Mark writes: Gary Wall is a falconer and I’m grateful that he took up my offer to write about the licence he has been issued by Natural England to take a small number of Peregrine Falcons from the wild. This blog gives more detail and background.
Gary writes: Having been a falconer for 47 years and running a large commercial falcon-breeding project for many years, which bred falcons for the Middle East market, it’s given me a deep understanding of falconry’s cultural heritage and the dynamics of the global trade in falcons that is, in the main, focused on the Middle East market.
When I started breeding falcons in the mid 1980s it was still pretty much in its infancy, many raptor populations around the world had crashed due to agricultural pesticides and Defra, or the DOE as it was then, had brought in a registration scheme to monitor the captive bred population. I also recognise at that time Peregrines were being taken illegally by people with connections to falconry, some likely trafficking birds to the Middle East. Two things stopped this, in the late 1980s, DNA fingerprinting came into play and probably more importantly the courts locked three people up for selling illegally-taken birds. This was a big wake-up call for those that thought taking birds from the wild wasn’t a big deal.
By the mid 1990s the supply of imported birds was minimal and the focus on captive breeding increased but I dont think falconer breeders really appreciated how 20 years later it would become a complete science, with the question of “can we breed?” gone and replaced by “how many do we want to breed?”. So now falconers had the knowledge but had little understanding of where the original source of their birds came from. As far as Peregrines are concerned there were some birds that had come into captivity due to court cases, and some old lines that were considered “British” from when registration started in 1982, some taken on licence from Scotland, likely some laundered. From these the F1 production were quite often used for breeding Gyr x Peregrine hybrids by professional breeders with little understanding that the source, usually smaller hobby breeders, was going to dry up at some point.
Over this period there were no pedigrees kept and maybe Defra’s registration scheme was thought of as a source of traceability but that hasn’t been the case, after spending something like 4 million pounds trying to update their software system (which failed), their ability to supply any in-depth information on a bird’s history is minimal. Early 2000s, at the time I retired, Arab falcon racing started and suddenly the demand for falcons went through the roof, including their value, captive-bred female Peregrines went from £800 – £1000 to £5000 – £6000, not good for conservation of the species and not good for British falconers who were then left with either flying hybrids or smaller sub-species of Peregrines, that weren’t so desirable in the Gulf, like Spanish “brookie” peregrines or “Barbary” peregrine crosses.
After years of the frustration of not knowing the origin of breeding stock, and having plenty of time on my hands, I started to think about what I could do with the 47 years of knowledge I’d built of falconry and captive breeding that would also have a conservation benefit and came up with the plan to create a stud book population of native Peregrines that could be used for falconry, reducing the risk of genetic pollution, and providing British falconers with a native source of birds that would reconnect with their cultural heritage, hopefully giving many of the new generations coming into falconry a better understanding of how important healthy populations of wild raptors are to falconry.
My initial approach was to SNH, every time I supplied the information they required they just moved the goal posts. I went with it because at that time I was still unsure of the legal issues. In 2017 I had a meeting with SNH but requested that Scot Gov was involved as I had concerns over “policy” matters. At that meeting Hugh Dignon told me that I may be unaware of European regulations and case law from the European Court of Justice so I took that on board and went away and researched it. I discovered “other satisfactory solutions” wasn’t as simple as it sounds, the principle of proportionality comes into play, also the “precautionary” principle plays a part.
The court judgement of the 2015 buzzard judicial review also had some important points relating to proportionality and derogation under Section 16 of the WCA. On top of this the GB Invasive Non Native Species Strategy encourages stakeholder to use native species, the UN Convention on Biodiversity and related Aachi Target focus on sustainable cultural use and the importance of protecting culturally valuable species from genetic pollution, but still SNH wasn’t interested and it was quite shocking to me that a government authority has so little understanding of the law, with biologists making decisions without any competent legal advice. So now I’d seriously considered taking SNH to judicial review because they had no answers for any of my legal points but I thought first I’d try Natural England as now I knew exactly what I was talking about, on the subject of falconry, captive breeding and the law. Initial contact wasn’t good, I was told an application was unlikely to be successful but I submitted one anyway, to create a stud book population of captive bred native peregrines with the gateway into a breeding cooperative, known as the British Peregrine Conservancy, to be the licensee. Initial take over ten years to create a foundation stock with the aim to keep this of birds of F2 or below, further wild take when needed to prevent inbreeding and to make sure “natural selection” plays a role in our captive population. After dealing with juniors for 2 or 3 months I eventually ended up with a senior manager and we spent the next 19 months going over every single fine detail but they have a different attitude to SNH and over time there was a mutual respect built up, and I would have been prepared to walk away if they could prove to me what I was trying to do wasn’t compliant with the law but they couldn’t and eventually understood that first and foremost my reason for trying to do this was a deep passion for raptor conservation and an appreciation that falconry can have a positive effect if people work together.
I sympathise with your fight against raptor persecution but hope you’ll appreciate falconry used to be included in the gamekeepers, pigeon fanciers, egg collectors………. and falconers group of those that had a negative effect on wild population. A minority were dealt with by the courts and attitudes changed, we as a group have got our act together and now we have the knowledge to do something positive. If people believe wild animals should be left in the wild then there’s not much I can say but if people really care about conservation they will have a better understand of the threat on the environment and how important captive breeding is for the future, which doesn’t look great right now! The British Peregrine breeding population is now around 2000 pairs, similar to the Teal breeding population, I believe this is the right time to do this for both falconry and the future conservation of the species.
There’s a condition exempting Cumbria, Northumberland, Durham, parts of the Pennines and Yorkshire. Notification has to be given in advance of any take, land owner’s permission supplied, compliance with guidance in “A field guide for studies and monitoring”, minimum of 3 chicks in a nest.