country Matters : Soaring hawks raise a deadly brood

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Whatever else happens on the wildlife front in 1995, I predict a showdown among rival conservation groups over the build-up in numbers of raptors, or birds of prey.

Our most spectacular hawk, the peregrine falcon, has reached a level never before recorded in Britain. When the species sank to its lowest ebb during the early Sixties - victim of toxic farm chemicals which rendered the eggs thin-shelled and infertile - a survey organised by the British Trust for Ornithology disclosed that only 400 traditional nesting sites were occupied in the United Kingdom.

As a result of that census, the most dangerous chemicals were banned, and follow-up surveys showed a steadily improving picture. The latest, conducted in 1991, revealed an amazing total of 1,050 occupied territories - well above the 850 recorded before the Second World War.

In the past three years the peregrine population has grown still greater. In part this is the result of legislation - the Protection of Birds Act (1954) and the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981), which made it illegal to kill hawks of any kind. But it is also a triumph for the control of poisonous chemicals, and for active conservation measures such as the guarding of nests. Besides, some peregrines seem to have adapted to living alongside humans.

Other species are enjoying a similar revival, not least the red kite, which was persecuted to extinction in England and Scotland towards the end of the 19th century, but hung on by a thread in Wales. Today, as a result of energetic conservation measures, the Welsh population is back to 100 breeding pairs, and birds brought in from Spain and Sweden have re-established the species elsewhere.

Yet this kind of success is starting to cause problems. That other large and handsome raptor, the goshawk, now causes considerable disruption in commercial woodland. Whenever the Forestry Commission finds a nest all normal operations are suspended within a 400-yard radius of the tree, freezing an area of more than 100 acres for several months, and postponing the date on which thinning or felling can be started.

On grouse moors, owners and gamekeepers are increasingly concerned by the build-up of hen harriers - a highly volatile subject. That harriers eat grouse (among other prey) is not disputed; but bitter arguments rage about the numbers they consume.

In 1988, in an attempt to damp down animosity and to find out what is really happening, the Game Conservancy Trust and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology launched a joint raptor study, funded by a consortium of sporting and conservation interests. The survey is still in progress, and no detailed report will be published until it has been completed, probably 18 months hence. For the time being, furious accusations fly about keepers smashing harriers' nests or otherwise rendering their eggs infertile.

Yet no section of the community is more agitated than the racing pigeon fraternity, whose valuable birds are under attack both from peregrines, and, far more seriously, from that miniature replica of the peregrine, the sparrowhawk.

Officials of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association claim that there are now 90,000 sparrowhawks in Britain. If (as they claim) each one on average kills three small birds a day, they must be knocking out nearly 100 million victims a year. No wonder, say the pigeon fanciers, there are so few garden birds left.

Even worse, from their point of view, is the way sparrowhawks identify a pigeon loft and terrorise its inhabitants. "The hawk just sits in a tree and waits for me to let my birds out," said one expert. To foil the raider, he has to leave a cat or dog out near the loft, hang about himself, play loud music - or not let the birds out at all. Pigeons can develop a dread of the lurking killer and become reluctant to fly home - thus making them no good for racing.

In the view of owners, all this is due to excessive protection. Over the past generation all but the most die-hard gamekeepers have given up persecuting raptors; but injured parties are muttering that the time has come to reintroduce some form of control.

Leading conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to accept that view; and if an impasse develops, the danger is that those who are suffering will resort to illegal methods, such as deliberate poisoning.