Investigations

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Trouble in the valleys

    Recent information on social media has expressed concerns about a possible police ‘cover up’ in relation to some serious wildlife poisoning incidents in Powys during 2012 and 2013.  The police have responded with a short statement.  Having been involved from the outset with this investigation, I thought it would be helpful to provide a bit more information to allay concerns.

    In October 2012, in company with colleagues from RSPB Investigations, I visited an estate inside the Brecon Beacons National Park in Powys, Wales.  Near to two pheasant release pens we located the remains of some pheasant carcases.  They had obviously been there a while and alongside one of them was the decomposed corpse of a red kite.  The pheasant carcases also had many dead insects and the circumstances clearly suggested they were poison baits laid out earlier in the year.  We documented the scenes and safely collected the items with appropriate equipment.   The red kite was not able to be tested, but toxicology tests organised by Welsh Government under the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme confirmed the presence of the pesticide bendiocarb in four pheasant carcases – so they had clearly been laid out as poison baits, and undoubtedly led to the death of the kite.  Bendiocarb is a highly toxic product which can be used legally as an insecticide, but unfortunately has featured in a number of wildlife poisoning cases.  Dyfed Powys Police were informed but there was insufficient evidence to make further enquiries into any potential suspects at this stage.

    In August 2013, I had been working with a colleague on an unrelated raptor persecution enquiry in Shropshire.  We decided to make an evening visit to the area in Powys and as we reached a field, where we had found a poison bait and the dead kite the previous year, we saw a fairly fresh vehicle track through the rushes and grass.  Within a few metres of this track was a fairly fresh looking corpse of a pheasant with the breast muscle exposed and a number of dead insects.

    A pheasant carcase laced with the pesticide bendiocarb and laid out as a poison bait

    This was about 25 metres from where the red kite had been found the year before.  It clearly looked like another poison bait had been placed in the same field, this item was documented and collected.  We waited for two individuals to leave a nearby pheasant release pen and then searched an adjacent field, finding a further suspicious pheasant carcase which was also collected. 

    We returned about a week later, to find additional vehicle tracks in the first field and sure enough the suspected poisoned bait we had removed appeared to have been replaced by another.  We collected this and as there was activity at the nearby pheasant release pen we left the area as it was getting dark.  Over the next few days we recovered another possible pheasant bait and sadly the corpse of a red kite a short distance away inside woodland adjacent to the field.   Toxicology tests later confirmed the kite had indeed been poisoned by bendiocarb and there were traces of this pesticide on the four pheasant carcases we had collected.

    A poisoned red kite - one of 15 victims found during the investigation

    During this period we also undertook some surveillance and recorded an individual visiting the field on a few occasions in what looked like very suspicious circumstances.

    We took our new evidence to the Dyfed Powys Police and were pleased with how seriously they took the matter.  Following a planning meeting, in early October a multi-agency operation led by Dyfed Powys Police and assisted by Welsh Government and RSPB visited the Estate.  Search warrants were executed at two addresses and an extensive field search was undertaken around the areas we had found pheasant carcases and dead birds, plus the vicinity of other pheasant release pens.  At one address, in a dustbin at the rear of the premises, a plastic bag was found with what appeared to be vacuum cleaner contents and a pair of protective gloves.  Subsequent analysis confirmed the presence of a small trace of bendiocarb.  So it seemed somebody had been doing some interesting cleaning!  Bendiocarb is also found in some domestic insecticides so it was not possible to establish where these traces had originated.

    However, it was the extensive field search that really came up with the most shocking discoveries.  Inside some vehicle tyres stacked by a pheasant pen a number plastic feed bags were found which contained a number of raptor carcases.  In total, these held the corpses of seven buzzards and three red kites.  Toxicology tests found material in the gizzards of eight of these birds (seven buzzards and one red kite) which tested positive for bendiocarb.  From the remaining two red kites, which were more decomposed, a surface wash of the carcases also found traces of bendiocarb.  The circumstances strongly indicated that these poisoned birds had been collected and placed into plastic feed bags ready for disposal. 

    A poisoned buzzard - one of ten raptors found hidden in feed sacks 

    A search of the remaining land found a red kite, a common buzzard, two ravens and a pheasant carcase all of which tested positive for bendiocarb.  In light of recent concerns about the case, it may have been helpful for the police to have put out a short media release on the day of the raid just to provide a brief outline of what had been found and that enquiries were continuing, but ultimately that is an operational decision for the police.

    So during 2013 from within a small area of the Welsh countryside, in addition to the four poison baits in 2012, we had recovered the following which had tested positive for bendiocarb: -
    · Two ravens
    · Five red kites
    · Eight common buzzards
    · Five poisoned pheasant carcases used as baits

    A truly dreadful catalogue of wildlife poisoning.  We believe this is the most significant wildlife poisoning case ever recorded from Wales, and the second highest recovery of poisoned birds of prey in any UK investigation during the last 40 years.  We believe there would undoubtedly have been other victims and baits during 2012 and 2013 which were simply never found.  Unfortunately, raptor persecution seems set to remain for the foreseeable future as one of the UK government's top wildlife crime priorities.

    So we had plenty of evidence of criminality, but linking that to any individual is often the really difficult part in many wildlife crimes cases.  The stark reality is that the vast majority of wildlife poisoning cases do not result in anyone being prosecuted.  The response from the Dyfed Powys Police and Welsh Government was terrific and they chased down a number of lines of enquiry and interviewed potential suspects.  There was also extensive toxicology work undertaken by the Fera laboratory near York, and once again they showed the value of their detailed analytical work on the wide range of samples that were supplied to them.  This sort of work is the bedrock on which these enquiries are built.

    A file of evidence was eventually supplied to the CPS and they ultimately decided it would not be possible to bring charges again any individual.  We have no complaints about this, this was a complex case and the file was reviewed by a very experienced wildlife prosecutor who we have worked successfully with on numerous other cases.  Whilst I personally have my own views about who was responsible, it is just the reality of criminal investigations that the prosecutor has to consider how things will ultimately stack up inside a court room.

    Other potential lines of enquiries were looked at as late as 2015, but ultimately it could go no further.  The RSPB is entirely happy with the response from the Dyfed Powys Police, Welsh Government and the CPS and that this was actually a really good example of partnership working.  So no ‘cover up’, just a difficult enquiry and, once again, illustrating the real difficulties of trying to prosecute people for these types of crime.  In relation to raptor persecution, much of the focus is understandably on the upland driven grouse moors and serious conservation problems for species such as hen harriers and golden eagles.  However, whilst things do appear to be improving in lowland areas, and the expansion of buzzard and red kite populations is probably a reflection of this, it is clear there are still serious problems on some sporting estates.  A number of confirmed raptor persecution incidents and prosecutions in recent years are testament to this.  The shooting industry needs to work far harder to promote legal and good practice to try to prevent awful events like those uncovered in Powys.

    So whilst a disappointing outcome, hopefully this enquiry will have been a shot across the bows of anyone involved and will have deterred the widespread use of poison baits in this area - encouragingly there have been no more reported cases in this area since 2013.  So the raptors and ravens in some of the Welsh valleys should now be a lot safer.  That, at least, is some consolation.

  • Bee-eaters are buzzy feeding young!

    Twelve days ago we went public with the brilliant news of nesting bee-eaters in Cumbria, well a lot has happened since then, we have been really busy but we are back with an update.

    Firstly, the response to the news was staggering, dawn on Friday 31st July saw keen visitors queuing up to enter the site and see the birds ! We had to put out a prompt message – these birds don’t wake up and leave the nest until around 7.30am !

    Since then we estimate we have received over 2500 visitors, its great to report that everyone has behaved really well and enjoyed the opportunity provided. A small number of visitors have been un-able to reach the viewpoint but we have done our best to help provide views from the car park, the birds often perch in the trees near the car park and from here give their best views. It’s a hard balance ensuring the birds are not disturbed and satisfying the demand to see such beautiful birds – we hope we are getting it right! It’s really encouraging that we have had lots of families and amateur birders visiting and mixing with keen birders. 

    The birds are doing well, as previously reported we had a maximum of six birds in the quarry with two of these being helpers. The situation changed about a week ago when it was clear the second nesting attempt had fizzled out, we were never fully sure of the exact state of the second nest site as the birds behaviour indicated its development was lagging behind the primary nest and monitoring was tricky as it was not visible except from inside the quarry. The nest has certainly not been predated or suffered any form of incident as it is inaccessible, so a natural failure. Four birds were then seen on several dates but this has now settled to three regular adult birds, the pair and a helper. The primary nest hatched the day before public opening, we had been waiting eagerly, all ready to go. It was such a relief to see an adult enter the nest carrying food, in this case a Speckled Wood butterfly. Since then food provisioning has massively increased with visits around ten minutes at busy times.

    It is no foregone conclusion that the nest will be successful as several factors are at play but we will give it our best efforts. Firstly, we have had rain, really heavy rain on several days, rain that has reshaped the nesting bank considerably, in fact whole sections of it have washed away but thankfully not the nest. Then we have had a fox, walking above the nest in broad daylight. As a result we are continuing to guard the nest around the clock, with a warden sat below the nest in the quarry overnight, every night, armed with a powerful torch and a portable radio tuned to BBC Radio 5 Live! We also have a small number of Crows which are perching above the nest and stopping the adults coming in with food on occasions, we are closely monitoring that situation.  

    So all in all this is a real emotional rollercoaster for our staff, trying to give nature a home isn’t always that easy! If all goes well then we expect the young to start appearing at the nest entrance and to fledge 25-30 days after hatching (so roughly weekend of 29th-30th August). The dependent juveniles should then hang around the quarry for another 10 days or so.

    If you haven’t visited yet then you still have time to do so,  the quarry is at postcode CA8 1SY, just off the A69 at Brampton, Cumbria - signposted when you get there. The watchpoint is open 8am --8pm daily with several RSPB staff on hand to assist with your visit. Follow us on Twitter @rspbbirders for the latest news. Thanks must again go to Hanson, Cumbria Police and the land owner who kindly made this possible by allowing the use of his field for visitor parking. There is a £5 parking charge with 50% going towards the RSPB staffing costs.

    Fingers crossed !
       

  • Come and see brilliant bee-eaters

    During the week of 15th June, the RSPB received one of those calls you don’t often forget! Employees at the Hanson Aggregates Quarry at Lower Gelt, near Brampton in Cumbria, had been puzzled by the appearance of several exotic-looking birds that had suddenly appeared in the quarry. Contact was made with RSPB via the Nature After Minerals project and two local RSPB staff were dispatched on a fact-finding mission!

    This is what they found!

    One of six bee-eaters in the quarry (Mark Thomas RSPB)

    Amazingly, a total of six bee-eaters were seen, hawking over the small sand quarry and courtship-feeding on the perimeter fence. Despite the fact that bee-eaters have bred in the UK on three occasions from 2002, this is still a very rare breeding bird and one needing full protection from the actions of egg collectors and unnecessary disturbance. The phone lines between the RSPB regional office in Newcastle and The Lodge were red-hot and plans were drawn up and rapidly actioned. The RSPB is proud to be have been involved in the previous breeding attempts and to be assisting this species with its colonisation of the UK. Talks with Hanson and the landowner, assisted by Cumbria Police, were very productive and protection wardening began almost immediately. Observations showed that two pairs of birds were nest-building and that the extra individuals were non-breeding ‘helpers’! Members of the local birding community were contacted and informed of the presence of the birds and brought on-board as very willing volunteers! Beyond the welfare of the birds always coming first, the RSPB’s aim in these situations is to attempt to provide a public viewing scheme, so spectacular birds can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. You can listen to a recent podcast featuring the work of the RSPB in protecting rare breeding birds, prepared by Charlie Moores as part of the Talking Naturally series. It was clear that Hanson and the landowner shared that belief and the location was absolutely perfect, with ample parking and good observation points.

    The viewpoint gives great views of the birds (Mark Thomas RSPB)

    We are pleased to announce that the viewing scheme is now operational and the location can be found on the map below. Please follow all on-site instructions and under no circumstances enter the active quarry. The site is open from 8 am until 8 pm daily, with a number of RSPB staff and quality telescopes on hand to assist you with your visit. There is a £5 parking fee at the land owners request. 

    We hope you enjoy your visit!

    For general enquiries, contact Mark Thomas on 01767 680551 For media enquiries, contact Chris Collett on 0191 233 4300