Are things getting better – is raptor persecution decreasing?
Let’s start from the basics. Killing birds of prey is illegal, and has been since 1954 (and partly before that). Most killing of birds of prey is carried out by people with jobs in the game management industries where birds of prey are seen, partly rightly, as environmental factors that will reduce the profits that can be made from marketing recreational shooting as a pastime.
It doesn’t really matter whether birds of prey do make a big difference to shooting profits if those in the shooting industry think that they do, and it even doesn’t make any difference if they really think that they do if they behave as though they think that they do. But, and I’ve said this before, there is evidence, strong in places, that birds of prey can reduce shooting incomes so let’s just say there is a real conflict here, not, as some wrongly claim, an imaginary one.
So that’s why shooting interests break the law – it’s to make more profit. So far, so simple.
Why are birds of prey protected by law? It’s because all birds are protected by the law and that’s because we, as a society, believe that being kind to wildlife is generally a good thing. It was under a Conservative government, with Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, that the 1954 Protection of Birds Act was brought in, to a large extent as a result of a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP, Lady Tweedsmuir, but also because parliament was moving that way anyway. Birds of prey are amongst a range of species that have pretty strong protection in law. All of this protection is feasibly up for grabs now that we are leaving the EU – yes all of it. In the EU there is a level playing field of environmental legislation (so that no single country can get an economic advantage by having lower environmental standards) and wildlife law is just one part of that much, much bigger picture. We could strengthen environmental protection once we fully leave the EU (although many EU countries have stronger deterrents against raptor-killing than we do already) or we could reduce it. My guess is that the only direction it will move is towards lower protection but raptor persecution will, again, be a small part of a bigger picture of lowering environmental standards.
The law protecting raptors doesn’t say that they are protected unless they cause economic harm nor does it say that raptors can be killed up to a level where their populations are affected, it simply says don’t harm or kill them. And this was not imposed on us from abroad, although it has been bolstered during our stay in the EU, it was our, UK, decision (and is now largely, after Brexit is finalised, a devolved decision to each UK parliament).
So, does raptor-killing matter? One answer to that question has already been given above – society has decided that it does matter, inconvenient though it might be for some small interest groups of shooting, and so that’s an end to it. But there is an additional reason, and that is that we know from past experience, and it is reinforced by present experience, that raptor populations are vulnerable to killing. By vulnerable I don’t mean that Red Kites succumb to poison baits (though they do) or that Peregrines must face agonising deaths when caught in traps (though they must) nor that Hen Harriers are not shot-proof (though they aren’t) but that their populations and distributions can be limited by levels of killing that are feasible in the modern day.
That last sentence was written in what was perhaps an unnecessarily scientific and academic tone because not only could bird of prey numbers be limited by wildlife crime but we actually know that they are limited by wildlife crime. It is not a strange coincidence that lots of Red Kites are found illegally poisoned in Nidderdale AONB yet Red Kites hardly breed in that area, but do so close by. The poisoning is the cause of the absence and some group of people have to keep poisoning Red Kites otherwise we’d all be able to enjoy their natural beauty in that Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. If Red Kites were locusts then killing tens of thousands of them wouldn’t stop the locust from establishing in Nidderdale – it’s because birds of prey are naturally at low densities (as you’d expect from a predator high up the food chain), long-lived and slow breeders that it’s possible for a few individuals to create a no-go area (or at least a no-settle-and-breed area).
And we know from the science that Peregrines are at low densities on grouse moors in the north of England (and have low breeding success, and it’s true in Scotland too) because of wildlife crime. And we know that Golden Eagles are absent from large areas of Scotland because of wildlife crime, and we know that there could be well over an order of magnitude more Hen Harriers nesting in England if it weren’t for wildlife crime. So we know that wildlife crime, which emanates from the recreational shooting industry, has a population-level impact and a geographic range impact, on many of our bird of prey species.
And these impacts on populations are under a situation where killing birds of prey is illegal! And has been for decades. Imagine what things would be like if the paper protection of birds of prey were to be reduced and it was actually made easier to do this type of thing legally.
So that’s quite a long introduction! But the introduction gets us to the point where although birds of prey are inconvenient for one small interest group, the shooting industry, society protects them because we want to be nice to wildlife and because we know that a lack of protection would lead to population declines of these species and even bigger holes in their geographic ranges.
So, in theory, everyone, even the shooting industry (with some lapses, Amanda), signs up to this general picture that birds of prey are lovely and we all want to get rid of wildlife crime.
Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it never happens – just look around at other aspects of human existence! Indeed, it’s because people are quite keen on doing bad things that we have laws to protect ourselves, and in this case, wildlife, from bad people.
When something is illegal it’s quite difficult to tell whether it’s happening or not because the people breaking the law try not to get caught, they tend to hide evidence of their crimes, and their supporters tend to play down any suggestion that there is much crime going on and often suggest that although things used to be bad they are much better now, and just you wait!, they’ll be even better soon.
So how do we know whether things are getting better on raptor persecution? Quite honestly, it’s difficult to tell.
The least reliable way to tell what is happening is to listen to what people say – because different people say different things!
Looking at the data is quite a good way of looking at things, but then we have to understand the strengths and limitations of the data.
Yesterday the RSPB released a blog and updated information on confirmed raptor persecution incidents. This is very valuable information and shows that 2018 was the equal highest year for confirmed raptor persecution incidents in England since 2007. Now whether you believe that shows that raptor persecution is as bad now as 2007 is up to you. ‘Confirmed incident’ is a high bar and the number of confirmed incidents will depend on how good the criminals are at covering their tracks, whether they have switched to less detectable methods and whether there are more people looking, or looking harder or better, for evidence.
It also depends on whether police forces are doing their jobs properly – would you reckon that a poisoned bird of prey lying next to a bait laced with the same poison was a confirmed persecution incident?
And one year is one year. Looking over the data for years and years we can certainly see that wildlife crime still exists against birds of prey and there is little evidence for any great change but the data have limitations. What they do show, lest anyone doubts it, is that poisoning, trapping and shooting of birds of prey, despite being illegal, continues in the countryside 65 years after these activities were made illegal.
Another source of data is tracking studies that have illuminated the behaviour, travels and short lives of species such as Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers. All those disappearing birds of prey on grouse moors are not regarded as confirmed incidents by the police (fair enough, no complaints there) even though the scientists show that these cessations in tag-transmissions are most easily explained not by wind farms, not by tag failure, but by wildlife crime.
We know that wildlife crime on grouse moors is the cause of low populations and geographical absences for species such as Hen Harrier and Golen Eagle through independent scientific analysis of high quality data. These studies give no succour to any industry statement that things are getting better.
But a word of warning here. The number of ‘the disappeared’ depends on how many birds were tagged and this varies from year to year. If you are even tempted to think, ‘not so many disappeared tagged Hen Harriers this year – things may be getting better’ then be very careful. Far fewer birds were tagged, so far fewer were at risk and so there are fewer reports of loss. This is quite likely to be even more the case in 2020 when fewer still Hen Harriers will be tagged. Tagging studies are incredibly useful to find out the scale of mortality and where it happens but they won’t be carried out at levels where they can provide annual monitoring of death rates.
So, how do we gauge whether things are getting better? Although one should treat with some scepticism public pronouncements from vested interests, it is good to keep one’s ear to the ground. And I do pick up from raptor workers, generally a cynical bunch as far as believing that the criminals are reforming, some feelings that attitudes might be changing on the ground. Might be, perhaps. I’ve heard this plenty of times before but I think it is a slightly stronger vibe this time around. I regard it as interesting, and something to watch, but nowhere near conclusive or anything other than a dim flickering light at the end of a long dark tunnel.
Difficult isn’t it?
The real measure of success is when we have considerably more birds on the ground – not when spin doctors tell us how great things are but when the birds tell us, by their presence, that they are doing fine. That still feels quite a long way off but it must be getting closer. But the route to that is not broodmeddling or stakeholder engagement, it is through banning driven grouse shooting and more intense and imaginative enforcement activities by a whole range of public bodies from the Home Office to AONBs and from Natural England to National Parks.
Are we winning? We will, but we will see from the data on populations on the ground.
Apologies for the late publication of this blog. I wrote it yesterday and didn’t notice that it hadn’t posted automatically – and when I did, I started tinkering with it!