am anxious that I never will; at least not in Britain anyway. I can only hope that things change, although to be honest, I don't have much hope for that either...

    1. Thanks for you comment Tom. I really hope we all get to see them in the future, but I worry very much about what is happening.

  3. Yes I have seen 2 Hen Harriers in N. Ireland and certainly there was one seen recently it was not in my area so i did not see it. Thanks fo this post Finlay

    1. I am so glad you have been luck to enjoy them.

  4. You chose good ones there Findlay. The Hen Harriers is rather special, even from the whole family of harriers. I must admit my biggest thrill has been seeing Montague's Harriers both here and in Spain. I really hope our Hen Harriers can make a comeback buit the odds and the folk that matter are stacked against them.

  5. Belles captures ;-)
    Céline & Philippe

  6. Hello, great post and photos. I guess the Harrier in the USA is more common. I have seen them often hunting over the fields. Have a happy day and week ahead!

  7. I loved seeing this posting! It is truly an inspiring posting both that in your first notes and in the wonderful commenting about the Harrier. We see Harriers quite a bit here swooping over the farm fields. They are the most difficult to get a good photo of. I think they are quite shy and always fly quickly away. A really wonderful bird and I am so glad you did your posting about them and I like all the beautiful moments people shared. Birding is about those moments that no one can take away from you when you are completely inside nature.

  8. Every time I've seen a Hen Harrier I've been excited. I've been lucky enough to have notched up four sightings. One this winter locally, briefly.
    But the problem is here in the UK I've seen a Montague Harrier 9 times and got more photos of a Month then Hen Harrier . The Montague Harrier is the rarity yet sadly and wrongly it's the Hen Harrier that's the rarity. So, now it just makes me angry.

  9. Very informative post. I have not seen this bird earlier.

  10. There are in Finland estimated at 1600 breeding pairs of Hen harriers. I have not yet seen any of the Hen harriers.

  11. what a wonderful post! Thanks for doing the work and shared it. I too love to see the Hen harrier but rarely do. They don´t stay where I live, just passing through. . :)

  12. I've never seen one so, I googled it. Beautiful bird. This was a great idea for a collaborative post. Great effort. So many people just post a mediocre photo, just to hook up to a weekly link. It is nice to see someone taking their content seriously.

  13. Brilliant post. I saw my first one at Leighton Moss one winter when I was looking for waders - a cracking male cruised across the pools in front of the Eric M hide - it caused as much excitement in the hide as it did outside. I hate to think how long ago that was!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  14. Brilliant idea for a post highlighting the importance of this endangered raptor. (I only wish I could add my thoughts about the hen harrier, but first it would be necessary to get across the pond and then I would need to find a great guide -- someone like you who knew where to find these birds. I don't suppose that will happen, but a person can always dream!)