The Birdcrime report

We provide an insight into the impact of illegal bird of prey persecution in the UK – a persistent problem which the RSPB urges the Government to tackle.

The latest report

Produced annually, Birdcrime is the UK’s only report summarising known offences against birds of prey (also known as raptors). This report covers confirmed incidents of raptor persecution from 2017 as collated by the RSPB’s Investigations team. This data can be viewed in the appendices, and for the first time in our new Raptor Persecution Map Hub

This latest report reveals that shooting has become the main detected method of targeting these birds. In 2017, there were 68 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, but only four prosecutions relating to raptor crime. Of those, only one resulted in a conviction. We think you’ll agree that this isn’t right.

For the rare and beautiful hen harrier, persecution – particularly on land managed for driven grouse shooting – is a major threat to its survival as a species in England. 

Please read this report, which explores some of the stories which emerged during 2017, explains the issues which threaten many raptor species on a conservation level, and reveals the “blackspot” areas where persecution is rife.

Since our data only reflects known incidents, this report only scratches the surface. We know, from independent studies on raptor populations, that more incidents will have taken place undetected or unreported and that the true extent of the problem, sadly, goes far deeper.

Birdcrime

Be our eyes and ears, and help restore birds of prey to our skies.

Here in the UK birds of prey are under constant threat of being deliberately and illegally shot, trapped or poisoned. Each week, the RSPB receives reports of birds like peregrines and red kites, being killed. How many more go unreported and undetected? 

For the rare and beautiful hen harrier, persecution is a mjor threat to their survival as a species in England. Only three pairs bred here in 2017. The hen harrier is known as the ghost of the moor, and it risks becoming one if this continues. 

Bird of prey persecution is a national disgrace. We're urging the governmment to end it. 

 

Please share. Be our eyes and ears and help restore birds of prey to our skies. 

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Case studies

How are raptors persecuted? Here are four case studies illustrating the most common methods of persecution.

Hen harrier and short-eared owl shot on same estate in Scotland.

Man filmed setting illegal trap – but no-one convicted.

Two peregrines poisoned in quarry leaving three orphaned chicks.

Nesting marsh harrier nest disturbed on Yorkshire driven grouse moor.

Raptor persecution - mapped

Brand new for this year, our interactive Map Hub is the most complete, centralised set of known raptor persecution incidents in the UK.

It shows where incidents have taken place over the last six years, and reveals raptor persecution blackspots. Use filters to view by year, or narrow it down by persecution type – eg poisoning, shooting, trapping.

Getting away with it

Detecting raptor crimes is hard, as many occur in remote places. Successful prosecutions are rarer still. 

In April 2016, the RSPB installed a covert camera on a peregrine nest on a driven grouse moor in Bowland, Lancashire. This nest had a history of poor productivity and the previous year it was found abandoned containing two eggs. 

The footage showed an incubating peregrine fly off a nest, followed by what sounds like four gunshots. She is never seen again. Minutes later, a figure appears and is seen hammering and attending to the ground at the nest site, before leaving. It is believed that two spring traps were illegally set beside the nest.

Early next morning, the male peregrine approaches the nest. Then suddenly he becomes caught in a trap. He struggles but is unable to break free, and remains trapped by his leg for over 10 hours. 

Late that night, a figure approaches with a torch and appears to put the bird into a bag. The male bird is never seen again.

Unfortunately, this footage was later deemed inadmissible at court. What is clear here, however, is that a crime was committed and no-one has been brought to justice for it.

In 2017, there were 68 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, but only four prosecutions relating to raptor crime. Of those, only one resulted in a conviction.

Bowland Trap Footage

View the footage

One evening in April, a female peregrine can be seen sitting on a nest. Something disturbs her and she flies away. There is the sound of gunshots. A few minutes later, an individual dressed in camouflage approaches the nest. Their identity remains unknown. The person crouches by the nest and appears to be hammering something into the ground. They look around, then leave.

The next morning the male peregrine appears. He walks cautiously towards the now empty nest. Suddenly, the bird is caught in a trap and begins flapping frantically. But he can’t free his leg from the trap. He remains trapped for over 10 hours.

Late that night, under cover of darkness, an individual approaches the nest. The trapped male peregrine can be seen in the torchlight. The torchlight flickers with movement and it is suspected the bird is put into a bag and taken away. Neither the male or female bird is seen again.

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Missing in action:

The suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged raptors

To learn more about the risks facing our raptors, conservationists have fitted several hen harriers, Montagu’s harriers, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles with lightweight satellite tags.

A number of these birds have inexplicably vanished.

Early in 2018, a video fronted by Chris Packham told the story of a golden eagle named Fred, who disappeared in suspicious circumstances near Edinburgh. This young eagle hatched in 2017, the only chick from the only golden eagle nest in the Scottish Borders, and was fitted with a satellite tag. 

Fred fledged, and in January 2018 transmissions from his tag showed him exploring the Pentland Hills. But on 21 January, his tag – which had been working reliably up until then – suddenly stopped transmitting. The last fix had shown Fred skirting the edge of a moor on the northern Pentlands. 

After three days, the tag unexpectedly sent a transmission from far out to sea, off the coast of Fife Ness. This was extremely unusual, and highly indicative of foul play.

Too many of our birds of prey, just like Fred, are dying or disappearing close to driven grouse moors, and the current laws just don’t protect them.

Chris Packham


Several hen harriers, tagged as part of the EU Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, have also gone missing in similar circumstances. Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest raptors, with just a handful of breeding pairs in England despite abundant habitat and prey. Calluna’s transmissions stopped abruptly on 12 August 2017 on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park. Then brothers Manu and Marc met with similar fates.

Chris Packham: Fred the golden eagle

Chris Packham talks about Fred the golden eagle

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Persecution in the Peak District

The Peak District National Park attracts over 10 million visitors per year but has become renowned as a black hole for birds of prey.

In May 2018, a scientific paper published in the journal British Birds cemented the link between raptor persecution and land managed for driven grouse shooting in this National Park.

The report, produced by RSPB staff and a raptor worker, mapped confirmed raptor persecution incidents against the location of burnt heather taken from aerial photographs, used as a proxy for driven grouse shooting. The results demonstrated strong associations between intensive grouse-moor management, the persecution of raptors and declining populations of both goshawks and peregrines in the northern Dark Peak, where the majority of driven grouse moors are located. 

The paper found that, while populations of both iconic raptors had declined significantly between 1995 and 2015 in the Dark Peak, numbers had increased dramatically in the rest of the National Park which is free of grouse shooting.

Mark Thomas, one of the authors of the paper, said: “The entire Peak District should be a stronghold for goshawks and peregrines, but persecution has led to almost local extinction of these species. The only solution here is licensing. Self-regulation of driven grouse shooting has failed these birds and the public, who are being robbed of the wonderful experience of seeing them.”

Raptor Persecution in the Peak District National Park

Raptor Persecution in the Peak District National Park

I’m Mark Thomas, I work for the RSPB and I’m one of the authors of a paper published by the journal British Birds. The paper looks at the issue of bird of prey persecution in the Peak District National Park. The Peak District between Sheffield and Manchester is one of the most visited National Parks in the UK and is highly protected. The northern ‘Dark Peak’ is made up of heather moorland with driven grouse shooting as a major land use. The southern Peak has virtually no driven grouse shooting and is more gentle with woodland and dales. We have looked at the location of all incidents of raptor persecution: that is the shooting, trapping, poisoning and nest destruction of birds of prey, owls and ravens within the Park between 2000-2016. There is a real difference in the data between the Dark and the White Peak. Significantly, we have found a strong statistical association between persecution incidents and the location of moorland burning, in the form of driven grouse moors. The data fully supports the notion that the Dark Peak is a hotbed of persecution.”

“I’m stood here in the heart of the Dark Peak – in the area the paper identifies as the worst for persecution. Birds of prey are noticeable by their absence. Like many people, when I started birdwatching, this was THE place to go to see goshawks. I saw my very first one just here. It’s a crying shame that these birds have been persecuted to the point of local extinction.”

Mark is now standing in front of green, rolling hills and woods:

“We’re now in the White Peak and what a joy it is! We’ve just been watching a pair of peregrines – there are over 20 pairs nesting here, it’s a real conservation success story. In the distance, you can see a wood which I know holds goshawks: another species doing well in this region. So why is this? Simply, this part of the National Park is free of driven grouse shooting and the associated persecution. So what can we do? The authorities seem powerless to resolve this, and after several failed initiatives, the only solution is the licensing of driven grouse shooting. Licensing needs to happen – soon. If persecution is found to be happening on an estate, this estate could lose its license to shoot for a period of time. Everybody should be able to enjoy birds of prey throughout this National Park.

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Read the full report here

Driven grouse shooting: the wider impacts

As well as the persecution of birds of prey on driven grouse moors, the RSPB is concerned with how the increasingly intensive management of these moors affects other wildlife and the wider environment.

Burning

In areas managed for red grouse, gamekeepers burn the vegetation to produce a mix of young heather (for red grouse to feed on) and old heather (for them to nest in). The repeated burning has dried out internationally important peatland habitats and, as a result, only 14% of UK upland peatland habitats are in favourable condition. Heather-dominated and largely treeless moors also result in a less diverse mix of upland flora and fauna. Plus, the act of burning releases worrying amounts of carbon dioxide – fuelling climate change.

Mountain hare culls

The unregulated practice of hare culling as a form of disease control, ostensibly to benefit red grouse, has become part of the management of many estates since the 1990s. However there is no evidence that culling mountain hares increases grouse densities. Mountain hares in Scotland are now in severe decline, at less than one per cent of their original levels. Read the full report here.

Danger to other wildlife

Illegal traps and poison are not only a danger to birds of prey but other non-target moorland species. This ring ouzel (pictured) was caught in a spring trap on a moor used for driven grouse shooting in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 2009. A Merlin was also found crushed in a similar trap in Notherumberland - read the blog post here.

Enough is enough

Raptor persecution is a national disgrace. There is no space for the illegal killing of birds of prey in the 21st century. 

License driven grouse shooting

The RSPB is urging the UK government to tackle raptor persecution head-on. We believe this must involve the licensing of driven grouse shooting. Self-regulation has failed, and therefore we propose introducing a fair set of rules in the form of a licensing system and code of practice, underpinned by law, to ensure shoots are operating legally and sustainably. This would also provide an effective deterrent to criminal activity, including loss of a licence to shoot in the most serious cases.

Vicarious liability

Making estate owners responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers could help take birds of prey out of the firing line. Vicarious liability has been introduced in Scotland, and the RSPB is asking the UK government to extend this to the rest of the UK.

Of those convicted of raptor persecution-related offences since 1990, nearly 70% have been gamekeepers.

Any progress?

In May 2017, Roseanna Cunningham MSP commissioned an independent enquiry to look at managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law and to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation. The RSPB welcomed the Scottish government taking action in this way - but there is still a long way to go.

At the end of 2017, Ed Hutchings petitioned for the licensing of driven grouse shooting – it received nearly 17,000 signatures.

Birdcrime 2017 reveals a continuation of the low number of detected poisoning incidents in Scotland, which we believe is a direct result of the introduction of vicarious liability legislation in 2012 and increased use of satellite tagging to monitor birds of prey remotely.

How you can help

We know that you care. Last year, thousands of you read and responded to our Birdcrime report, voicing your shock and outrage on social media. Please keep speaking up for birds of prey. 

Many of you also attended Hen Harrier Day events in August 2018, sharing your passion for these magnificent birds and calling for the illegal killing to stop.

Here are some other ways you can help:

Donate

Red kite Milvus milvus, swooping in to feed on ground, Oxfordshire

Are you moved by this? You can help fight illegal raptor persecution by donating here. Any donation is welcome, and will be used to support the work we are doing around protecting and defending birds of prey.

Be our eyes and ears

If you see evidence of illegal traps, suspicious activity, or find a dead or injured bird of prey, call police and the RSPB on the numbers below. Most cases that end up in court start with a phone call from someone like you. 

How to report crimes against wild birds:

  • Contact the police on 101
  • Contact the RSPB Investigations Unit*: England 01767 680551, Scotland 0131 317 4100 
  • If you have information about someone killing raptors, and want to remain anonymous, call the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.
  • Or report wild bird crime to the RSPB using our online reporting form.

*Reports to the RSPB Investigations Unit are treated in the strictest confidence.