Birds of prey, including the golden eagle, peregrine falcon and red kite, are being poisoned or shot in Britain's uplands on a scale unprecedented in modern times.
Crimes against wild birds are now at record levels, according to figures produced by the RSPB, with 1,109 confirmed incidents last year. This is a 50 per cent rise on 2005, twice 2004's figure, and compares with an average over the preceding five years of just 625. Raptors bear the brunt of the worst of this persecution. In 2006, there were 98 reported poisonings, plus 185 shootings or other destructions of birds of prey, plus dozens of incidents of egg collecting or nest disturbance, and 39 reports of illegally taking or possessing a bird of prey.
The RSPB fears 2007 will be even worse. Three golden eagles alone have been deliberately killed in the last 16 months, and other victims this year already include scores of buzzards, peregrines, goshawks, red kites, and hen harriers.
In Scotland, persecution of birds of prey is now worse than at any since the early 1980s, with hen harriers and red kites suffering particularly badly. The Peak District - in part of which a once-thriving population of 20 goshawks seven years ago has been reduced to nothing - is another blackspot, as is North Yorkshire and Northumberland. All told, since 1997, there have been 917 confirmed attacks on birds of prey. Duncan McNiven, RSPB investigations officer says that this is the tip of an iceberg: "If these are the number of reported incidents that have been witnessed in the wild and remote country that birds of prey inhabit, you can only wonder at the amount of birds that are actually being killed."
The RSPB is adamant that the blame for most of these crimes lies with those with ties to shooting estates, especially grouse moors. Their analysis of birds of prey persecution court cases from 1985 to 2006 shows that 81 per cent of those convicted had direct or indirect ties to game hunting. The RSPB's Grahame Madge said: "Birds of prey suffer most where we have landscape dominated by grouse shooting. We fear that raptors are being routinely persecuted in the uplands."
For some species, the persecution threatens their very survival as a British bird. There are twice as many hen harriers on the Isle of Man (where there is no grouse shooting) than there are in England. "England should support a hen harrier population of 250 pairs," says the RSPB's Grahame Madge, "but we have less than a a tenth of that." The only place on the mainland where they thrive, is the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, which is under conservation management. The RSPB also cite the case of the red kite. In 1989, 100 of these birds were introduced into the Chilterns and 100 in north Scotland. By 2004 the Chilterns population had grown to 215 pairs, while the Scottish numbers, had struggled to reach 35 pairs in face of severe persecution. Eagles, too, suffer. An academic paper published this year by Bird Study concluded that, because of persecution, "in the central and eastern Highlands, where grouse moor management predominates, the eagle population continued to decline to levels where increasingly large areas of suitable habitat are unoccupied by breeding pairs."
Stuart Scull, Head of Gamekeeping at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), said: "We know that there are some people involved in game management who choose to step outside the law, there's no denying that. However, they are a tiny minority and game management when done correctly is a force for good in the countryside.... Things have changed... The modern gamekeeper will target predator control in the spring, not year round as they used to. If people poisoning birds of prey were members of BASC they would be expelled from the organisation subject to their right of appeal."
In private, however, the shooting lobby concede that persecution of raptors is more than just a few rogues, and cite the need, as they see it, to protect the game upon whose high prices the estates depend for their income. Britain's game shooting industry is now worth £1.6bn, almost triple what it was a decade ago. About 50,000 people a year shoot grouse, courtesy of 1,600 providers of shoots around the country, most of which are on the uplands of northern England and Scotland. Renting a grouse moor can cost as much as £12,000 a day, and shooters dispatched 400,000 grouse in 2004, with a further 18 million game birds and wildfowl shot. Lowland game shooting – for pigeon, pheasant and partridge, is growing especially fast.
Followers of the far smaller sport of pigeon racing, have also been blamed for persecuting raptors, especially peregrines, who prey on pigeons. There have been cases in South Wales and Merseyside, especially, where pigeon fanciers have been suspected – or convicted – of killing peregrines. Many of these, like the raptors on the uplands, have been poisoned, an especially nasty form of killing, since it is so indiscriminate. The method is invariably to lace a bird carcass, or even a live bird, with poison, the most common of which is carbofuran, a banned agricultural pesticide so lethal that a single grain would kill a human. Carrion feeders, like red kites, are especially vulnerable, and this year's total of incidents of persecution of this species is already within two cases of matching 2006's record.
The widespread revulsion over the poisoning of raptors, especially the golden eagles, prompted the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and other groups to issue a statement last week that said: "If any of our members are convicted of a wildlife crime offence appropriate measures will be taken. Sanctions include the withdrawal of membership. In particular, conviction for poisoning offences will be treated with the utmost severity." This may have been provoked by the Scottish Executive's warning in August that any farmers or landowners found to blame for bird poisoning may well lose their Single farm Payments.
But catching whoever is persecuting birds of prey is exceptionally difficult. The landscape where these crimes are committed is remote, traps and bait are put down at night, removed before morning, and the victim burnt; and even if a dead raptor is found, proving who did it means catching someone in the act. Last year there were just four convictions for persecuting raptors, all of which were gamekeepers. The RSPB's McNiven says that in 16 years with the RSPB he has not known a single case of a gamekeeper losing his job as a result of a conviction – a tolerance of employee law-breaking by the estates that the RSPB says sends its own message.
On the ground, gamekeepers respond that not only that they have been unfairly singled out for blame, but that birds of prey now enjoy too much protection from the law. Alec Hogg, director of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said: "The situation now is that raptor numbers are healthy. Raptors can coexist to a degree but they cannot where the balance is tipped too much in favour of them. I've applied for a license twice to help protect my game birds from buzzards but I've been refused twice.
"You can see there's frustration there because of the sheer number of raptors that are attacking and it's not just game birds, it's other birds suffering like upland waders, ringers, skylarks, meadow pipits... I think that's why there's been an odd poisoning incident... The only way that I can see an end to this is to have more flexibility. The wildlife crime would stop overnight... at the moment things are more in favour of the hunter than the hunted when it comes to birds of prey and game birds."
Other parts of the hunting lobby, like the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, say some science supports this view. A new study published in the Journal of Wildlife Biology claims that peregrines or goshawks were responsible for more than two thirds of black grouse deaths – killing two birds for every one taken by foxes. Only one of the 39 tagged birds survived to the end of the study, claims the trust. To try and settle this debate, the Government has just announced a £3m 10-year study to see if hen harriers and game birds can co-exist on Langholm Moor – a red grouse moor on Buccleuch Estates in Dumfriesshire.
Meanwhile, in the last few weeks: two poisoned red kites in North Yorkshire, a kestrel shot in Derbyshire, a Peregrine shot in Gwent, a buzzard trapped in Lothian, a barn owl shot in Nottinghamshire...The killing goes on.
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