Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Birdcrime 2016: Reactions and reflections

    When you launch a report like Birdcrime, after months of hard work and careful thought, you’re never quite sure what the reaction will be once it enters the big wide world. It’s like shouting into a crowd then waiting for the response; hoping for cries of support and an echoing of our calls for greater action.

    Last week we published Birdcrime 2016, detailing crimes against birds of prey throughout 2016. The overwhelming message is that raptors are being relentlessly persecuted, unchecked, and this is having an impact on their wider populations and conservation status. It’s a serious concern that needs addressing – there were zero prosecutions last year despite over 80 confirmed incidents. Thankfully, Birdcrime 2016 was met with cries of overwhelming agreement, passion and calls for change, with some influential voices joining in for the first time.

    Headlines in The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and The Express focused on the lack of prosecutions, which was a 30-year first. It’s always been difficult to catch the culprits of wildlife crime, especially since so many take place in remote, rural locations. We think better police enforcement could help rectify this. Meanwhile press in Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders ran with their regions’ bad reputation for raptor persecution.

    The lack of prosecutions could have given the critics in the crowd a reason to shout back, had they missed the graph in Birdcrime which included a red trend line, showing that confirmed incidents are actually slightly increasing over time. Some did miss this. The Countryside Alliance complained that we had failed to celebrate a falling trend in illegal persecution (it’s not falling), and the rise in raptor populations (numerous independent studies tell us there are gaping black holes in, for instance, peregrine and hen harrier populations in places like Bowland and the Yorkshire Dales).

    To most, happily, it was clear that something needs to be done about this ongoing problem. Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “Thousands of people who are actively involved in grouse shooting fully wish to see the eradication of all forms of wildlife crime.” While these words are welcome, this organisation needs to work far harder to deal with serious criminality associated with driven grouse shooting. 

    The Yorkshire Dales National Park, Nidderdale AONB, Forest of Bowland AONB and Peak District National Park also expressed their outrage at the ‘stain’ of raptor persecution on their landscapes.

    Most welcome of all were the words of BASC’s acting chief executive Christopher Graffius: “All of us need to realise that the killing of raptors is doing us no favours. It risks terminal damage to the sport we love.” He added: “I know it’s not all keepers, but the figures of those caught and convicted must be the tip of the iceberg.” And: “We must make it clear that wildlife crime has no place in our community.”

    This week, however, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust published a blog containing incorrect figures and misleading claims. They have mistakenly stated that there were “46 confirmed incidents involving birds of prey and owls last year”, when the true number, mentioned frequently in the report, is 81. As we know from population studies, which identify illegal persecution as a key reason why raptors are eerily absent from habitats where they should be plentiful, this number only scratches the surface. Likewise, that fewer incidents have been reported to the RSPB doesn’t mean the incidents aren’t taking place – quite the contrary. Of those reports, a higher proportion are translating through to confirmed incidents, perhaps indicative of increasing quality of information coming through to us. Regardless, the graph of confirmed incidents above speaks for itself.

    It is encouraging that Birdcrime has provoked thought, and we hope the discussions triggered last week will continue until real changes are seen and felt in our countryside.

  • Cyprus undercover - some encouraging news on bird trapping

    A few days ago Chris Packham reported the encouraging news that, this autumn, there appears to have been a reduction in the level of bird trapping within the Eastern Sovereign Base Area (ESBA), a British military base on Cyprus close to the holiday resort of Ayia Napa.

    Having recently returned from Cyprus myself, I can confirm the signs do indeed look encouraging and believe the main reason for this more positive outlook has been the enforcement work which RSPB Investigations started with the Sovereign Base Area (SBA)  Police in 2016. Earlier in September I blogged about the work RSPB Investigations undertook in Cyprus last year. Myself and a colleague installed covert cameras at seven locations on the ESBA, which caught some 19 individuals. Following the prosecution of 14 of these individuals, on 27 September the five remaining individuals all entered guilty pleas to a number of bird trapping offences and will be sentenced later in November. I’ll update this blog when the sentencing result becomes known. The following footage shows two of the men in action removing and killing birds.

    A trapper dispatching a blackcap with a knife - he and four associates are due to be sentenced in November 2017

    This autumn I returned to Cyprus with RSPB Investigations colleagues to once again work with SBA Police taking action against bird trapping. After the success of last year, we knew the trapping community would be on high alert and we were understandably anxious about how they would respond to any similar work this year. The police had already received local gossip about the intended use of balaclavas to avoid being identified and the use of metal detectors to try to find our cameras.

    On arrival, it was clear the success of our work last year had been very well received by the SBA Police and that they were taking further steps to bring more pressure on the bird trapping community. With help from the RSPB, the police purchased a high specification drone. This is equipped with a powerful camera and thermal imaging equipment. While we were in Cyprus they held an open day for the media to see the drone in action, complete with a reconstruction of men being filmed bird trapping and arrested. This is a really impressive piece of equipment and we are aware the police have some ongoing enquiries for bird trapping based on video evidence from the drone.

    A high-spec drone, part-funded by the RSPB, is now being used by the SBA Police to tackle bird trapping (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

    Chief Constable Chris Eyre has also encouraged the use of a range of criminal and civil sanctions to bring more pressure on the trappers. In addition, the military started removing some of the large amounts of irrigation piping used to supply illegally abstracted ground water to the areas of non-native acacia. These plots have been planted and cultivated by the trappers and form the killing fields where they set their illegal mist nets. Take a look at a bird's eye view from the drone showing the military at work.

    Some of the irrigation pipework removed by the military from illegal trapping sites on the ESBA (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

    The covert surveillance work this year turned out, not surprisingly, to be more challenging. However the support from Divisional Commander Jon Ward and his staff was excellent and with some persistence we were eventually able to catch several people on camera and enquiries are now progressing against a number of individuals. The evidence gathered also led to a raid at an address in the Cyprus Republic where further evidence was recovered.

    However, what was particularly encouraging was what appeared to be a reduction in trapping in parts of the ESBA. Several traditional trapping sites, including all seven sites where we had filmed people in 2016, were not in use this autumn. I also met with members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). Their dedicated staff and volunteers have worked in Cyprus since 2008 and it was also their impression that this year seemed quieter within both the Republic of Cyprus and the ESBA.

    While we were there, BirdLife Cyprus were undertaking the annual autumn trapping survey. The results, which will be published early next year, will give us an accurate picture of any change in the level of trapping intensity. Any meaningful reduction will mean that huge numbers of migrant birds have been spared a grisly fate at the hands of the trappers.

    Outside the ESBA, within the Republic of Cyprus, the problem with demand from the restaurant trade and the complete and continuing failure by the Cypriot authorities to take any meaningful enforcement action remains a key problem in the whole bird trapping issue. Like all crime, it is about supply and demand. There has, however, been some new Cypriot legislation introducing a fixed-penalty system for trapping and poaching offences. There are set fines per mist net, limestick, snares, dead protected bird or animal etc. As the fines are per item and cumulative, there have already been some eye-watering fines, as high as 21,000 Euros in one case. However, these people may elect to dispute the fines in court, so we will need to wait a while to see the outcome of this process and how effective these are in the long term. However, it does appear at the moment that these fines may have had some deterrent effect on the bird trappers.

    Clearance of large areas of non-native acacia within the ESBA has to remain a key priority for the UK government (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

    Whilst tackling the restaurant trade is the key issue in the Republic of Cyprus, for the SBA authorities the long-term goal has to be removal the many patches of non-native acacia in the ESBA. In late 2014, removal of these acacia plots began. After early encouraging progress, during 2016 this work ground to a halt following large scale local protests from the trapping community. Completion of this work is badly needed to secure a permanent reduction on trapping levels within the ESBA. The RSPB is currently making an assessment of how much of the trapping acacia within the core range area has actually been cleared and how much work remains to be done.

    Whilst more action is needed, I look forward with great interest to this year’s BirdLife Cyprus survey results to see if we have started to make some impact. If this shows there has been a meaningful reduction in trapping this autumn, we hope this will provide the SBA authorities with an safer environment to progress further with the acacia clearance. While I am hopeful the survey news will be good, we have to be acutely aware of 'false dawns' - when I first got involved in this work in 2000, positive enforcement action quickly lead to a significant reduction in trapping. However, over the years it has insidiously crept back up, reaching record levels within the ESBA. Keeping the foot on the pedal will be essential to build on any progress this time around.  

    How can I help?

    If you’d like to support the efforts to end the illegal trapping on British Territory in Cyprus, you can write to your MP in support of further acacia clearance (details on our ‘Nature’s Heroes’ blog) and find out more about BirdLife Cyprus’ work here.

  • Young peregrine shot in Cambridge faces uncertain future

    It’s October, and by now the fledglings of spring will be on the wing, making their own way in the world and ready to face their first winter.

    But one of the class of 2017 has hit a worrying bump in the road to adulthood.

    Last month (September), a juvenile peregrine falcon was discovered by a member of the public on the outskirts of Cambridge. It appeared the bird had been grounded for several days. The peregrine was taken to the Raptor Foundation nearby, who contacted police and the RSPB.

    When the bird was x-rayed, it was clear what had happened. The bright white shape of an air rifle pellet could be seen lodged in the peregrine’s shoulder: this bird had been shot. There was also a fragment of metal in its wing, preventing the bird from flying. Vets believe the bird could have been shot up to two weeks before it was reported, living with the pellet lodged in its body. It is now being looked after at the centre, and receiving physiotherapy.

    Says Simon Dudhill of the Raptor Foundation: “We had hoped to be able to release the bird back to the wild, but early indications are proving to be less than positive. The wing is not mending as quickly as we'd like, despite extensive treatment. We really want to see this beautiful bird back in the skies again – fingers crossed.”

    From the ring on its leg the bird was identified as one of three that fledged from a nest on the outskirts of Cambridge earlier this year. 

    Like all birds of prey, peregrines are protected by UK law. Anyone found guilty of killing or harming a peregrine could face an unlimited fine and, or, six months in jail. 

    Peregrine falcons are the fastest birds in the world, still no peregrine is a match for a gun. Usually it's a joy when magnificent raptors like these make a home in our cities - they bring an exciting flash of wilderness to our domestic routines and there's no reason why humans and peregrines can't live shoulder to shoulder. Still, someone has clearly, deliberately shot this bird.

    We urge anyone with information to come forward – it’s information from people like you that can (a) alert us to grounded birds of prey and (b) help police find out who’s responsible.

    "This was a senseless act, causing injury and distress to a protected bird,” said PC Alun Bradshaw. "I'd encourage anyone who has information about this incident to contact the police and the RSPB. Doing so might prevent other wildlife from being harmed in the same way."

    If you have any information relating to this incident, call Cambridgeshire Police on 101 using the reference number CF0539270917.

    If you find a wild bird which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB Investigations on 01767 680551, email crime@rspb.co.uk or fill in the online form.