RSPB 20 years of shame as war continues against birds of prey


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2009 was another shocking year for the persecution of birds of prey, with 384 reported incidents of shooting, trapping and poisoning, according to the RSPB's 20th annual Birdcrime report, launched today [16th September, 2010]. This makes 2009 the second worst year for these crimes in the last decade, with only 2007, with 389 cases, worse.

Twenty years of reporting on Birdcrime has revealed that several police force areas suffer higher levels of bird of prey persecution than others. In England, top of the league are North Yorkshire, West Mercia, Northumbria, Devon & Cornwall and Cumbria. In the report, the RSPB has identified 11 recommendations for government action, so that these appalling crimes can be eradicated.

This poisoned Buzzard started a major enquiry that led to the conviction of gamekeeper Ben Walker for multiple poisoning offences. (Photo: RSPB)

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Conservation Director, said: "Wildlife crimes are an abhorrent feature of our countryside. And for the sake of eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards, falcons and Ospreys, we have to take more action to consign these crimes to history. Over time, egg collecting has diminished, but the killing of birds of prey is as big a threat today as it was two decades ago. Earlier this year, the former Wildlife Minister — Huw Irranca-Davies — was one of more than 210,000 people to sign a pledge to protect birds of prey. This is a powerful voice and we will not rest until their cries have been heard by government."

Wildlife Minister Huw Irranca-Davies (left) accepts a 210,567-name petition from Dr Mark Avery, RSPB Director of Conservation, calling for an end to the killing of brids of prey. The giant Peregrine mosaic was held aloft by RSPB supporters in Westminster. (Photo: David McHugh (rspb-images.com))

In 2009, the government announced that bird of prey persecution was one of the top wildlife crime priorities. In view of the current spending review, the RSPB is concerned that resources to tackle wildlife crime will be seen as a soft option. The RSPB wants to see a commitment from the government to tackling these crimes, long-term funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and a full wildlife crime review in England.

During 2009, there were 384 reported incidents of bird of prey persecution in the UK, including 224 in England, 123 in Scotland, 17 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland. Nine crimes against birds of prey could not be assigned to a country and were recorded at a UK level.

The poisoning of Golden Eagle Alma was a serious blow to Scotland's national heritage, Angus, Scotland. (Photo: Courtesy Ewan Weston)

The Hen Harrier is on the brink of extinction in England as a breeding species, with just six successful pairs in 2009. This is the species most affected by persecution, despite the fact there is sufficient habitat to support well over 200 pairs. A report published by Natural England in 2008 showed that nest failures as a result of adults 'disappearing' were seven times more common on grouse moors than any other land type. Modelling suggests the UK's driven grouse moors could support 500 nesting pairs of Hen Harriers: in 2008 there were just five.

Adult female Hen Harrier in flight, hunting at Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay. (Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com))

There has been a huge expansion of the UK Red Kite population in the last 20 years. The exception to this is the north Scotland population. Despite being one of the first projects and in suitable habitat, the population has only just reached 50 pairs (compared to over 800 pairs in the Chilterns, where the same number of kites were released 20 years ago). Modelling work carried out by RSPB, published in Biological Conservation in 2010, showed that increased adult mortality caused by illegal poisoning could explain almost all of the difference in population growth between the north of Scotland and the Chilterns.

The conflict with land managed for the shooting of game birds remains the main problem for birds of prey, particularly the upland grouse-shooting estates in northern England and Scotland. The main birds of prey affected are Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Peregrine and Red Kite.

Shot Peregrine Falcon found dead in Gloucestershire in June 2009. (Photo: Grahame Madge (rspb-images.com))

The RSPB is concerned the shooting industry appears unable to self-police and the Society believes new legislation is required to make the managers and employers of those committing these crimes legally accountable. Options such as vicarious liability — that holds these people accountable for crimes committed by their staff — and removing the shooting rights for individuals and errant estates need to be considered. These measures would provide a significant deterrent without imposing a burden on legitimate shooting interests.

Although crimes against birds of prey are widespread across the UK, analysis of the figures by the RSPB over the past two decades shows that some constabulary areas are hotspots for wildlife crime. In England, since 1990, the five police forces with the highest levels of 'confirmed' crimes against birds of prey have been:

  • North Yorkshire, with 64 confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents;
  • West Mercia, with 61 confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents;
  • Northumbria, with 58 confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents;
  • Devon & Cornwall, with 57 confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents;
  • Cumbria, with 47 confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents.

The Association of Chief Police Officers' lead for wildlife crime is Richard Crompton. In the report's foreword he states: "The illegal killing or persecution of birds of prey is totally unacceptable; the protection offered to birds of prey by the law is clear and the police will enforce that legislation."

The list of government recommendations includes:

  • Commitment from all UK Governments to maintain legal protection for all birds of prey and to improve its enforcement;
  • Conduct a full review of the enforcement of wildlife crime in England and Wales, and fully implement the recommendations of the thematic review in Scotland;
  • Secure long-term funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit;
  • Increase support for the UK Wildlife Crime Priority to tackle raptor persecution and address inadequate law enforcement;
  • Add Peregrine to the species covered by the raptor persecution UK Wildlife Crime Priority;
  • Increase effectiveness and profile of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW)
  • Introduction of the vicarious liability offence to make managers and employers responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers;
  • Improve recording and reporting of wildlife crime and make the killing of birds of prey a recorded crime
  • Update legislative provisions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including controls on possession of pesticides;
  • Work with the European Union to strengthen the penalties available under cross compliance so that anyone contravening EU Wildlife Directives faces having their single farm payment withdrawn;
  • Modernise the regulation of game shooting.

Related pages

Red Kite Red Kite
White-tailed Eagle White-tailed Eagle
Hen Harrier Hen Harrier
Goshawk Goshawk
Golden Eagle Golden Eagle
Peregrine Peregrine

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (12)

Wildlife crime units do not work. In spring/summer they are chasing game keepers and in autumn/winter they are working with them to prevent poaching as well as the odd free day actually enjoying the hospitality on a keepers shoot. It seems that the cut backs in the police force will rid us of this burden as what has just happened in Lancashire.
   john miles, 16/09/10 08:24Report inappropriate post Report 
We must question the validity of Grouse shooting as seems to me they are required to break the law for it to exist they also continue to ask for culls of birds of prey yet persecute them anyway for a so called sport for the rich elitist minority in society.
   harrier man, 16/09/10 09:17Report inappropriate post Report 
Red Grouse can be shot without the need of killing Birds of Prey as was the case at the RSPB reserve of Geltsdale in the 1980s but of course the shooting syndicate became too greedy which is the case around the UKs moors today. As the Uk is the only country in the world to have 'driven' Red Grouse we have a monopoly on the sport. By banning 'driven' Red Grouse you would still have 'walked up' Red Grouse. Another interesting feature is that management for Red Grouse is no use for Black Grouse with 2/3 of the Black Grouse population dying this last winter compared to the increase of Black Grouse on moorland managed for Black Grouse - Geltsdale RSPB with many more Birds of Prey to enjoy especially Owls.
   john miles, 16/09/10 09:42Report inappropriate post Report 
This is all about LETS. 1) LETS blame keepers. (When they actually do more for conservation in one week than all the other groups and clubs do in 10 years). 2) LETS think the RSPB knows what it is talking about. ( When in fact it is only out to make money, it doesnt want facts to stand in the way of its next money raising campaign. 3) LETS pretend Geltsdale was a success. ( The Red Grouse shooting wasn,t bad, but the rest of the ground nesting birds suffered so much that many haven`t...more more
   K Carter, 18/09/10 17:02Report inappropriate post Report 
Lets get facts straight Killing things has never increased other species. Lets kill Lions in Africa, lets kill Tigers in India. The top of the food chain is the best way to save species at the bottom. As for conservation the gun has never done any work in conservation. Managing for Red Grouse destroyed Black Grouse. Even keepers admitted killing Black Grouse out of season to improve the potential bag on Red Grouse shoots. Eagle Owls have never been proved to kill Hen Harrier but they might in the future. With the freedom of information act raptor groups have asked for the video with out success. Fact Hen Harriers reared more young on Bowland with an increase of Eagle Owl pairs. Shooting estates are scared to death of their future even with a Conservative Government
   john miles, 18/09/10 22:44Report inappropriate post Report 
In a country where the 'Royal' family can escape prosecution for killing birds of prey it does'nt hold much hope of being able to enforce legislation. It is very difficult to actually catch people 'in the act'. After all, how many dead wild birds do you find other than road kills? Like anybody breaking the law whether it be a 'rogue' gamekeeper or a burglar, only THEY know when they are going to do it and when you consider the areas where these acts take place its' like pissing in the wind IMO. I just wish that when people are caught that the punishment is a detterent and also involves the landowner for whom they work as well.
   Laurie Allan, 19/09/10 10:08Report inappropriate post Report 
John you say ''The gun has never done any work in conservation'' well come on thats just not true even the RSPB carry out plenty of shooting to control various species because it does have positive effects on other species. Killing raptors is wrong and nobody is trying to deny that but to say that there is not and never has been a single example of shooting having any benifits to conservation is just plain wrong.
   Adam Williams, 19/09/10 10:35Report inappropriate post Report 
There must be a big question on removal of foxes on sites like Abernethy when foxes kill Pine Martins which now, we are told, are removing Capercaillie. Foxes are also the main predator of Hen Harriers hence why Langholm suddenly had 24 pairs of Hen Harrier. One site in Scotland with no removal of foxes has had a good Hen Harrier year due to it being a Vole year. Before modern driven Red Grouse and Pheasants there were no need for game keepers. Artificial numbers of any species create predation.
   john miles, 19/09/10 12:29Report inappropriate post Report 
You use the word modern but driven Grouse/Pheasant shooting and the keepers that go with it are hardly modern its been going on for centuaries so to look at what things were like before that is meaningless because the entire contryside has change beyond recognition in numerous ways since then. Its okay saying one site had good numbers of Foxes and Hen Harriers because of Voles but I'd like to bet that its numbers of ground nesting birds werent too healthy.
   Adam Williams, 19/09/10 12:59Report inappropriate post Report 
"the gun has never done any work in conservation". Try telling that to the RSPB, who approved of the cull of Rudy Ducks, in the name of conservation. Lets see the culing of Eagle owls. Shooting poachers in Kenya did wonders for the conservation of Rhino`s. Every Grey squirrel, Magpie or Crow I shoot gives at least 1 nest (more likely more) a change of surviving to fledge, wether that is Pheasants, Grey Partridge or Corn bunting and Skylark.
   K Carter, 19/09/10 17:22Report inappropriate post Report 
Unfortunately it comes down to class\vested interests. Compare the punitive (i.e. jail) sentence given to the man (not a landowner or a gamekeeper)convicted of stealing (not killing) peregrine chicks to sell abroad with the lack of punitive sentencing of people convicted of killing birds of prey on estates (has there ever been a case of a convicted gamekeeper\landowner who has killed birds of prey actually being sent to jail?)
   Neville Root, 21/09/10 12:09Report inappropriate post Report 
Neville, what you are saying may very well be true but the problem i find with that arguement is there's 2 ways of looking at it. You can do as you've done and look at crimes that are similar or perhaps less serious and compare the heavier sentences but you can also look at crimes that I and i'm sure most people would consider far more serious such as murderers ,rapists,paedophiles,drug dealers etc..and look at the what I would consider pretty pathetic sentences often handed out to those and...more more
   Adam Williams, 21/09/10 12:39Report inappropriate post Report 

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