Where have all the falcons gone? Dramatic decline has set alarm bells ringing among conservationists

A disastrous decline in moorland peregrine numbers has led to bitter feuding between conservation groups and accusations levelled at grouse shooters

Once described as the “Switzerland of England”, the Forest of Bowland offers an ideal habitat for the peregrine falcon. With its rocky outcrops and vast tracts of upland, it was until recently home to a thriving population of some 15 pairs of Britain’s fastest bird of prey.

But almost as rapidly as Falco peregrinus sweeps from the sky to secure its quarry, the number of the species in the 880-square-kilometre beauty spot stretching across Lancashire has plummeted. In just five years, the population has tumbled from 30 birds to just a single breeding pair.

The dramatic decline has set alarm bells ringing among conservationists, who point out that there are now more of these graceful predators living in England’s cities than across a vast swathe of the North stretching from the Peak District to the Yorkshire Moors and the Pennines.

The reasons for the disappearance of Bowland’s falcons are still not fully understood. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say that elsewhere the illegal killing of raptors – birds of prey – by rogue gamekeepers on moorland used for shooting red grouse is thwarting attempts to conserve species. Hen harriers, once abundant in the UK, are on the verge of extinction in England after the last two pairs this year failed to breed.

The crisis is also causing strains within the conservation movement, sparking an unseemly row between the RSPB and a group of local raptor campaigners.

The Independent can reveal that the charity, Europe’s largest dealing with wildlife, has used one of the world’s biggest law firms, Clifford Chance, to write to the North West Raptor Group demanding the removal of “libellous” material from its website. The NWRG claims the RSPB has failed to protect the local peregrine falcons, and has not been candid about the scale of their decline.

Terry Pickford, the NWRG’s founder, accused the RSPB of “intimidation”, saying the group, which had its licences to monitor bird-of-prey nests in Bowland restricted in 2010 by the Government’s wildlife adviser Natural England, was raising legitimate concerns about the decline in peregrine numbers and the safeguarding of the species. The group had previously complained to the RSPB after two of its members were approached by a warden earlier this year while watching a peregrine site and later asked to attend a police interview. The two men were told they had no case to answer but the RSPB said its warden had acted appropriately.

Mr Pickford said: “It feels like the RSPB does not like criticism and is going to extraordinary lengths to stop it. We are a small group in Lancashire who believe passionately in what we do and here we are receiving letters from a giant firm of London lawyers threatening legal action. It’s hard not to see it as anything other than intimidation. It makes us even more determined.”

The RSPB denied its actions were heavy-handed, saying it respected the right of others to criticise but the legal letter had been sent to protect volunteers from what it believed were unsubstantiated and defamatory allegations on the NWRG website. It said Clifford Chance had sent the letter without a fee as part of a “pro bono” charitable partnership. A spokesman said: “Normally we take this type of criticism on the chin but we have a duty of care towards our staff and we must protect them from untrue claims. We are not a litigious organisation and the decision to send this letter was not taken lightly.”

The row is symptomatic of rising anxiety among conservationists as they see the success stories of bird-of-prey conservation in recent years, such as the widespread return of the red kite across England and a rise in buzzard numbers, offset by problems for some of Britain’s most iconic hawks.

Despite its problems in Bowland, which experts said could be related to natural causes ranging from last year’s harsh winter to competing bird species as well as human intervention, the peregrine falcon has recovered strongly from near extinction in the 1970s due to use of DDT pesticides. There are now some 1,400 breeding pairs across Britain.

Sources told The Independent that many of the abandoned peregrine sites in Bowland were on land owned and managed by energy and water company United Utilities, which is regarded as a model of sustainable moorland management. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the company.

But conservationists say the falcon and other species are also markedly absent – or have had numbers dramatically reduced – in areas that coincide with the 850,000 acres of upland moor in northern England where some 500,000 grouse are shot annually in an industry worth £67m a year.

David Morris, the RSPB’s area conservation manager in the North-west, said: “We are deeply alarmed and concerned by this drop in numbers of peregrines in Bowland. We don’t know what is causing it.

“We have seen a pattern elsewhere where commericially driven grouse moors have in recent years geared up in the intensity of their management of the land. There is no escaping that in these areas species like peregrines or goshawks are just disappearing. They have become absolute black holes for the birds of prey. We are not anti-shooting but grouse shooting has become commercialised to an unsustainable level and that has included rogue gamekeepers on some estates persecuting birds of prey and systematically removing them.”

Some 70 per cent of the 152 people convicted for persecution of birds of prey under the Wildlife and Country Act were employed in the game industry, according to the RSPB.

Among the measures being sought by conservationists to tackle the problem is the introduction of vicarious liability, making the owners of grouse moorland estates responsible for the actions of employees. The introduction of the measure in Scotland last year has seen a sharp drop in the number of poisonings of bird of prey.

Moorland owners strongly denied any systematic destruction of birds of prey, pointing out that it was only because of the habitat created by estate workers, for wild birds including grouse, that species like the hen harrier were present in the first place.

A spokeswoman for the Moorland Association said: “We would condemn any illegal killing of birds of prey. We believe very strongly that there is room in the uplands for the full sweep of birds that should be there. There must be a balance and we are working with all sides to explore ways to manage birds of prey numbers sustainably.”

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game