HELPING save a bird of prey from extinction in England is the challenge facing Blánaid Denman. She is about to launch what she describes as a hearts and minds mission to rescue the hen harrier.
Only seven pairs nested in England last year – most of them in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire on land owned by water company United Utilities and co-managed by the RSPB.
Moorland across Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland, which should be ideal hen harrier country, has been empty of breeding pairs.
Also missing has been the sky- dancing courtship ritual of the birds.
Now the RSPB has appointed Blánaid as engagement officer for its four-year Skydancer project, which aims to protect and promote the conservation of hen harriers across their remaining breeding areas in Northern England.
Sky dancing involves aerobatic spring displays, and the spectacular passing of food from males to females while in flight.
“It is one of the most stunning sights in the natural world in this country,” says Blánaid, 27, who lives in Gosforth, Newcastle.
“But hen harriers are teetering on the brink of extinction. It is crunch time for the species. It is now or never.”
Blánaid will be concentrating her work on areas near moors managed for grouse shooting, where hen harriers have bred in the past 10 years.
This includes north Tynedale in Northumberland and Geltsdale on the Northumberland-Cumbria border, where the birds last nested five years ago.
“Illegal persecution is a fact. That is why there are so few harriers,” says Blánaid.
“The reason why there is so much persecution is that hen harriers take grouse although their main prey is small birds and field voles.
“That is why they come into conflict with grouse moors. We have to come up with ways in which hen harriers can co-exist with grouse moors.”
That will involve talks with moorland, grouse and shooting interests.
“It is a two-way process and each side has to be able to listen and take on the other’s points of view,” said Blánaid, a graduate in ecology and whose thesis for her Masters degree in biodiversity and conservation was on the ecology of the red grouse.
“We strongly believe that the most effective way to conserve hen harriers in the future is to find a way that they can co-exist, rather than clash, with driven grouse shooting,” says Blánaid. “We hope that the Skydancer project will play a role in finding a long-term solution to this problem.”
She will be going into schools and also holding community events to raise the profile of the plight of the hen harrier.
“It is a hearts and minds mission to educate people about the hen harrier.
“One of the big issues is that many don’t know that the bird exists,” she says. “People will see kestrels, buzzards and red kites.
“But it is difficult to persuade people to conserve something if they don’t know it is there in the first place.”
The project will also see the continuation of a nest-watch programme in places like north Tynedale, where harriers last bred in 2008.
“Last year individual birds were seen in the area but a male and female were not there at the same time because numbers are so low,” says Blánaid.
The Skydancer project is being managed by the RSPB’s Amanda Millar, who is based in Newcastle.
Blánaid says: “Hen harriers are an important part of our natural heritage and it is vital that we help the English population recover before it is too late.
“If this species is to have a future in the English uplands, we need to work with and inspire the people that live with this remarkable bird on their doorstep.”
The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded the RSPB £317,700 help fund the Skydancer project.
Edward Bromet, chairman of the Moorland Association said: “We are working very closely with the RSPB to ensure that the when a hen harrier nests on a grouse moor the full impact it has is properly understood.
“Improved knowledge about the birds and what they kill, mathematical population modelling of wild red grouse and a formal channel for discussion in the form of the Environment Council Dispute Resolution Process are all helping to come up with conservation management options for the hen harrier.
“The long-term goal is to increase the number of breeding pairs in England while safeguarding integrated grouse moor management and the widespread environmental, landscape, amenity and economic benefits that the management brings.”
A spokesman for the National Gamekeepers Organisation said: “We welcome any opportunity to find a solution to conflict between birds of prey and game shooting.”