Guy Anderson - RSPB Principle research manager, satellite tagging juvenile Hen harrier, Geltsdale, Cumbria

Future challenges

Despite the improvements and successes, humans still pose a threat to birds of prey.

A challenging future

Issues such as egg collecting and the taking of birds and eggs for falconry are not as common as they used to be, but still occur and are threats to some of our rarest species.

Stronger modern rodent poisons are still a cause of death in some cases for birds like the red kite, although the impacts at a species level are currently unknown.

The main problem affecting birds of prey today is illegal killing and interference. Incidents of this nature are still frequent and widespread in parts of the UK and affect most species.

Incidents on lowland farm and game estates have declined in the last decade, evident in the recovery of red kites and buzzards across much of lowland Britain.

This contrasts with the incidents in upland counties, predominantly on land managed for grouse shooting. Poisoning and shooting continue to be the most frequent forms of illegal activity but destruction of nests, eggs and chicks, and trapping are also recorded.

Sadly, few incidents lead to convictions due to the difficulties in securing evidence against those involved.

Persecution of these species

The population of hen harriers in England has noticeably been affected by illegal persecution and is well below its natural level. Persecution is a key threat preventing recovery, with just 3 pairs nesting successfully in England in 2016, whereas there is habitat for over 300.

The number of incidents reported to the RSPB over the last 10 years remains unacceptably high, but actually under-represents the true scale of the problem. Sadly, few incidents lead to convictions due to the difficulties in securing evidence against those involved.

More enforcement action is needed and despite encouraging developments, such as the creation of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, much more needs to be done to tackle illegal killing.

Real and welcome progress has been made in some lowland areas, but in areas of upland Britain, the situation remains serious and little changed from the Victorian era. These 'black holes', where familiar birds of prey are noticeable by their absence, are a major concern and should be a focus for future enforcement activity.

We welcome the successes of the last 50 years and must ensure they are sustained. Birds of prey are not 'out of control' and their numbers will not go on increasing forever. Numbers are ultimately limited by the availability of their prey (or nest sites) and their populations should come into a natural balance through ecological processes.

An environment in balance

We believe healthy populations of birds of prey are fundamental to a natural environment which is in balance.

Therefore, populations that have reached their optimum level should be maintained, while those at a lower density should be given every opportunity to reach their potential. For some, such as the hen harrier and golden eagle, numbers are well below the capacity of their environment and this is due to continued illegal killing.

We believe the existing level of legal protection for birds of prey is fully justified and that effective regulation and enforcement is needed to tackle illegal interference. We support the use of non-lethal methods for reducing conflicts where these occur, working within the existing legislation.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult male perched in flight with twig, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve