Massive rise in illegal killings of birds of prey

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The Independent Online

The number of protected birds of prey and owls illegally killed in Britain this year has risen by a disturbing 50 per cent.

The number of protected birds of prey and owls illegally killed in Britain this year has risen by a disturbing 50 per cent.

Figures released by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have shown that 37 birds of prey had been confirmed poisoned by the beginning of August, including two golden eagles, 13 buzzards, 12 peregrine falcons and nine red kites. Suspected poisonings involving another three peregrine falcons are still under investigation, but are expected to take that total to 40. A total of 28 birds of prey were killed across Britain in 1999.

The figures have caused alarm amongst conservationists, who have accused gamekeepers and pigeon fanciers of carrying out a deliberate and illegal campaign of persecution.

The number of red kite deaths, up from four cases last year, has alarmed the RSPB because it suggests gamekeepers are resisting attempts to reintroduce the species. The bird had almost disappeared by the early 1900s, but an intensive reintroduction programme has seen 130 pairs established in Scotland, the Chilterns, east Midlands and mid-Wales.

But the RSPB has provoked a furious row with the pigeon racing authorities by claiming the rise in peregrine deaths - there were none last year - can be blamed almost entirely on pigeon fanciers in south Wales, Lancashire, and south-west England. The society claims disgruntled racing pigeon owners have been using live and dead wild pigeons, soaked in poisons such as aldicarb and strychnine, and staking them out as bait for the peregrines.

As a result, the RSPB is now considering mounting a surveillance campaign with the police in south Wales next year, using covert video cameras close to peregrine nests to catch the alleged culprits.

Graham Elliott, the RSPB's head of investigations, said many pigeon fanciers were angry that a Government-sponsored report on birds of prey, published in February, largely cleared peregrines of blame for killing racing pigeons. "Maybe they feel it was a waste of time and they are now starting to take the law into their own hands," he said.

These charges are "hotly disputed" by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which represents 48,000 of the UK's 70,000 racing pigeon owners. Peter Bryant, the RPRA's general manager, accused the RSPB of failing to produce any evidence to support their claims.

"We are unhappy about their allegations," he said. "There is no doubt there are pigeons being laced with poisons, but there tarring everybody with the same brush. The vast majority of pigeon fanciers wouldn't dream of taking the law into their own hands."