Golden opportunity to crack bird of prey persecution, before it's too late


As the Hen Harrier teeters on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England, Coalition and Welsh Government Ministers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle the illegal killing of birds of prey in England and Wales, and must not waste it. That's the message from the RSPB as it publishes its annual wildlife crime figures showing yet another shameful year of poisoning, shooting and trapping for Red Kites, Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Goshawks and other persecuted species. Just one pair of Hen Harriers bred in England in 2012, with Government's own studies suggesting that illegal killing is the major factor in their decline.

A poisoned Red Kite (G Shorrock, RSPB).

Too little has been done over the years to stop these sickening attacks on birds, but this could change with proposed reforms of wildlife law and policing. The RSPB believes a review of wildlife protection legislation by the Law Commission — currently being consulted on — provides a golden opportunity to address ongoing persecution of birds of prey in England and Wales. This month will also see the publication of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry into wildlife crime while the imminent reorganisation of the police service and the creation of a National Crime Agency will provide further opportunities to prioritise wildlife crime.

RSPB Conservation director Martin Harper said: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle the illegal shooting and poisoning of some of our most magnificent birds. I hope that tougher laws and penalties for wildlife offenders will help consign their crimes to the pages of history where they belong. We need Defra and Home Office Ministers, and the Welsh Government, to step up for nature and make the right decisions. An essential first step is to secure the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which only has guaranteed funding until March next year. It's been over a hundred years since poisoning of wild birds was outlawed in the UK and yet our report shows we're still witnessing the slaughter of kites, eagles and buzzards. Fewer incidents were recorded last year, but as our report highlights birds of prey continue to die at the hands of those who want to remove them from our countryside. Thankfully, vastly more people are inspired by the homecoming of eagles, Ospreys and Peregrines and recognise these charismatic species bring huge enjoyment to people and benefits for tourist economies."

The report, Birdcrime 2011, provides a full account of the birds of prey and owls found dead as a result of persecution across the UK as well as details of wildlife crime prosecutions. These include the case of serial egg collector Matthew Gonshaw who became the first ever wildlife criminal to receive an ASBO last year, banning him from visiting Scotland in the nesting season for life, when a raid on his home revealed nearly 700 wild birds' eggs.

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The report catalogues 202 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey, with the confirmed shooting of 30 individual birds in 2011. There were also one hundred reports of poisoning incidents involving the confirmed poisoning of at least 70 individual birds or animals. Victims of poisoning included a Golden Eagle, 17 Red Kites, 17 Buzzards and seven Peregrines. This level of persecution is having a serious impact on some bird of prey populations. Government figures show that England's uplands could support over 300 pairs of Hen Harriers — only one pair bred in 2012.

A pole trap set to kill birds of prey (L Scott, RSPB).

The RSPB's Birdcrime 2011 report includes a 'Manifesto for Change' listing 13 recommendations to government which, if adopted, could radically change the wildlife crime landscape. These include:

  • Introduce a 'vicarious liability' offence in England and Wales, similar to the one already adopted by the Scottish Government. This would make land owners and land managers more accountable for the criminal actions of their employees.
  • Increase penalties available to courts for wildlife offences.
  • Improve the recording and reporting of wildlife crime. Serious wildlife crimes should be recorded by the Home Office in the same way as other crimes.
  • Make possession of some commonly abused pesticides used in wildlife poisoning incidents illegal. The legislation to list these poisons already exists in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2004.
  • Secure long-term funding for the Police National Wildlife Crime Unit. The NWCU provides excellent value for money but needs to be adequately resourced beyond March 2013 to enable operational planning to tackle to government's wildlife crime priorities.

Environmental Audit Committee chair Joan Walley MP said: "Our committee has heard evidence from a wide variety of individuals and organisations, and the issue of bird of prey persecution has come up time and again. We have looked seriously into this area and we will be making our recommendations to government in the next few weeks. I hope that Defra and Home Office ministers responsible will see the importance of tackling this issue now so that the police and courts have the proper tools in place to deal with these sickening crimes."

In September 2011, Michael Lawrence from Stamford in Lincolnshire found two kites lying dead in his garden, poisoned by the banned pesticide carbofuran. "In the last few years it has been fantastic to see Red Kites and Buzzards around our home," Mr Lawrence said. "Finding two poisoned birds in our small paddock was a real shock. The birds had fallen out of a tree with the poisoned meat still in their beaks. Our very young grandchildren regularly play in the paddock and the thought that they could have handled these birds is terrifying. It's hard to believe people could be so irresponsible to place such dangerous banned pesticides in our countryside."

Nevin Hunter, the new head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: "In my police career, I have investigated many offences, including the deliberate persecution of birds of prey. It is unacceptable and there is a need to work to address it across the UK with the help of all partner agencies. The NWCU will support the taking of preventative measures and in addition will work to gather intelligence and take robust enforcement action to tackle persecution wherever found."

Written by: RSPB