Crimes against birds – raptor persecution, nest destruction and more

Learn about the devastating impact of crime on vulnerable bird species – including raptor persecution – and how the RSPB and our partners support investigations.

Lone Hen Harrier, flying low over dry grassland.
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Bird crime

Across the UK, many wild birds are illegally killed, with many being deliberately shot, trapped or poisoned. All wild birds, their nests and eggs are legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. As a result of their vulnerable status, some bird species are designated as Schedule 1 species in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and given a higher level of protection, especially during the breeding season. Deliberately harming or disturbing them, their nests, eggs or chicks can result in fines and even prison sentences.

Here we look at the main types of crime affecting birds.

Red Kite perched on a rock.

Raptor persecution

There are decades of RSPB and Government data, scientific studies, intelligence and police prosecutions that prove the illegal killing of protected birds of prey (raptor persecution) is a serious problem. There have been over 1000 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution in the UK since 2013, involving all UK bird of prey species including rare, threatened and reintroduced species. Many incidents of raptor persecution are linked to land managed for gamebird shooting (72% in England in 2022), where birds of prey are seen as a threat to gamebird stocks. 71% of those convicted for crimes relating to raptor persecution between 2000 and 2022 were employed as gamekeepers. Gamekeepers are employed by shoots and estates to maximise the number of game birds available to be shot, in many cases for profit.

Currently in the UK the maximum penalty for offences against wildlife is an unlimited fine and/or a six-month custodial sentence. In 2014, the first person in the UK was given a custodial sentence in relation to crimes against birds of prey.

The RSPB publishes an annual Birdcrime report which documents crimes against birds of prey in the UK. These incidents are collated by the RSPB’s Investigations Team who support the police and statutory agencies to help tackle the illegal persecution of birds of prey.

If you notice a dead or injured bird of prey in suspicious circumstances, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information.

Red Kite in flight over a meadow.


It is illegal to lay any poisoned bait in the open, but as many past incidents and convictions have shown, this practice is regularly used to deliberately target and kill birds of prey in the UK.

Often, pigeon or rabbit carcasses, or pieces of meat are laced with poison and placed in open areas where birds of prey and other species may look for food. Many perpetrators use unnecessarily high levels of poisons and pesticides to target and kill birds of prey. Once swallowed, these fast-acting toxic chemicals can kill birds of prey within minutes.

Poisoned bait is placed in open and accessible areas, making this an indiscriminate method of persecution. That means it’s not only a threat to birds of prey but also to other wildlife and animals, including pet dogs and cats. 43% of all confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents recorded between 2000 and 2022 were poison related, with over 900 birds of prey including White-tailed Eagles, Golden Eagles, Red Kites, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and Peregrine Falcons dying after ingesting poison.

If you have found a bird of prey which you suspect has been poisoned or have found poisoned bird carcasses or baits, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information on how you can help


In the UK all birds of prey are fully protected. Despite this status, birds of prey are frequently illegally shot, often on land managed for gamebird shooting. Between 2000 and 2022 over 800 birds of prey were confirmed as being deliberately shot. Since 2000 the RSPB Investigations Team have investigated many incidents involving birds of prey being shot, including Short-eared Owls, Hen Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Red Kites, Goshawks and Golden Eagles, some of which have resulted in successful convictions.

If you witness the shooting of a bird of prey or suspect one has been shot, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information on how you can help

 Some non-raptor species listed on Schedule 2, Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife Order 1985 (Northern Ireland) can be legally shot during their defined shooting season. These include various species of ducks, geese, waterfowl and waders.

Under the Game Act 1831, gamebird species, including Pheasants, Red-legged Partridge and Red Grouse can also be legally shot during their designated shooting season.

In addition to gamebird shooting, General Licences issued by government agencies allow some species of birds (e.g. Feral pigeon, Carrion Crow and Magpie) to be legally killed to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber or fisheries; to protect public health; for the purposes of public and air safety and to prevent the spread of disease.

For more information on General Licences issued by government agencies across the UK, relating to the taking or killing of certain wild bird species, follow the links below:

Lone Red Grouse stood in a moorland filled with pink heather.


Trapping is a method of catching birds which can legally be used to target certain species (see above for more details) under the General Licencing system. As all bird of prey species are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is illegal to trap them via any method.

There are two types of legal traps. Some are designed to restrain an animal and other to kill it.

Unfortunately, the abuse of lawful traps is a widely used method associated with raptor persecution, with these crimes frequently occurring in association with land managed for gamebird shooting. Deliberate targeting and trapping birds of prey in ‘legal’ traps is a breach of General Licence conditions and can result in criminal charges. Between 2000 and 2022, there were over 300 confirmed raptor persecution incidents that involved birds, including Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites and Goshawks, dying due to being caught in a trap.

A lone Golden Eagle stands behind a clump of heather.

Pole traps

This type of trap has been illegal in the UK since 1904. Despite this, there have been a number of confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents where species including Peregrines, Merlin, Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Red Kites have been found caught in them. In most of these cases, the birds in question died of the resulting injuries. Pole traps are usually placed in or near to release pens containing pheasant poults – young birds being reared for release during the shooting season. The trap is triggered as the bird lands on the pole/trap, activating a weighted pressure plate. Birds of prey, which often use posts as vantage points or as plucking posts, are particularly at-risk from this type of deliberate persecution.

Spring trap

In the UK, spring traps can only be used with the approval of the appropriate government ministry. It’s illegal to use a spring trap in any location except a covered run, where small mammals are the target. As of 2020, in the UK only traps that passed testing criteria set out in the Agreement on International Humane Trapping standards (AIHTS) can be used to trap Stoats. It is illegal to set traps in open areas on the ground or on a pole, where they do not discriminate between target animals and other animals.

These types of traps are often illegally used to target birds of prey – set in open areas, often with bait laid nearby The RSPB Investigations Team have been involved in several incidents involving the illegal use of spring traps, often recovering birds which have died due to their injuries.

Gin traps, a form of spring trap which often has a toothed grip mechanism, have been banned in England and Wales since 1958 and in Scotland since 1973.

Larsen trap

This form of cage-trap can be used in accordance with the terms of a Government General Licence to target corvid species, including Magpies, Jackdaws and Carrion Crows. During the breeding season, a live corvid is placed in one section of the trap as a ‘call bird’ or ‘decoy bird.’ They attract birds of the same species in the area, which enter the adjoining ‘capture compartment,’ setting off a trigger mechanism to trap them inside.

Birds are caught alive, allowing non-target species which enter the cage to be released unharmed. Unfortunately, past cases of bird of prey persecution have shown that these traps are often used illegally to target hawks, including Sparrowhawks and Goshawks, by using an alternative decoy bird such as a pigeon or dove. In Scotland, England and Wales, Larsen traps which have the capture compartment mounted directly above the decoy compartment have been banned due to their link to bird of prey persecution.

Jackdaw perched on a branch looking off to the side.

Ladder or crow cage trap

A larger version of the larsen trap, these walk-in multi-catch cage traps allow several birds to be caught alive, using decoy birds or meat baits. The trap has an opening in the roof or an open mesh funnel through which target birds enter but can’t escape. As with Larsen traps, these cage traps have been misused to catch birds of prey. The RSPB have assisted in several incidents over the years, gathering covert footage which has shown trap operators clubbing trapped birds to death or ‘taking’ birds of prey from live-capture cage traps and bagging them. Based on past cases and other evidence, it is suspected that these birds are then killed elsewhere. The act of ‘taking’ a bird of prey is in breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and could result in a prison sentence.

If you have found a dead, injured or live bird of prey inside a trap, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information on how you can help

Egg collecting

Although the taking of certain wild birds' eggs has been illegal since 1880, the practice continues and can seriously impact the fates of rare birds. Collectors will often devote their life to the pursuit of egg collecting and will illegally take hundreds of eggs from wild birds' nests during the breeding season. Since 1954, it has been illegal to sell a wild bird's egg, no matter its age, under the Protection of Birds Act and it is also illegal to possess or control the eggs of wild birds' eggs under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Possession of wild birds' eggs is an offence of strict liability. Anyone who chooses to be in possession of wild birds’ eggs is obliged to show, on a balance of probabilities, that their possession is lawful. For persons found guilty of any of these offences, magistrates have the power to impose an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison.

Since 2001 – with the introduction of custodial sentences for these offences under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 – there have been several successful convictions relating to egg collecting with many perpetrators receiving prison sentences. The introduction of these penalties has resulted in a decline in the number of egg collecting incidents in the UK, with the average number per year falling from 31 between 2000 to 2010, to just five between 2011 to 2022.

Although the collecting of eggs has become less common in recent years it still happens. The RSPB Investigations Team continues to assist in many criminal cases of egg theft.

If you are aware of egg collecting taking place, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information on how you can help

Nest robbery

The taking of eggs or chicks of wild birds is still a problem for some species. Nest robbery takes two main forms:

  • The taking of eggs for use in egg collections.
  • The taking of eggs or chicks for use in in illegal trade and falconry.

In the UK, Peregrine Falcon nests are often targeted by egg collectors and those in the illegal wildlife trade. In 2021, there were seven probable incidents where eggs or chicks were taken from Peregrine Falcon nests.

Peregrine Falcons sell for large amounts in the captive market. This sadly means birds are often taken from the wild and then sold under the pretense that they have been bred in captivity (laundering). Peregrines are sold here in the UK and are also exported to the Middle East for use in falconry and falcon racing events.

DNA testing has been used in a number of successful prosecutions involving birds of prey taken from the wild. This form of investigation can determine the actual genetic lineage of individual birds, identifying wild Peregrines which are being kept and sold as captive-bred birds. Despite this method's effectiveness, since 2008 when Defra relaxed the rules around registering captive Peregrines, it has become much more difficult to use. The peregrine is listed on Schedule 4 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which was designed to give greater protection to wild birds and to regulate the keeping of birds of prey in captivity. Thanks to the 2008 changes, captive Peregrines and Merlins are legally registered once a commercial use licence (an Article 10 certificate) has been issued. This effectively means that, once those birds are sold, there is no paper trail and they can’t be traced by authorities for DNA testing. This has made the laundering of wild birds much easier.

As recent convictions show, the laundering of wild peregrines is still a problem. To reduce it, we need stronger rules around the registration of captive birds, so that birds can be properly traced by the authorities for DNA testing.

If you have any information about nest robbery, please visit ‘How to report crimes against wild birds’ page for more information on how you can help. 

A lone Peregrine falcon perched on hotel roof.

Nest destruction

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985, it is illegal to destroy the nest of any wild bird while it’s being built or when it’s in use. The eggs, nestlings and dependent young are also protected.

Nest destruction takes two main forms: the deliberate destruction of the nest or incidental destruction during, for example, hedgerow cutting or habitat destruction for development. Any intentional nest destruction (England) or intentional/reckless (Scotland) can result in prosecution with a maximum penalty of six months in prison and/or financial penalties.

If you believe a crime has been committed, please contact the police on 101.

The taking of wild birds in the UK

It is only legal to breed and keep captive-bred, lawfully held birds. The trapping, possession, and sale of wild birds is illegal and continues to be a widespread problem in the UK.

If you suspect someone is illegally capturing wild birds (such as finches) from the wild, please contact the police on 101 or report anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

The hunting of wild birds overseas

Despite changes to the law and the introduction of protections, birds migrating across the Mediterranean face huge risks from illegal hunting. A report published by Birdlife International in 2015 estimated that 25 million birds were being illegally shot, trapped or poisoned across the Mediterranean.

A lone Blackcap singing whilst perched on a tree stump.

For decades, the RSPB Investigations Team has worked in Cyprus alongside Birdlife Cyprus and the Committee Against Birds Slaughter (CABS) to investigate and expose these crimes. Cyprus remains a trapping hotspot for songbirds, caught during the autumn as they fly to their over-wintering grounds, along established migration routes. Illegal trappers use mist nets and limesticks to catch birds. These non-selective trapping methods enable large quantities of birds to be caught easily in a relatively short period of time.

The practice of trapping birds in Cyprus was once a way of adding to food supplies. Today this illegal activity is being carried out on a scale and rate that does not reflect the small-scale practice of the past. Nowadays, trapped birds are either served illegally in local restaurants as expensive ambelopoulia ‘delicacies’ or sold for private consumption. With increased demand comes an increase in the killing of migrating and wintering birds, which can have devastating consequences from which populations may not be able to recover.  Records show that 157 bird species have been found trapped in mist nets or on limesticks in Cyprus, highlighting the indiscriminate nature of this method. Ninety of these species are listed as conservation priorities under the EU Birds Directive. This illegal activity is now a profitable business for some trappers – in 2010 it was valued at around 15 million euros per year in Cyprus alone.

The RSPB remains committed to supporting investigations into these wildlife crimes, working with partner agencies to ensure these illegal practices end. To read the latest Birdlife Cyprus report please follow this link.

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