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Who on Google Earth is killing the world's fastest bird of prey?

Last modified: 11 November 2011

Peregrine at nest on hillside

The peregrine is vulnerable to grouse moors in northern England

Shocking new research by the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum has revealed the true extent of persecution of peregrine falcons - the world's fastest bird - that attempt to nest on England’s grouse moors.

The paper is published in the international scientific journal Biological Conservation. The study used Google Earth to map the characteristic 'strip burning' that is typical of moorland managed for intensive grouse shooting. This map was then combined with nearly three decades of nest monitoring information that had been collected by teams of dedicated volunteer monitors from raptor groups across the north of England.

Comparisons of the fortunes of peregrine falcons breeding on grouse moors with those breeding in other habitats in northern England revealed that breeding success was half that in other habitats, for example on other moorland, open country and forested areas. Only a third of nests produced young on grouse moors.

Dr Arjun Amar, of the The Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town is the paper’s lead author. He was formerly an RSPB scientist. He said: “I was shocked at just how low the bird’s breeding output was on grouse moors; they were significantly less likely to lay eggs or fledge young.” He added: “The few birds that did lay eggs or fledge young on grouse moors did just as well as those breeding off grouse moors, which suggests that a shortage of food supplies can be ruled out of the equation. The only logical explanation for these differences is that persecution is rife on many driven grouse moors.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the global population collapse of the peregrine alerted the world to the long-term effects of pesticides, such as DDT, which built up in the food chain and caused the peregrine to lay eggs with dangerously thin shells.

Now it’s up to the Government and the Police to turn fine words into action. So far, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime and this needs to change urgently to help species like the peregrine

The UK's peregrine population thankfully recovered after these pesticides were withdrawn, and ultimately banned.

Historical persecution

However, increases in peregrine numbers have not been uniform, and their recovery has been particularly slow in some areas where intensive management for grouse shooting is the dominant land use. Red grouse can form part of the peregrine's diet which has led to historical persecution of the peregrine on grouse moors.

Although peregrines have been fully protected by law since 1954, there have been numerous confirmed persecution incidents on land managed for grouse shooting over the years. However, many conservationists believe that these reported incidents are just the tip of an iceberg, and that the true number of offences is really much greater. This study examined how widespread this persecution was and whether it occurs at a scale that could have an impact the bird’s population.

Paul Irving, chair of the Northern England Raptor Forum, added: “To people who visit and live in the uplands of northern England, the peregrine should be a familiar bird in an iconic landscape. However, the guilty few deny the pleasure of many.”

The data used in this study was collected by a community of dedicated volunteers across the north of England and it is a great resource to help inform conservation actions.

The Government has identified bird of prey persecution as one of its six wildlife crime priorities and earlier this year, it added peregrine to the list of species. A welcome decision which this study vindicates.

Paul Irving added: “Now it’s up to the Government and the Police to turn fine words into action. So far, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime and this needs to change urgently to help species like the peregrine.”

The study also looked at all the distribution of confirmed and probable incidents of peregrine persecution between 1990 and 2006 across the study areas in northern England. It found that these incidents occurred far more frequently on grouse moors than on other habitats, despite there being more pairs breeding away from grouse moors.

The higher levels of breeding failure meant that peregrine populations on grouse moors were not self-sustaining and regional extinction was only prevented by more productive birds nesting in sites away from grouse moors.

Intensive

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s Conservation Director. He said: ““If you removed these highly productive birds there would be real trouble. If the whole of the north of England were managed as intensive grouse moor, peregrines, we fear, would be extinct across the region.”

Recently the Government minister, Richard Benyon, suggested that birds of prey are adequately protected in England. However, this peer-reviewed research further highlights that wildlife laws are flouted meaning the peregrine population is not adequately protected. The populations of this and other iconic birds of prey are faltering in some areas dominated by grouse-shooting estates.

In recent years, peregrines have started to breed in the centres of many cities, enabling more people than ever to experience the thrill of seeing these magnificent birds close up. Martin Harper added: "The fact that peregrine falcons are nesting in cities highlights the stark contrast between urban areas and areas of suitable habitat in the English uplands where the species is largely absent.”

Last year, 134,000 people enjoyed seeing peregrine falcons with the RSPB’s Date With Nature viewing scheme at 11 sites across England and Wales. Six of the sites were urban, including Manchester city centre, and five were rural, including Malham, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Martin Harper added: “The results of this study suggest that without the highly productive birds in other habitats, the peregrine could go extinct on driven grouse moors. To me it is unacceptable that a few lawbreakers are removing a species which has lived in our uplands for thousands of years. The shooting industry has repeatedly assured us that the illegal killing of birds of prey is not tolerated on moors, and we hope they will be quick to act to improve prospects for peregrines on upland shooting estates."

The RSPB launched its latest annual Birdcrime report on Thursday 3 November which again highlighted the persecution of birds of prey, including peregrines. The report identified a series of areas where Government needs to step up to address illegal persecution of birds of prey and secure the future of our raptors.

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