Feathers tickle fancy of rare bird squad

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The Independent Online
Feathers are being used to build up a DNA data base which will help convict thieves who steal birds of prey and eggs from their nests.

The information will be used in random testing, allowing police to accurately identify for the first time where and when protected birds such as merlins, peregrine falcons and goshawks were taken.

"We know who are taking them and this is the kind of proof we need to clinch convictions," said PC Steve Downing, wildlife officer with West Yorkshire Police. "It is very difficult to detect and then prosecute these dedicated thieves. Up until now we have had to rely on blood samples to prove the origin of the birds and these are very difficult to collect," he added.

"This new information will be used to prove that chicks being sold as captive-bred are in fact wild birds. We will actually be able to pinpoint the nesting site and the young bird's parents.

"This is a major breakthrough and when we have tried and tested the scheme it will have a huge impact on the bird population of this country. All we really need now is custodial sentencing and I believe we could almost wipe out this cruel trade."

The extent of loss and suffering among birds of prey was very serious, he said. In the Keighley and Calderdale police divisions alone last year all the young merlins bred in the wild were lost and all the peregrine falcons except for a lone chick. Goshawks suffered significant losses and out of 12 nesting pairs of hen harriers, only four young birds survived.

Feather samples will be taken by licensed ringers, the Peak, South Pennine and Sorbybreck Raptor groups who visit the nests to ring young birds. Dropped feathers from the nest will provide the source of the DNA.

David Parkin, a geneticist at Nottingham University, carried out the work to enable a comprehensive data base to be built up using DNA samples from feathers.

The scheme is being piloted by police forces in Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire during this year's breeding season before going nationwide.

It has the financial backing of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Department of the Environment as well as Yorkshire Water, North West Water, the Severn Trent Water Company and the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency.

t A nation-wide survey by the British Trust for Ornithology has disclosed that during the past 25 years, populations of some of our best-loved garden birds, including the omnipresent greenfinch and bullfinch, have fallen. The bullfinch has declined by 57 per cent during this period with average brood sizes being among the lowest ever recorded for the species. It is now on the BTO's high alert list.

The greenfinch is now ranked as a low alert bird after an increase in the number of nests lost containing eggs.

The reason for the decline of the birds is closely linked to a change in farming methods. The RSPB strongly believes that an increase in the use of herbicides and the "grubbing up" of hedgerows have drastically reduced the birds' natural habitat and food supplies. A lot of farmland birds visit gardens, so the decline has a direct spill-over to the urban bird table.

The BTO's Nest Record Scheme has been running for about 60 years, the longest in the world and during the past 10 years nest finders have recorded more than 30,000 each year.

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