The first headline in what is now an annual toll of disaster – the RSPB’s Birdcrime report, the only annual and comprehensive report of known offences against birds of prey – sums up its conclusions all too clearly: “the killing continues”. (Warning – this is a report that contains many distressing, horrifying photos of magnificent creatures robbed of life and abused in death.)
Bird crime in the UK
Raptors have been protected by law since 1954, but on these hugely nature-depleted islands, they are still – in the 21st century – at grave risk. But the danger to these magnificent birds is not evenly distributed. Once again, the 2021 report shows that the danger to them is concentrated on or above land managed for gamebird shooting. The Raptor Persecution Map Hub demonstrates this, graphically. In 2021, 71% of persecutions were near or on grouse moors.
England is also the nation in which they are at greatest risk, with 80 of the confirmed cases from the total of 108 in 2021 being here, the second-highest figures on record. Yet this is only the cases that have been documented. Satellite tagging studies of key and frequently persecuted species suggest that many more are killed – on moors and other isolated places, often far from independent eyes.
This report isn’t all terrible news though. It also records that 2021 saw a significant uptick in prosecutions, following a rise in sophisticated, decently researched multi-agency investigations. The persecutors have to know that some authorities at least – and lots of the public – are on their trail.
Tough criminal justice action needed for bird crime
Yet some of the cases – horrific as they are – have led to only very limited sentences for the perpetrators. That’s why I’ve lodged a written question in the House of Lords seeking to see what the government plans to do about sentencing. Prosecutions are still hugely difficult (there were only four convictions in 2021) and this is not an issue that is going to be solved solely by penalties against individual offenders. These offenders are usually gamekeepers employed to maximise the number of game birds available for shooters.
The Green Party has long been calling for a ban on all driven grouse shooting as a starting point. Driven grouse shooting is associated with the persecution of the magnificent hen harrier in particular. Every year, hen harriers manage to build only a fraction of the successful nests that there should be space for, and driven grouse shooting sees many of the birds that fledge from those nests (satellite-tagged) killed soon after. (There are also many other disastrous environmental impacts from the practice.)
The push against pheasant shoots – which have, until the intervention of the avian flu pandemic, released tens of millions of captive bred birds into the countryside, with massive, increasingly understood impacts – is also, rightfully, growing.
RSPB recommends stronger action
The RSPB is taking a more limited but still constructive approach. The charity has suggested further legal steps that should be taken to hold managers and owners of shoots responsible for the actions of their employees. This is what Scotland did in 2012, since when there has been a marked reduction in raptor persecution. (Satellite tagging has also undoubtedly helped. But the problem remains, which is why the Scottish government has announced plans for further legislation in 2023 to control the driven grouse shooting industry.)
The RSPB report also highlights another area where legislation is clearly needed, over the use of cage traps. These traps can be used legally under general licences to catch and kill birds such as crows and magpies, but legally non-target birds such as raptors must be immediately released. Yet cases documented in this report include a gamekeeper in Cheshire who allowed a sparrowhawk to starve to death in a trap, and a case on the Scottish borders where a barn owl and goshawk suffered the same fate in an unattended trap. Equally horrific was the case of two buzzards beaten to death by a gamekeeper.
There’s also grave concern about poisoning, often with illegal substances that also represent a serious threat to pets and humans, as well as other wildlife. Bendiocarb is now one key substance of concern. Approved only for very limited indoor uses, it is being identified in raptor poisoning cases, as is the extremely toxic rodenticide brodifacoum. The report notes that it is now being found in sub-lethal doses in birds of prey, suggesting it may be being widely distributed around the countryside.
Hope for the future
There’s many causes for concern, but also hope. Supported by the RSPB, and the brilliant website on Raptor Persecution UK, public awareness of the issue – and distaste for the shooting industry – is growing fast. And public eyes on the moors are a keep source of intelligence for the RSPB and other investigators. The UK is known as a nation of animal lovers. It is clear that this persecution will not be allowed to continue for much longer.