The legal protection of birds of prey (raptors) is only effective if it is properly policed and enforced with adequate resources
Many people will be surprised and horrified to learn that birds of prey (raptors) are still illegally killed in the UK. Many will think that the shooting and poisoning of species such as Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers was something that was done ‘sometime in the past’ and assume that in the current era of conservation enlightenment, these species are now not only protected but are left alone and even cherished.
If only this were true.
In some parts of the UK, usually, those associated with game bird shooting (e.g. grouse moors, pheasant/partridge shoots), the killing of birds of prey is still widespread and routine, even though this activity became illegal 65 years ago!
The history of raptor-killing in the UK can be traced back to the 15th Century although it is not considered to have begun in earnest until the late 1700s with the rapid expansion of sheep farming. Alongside the popularity of game bird hunting in the 1800s and particularly red grouse hunting, (a sporting tradition peculiar to the UK), most birds of prey were considered to be 'vermin' and a significant threat to sheep and game bird survival. As such, legal predator control was permitted during this period and landowners encouraged their shepherds and gamekeepers to eradicate as many raptors as possible.
Other groups were also involved in legal raptor persecution, either directly (e.g. skin collectors - during the Victorian era it was fashionable to display stuffed birds as decorative conversation pieces in drawing rooms and parlours) or indirectly (e.g. egg collectors).
The most direct methods used for legal persecution included poisoning, trapping, shooting and nest destruction and the combined impact of these activities resulted in dire consequences for many raptor populations. By the early 1900s, several species had become extinct in the UK or suffered severe range contraction as a direct result of persecution. The species affected included the White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Red Kite, Osprey, Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Golden Eagle and Buzzard.
Lost without a trace
The legal killing of raptors was finally prohibited with the Protection of Birds Act in 1954. Following a change in society's perception of raptors over the following 65 years, several raptor recovery projects have taken place; these include the reintroduction of the White-tailed Eagle in to Scotland, and now England; the reintroduction of Red Kites to England and Scotland, and the translocation of Ospreys from Scotland to various sites in England.
Further legislation to protect raptors was also introduced during this period, including a complex array of Scottish, UK and subsequently European-specific laws. These afforded raptor species the high level of legal protection they have today, making it an offence to poison, shoot, trap, destroy nests or recklessly or deliberately interfere with a nesting raptor.
However, such legal protection is only effective if it is properly policed and enforced with adequate resources.
An ever-increasing number of scientific peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated, unequivocally, that illegal raptor persecution continues in the UK and that it occurs disproportionately on land managed for grouse shooting. For example, populations of Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers, Goshawks, Peregrines and Red Kites are all severely constrained in parts of the UK as a direct result of illegal persecution. And of those successfully convicted of killing birds of prey since 1990, 67% of have been working as gamekeepers.
It is difficult to assess the actual number of persecution incidents that happen each year, mainly due to the remoteness of many of the areas, as well as the cultural and social pressures that serve to inhibit and prevent certain sectors of the rural community from speaking up about these crimes. Most of the victims are found by chance, (e.g. bypassing hill-walkers), and it is known that some perpetrators take extra measures to prevent the discovery of their criminal activities by burying the corpses or dumping them far from the location where they were killed. Which means it is widely accepted that the dead birds that are discovered represent just the tip of a very large iceberg.
The raptor-killing criminals have changed their tactics in recent years, largely due to the increasing use by scientists of satellite tags to monitor the movements of birds of prey, especially Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers. When the tags were first deployed, several of those satellite-tagged Golden Eagles were found dead on Scottish grouse moors. They’d been poisoned and the poison was so toxic that the eagles were found slumped dead near to the poisoned bait. These dead birds were only discovered because their satellite tags had alerted the scientists to the locations of the corpses.
These gruesome discoveries caused public outrage and as a result, we’ve seen the use of poisoned bait drop off quite significantly in the last five years (although it is still used at some locations). Instead, the wildlife criminals have switched to using tactics that leave less of an evidential trail: Birds are either shot and the corpse and satellite tag immediately destroyed, or they are trapped in barbaric illegal traps, bludgeoned to death and then the bodies and tags are destroyed. Quite often this killing will take place at night or very early in the morning when there are few witnesses around.
We know this is going on because, occasionally, these wildlife criminals will make a mistake and a bird is found dead with shotgun injuries (it may be that the bird had been able to fly away from the shooter before collapsing and dying on a neighbouring moor) or occasionally, a bird is found struggling, in great distress, with its almost-severed legs gripped in the jaws of an illegal trap.
For most victims, though, there is simply no trace. The bodies and tags are removed and destroyed, which means there is little evidence for the police to identify the culprit and this, in turn, means there can be very few prosecutions.
However, recent analyses of the satellite tag data have revealed that almost one-third of satellite-tagged Golden Eagles, and 72% of satellite-tagged Hen Harriers, are killed this way, most of them either on or next to driven grouse moors.
Identifying persecution hotspots
The continued deployment of raptor satellite tags is crucially important, not only to help us learn more about the movements of these birds and better understand how they use the landscape and which areas we need to protect but also to help identify the persecution hotspots for targeted enforcement.
In 2015, LUSH raised over £100,000 through the sale of its specially-designed ‘Skydancer’ bath bombs and these funds helped to buy satellite tags for Hen Harriers. Those tags and the subsequent data they provided have helped conservationists to understand that illegal raptor persecution is relentless, even inside some of our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
And these findings have led to increased pressure on Governments to act.
In Scotland, the Government has now acknowledged that raptor persecution on driven grouse moors is an ongoing issue and we are currently awaiting the findings of an independent review that should recommend urgent regulation of the grouse-shooting industry.
But in England, the Westminster Government has refused to acknowledge the scale of persecution, or even its link to driven grouse shooting, despite the huge volume of evidence. (It is our opinion that some key influential politicians have a vested interest in grouse shooting and are determined to exhibit willful blindness to the ongoing criminality.)
It is up to us to speak up for our persecuted birds of prey and ensure the criminals, and their protectors in Government, are not allowed to keep getting away with it.
Dr Ruth Tingay is an award-winning raptor conservationists. You can hear her in conversation with Lush Audio Producer, Charlie Moores, here
Photo Credit: Ruth Tingay