Are things getting better on raptor persecution?

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!

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive

Get email notifications of new blog posts

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

28 Replies to “Are things getting better on raptor persecution?”

  1. Late it may be, but worth the wait. If only we could get this blog out to the thousands of people that would care but just don’t know.
    Would be nice to see it published in Nature’s Home. If only.

  2. A question. Why are less birds of prey being tagged? Surely we should be tagging more until persecution falls? Maybe a crowd funder to pay for more tags. I would willingly contribute.

    1. Tags are relatively expensive each costs a four figure sum. The RSPB EU funded Life Project on Hen Harriers has ended and it remains to be seen whether funding will be found for RSPB or others to continue with tagging Hen Harriers other than the few tagged by NE. I know less about Eagle tagging but that of course is equally expensive.
      My own view is we should be tagging as many birds as possible in our uplands SE Owls, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Goshawks, Ravens and of course eagles. The one of the things the dark side killers hate is satellite tagging because it helps hugely to tell us what is really happening to our precious protected predatory birds.
      I think we should also remember its not just birds, other evidence shows its happening to Polecats, Pine Martens, Wild Cats, Badgers, Mountain Hares and almost certainly Otters too in these places, never mind the unprotected Foxes, Stoats and Weasels.

      1. A couple of months ago someone told me they have seen a total of four dead otters along the same stretch of motorway he is certain were killed illegally then dumped to look like roadkill. This is in hunting, fishing, shooting country needless to say.

        1. It's worth reporting dead otters to the Environment Agency (there are details on their website). Depending on local resources, they can be collected and taken to the Cardiff University Otter Project. Cardiff conduct post mortems, mainly as a way of investigating environmental pollution, but they can also ascertain cause of death. I used to run a local otter group and in my experience (limited to the South West) most people are very helpful regarding otter mortality and the police take potential persecution seriously.

  3. You talk about the level playing field across the EU but as far as I can see the EU bird/wildlife protection laws have been gutless and ineffective when it comes to places like Malta and Cyprus (and many others that are less widely publicised). Although with the amount of illegal bird killing going on in our own country it's very hard to impose judgement on others. Corruption at high level does seem to be a common theme though.

    1. Dave - it's level playing field with bumps in it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it is worthles because it isn't perfect.

      The UK implementation of EU directives has been wose than average not better.

      You'll find the playing field is sloping a lot steeper soon, if my fears are right.

      1. I can certainly agree with that. I deal with protected species surveys and licences for building projects in work and I've seen many property developers getting frustrated and jaded by the burdens and costs involved with protecting birds, bats, newts and reptiles, as well as a few other plants and animals. Many have criticised the system and in the end it often doesn't deliver what it set out to protect in the first place due to lack of enforcement and monitoring. My worry is that the system will be ripped apart and rebuilt to avoid the costs and burdens without addressing the key issues of still achieving protection for wildlife. The planning policy of net increase in biodiversity is also rarely considered in my experience. At the root of it all is ignorance of nature in a large part of the population and I bet if you asked an average person to name one of the most nature depleted countries in the world none would even consider the UK to be among them.

        1. Its not just ignorance on behalf of the general population its a lack of concern for wildlife.

          In the light of the recent floods, I've been encountering a lot of ill informed comments along the lines of "its the lack of dredging of rivers to blame and thats down to EU directives about protecting wildlife, protecting a bloody water vole instead of our homes".

          There is of course no EU directive banning the dredging of rivers, though before doing so account has to be taken of potential damage to wildlife and wildlife habitat.

          Dredging rivers etc. whilst helpful in some instances would not resolve the problem and lack of dredging isn't the root cause but that what we are dealing with.

          Then there is the rather widespread attitude that wildlife is fine until it is perceived to interfere with peoples daily lives, as the scare stories about gulls attacking dogs, babies etc, show. I encountered this at work a couple of years back, with a colleague who had a low level interest in birds but thought a local gull colony should be culled because they messed up a few cars in the car park! No matter how much I tried to say that it was a minor problem which could be simply resolved, he thought the inconvenience warranted drastic measures.

          These attitudes and ignorance prevail in a good 50% of the population, (that may be an underestimate!) and until one can overcome this and a general disinterest then politically its going to be a hard slog.

  4. When I was a teenager in the 1960s I rarely saw a raptor or owl other than Kestrels and Tawny Owls. Yet in 1967 ( aged 16) a birdwatching friend and I found on a local ( North Yorkshire) shooting estate a number of upturned dustbins in wood corners each with several bricks on the top. On investigation they all covered several large tins of Cymag ( Cyanide based poison) which even then must be kept under lock and key. We also found a number of set "pole traps" and some raptor/owl skulls under a gibbet ( one of the skulls sent to York Museum for identification was a Black Kite!) An acquaintance found a Barn Owl in one of those pole traps. All were reported to the police and indeed I gave statements. Nought came of it . I was told nothing would as the keepers employer was a local magistrate!
    Since then I have been a raptor worker and have found dead Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kite, Kestrel and Buzzard all illegally killed. I've found harrier nests many of which have failed when the adults " Disappeared" same for Peregrines and Goshawks all on or next to grouse moors. Last year I and a colleague even found a pair of Harriers displaying, when looking for Merlins, that had their youngsters removed under "brood meddling." We were needless to say furious.
    Things may be improving but the numbers and distribution of all of our raptors and owls are limited in both distribution and number largely by people employed in part to be wildlife criminals. Over fifty years ago it made my blood boil then and it still does now. I hope that we will see an end to most of it soon but to achieve that we need an end to DGS and the canned hunting of large numbers of released Pheasants and RL Partridges.

    1. James - you'd have to ask the BBC about their editoruial policy and if you did you could ask them why Countryfile and Farming Today so rarely mention these matters but seem to be very warm to game shooting. And why The FOod Programme has not, unless I missed it (possible) ever talked about lead levels in game meat.

  5. I know you're as ever being very cautiously scientific, Mark, but there is evidence that away from grouse Moors things may be getting a bit better - albeit with bumps in the road. The spread of Buzzards - did the wall of lead and poison through the Welsh Marches weaken or did they make their way up round the south of the country ? - strongly implies less persecution. The revival of Sparrowhawk has nothing to do with persecution - even at peak keeper, shooting had difficulty keeping them down - everything to do with the banning of DDT. I was amazed to see a BTO tagged Goshawk doing a tour of East Anglia and emerging unscathed - Goshawk took a long time to establish in Thetford Forest, for many years producing young but failing top increase. But generally Goshawk - described by Ian Newton as more a bird of well wooded countryside than continuous forest - are still being restricted despite now reaching capacity population in the Forest of Dean and through the Welsh forests - but also doing much better in private forests where there is no shooting. In England at least it doesn't really matter how many Hen Harrier are tagged in future - tagging has proved pretty conclusively that for every HH there is a rotten apple... And for any celebration of modestly revived numbers it's worth remembering that only Forestry England and the protective blanket of Kielder Forest prevented their absolute extinction in England only a few years ago.

    1. If North Yorkshire is anything to go by where the NYM forests are at carrying capacity for Goshawk and must be "exporting" most young yet everywhere else in the county numbers are or have declined. Buzzards are at roughly the same density in the uplands and upland fringe which is heavily keepered as they were 30 years ago as colonisation started but the lowlands now contain plenty of buzzards and of course Red Kites are dying in that fringe rather than colonising. The killing hasn't stopped the birds where possible go round it.

  6. That is excellent Mark, thank you and I shall certainly be sharing a link to it on my own page - and anywhere else I can get away with posting it! As Paul Fisher says above "If only we could get this blog out to the thousands of people that would care but just don’t know." But perhaps plug in your spellchecker before that happens!!

  7. It would be nice, as Paul as written for something other than corporate PR to be written in Nature’s Home. Having spent my whole working life in the industry I do recognize corporate spin, when it spun back at me.

    I would have given my week’s supply of blackjacks to see a kestrel, buzzard or tawny in the late sixties, but they were simply not about, neither were magpies, I do remember though the gamekeeper‘s gibbet, first time I've saw a stoat (dead).

    My first birds of prey were a barn owl and hen harrier, which were hunting the rough pasture next to our football pitch; I had to look up the harrier in the Reader’s Digest of Birds (1969).

    Both the pasture and the football pitch are long gone under a pile of concrete, the last harrier I’ve seen nearby in that location was 7 years ago, and a barn owl even more.

    What’s so frustrating is our fields are ideal and safe for a harrier or SEO to hunt, barn owls I’m not short of, likewise kestrels, buzzards, sparrowhawk and tawny’s, the farm will get visits from kites, goshawk and peregrine, all have their favourite patch and food. I've seen a merlin in a neighbouring field, but as yet not in ours.

  8. I think there is still a sense of deep denial in some quarters about just how deeply the police are in cahoots with the shooting fraternity over this. I honestly do not think that things will change until we stop trying to play nicely with the cops out of a sense of respectability and unrewarded good faith, and start doing end runs around them direct to the public. It is going to take a long history of documented police failings to get public opinion forcing a change in police culture.

  9. Really good, thanks Mark. It is extremely valuable to review and restate the case of where we have arrived at periodically. Preaching to the unconverted is vital every now and again in order to educate those coming new to the situation and those swayed by the spin of the vested interest. You’ve covered all bases and successfully dealt with even the latest incidents and situations and you’ve also stated it in clear objective and where necessary scientific manner. As a result it lays down openly and honestly the situation we are in at the threshold of such an important juncture.

  10. Even taking into account the frequently reported cases of persecution, which will be a small
    percentage of the reality, the situation on Pheasant, and low ground Partridge shoots has
    improved many fold.
    Roderick mentions the Goshawks in Norfolk, I am reliably informed they are now occupying a
    number of estates, where they are tolerated, with a few more Pheasant being released to
    compensate . This in the formerly regarded hotbed of game - shooting.
    Elsewhere in the country, they are spreading from established strongholds, to hopefully link up
    with others not too far distant.
    The growing numbers of Kite, Raven ,and Buzzard tell a similar tale.
    Even in certain upland districts, the wind seems to have changed, for whatever reason, and I have a strong suspicion it might just last this time.

  11. Think by far the biggest problem is it is incredibly difficult for police to actually police these incredibly large wild areas.

  12. V good article Mark...however, you leave out one key driver - tradition. Right through this "industry", from the newest under-keeper to the oldest landowner you will find a Victorian mindset. A desire to be back in the "good old days" when killing raptors was the norm and came with a pat on the back, rather than having a bunch of antis criticising you in your favourite newspaper. A glance at "Shooting Times" will back me up on this....Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that the only real measure is live birds back on the ground [in the trees, on the crags] but I wont believe real change has come until we have admissions from within, of the extent of the killing and perhaps even [??]when this "industry" actually turns-in some of the many killers in their midst.....Until we have far seeing, large scale landuse changes driven by government, including a ban on driven grouse shooting but also including huge reforestation...we are stuck in an endless cycle of failed compromises, with people who dont give a damn about anything but a Brig O Doon view of their piece of land and a hatred of change.The only real change Ive seen in 40 years is that we have more people on our side - who are becoming increasingly frustrated, as they see what we are up against and how completely inadequate our democratic institutions and justice system is ....landownership/property is still in charge.

  13. I want to be optimistic about gamekeepers shooting fewer hen harriers but, not having an ear to put to the ground, I can't summon that view about change. Indeed, logic suggests it cannot be the case. Grouse shooting is under pressure on all kinds of fronts, profit margins must be lower than ever. And, as you say, there is for sure an element of conflict between hen harriers and grouse profits, now intensified. So it's like burning this winter - kill more, while we can.

    It hasn't drawn much comment but to me the most shocking thing about the excellent BBC Inside Out North West piece was the brood-meddling-friendly landowner Tom Orde-Powell guilelessly declaring that 'about one pair of hen harriers' on his land would be sustainable. In brief, he just does not get it.

    By the way, didn't the grouse moor landscape look ugly in that piece? I'm sure it was not 'BBC bias'. It just looks like that.

  14. Thanks Mark, useful stuff. I've taken the liberty of sharing on the Book of Face.

    Anecdotally and purely on personal experience, my feeling is that the situation is improving. Here in Wiltshire, within a 10 mile radius of Pewsey I've seen all the British falcons, Tawny, Barn, SE – but no Little – Owls, Hen Harrier, Gos and Sparrowhawks, a WTE presumably visiting from the Isle of Wight, plus more kites and buzzards than one could shake a stick at if so inclined.

    This despite the fact that there's a fair amount of managed/canned pheasant and partridge shooting in the area. I guess it's the grouse moors where – due to the tenuous and by now inherently unsustainable nature of the enterprise – the real crime occurs. And that it'll only be when the grouse estates acknowledge this that any improvement will come about.

    1. A further thought. The local shoots are probably overall beneficial to all birds (except of course pheasant and partridge). While like many I find blasting birds with high powered guns a rather odd and distasteful pastime for a grown adult, there's no doubt that the managed variety of cover is much more conducive to all birds (and mammals, and reptiles) than intensive agricultural land.

      They thus provide a good supply of prey for raptors, not just from reared game. Being generally accessible to the public they can't get away with raptor persecution, if only – being cynical – for the local anger and protest it would arouse.

      Which, if this is correct, leads to an interesting question. Should we 'accept' this form of shooting for its benefits, encouraging eating p&p to mitigate the moral objection? These are, unlike grouse, rarely 'wild' birds. Which would also support the argument for making the killing of wild grouse illegal.

      [Two short-eared, a red kite, and an unidentified medium-sized hawkish/buteo raptor all in the same patch of sky yesterday on Salisbury Plain.]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.