Despite breeding and reintroduction programmes, the UK's birds of prey still face threats from unscrupulous individuals and syndicates out for personal gain. Peter Britton reports on the current state of play.
Even for the most armchair of conservationists, the sight of a hovering kestrel or a soaring buzzard is still a delight. For the keen ornithologist, a stooping peregrine, a hobby catching a dragonfly on the wing or an osprey plucking a fish out of a lake are truly sights to behold. The hunting prowess of the UK's birds of prey is simply nature at its finest.
And yet, even while we watch these spectacles in awe, many birds of prey are being deliberately persecuted by a small, yet ignorant minority out for personal gain, either by stealing eggs or young, destroying nests, or simply killing them to 'protect' their own interests. And all this whilst breeding and release programmes are in place for some of the rarer members of this remarkable family.
The family comprises falcons, hawks, owls and eagles. The smallest falcon is the merlin - no bigger than a blackbird. Kestrel, hobby and peregrine complete this group. The largest group is hawks, comprising sparrowhawk, goshawk, red kite, common buzzard, honey buzzard, rough-legged buzzard, osprey and three harriers - Marsh, hen and the extremely rare Montagues; there are thought to be just a handful of breeding pairs in the country.
Two eagles regularly breed in the UK; the golden and white-tailed (also known as the sea eagle or even the white-tailed sea eagle). Owls complete the family, of which the little owl, as its name implies, is the smallest, and the short-eared owl is the largest. Tawny, barn and long-eared complete this group, although there is a case for including the huge Eurasian eagle owl, many of which have escaped captivity and are believed to be breeding in the wild, and the snowy owl, an occasional but regular visitor to the northern-most reaches of Scotland. The eagle owl has the most piercing eyes of any bird of prey, in my opinion.
All groups see passing and rare migrant birds into the UK. These are too infrequent for mention here, although each one is a magnet for ornithologists when they do arrive on our shores.
So, what are the issues facing birds of prey? Put simply, competition. Land owners, farmers and gamekeepers are the main culprits, despite their cries of innocence, whilst unscrupulous individuals and organised syndicates steal eggs and young for considerable financial gain. Peregrines, for example, have been known to change hands for £200,000 in the Middle East, where falconry is still a very popular pastime.
By contrast, here in the UK, all birds of prey used for falconry are bred in captivity and are strictly monitored from 'source to hand', whilst birds of prey sanctuaries are heavily involved in breeding and release programmes. Flying a bird of prey in public is both educational and engaging.
Where birds of prey compete with humans is through the killing of livestock - lambs especially - by the larger species - and the taking of 'precious' game birds, and their chicks, bred specifically for shooting. Grouse shoots are particularly seen as the enemy where the red grouse compete with raptors within the natural habitat.
Many grouse moors are bereft of breeding raptors, even though the terrain is ideal for them. Nest destruction is the likely cause, along with shooting and poisoning. Two ringed, named and tracked hen harriers went 'missing' on the 'Glorious 12th' (of August). Coincidence? Probably not.
The shooting fraternity say that, whilst they acknowledge that some incidences are from within their own ranks, it is the few that are giving the sport a bad name. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) say that their map of known incidences is just the tip of the iceberg, and that actual figures are considerably higher.
The map shown here details 97 cases across the UK from 2017 (2018 data is not yet available). The majority are shootings. Next comes poisoning. This latter method is considerably worrying as any poisoned bait will enter the food chain and not specifically target raptors, thereby endangering many other species from smaller birds, crows, stoats, weasels, badgers, foxes and even domestic animals.
I won't go into the whys and wherefores of countryside pursuits here, suffice to say that working 'within the law' should be the minimum requirement for anyone involved in hunting, shooting and fishing.
Much like fox hunting, where hunting with dogs still continues even though it was banned in 2004 (2002 in Scotland and still legal in Northern Ireland), birds of prey have been protected by law since the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981. Penalties are in place for anyone breaking the law, ranging from heavy fines to prison sentences. Sadly, even though most police forces have wildlife crime officers who perform a difficult task within stretched resources, penalties handed out rarely match the crime and will often go unpunished, again due to lack of resources.
Now, whilst it is important that a crime against nature is dealt with according to the law, it is perfectly understandable that crimes against fellow humans take precedence. That is how it has to be. Yet, as the laws are in place, surely maximum fines and sentences should be handed down to act as some sort of deterrent to those hell bent on breaking the law for personal gain.
One fairly recent high profile case highlights the problem rather well:
A gamekeeper who was guilty of one of Britain's worst ever cases of killing birds of prey was spared an immediate jail sentence because the judge heaped blame on his employers rather than the individual.
The man had poisoned hawks with banned pesticides to stop them eating pheasants which were due to be shot for sport on the estate where he worked.
He was convicted of killing ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk and could have been jailed for up to six months.
But the district judge gave him a ten week jail sentence, suspended for a year, after criticising his employers for failing to properly supervise and train him.
The judge said the man had lost his job, his home and his good name by using out of date and banned pesticides "in a deliberate way to reduce the population of birds of prey".
He added: "The only motivation I can see for this is to protect the birds the estate breeds for its shoot. "No doubt, like many in his position, he appears to have largely been left to his own devices in his day to day duties."
"There is some disagreement as to the level of supervision given by his employers, but even if he was subject to some form of annual appraisal, that was clearly not enough."
The judge clearly thought that the employers were to blame, yet no charges were ever brought against them. So a sentence of one week for each buzzard killed was deemed satisfactory. That is no deterrent whatsoever.
It is expected that the number of RSPB 'known' incidences will rise above the 100 mark this year, whilst a much larger number will simply go undetected.
A red kite recently found dead in Castle Douglas, Scotland was found to be a victim of poisoning. The location of this latest death was just a few miles from The Galloway Red Kite trail, a main tourist attraction for the area as well as being home to numerous other birds.
Sadly, birds of prey share many habitats that we humans like to utilise for ourselves. Whether it be the lowlands, uplands or forests, there is always something we want, usually to shoot, or to rear animals purely for shooting. Because of this, raptors of the UK find themselves the main competition for some individuals in our society.
Raptor persecution is a vendetta that almost feels like a right of passage within some social groups. The reasons individuals object to raptors are no longer 'reasons' but excuses; excuses that mask a deeper hatred for these magnificent birds. It's been going on for centuries, and has been illegal for decades. The rate of crime however, is still alarmingly high.
How do we bring the culprits to task? Well, how long is a piece of string? Until the deterrents are stronger, the punishments greater and the public more aware, this age-old problem will not go away.
How can you help?
Many greenkeepers and groundsmen will be working in rural areas and will have an understanding of what is going on around them.
Apart from the obvious use of bird boxes - for barn owls and kestrels especially - maintaining your grounds in an ecological manner to attract small mammals and insects will help to keep our raptors supplied with a readily available food source.
Not only will you be helping out the UK's raptors, your members/students/end users will enjoy seeing these wonderful specimens going about their daily work.
It is vitally important that you note any change to sightings. Has a buzzard or red kite suddenly disappeared? What happened to that kestrel you used to see every day? Where did that barn owl go?
If something seems suspicious, please report it. You can do this simply enough by using the RSPB's 'Report a wildlife crime' page on their website (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/wild-bird-crime-report-form/). It will only take a few minutes to complete. You should also inform your local police if you believe a crime has been committed. This obviously applies to all wildlife protected by law, not just birds of prey.
Remember, to kill a bird of prey is a crime committed by humans against nature. That the perpetrators feel able to continue to carry out these appalling acts is a sorry indictment of the current state of affairs.
Red Kites poisoned in Co Down
Last summer, police appealed for information after the death of a pair of protected red kites through poisoning in Co Down.
It was the latest in a series of incidents involving red kites, which were reintroduced to Northern Ireland ten years ago.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it had been alerted to a male bird in distress, which died a short time later, close to a known nest site.
When a RSPB NI project officer arrived at the scene she found a dead female parent bird. A rescue mission was then launched to save three orphaned eggs found in the nest. This included attempts to get other birds to adopt the eggs.
There was mixed success, with one failed attempt and the other with inconclusive results.
Subsequent toxicology tests on the dead birds revealed that both died from Carbofuran poisoining.
Claire Barnett, RSPB NI Conservation Team Leader, said they were "shocked and saddened by what is the loss of a generation of red kites."
She added: "With only around twenty breeding pairs in Northern Ireland, our red kite population is particularly vulnerable to persecution."
"Carbofuran is an illegal and deadly poison and should not be used in our countryside. It is such an incredibly dangerous substance."
"We would like to once again make it clear that red kites are mostly scavengers and feed on roadkill and other dead animals they find on their foraging flights. During the breeding season, adults will often hunt young crows, magpies, rats and rabbits. They are no threat to livestock or game."
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Wildlife Liaison Officer, Emma Meredith, added: "Incidents such as this give rise to concerns, as poisons are generally very dangerous. We would have serious concerns over any poison but particularly over Carbofuran."
"We are disappointed that we are still dealing with cases involving Carbofuran, an incredibly dangerous substance and one which can kill birds of prey but also a child, family pet or any adult coming into contact with it."
"We would remind the public that if they discover a bird of prey that they suspect has been poisoned or killed in any other suspicious circumstances to leave the bird/s and/or bait in situ and call the PSNI as soon as possible."
"If anyone has information about the use of Carbofuran and/or the death of these protected birds then we would be really keen to hear from them. The person responsible needs to be identified to ensure that no further risk is posed to other wildlife, domestic pets, or even humans."
Red kites, along with all birds of prey, are protected in Northern Ireland under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, as amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (NI) Act 2011. Carbofuran is a highly toxic pesticide which has been banned across the EU since 2001 due to its high toxicity towards wildlife and humans.
Birds of prey and the law
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is the primary legislation which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, a wild bird is defined as any bird of a species which is resident in or is a visitor to the European Territory of any member state in a wild state.
Game birds however are not included in this definition (except for limited parts of the Act). They are covered by the Game Acts, which fully protect them during the close season.
All birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law and it is thus an offence, with certain exceptions to:
- Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird
- Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built
- Intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird
- Have in one's possession or control any wild bird, dead or alive, or any part of a wild bird, which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954
- Have in one's possession or control any egg or part of an egg which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954
- Use traps or similar items to kill, injure or take wild birds
- Have in one's possession or control any bird of a species occurring on Schedule 4 of the Act unless registered, and in most cases ringed, in accordance with the Secretary of State's regulations.
- Intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird.
Penalties that can be imposed for criminal offences in respect of a single bird, nest or egg contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is an unlimited fine, up to six months imprisonment or both.
For further information
For detailed information, it is advisable to consult the Act itself, which you can find on the UK Legislation website (www.Legislation.gov.uk).
Please also note that, because of devolution, there are now some significant differences in the law between the constituent countries of the UK.