Demise of ‘skydancing’ bird puts focus on wildlife crime

For many people the Forest of Bowland is a huge blindspot on the landscape.

They drive along the A65 and turn north to spend a day at one of the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s popular visitor honeypots without getting to know the beautiful area of moorland, sheep pastures and forests which sprawls along the south side of the road between Settle and the M6.

Bowland’s status as Northern England’s best-kept secret may be frustrating for the owners of local pubs and hotels, but this summer it has at least provided a massive dividend for conservationists.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Two pairs of England’s most threatened bird of prey, the hen harrier, have bred successfully on the unfrequented Bowland moors.

Unlike the peregrine nest site located less than 20 miles away at Malham Cove there is no public observation area and, therefore, no ooh-ing and aah-ing from visitors as the parent birds bring back food to their chicks.

The nests of hen harriers – a species which is arguably more spectacular to watch than the peregrine – are not built on the highly visible ledges of crags but remain hidden deep within heather.

And crucially, they are highly sensitive to disturbance by humans.

So marked has been the bird’s decline that last year was the first since records began that no hen harriers bred successfully in England.

That is why next Sunday has been designated Hen Harrier Day organised by a coalition known as Birders Against Wildlife Crime fronted by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham and the RSPB’s former conservation director Mark Avery.

According to Thomas Hudson Nelson’s The Birds of Yorkshire, published in 1907, the hen harrier was once a common breeding bird across most of Yorkshire’s moorland.

But it had been virtually exterminated by the start of the 20th century.

Its demise was accompanied by the increased popularity of grouse shooting, because hen harriers sometimes prey on red grouse, and conservationists believe that some of those who are involved in the modern grouse shooting industry still persecutes the species.

That’s why this Sunday – two days before the Glorious Twelfth signals the start to the grouse shooting season – has been chosen to draw attention to the hen harrier’s plight.

I was 12 years old when I first witnessed a male hen harrier “skydancing”, the word evocatively used to describe its courtship display of high-speed dives and somersaults similar to those negotiated by stunt pilots at air shows.

It would be wonderful to see the bird’s fortunes revived, and an important step towards that objective has been new work carried out on the Bowland moors where this year’s successful breeding programme took place.

A four-year project, appropriately named Skydancer, has shown the birds can co-exist with grouse by the introduction of diversionary feeding, which involves the provision of an alternative food source when the adults are feeding chicks.

This approach rather than the traditional blame game between conservationists and moorland owners, is surely the way forward to save this remarkable bird from extinction in Yorkshire and elsewhere.