Investigations

Our work

Our work
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
  • New hope for goshawks or just a shot in the dark ?

    The Upper Derwent Valley in the Peak District National Park was formerly known as THE place to see goshawks in the UK.


    Goshawks have been inextricably linked to the valley since they first successfully bred in 1966.  In the late 1970’s the Peak District population was nationally significant, constituting a third of the British breeding population. However as the species has increased and spread elsewhere there has been a catastrophic decline specifically in the Dark Peak from 2001, both in terms of range and numbers of territories. This was first noted in the population on the moorlands to the west of Sheffield before becoming significant in the Derwent Valley from 2006, this was documented by RSPB in its publications Peak Malpractice and Peak Malpractice Update.

    More up-to date information (2000 - to mid 2015) shows the intensity of confirmed persecution incidents in the Upper Derwent Valley area (22) - see map below.


    Over the past decade RSPB Investigations have focused considerable efforts in the valley, resulting in two successful prosecutions relating to goshawk persecution, most recently in 2012 when a gamekeeper was convicted of using a baited cage trap to catch birds of prey. The outcome of this investigation resulting in the sacking of the gamekeeper and more significantly an overhaul of the shooting tenancies leased by the National Trust with the addition of clauses relating to bird of prey success and delivery of the trust's vision. National Trust have been congratulated on their recent action on this issue, when faced with the stark images of an armed man with a hen harrier decoy on their land. We are pleased to have played our part.


    So how have the goshawks been doing ? – really badly to be honest.  The numbers have been perilously low with typically only a single failed pair in each of the last five years and persecution incidents have continued. However, four breeding attempts in 2016 gives new hope.


    In 2013, RSPB Investigations recorded covert footage at an active goshawk nest in the valley.  This clearly shows prolonged disturbance to the adult goshawks by masked men who arrived at the nest tree at dusk in really wet weather on May 29th.  The footage recorded lengthy conversations between the men, from this we know the men then proceeded to climb the tree and take the two juvenile birds present in the nest. At least two of the men have South Yorkshire accents and they are called David, Shane and Sam. One of the men was clearly younger than the others and referred to one of the older men as Dad. At the time this was passed to Derbyshire Constabulary and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.


    In 2015, we again recorded footage at another goshawk nest in the valley which captured a visit by a number of men, this time in pitch darkness, and again on a wet night.  At this time the female would have been brooding small youngsters. Following their arrival at the nest tree, a clear whistle can be heard and then four shots are fired, echoing down the valley. Using torches the men then spent a considerable period of time in the area, presumably removing any evidence.  Conversations between the men suggested that one was called David and another had a strong Scottish accent. A site visit proved that the nest had failed with no sign of any adult birds. This incident was again passed to Derbyshire Police.  It was decided at this time not to go public as the individuals could not be identified and it was hoped there be opportunities to gather more evidence in 2016.

    From these two incidents it became clear that, amazingly, persecution was taking place at night.  This raises questions about how many years this type of activity may have accounted for the nests we have lost in the valley.


    In 2016, RSPB installed multiple 24 hour night vision cameras at four goshawk nests, hoping to catch any similar night-time persecution incidents.  The good news is that three of these nests are still active with a total of six recently fledged juveniles.  Whether the furore over the recent incident on National Trust land involving the hen harrier decoy and the armed male has perhaps encouraged certain people to lay low this season we do not know.  However, it is interesting that what promises to be the first reasonable breeding season for goshawks in this area for a very long time has followed this highly publicised event. 

    A rare site - a goshawk chick in a nest in the Derwent Valley, May 2016

    However, we are not there yet and we believe the birds are still vulnerable so will be running our cameras and monitoring the sites for a considerable period yet - time will tell if these birds are going to be left alone.

    If you have information or see anything suspicious please contact the Police (Telephone 101) and RSPB Investigations immediately (crime@rspb.org.uk).

    Special thanks to the partners who have made this possible.

  • Proceed with caution?

    A male has received a caution by North Yorkshire Police for the illegal setting of three pole traps on a grouse moor near Hawes in North Yorkshire.

    It is certainly not every day that you receive a call telling you that three set pole traps have been found out on a driven grouse moor in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Pole traps consist of a powerful spring trap illegally set in the open on a prominent perching place, and synonymous with the trapping of birds of prey. These barbaric devices, banned as long ago as 1904, cause horrific injuries to the legs of raptors and have no place in the 21st century. At first you struggle to comprehend the information you have been told. A discovery of one pole trap is a rare find but to find three set along a hillside seems unbelievable. You try to rationalise it and tell yourself the finder has made an innocent mistake. You then see the pictures. There is no mistake. However, what most brings home the seriousness of the situation is that the finder also reported a female hen harrier hunting nearby over the same fell. Whether or not this was the intended target the fact remains that hen harriers and other upland raptors remain acutely vulnerable to these traps. This is no ordinary day.

    Upland raptors like the hen harrier remain acutely vulnerable to pole traps (Mark Hamblin)

    Uncovering the continued persecution of raptors is the lifeblood of the RSPB Investigations team. We know it is happening, but proving it, and continuing to prove it and then reprove it, is always the ultimate challenge and what drives us. The wealth of science out there is increasingly highlighting why the UK uplands are missing birds of prey. Illegal persecution is the main factor limiting the breeding success of species such as hen harrier, golden eagle and peregrine falcon in large areas of the uplands. This science, built through years of research, is the biggest indicator of what is going on upon the driven grouse moors and the scale of the damage. However, showing how the damage is physically done is so important in directly tackling the excuses and denial.

    Furthermore, very little surprises us about North Yorkshire when it comes to raptor persecution. The county has consistently held the worst record in England and Wales. The recent emergence that police are investigating eight separate red kite incidents, some birds already confirmed as shot, in North and West Yorkshire yet again highlights the issues in this region. Rather more positive is the very recent news that T/ACC Amanda Oliver of the North Yorkshire Police has just taken on the UK Wildlife Crime lead. Hopefully, this will signal better fortunes for the beleaguered raptors in this county.

    Spring is a demanding time for the Investigations team. Not least the team have to step up to deal with the flood of reports that come into the office during this period. For field staff, there then is a heavy schedule of work looking to gather vital evidence fuelled by the reports that come into the team. This year we had again been incredibly busy and had already been buoyed by some success, yet we are always alert to other opportunities that may occur. Consequently, the report of the three pole traps on the 6 May this year meant any other plans for that day were immediately abandoned. Speed was of the essence. Colleagues and I arrived at the remote spot on the north side of Widdale Fell, on the Mossdale Estate, shortly before darkness later that day. Three isolated fence posts all around a metre high were spread in a line over about 270 metres, nicely tucked away so that it was unlikely for anyone to ever come across them, and along the side of a ridge that appeared like a decent spot for drawing in raptors. Not your average Friday night.

    One of the three pole traps found set on Widdale Fell (RSPB)

    Two of the traps had already been sprung by the finder; the third was still set to catch. We made the trap safe. Ominously, at least two of the traps had signs suggesting that birds may already have fallen victim to these cruel devices. Having installed covert cameras on two of the traps we left in darkness. We returned in anticipation the following Monday evening. All three spring traps had been reset upon their posts. Somebody had been busy. Having documented the scene and made the traps safe, we quickly reviewed the video footage and sure enough there was a male attending to reset them earlier that same day (see video link below). The way he swiftly reset one of the spring traps suggested he was well practised with these devices.

    RSPB recording one of the three pole traps which had been reset earlier that day (RSPB)

    Getting ready to leave, we were forced to wait a while as a pick-up vehicle quietly cruised along in the gloom, with lights off, along a track in the valley below. Again leaving the site in darkness, the mood was temporarily lightened as one of my colleagues disappeared waist deep into a peat bog before we all crashed into bed well past midnight.

    Suspect caught setting the pole trap on Widdale Fell

    Early the next morning, we reported the incident to North Yorkshire Police. We were fortunate to get the services of three Wildlife Crime Officers along with the enthusiastic support of the Sergeant in charge of the recently formed Rural Policing Taskforce . Modelled on the highly successful team in North Wales, we hope this will focus some of its resources on the serious raptor persecution problem within this county. Having discussed the best way forward, we returned to Widdale Fell with the police. The traps were as we had left them the previous evening and were documented and seized by the police.

    North Yorkshire Police documenting and seizing the pole traps on Widdale Fell (RSPB)

    We were highly encouraged by the efforts of the police officers involved and confident they would soon locate the individual caught on camera. However, some two weeks later we were surprised to learn a male had been cautioned in respect of all three traps. The police cautioning guidelines clearly suggested, to us at least, that a range of aggravating factors should have resulted in this matter proceeding to court. We are writing to the police to establish the decision making process in this case. Whatever the reasons that led to this decision, the clear issue that we must keep sight of is the continued targeting of raptors in our uplands and dreadful incidents like this. The breeding status of the hen harrier in England is critical. Despite huge areas of suitable habitat in North Yorkshire alone, this species last bred successfully in the county way back in 2007. This is not acceptable.

    In a wider context, Defra published its Hen Harrier Action Plan earlier this year proposing a series of measures aimed at turning around the bird’s breeding fortunes in England. The announcement of the action plan was well received by the shooting organisations (see here and here). However, incidents like this one, give little faith that the industry can influence the shooting estates on the ground in stopping illegal persecution, the single biggest limiting factor behind the hen harrier’s demise in England. A video that emerged earlier this spring showing an armed individual sat in full camouflage on a Peak District grouse moor with a hen harrier decoy close by casts yet further doubts whether there are any serious intentions to end the persecution of raptors in our uplands. If hen harriers are to start to breed again on privately owned driven grouse moors, then the shooting industry cannot allow unlawful practice to continue. There has to be a zero tolerance of these types of incidents. After endorsing the Hen Harrier Action Plan, is there an appetite or ability to stop the persecution on the ground?  The blatant setting of three pole traps in the middle of a grouse moor really drives that issue home.

    A compilation of video footage relating to this investigation can be viewed here.

  • 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.