Why raptor persecution is different

Mike Kirby [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mike Kirby [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There has been a little burst of correspondence in The Independent over gamekeepers (and raptor persecution)(here, here, here).  I note that one of the correspondents, Reece Fowler, crops up in quite a lot of places (including this blog) saying how nice gamekeepers are and how misunderstood (see here, here, here). I thought that Mr Fowler’s contention that ‘control carried out by gamekeepers … does not impact in any way on the conservation status of any of our native predators’ was particularly witty.

There are at least three issues that make reducing illegal raptor killing tricky compared with many other crimes.

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First, rather obviously, the victim and its family can’t speak out.  There are no moving images of a tearful buzzard parent talking of their lost loved ones.  No distraught friends and relatives agonising over a missing hen harrier who hasn’t been seen for ages and went missing in mysterious circumstances.  No parent talking about the horrific death of their young eagle child in a steel trap.  Murdered wildlife needs others to speak out on its behalf.

Second, the horror of the manner of death is difficult to get across – but maybe we should do more to do this.  Imagine the agony of dying in a trap – but would that be preferable to a death by poison? A few minutes footage of a golden eagle dying of poisoning by carbofuran on YouTube would go a long way to change public opinion.  I remember the image of a kestrel in a pole trap from years ago so it must have made quite an impression on me.  Maybe we should be doing more to explain the consequences of this criminality for individual birds as well as the population impact on their species.

Third, in most forms of criminality there is directly or indirectly a human victim.  We don’t like the idea of murderers going free in society because we don’t want to be murdered ourselves and we don’t want to fear for our children or friends either.  The same applies to theft and evading tax payment – if this sort of thing goes on then we all lose to some extent.  That’s one reason why the police get information from the public about criminals.  There is little information about wildlife crime coming from rural and shooting ‘communities’ and I wonder whether that is partly because many people benefit from this crime even if they are not responsible for it.  The grouse moor owner who does not kill hen harriers benefits from those who do – there are fewer hen harriers around.  His dirty work is being done by someone else – someone else takes the risk but he gains some benefit.  That must be one reason why the shooting community does not ‘shop’ its criminals. So the next time someone says to you that it’s only a small minority of gamekeepers who break the law the correct response is ‘Maybe, I’m not completely convinced, but you all benefit from those criminal elements and that’s why you do nothing to root them out isn’t it?’.


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42 Replies to “Why raptor persecution is different”

  1. Mark

    Thought provoking as ever !

    Yes there’s a mass of amazing wildlife documentary film with the reality of harshness within the natural world but as you say mans destruction of nature is limited and especially raptors. “The Cove” regarding Japanese dolphin slaughter I believe has had some impact ….. I wonder how much cruel raptor death is unseen by the nature of their remoteness and often on private land.

    In a v long winded way I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. With regards to there being no human victim I would say that we are all victims when a beautiful wild species is eliminated from our countryside but unfortunately too few of us care. If someone is caught pissing on a War Memorial, say, the legions of the Daily Mail et al rise up in righteous horror but when the shooting of a Golden Eagle or a Hen Harrier is reported it does not generate anything like the level of outrage it should amongst the wider public. Partly this is due to the success of Songbird Survval and of commentators like Robin Page and Richard Ingrams with his peculiar antipathy towards raptors, in peddling the view that birds of prey are somehow harmful to the rest of nature rather than simply part of it. It is depressing but I suppose we can only keep on challenging such views.

  3. Mark,

    Happy New Year to you! I was enjoying a bit of seasonal respite from the harder hitting topics in your blog!

    I agree with you that raptor persecution is unacceptable. This is because it is illegal. It is illegal because the vast majority of the population say it is unacceptable. I am casually interested in some of your arguments. Would it be acceptable to control raptors if no suffering was involved? Would it be acceptable to control raptors if overwhelming benefits could be found? Does a female crow mourn its young/mate etc that has been controlled by an NGO (RSPB?) any less than a Golden Eagle? I would suggest that no is the correct answer to all of the above.

    1. Mark – I don’t think that it would be acceptable to kill raptors if no suffering were involved but I do think that the greater the suffering the further over the line of unnacceptability this behaviour travels. here’s an example to illustrate that point. I think that it is acceptable for us to kill animals for food but the more animal suffering is involved then the more uneasy I get about it and there would come a point for me, and it might be different for others, when I would say that the degree of suffering made meat-eating unnacceptable.

      And if there were overwhelming benefits to killing raptors then I would certainly reconsider. to take a ridiculous but illustrative example, if I could end world poverty by bumping off a few hen harriers then I probably would. The balance of harm and benefits would be quite different.

      And you are right that the moral issues in crow control and eagle control overlap – that’s why i would regard any form of lethal control as something to be done as a last resort and only when there are ‘good’ reasons to do so.

      Chapter 5 in Fighting for Birds has a half-decent discussion of some of these issues around predator control, ruddy ducks, egg-collecting etc

      Thank you for your comment (as always).

  4. One of the most shocking things I ever saw was when I visited a hen harrier’s nest in private young forestry. Both adults had been recently killed (the day or night before) by the grouse moor keeper from the adjacent estate. The young were piled up on top of each other with the very freshly dead 10 day old chick on top and the youngest at 2 or 3 days lying apparently smothered on the bottom. The young had obviously died of hypothermia and lack of food. It was totally sickening especially when yet again no one was ever brought to justice and the nest was not even on the grouse moor.
    Mark, I agree wholeheartedly with your first two points but I think you are not being totally fair on the rural community with your point 3. Intimidation by some landowners and gamekeepers is still occurring within rural areas here in Scotland. Feudal superiority is also still part of the picture. Tenant farmers, employees not connected to shooting but occupying tied houses, neighbours who want to keep the peace for fear of reprisal tend to keep quiet about wildlife crime (and other crimes). Raptor workers living in rural communities who have spoken out against wildlife crime have been and still are subjected to intimidation often subtly with no witnesses. From personal experience and knowing about other raptor workers experiences, it isn’t pleasant. Therefore I don’t think you should be too hard on those who may not have our love of raptors or wildlife when they risk losing their homes or livelihoods (or pets).

    1. Wendy – thank you.

      I take your last point, and I was really thinking of fellow grouse managers. I do actually say that although perhaps not clearly enough. If there are grouse moor owners A-Z then if only A bumps off hen harriers then B-Z gain some benefit from that, particularly if the bumping off is done at a winter roost. B-Z have clean hands but gain from the bad deeds of A so how likely are they to shop A? That was my point.

      I agree that there is a lot of intimidation that goes on. Anyone who is prepared to brave that deserves our thanks and support.

    2. Such intimidation is not confined to Scotland but is also alive and well in the raptor persecution capital of England ( I wonder if N Yorkshire political representatives are proud of this infamy?). In my experience many farmers, who are stalwarts of the rural community and may enjoy a bit of shooting themselves, deplore the persecution of raptors. They will speak about it to people they know but few would ever report such matters to the authorities, especially if they farm as tenants of the estate. Farmers could be useful allies if suitable links and common interests could be forged. Unfortunately the recent history of conservation effort in the English uplands has tended to favour grouse interests over farming ones (e.g. in concentrating on overgrazing) and it will take a long time to live this down.

  5. At the risk of being sycophantic I really do hang on your every word on these issues. I am a passionate shooter but a more passionate countryman and amateur naturalist. I found FFB one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read.

    Although slightly off topic I believe that apathy is far more harmful to nature (and the fight for it) than legal shooting. Sadly most people would back an airport anywhere that made their travelling one iota easier, not though if they were keen naturalists or indeed wildfowlers, etc. Most people I shoot with are far more excited by interesting natural events around them than ‘killing pheasants’

    1. Mark Gibbens makes a good point about apathy. Cycling round our lanes I am shocked at how much litter there is now even in a pretty remote rural area. This isn’t left by tourists it’s locals slinging all sorts casually out of their car windows. Some people simply could not care and therefore it seems a shame when groups of people who do care but have different views spend too much energy tearing strips off eachother.

      However having said that Mark A you are dead right poisoning raptors is dead wrong. IF some form of ‘control’ is needed we should always look at non lethal control options, which is why Richard Benyon’s ideas for research into buzzards might have been a good idea.

      I’ve recently had a letter from Richard Benyon and he is very supportive of my ideas re non lethal wildlife pest dispersal and deterrence whereas many Labour MS still seem committed to killing. For example MP Tom Harris recently told me “If you’re pursuing any mammal for pest control purposes, you must kill it. They’re pests, you see. Quite simple.”

      It’s not actually quite simple at all.

  6. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
    If you witness illegal raptor persecution and do nothing about it then you share in the guilt of the perpetrator. There are no extenuating circumstances.

  7. Wendy – This feudal system has be scrapped. The facts are that to make game keepers want to kill birds of prey and brake the law they have to have a motive and holding onto the house, the land rover, the free food and especially the cash free of tax on shooting days are the main reasons why they kill birds of prey. Not to mention if a Hen Harrier flies in front of the guns on a shooting day he will be seen not to be doing his job.

  8. I think you are right on your conclusion and on your idea of some graphic footage to stir public opinion. Your suggested response to the majority of landowners/keepers who don’t speak out or do anything to bring the culprits to account might make some think. I agree there is the need to counteract the ‘songbird survival’ story, indeed my parents don’t look favourably on the sparrowhawk which might visit the garden and attack their wee birds. But watching Attenborough’s Africa I was struck by the fact that the cute little antelope did not get eaten by the leopard. Nature red in tooth and claw is perhaps not mainstream viewing. The viewing public are on the side of the little guy. Perhaps films showing the trials and tribulations of life as a raptor might bring greater understanding.

  9. Mark, I couldn’t agree more, raptor persecution is a nasty, nasty business and is certainly rife on upland estates and much less so on pheasant and partridge shoots but nonetheless still widely present. The excuses put forward for it are legion, but do we accept the excuses put forward by the drink driver, the burglar, mugger etc? No, so why should we accept the excuses put forward for raptor persecution, it is illegal making the culprits common criminals, even if their crimes are unwitnessed. A colleague is seeing his MP tonight in order to bring to his attention such local crimes against harriers and kites, hopefully it will bring to Benyon’s attention how objectionable some voters find it. I myself have written to my MP and he has now put my questions to Benyon and we both await a reply with interest. Even most MPs don’t know the truth of it, they need to be informed, it might make all the difference, as such I would urge people to make the effort to inform their MP and TRY TO MAKE IT LOCAL. Here in North Yorkshire (the wildlife crime capital of England ) we have used Bowland Betty’s recent local demise to highlight harrier near extinction and persecution locally on grouse moors along with the poison issue using recent local kite deaths. WE NEED TO MAKE PEOPLE CARE, to do that it somehow needs to be relevant to them.
    I used to argue that grouse shooters themselves appear to believe that raptor killing was necessary to their “sport” and how many sports or pastimes have a long term future if they depend on criminality. That argument is still only too relevant but we need to bring home to all especially those who might change it what this means on an individual basis to them.

  10. Also how many times had the mythical nest been visited by raptor workers prior to the grim discovery ?

    1. Sorry Andy what you imply is rubbish, I would normally use a stronger word. Access to rare bird nests is very strictly controlled by licence. The common complaint that such failure is caused by visits from conservationists is a red herring promulgated by the real persecutors. Indeed many nests are watched from distance until it is obvious something is wrong and it is only then visited. To suggest as you do that Wendy is being less than truthful is scandalous the only liars in the persecution wars are and always have been the persecutors. They assume that because they lie. we do and frankly we cannot afford to, it destroys our reputations forever.

    1. Very good spot Filbert, thank you – we should all write to our MPs and our newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners then?

      1. I wrote (by email) to my PCC about wildlife crime. I got no reply. Perhaps she was overwhelmed by such messages (after all she does operate in the wildlife crime capital of England). Perhaps she doesn’t care. Judging by her website she is angling to be an MP. This being N Yorks she is of, course, a Tory.

    2. Alistair Burt MP
      House of Commons
      SW1A 0AA

      By Email :

      Dear Mr Burt

      May I start by wishing you a very happy new year and I trust you had an enjoyable Christmas break.

      I write regarding a story in today’s Independent newspaper on the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit:


      The article states that the Home Office is yet to agree the unit’s funding, which runs out on 31 March. This is despite strong calls for the Government to secure the future of the unit, whose work was recently warmly praised by the all-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee:


      This is of great concern given the fact that wildlife crime of all types is rapidly growing across the world, and our own wildlife at continuing risk from criminal activity. For example, an area of particular concern to me is that of raptor persercution. Wild birds including birds of prey have been given legal protection for over thirty years yet incidents of illegal killing continue. There have been horrific incidents such as the widely reported death of a golden eagle in Scotland earlier this year:


      and we now face the shameful situation that the hen harrier faces extinction from England as a breeding species:


      Even raptor species which are faring better, such as buzzard and red kite, all too frequently fall victim to illegal persecution – I believe there have been recent incidents of poisoniong red kites not far from Bedfordshire which could also have put members of the public at grave risk.

      There are many problems with law enforcement in this area which I won’t detail here, however I would refer you to the Committee’s excellent report above. The NCWU surely offers some hope of a more focussed effort to bring an end to this disgraceful criminality which has put wildlife in our countryside at risk for far too long. Despite the relatively minuscule amount of funding for the 10-person unit – £136,000 annually for combating everything from rhino-horn theft and illegal trade in reptiles to persecution of birds of prey, there seems no doubt the NCWU punches above it’s weight.

      Will you please make strong representations to the Home Office to do the decent thing and secure the future of the NCWU at the earliest possible opportunity, to make a start in giving our wildlife the protection it deserves.

      I look forward to your reply.

      Yours sincerely

      1. MK – I agree that we should all write to our MPs to encourage them to lobby the Home Secretary to preserve funding for the NWCU and I have written to mine, Chi Onwurah, in a similar vein to your letter.
        Whilst the NWCU can hardly be said to have had conspicuous success in stopping raptor persecution, it is hard to think of how the Government could send a clearer signal to the persecutors that they can continue their onslaught on birds of prey with impunity than by cutting its funding.

  11. Firstly I would like to “second” the comment made at the top of the blog about the film The Cove, if you haven’t seen it then you really should, strong scenes and anyone who has to film whilst dodging (sometimes not dodging) the Triad gets my respect. There is a strong video out there showing raptor persecution, it’s filmed in India and shows the plight of the Amur Falcon. However one of the strongest images I’ve seen from the UK came from the RSPB, probably when you worked for them Mark,and shows one of the team holding and dead Golden Eagle, wingstretched whilst the RSPB workers face says it all and I do believe there was some film/photographic evidence depicting such incidents, which begs the question why doesn’t the RSPB, and other similar organisations release these videos/images after a legal cases have finished, if the RSPB did it would produce even stronger support for the protection of Birds of Prey, SO WHY DON’T THEY?
    Speaking from what I’ve seen and dealt with there is sadly little reason to ring the police if you’re in the field and have seen something. There’s numerous problems 1) You got to get the police to your location which can be trickier then you might realise 2) Sometimes the person at the other end of the phone is an ignoramus and doesn’t even the know of the Countryside Act, eg the case I had when I caught kids raiding a Little Owl nest site for the juveniles, the operator actually said “Is it a crime then to steal wild birds?” Recently I caught some lads removing Pike and putting them dead in their car, from the Billing Aquadrome, very public and very busy, yet people just stood by and watched and when I rang the police this time the operator said “Sorry but if they aren’t harming Swans there isn’t anything we can do, call the Enviroment Agency” I did and got no decent response 3) Police resources are stretched and cut so sometimes you don’t get a response until a couple of days after the incident.
    Mark you live in Northants, so you know the size of the county, try this one out, Find out how many people actually work permanently for the Wildlife Crime Unit, not police who work for the unit during raids/arrests etc but are sat in the office for the unit full time…it might highlight an issue and shock you…if you get an answer.

    1. Douglas – If I witness a wildlife incident that would require the involvement of the police, I would dial 999 and speak to the local control room to report the crime. But Then I follow up by reporting it directly to an officer with responsibility for wildlife. Then I would most certainly call one of the local RSPB Investigations Officers, and at the last (excellent) North of England Raptor Forum Conference I was able to meet the two RSPB staff responsible for my area, so their numbers are stored on my phone. And when I make the first call to the control room, I tell them that I will be calling the RSPB.

      This procedure is based on what I have been instructed to do, when monitoring for Hen Harriers. The same obviously applies for any wildlife incident.

      1. Phil,
        So do I despite the rubbish service, I have done, if I see something wrong I dial 999. I had two such bad handling of a 999 call. On the Little Owl site that was raided I got a follow up call the next day by a woman from the wildlife crime unit, showed her the site had a chat etc, very passionate officer but MASSIVELY overstretched. I actually lodged a complaint and kicked up a fuss and got nowhere pretty slowly. Mark picked up my “whinge” on a local birding site and was contacted by the RSPB.
        I still/will dial 999 if I see something…just hope for a better response!

  12. I see that N E are considering a re-introduction program.
    For goodness sake what a waste of Hen Harriers lives and misery for them into the bargain.The persecution problem needs sorting out first and then they would soon colonise naturally.
    Doubt if Reece ever sees a raptor in his home territory.

    1. Ah Dennis I could not agree more, let us solve the problem first, the birds will then probably reintroduce themselves. Actually the plan was to introduce them on suitable habitat away from grouse, a circumvention of the problem, rather than tackling it but you are still. 100% right.

  13. Mr Bradshaw – Hopefully you told Mr Benyon that the rabbit population in the UK costs £200 million a year in damages. What is the main predator of the rabbit? – The Buzzard. Its not a cull you need but an expansion of population!

    1. Also my collie ‘Magic’ who got one the other day with the help of her father ‘Jed’ in a beautifully co ordinated pincer movement unfortunately also strictly speaking a wildlife crime but as Mark intimates not all wildlife crimes are equal 🙂

  14. For over forty six years I have been at the sharp end of raptor conservation in the North West of England and have witnessed a situation which has gone from bad to appalling. I have seen many of my former raptor colleagues going to their graves after fighting for a worthwhile cause in which we all believed, disappointingly without achieving any improvement or success. I have stood by the graves of two of northern England’s finest raptor workers not too long ago. Despite their life long efforts to make a better world for the raptors they both loved and enjoyed, they both died leaving a situation in chaos with little or no support from England’s Statutory Wildlife Advisor. Recently I have stood to one side as other friends each with a passion for protecting birds of prey, decided to give up their licenses as they now regard this document as a obstacle rather than an advantage in the fight against persecution. What is the point I am often reminded of a licences when the only individuals who don’t require them are the gamekeepers who visit protected nests sites with impunity. Many years ago when all raptor workers were consulted about the proposal by government to introduce licensing Derek Ratcliffe was firmly of the opinion they would be used to settle old scores. What Dr Ratcliffe could never have imagined, licenses would become a political tool, used to prevent experienced raptor workers from protecting raptors in the field at a time when such important expertise is needed more than ever before. Just what the future holds for our raptors I am not too sure, but I am now totally convinced that without a radical solution to resolving persecution once and for all, particularly on red grouse moorland, there will be no future.

  15. Paul,yes it has been peddled for a while about the French H H nest in the lowlands but I feel it inevitable that if re-introduced they would see in the U K the wild places as preferable never realising it was a death sentence.

  16. Mark, Whilst I am in agreement with all those seeking a radical solution to end this illegality, I don’t think you can blame local communities for failure to report incidents. This is just how Society works, how many people do you know who would step forward willingly and report the local drug taker, shoplifter, speeder, tax avioder etc. This is about national policies. No it is not even about that, it is about failure to enforce national policies. The written priority is there for all to see but unless there is a willingness to fund and support those doing the enforcing nothing will happen. I see in todays Independent there is an article showing that funding for the NWCU (one of its priorities being raptor persecution) has not been currently agreed and it runs out in 2 months time. Noone can commit themselves to long term effort in those circumstances.

  17. Mark – agree with all you say (no surprises there). In terms of human victims, the illegal use of poisons has definitely put the public at grave risk more than once, see:
    in particular the comment from the gent from Stamford.

    Although raptor persecution is different, there are variations even within it between species. Illegal killing of golden eagles has prompted public outrage in Scotland, similarly the reaction to ‘Buzzardgate’ as these lovely birds (and red kites) are prominent and popular. An interesting point made to me recently is that part of the hen harrier’s predicament is it is less widely known – owing to it’s rarity even before being driven to the brink of exctinction few people, myself included, have had the pleasure of seeing one.

  18. Pingback: To do - Mark Avery
  19. I do wonder where people get some of these substances from to poison raptors. Most substances dangerous to wildlife or indeed humans have been banned such as carbofuran, strychnine and paraquat, but there still seems to be enough of some of these floating around getting into the wrong hands. Maybe an amnesty would help just to allow people to hand in any of these nasty substances that are just sitting at the back of the shed out of sight of inspectors, so that we can reduce the amount in circulation.

  20. Andy,

    Unfortunately whilst it is illegal to use certain poisons it is not illegal to possess many of them.

    Quote from Mark Avery’s blog https://markavery.info/2012/10/18/good-news-raptor-hater/

    Carbofuran has been banned from use in the EU for many years (since 2001). It has been illegal to possess certain poisons in England and Wales since 2006 – except that the list of chemicals to which this illegality applies has not been published. In contrast, in Scotland, a list of eight pesticides has been proscribed (aldicarb, alphachloralose, aluminium phosphide, bendiocarb, carbofuran, mevinphos, sodium cyanide and strychnine) under the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order 2005.

    When the Defra Minister, Richard Benyon, was asked by the EAC whether he would take the simple step of proscribing this poison for which there is no legal use in the whole of the European Union he replied ‘an order under section 43 of the [Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006] will not be pursued at this time’.

  21. Clearly this should be extended to England and Wales, but unfortunatley making possession an offence won’t result in its removal from circulation unless there is some provision for handing it in without prosecution. Problem is with only a few granules of carbofuran enough to kill a raptor, stocks of even just a few kg will still last many generations.

  22. Why do birders get so indignant about some raptors being killed or eggs being stolen while doing absolutely nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – about climate change, other than making it worse as they hare around for year ticks. As the reality of man-made climate change and its effects on our weather sinks in, you’d think conservation organisations would have a word about globe-trotting and country-traversing birders, over consumption of every piece of birding apparatus imaginable but then that would alienate members and blog readers and that’s clearly more important than speaking the truth and asking people to act on it. Expect the next bird fair to be “bigger and better?” but to only raise a drop in the ocean in terms of financial aid to make any kind of difference while promoting more and more travel and consumption.

    And birders will lap it up and go an as ever. Mention Hen Harriers and they’ll advocate stringing up gamekeepers though.

    1. Steve you’ve walked into the trap of labelling every birder as the same. Whilst some do visit foreign climates to go “birding” and twitchers will traverse the country and get a “tick” bird, there are MANY (including myself) who don’t. I have pondered the same thing as you mind, one birder I know often travels to far away places to see birds in often very hostlie and remote countires he’ll then moan about the “over-population this”, “global warming” etc and when I challenged him about his carbon footprint his retort was “I offset it with a tree planting scheme….” though how many remain to this day planted in the ground is perhaps an issue Mark should scrutinise? HOWEVER the fact remains it’s illegal to steal birds eggs and illegal to kill a bird of prey, simple as that, for me anyway aftre all would it be ok for me to come and burgle your house,no, so why is it accetable to kill a bird that is protected?

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