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.”