Tag Archives: Northern England Raptor Forum

The tale of two Buzzards, one Eagle Owl and a gamekeeper with a gun during lockdown.

The past twelve months have been very challenging for all of humanity as the Covid Pandemic spread across the planet. The scientists immediately realised that the virus was spreading out of control through human to human contact and this pattern of transmissibility had to be broken. The response from the Government was to impose a ‘lockdown’ throughout England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland followed the same route, as did most of the rest of the world.

The imposition of lockdown was a draconian but essential decision. Thousands of people were dying in England every week, snatched from families who had to grieve without the opportunity to say goodbye and follow our funerary rituals. Schools were closed, shops and factories were closed; only absolutely essential services were allowed to operate and even these were operating at a reduced level. Lockdown had, understandably brought England to a standstill and we, the general public, played our part. Other than people engaged in providing essential services we complied with the lockdown policy and stayed at home during the early part of 2020. Interestingly, perhaps inexplicably, gamekeepers were exempt from the lockdown restriction from the beginning whilst the RSPB Investigations Team were furloughed for several weeks at the beginning of Lockdown One.

The countryside was closed and conservationists, including NERF, were concerned that raptor persecution would increase across the country. That concern changed to a predicable reality as the RSPB reported receiving a higher number of reports of persecution than normal during spring. In a 2020 press release Mark Thomas Head of RSPB Investigations said,

“Since lockdown began, the RSPB has been overrun with reports of birds of prey being targeted. It is clear that criminals on some sporting estates both in the uplands and lowlands, have used the wider closure of the countryside as an opportunity to ramp up their efforts to kill birds of prey.”

NERF commented on the appalling situation in the article ‘The country may have been in lockdown but in the countryside the killing fields were still open for business as usual.’ published on the NERF website 16 May 2020. [LINK].

Whilst we knew that the RSPB Investigations Team were receiving an increased volume of raptor persecution reports we were unaware of the nature of the allegations. However, following the publication of an article by the RSPB on 9 March 2021 we now have details of one of the cases that the Team were investigating. A report had been received approximately two years earlier alleging that a gamekeeper, on a grouse moor located inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was using a tethered Eagle Owl to lure birds of prey into a position where they could be shot. The use of Eagle Owls in this way has been recorded previously on grouse moors and appears to be on the increase. The initial observations were unsuccessful, however with the dogged determination we have seen for many years the Investigators stuck with the case and on 21 May 2019 the Team filmed a man arriving on a quad carrying a large box on the back. The box held an Eagle Owl which was removed and tethered to a cairn before the gamekeeper secreted himself close-by. Eagle Owls will not be tolerated in the territory of other birds, including raptors, which will attempt to drive the Eagle Owls off leaving the raptors vulnerable to being shot. During this period of observation no raptors were seen near the Eagle Owl and the person left with the Owl. Clearly the original intelligence had been correct and additional periods of observation were also undertaken during 2019 without success.

Undeterred the Team returned in 2020 and on 27 April they filmed a man tethering an Eagle Owl to a post before shooting and killing two Buzzards and attempting to kill a third. Undertaking covert observations requires exceptional skills, even more so when the observations are undertaken and filmed from c5 km away. The matter was reported to the Police and a search warrant was executed at the home of the suspect. Unfortunately due to the distance at which the killing of the two Buzzards was filmed it was not possible to identify the gamekeeper to the standard required to prosecute the suspect.

Inspector Matt Hagen, North Yorkshire Police, said:

“We conducted a search warrant and interviewed an individual in relation to this incident. Ultimately, however, the identity of the suspect on the film could not be proved, and it was not possible to bring about a prosecution. However this does not mean the event didn’t happen. We know that a gamekeeper on a grouse moor has been shooting buzzards, using a live eagle owl decoy to bring those buzzards into a position where they could be shot. We urge the public to report incidents like this to the police, and to come forward if they have information about this or any other incident involving the illegal killing of birds of prey.”

The RSPB video outlining the can be viewed here.

Whilst a lack of a prosecution is not someone involved in the case would have wished for we have to remember that the legislation that protected the suspect in this case also protects all of us should we be accused of a criminal offence. However; as Inspector Hagen stated so eloquently the investigation did prove that a gamekeeper on a grouse moor did use an Eagle Owl as a decoy and did kill two Buzzards.

If further evidence was needed that whilst the majority of the people in England were complying with the Government’s advice of ‘Stay home – protect the NHS – save lives – at least one grouse moor gamekeeper was taking the lives of Buzzards on the estate where he works. The RSPB Investigations Team commenced their observations and filmed the unidentified armed gamekeeper secreted near a tethered Eagle Owl on 21 May 2019. They returned and filmed another unidentified armed gamekeeper, perhaps the same person, killing two Buzzards 312 days later on 21 April 2020. Were they lucky to film him on the only day that he killed birds of prey using the Eagle Owl decoy? The odds are 311 to 1. The RSPB’s Investigations Team are very good but are they so lucky that they filmed him on the only day that he killed birds of prey?

Raptor persecution is one of the Government’s Wildlife Crime Priorities. The aim is to eliminate these crimes as far as is practicably possible and has a dedicated Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] to address these crimes, but to what effect. In reality none. The Priority Group consists of the Government departments, Defra and NE, conservation organisations, including NERF and the RSPB. It also has representatives of the shooting industry every one of which trots out the mantra that they condemn all raptor persecution. Twenty four hours after the RSPB press release was circulated what have the Moorland Association, BASC, National Gamekeeper’s Association and the Countryside Alliance had to say about this case? Nothing. The sound of silence is deafening, but then again this is what we are used to. Several of the shooting organisations that sit on the RRPDG also sit on the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Management Plan Raptor Monitoring Group, as does NERF. The offences outlined in this case took place inside the National Park however; yet again the shooting organisations sitting on that committee remain silent, refusing to condemn the estate and the individual(s) involved.

Of course we should not be surprised by the silence expressed by the shooting industry with regard to this incident. When the case of the poisoned Peregrine, within the Peak District National Park, was brought to the attention of the public by the RSPB recently we also heard nothing from the shooting industry even though some of the members of the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative are also members the RPPDG and the YDNP raptor group. Why was that? Is there a common theme here?

Notwithstanding the fact that this enquiry didn’t end in a prosecution we are grateful for the hard work and dedication of the RSPB Investigations Team and Inspector Hagan’s Rural Crime Team for pursuing the case as was practically possible. Once again these events reinforce the fact that the shooting industry is incapable of self-regulation. The time for Government to introduce both the licensing of game shooting and vicarious liability for the owners of game shooting estates, making them legally liable for the actions of their employees, is long overdue. If birds of prey are to benefit from the legislation, that was enacted decades ago to protect them, these two changes to current legislation need to be made without delay.

If you have any information about this case, any other cases of raptor persecution, or any other Wildlife crime please contact the Police on 101, or,

Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

Alternatively, you can call the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.

NERF

11 March 2021

Natural England report confirms breeding Peregrines are missing from the northern uplands due to illegal persecution and deliberate disturbance.

Natural England have recently published:-

 “Definition of Favourable Conservation Status for the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

                                                                                                         Author: Allan Drewitt (Nov 2020)

http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5849435004469248?category=5415044475256832

Peregrine Falcon – Tim Melling

This is part of a wider Natural England project to define the Favourable Conservations Status (FCS) of various habitats and species in England at which they might be considered to be “thriving”.  The project aims to set aspirational levels for species’ populations and habitat conditions that will inform and guide decision makers to help achieve and sustain favourable status.  These analyses are based on ecological evidence and the expertise of specialist groups.

The Northern England Raptor Forum welcomes the report defining the would-be Favourable Conservation Status for the Peregrine Falcon. 

Many of our members have conducted long standing field studies into the fortunes of Peregrines in their area and contributed significant bodies of data to the key published papers that are cited in the Natural England report [Amar A. et al (2012), Melling T. et al (2018), Wilson M.W. et al (2018)].

Whilst the breeding populations of Peregrines in many areas of England have shown a general pattern of increases in recent decades the report makes clear this same trend is not evident in the northern uplands. Here marked losses in the range and population have been experienced and continue to this day. In particular, breeding productivity at sites on or near driven grouse moor estates is half of that found on non-grouse moor habitats.  There are now significant gaps across the northern uplands where Peregrines previously bred and where overall numbers are lower compared to the 1990s and 2000s, for example in the Dark Peak, Bowland Forest and the North Pennine SPA. 

The report concludes that current productivity in these areas is insufficient to allow the population to grow.  Restoration of the Peregrines’ natural range in the northern uplands would result in the presence of 90 pairs (compared with probably less than 20 pairs presently).  Crucially, the report judges that neither the habitat nor food abundance in the northern uplands are limiting to population growth.                                                                                                                                          

The principal reasons that upland Peregrines are faring so badly are given as illegal killing and nest site disturbance and the report makes clear that for a FCS to be achieved in England a significant growth in the northern upland population is now required and these illicit practices must cease.

Natural England have thus defined the underlying problem, which in itself is hardly news to many raptor fieldworkers.  However the FCS report does set an aspirational target for the future which is to be welcomed.  So far so good, the explicit acknowledgement that illegal activities are limiting upland populations is a positive step forward. The FCS has achieved its initial objective but the purpose of the report is inherently limited to just this so action plans with timelines are now needed urgently to deliver the stated goals. We now hope and trust Natural England will lead the way** with a renewed determination.

**Defra defines a key role of Natural England as:- “… delivering the environmental priorities of central government. Its general purpose is to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations    

NERF   January 11th 2021                                                                                                    

References

Amar, A., Court, I.R., Davison, M., Downing, S., Grimshaw, Pickford, T., & Raw, D. 2012. Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land use data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations. Biological Conservation. 145:86-94

Melling, T., Thomas, M., Price, M. & Roos, Staffan. 2018. Raptor persecution in the Peak District National Park. British Birds 111:275-29

Wilson, M. W., Balmer D. E., Jones, K., King, V. A., Raw, D., Rollie, C. J., Rooney, E., Ruddock, M., Smith, G. D., Stevenson, A., Stirling-Aird, P. K., Wernham, C. V., Weston, J. M. & Noble, D. G. 2018. The breeding population of Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and Channel Islands in 2014. Bird Study

Hen Harrier Fund Raiser

The Nidderdale Raptor Study Group in collaboration with the Northern England Raptor Forum are proud to bring you this exciting fund raising opportunity to raise money for the RSPB Investigations Team to purchase satellite tags to be fitted to Hen Harriers.

Hen Harrier Tag Fitted

The Hen Harrier, Circus cyaneus, is the UK’s most persecuted Bird of Prey. Previously driven to extinction as a breeding species in England the population is struggling to make a widespread come-back. The population remains perilously small and persecution on land managed for driven grouse shooting continues to be the primary factor limiting both population growth and expansion.

In a scientific paper published by Murgatroyd et al, using data from Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, the authors revealed that the likelihood of Hen Harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within landscapes predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study also revealed that 72% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.

Satellite Tag with harness

For the past 10 years the RSPB has been monitoring Hen Harriers, firstly within the Skydancer Project and latterly as part of the Hen Harrier Life Plus Project. In both projects satellite tags were fitted to nestlings during the breeding season by highly trained specialists. The solar powered tags, weighing 9.5 grams, are fitted to the birds by a harness that resembles a backpack. Once activated the tags are exceptionally reliable and provide data that allows the RSPB Investigations Team to accurately track the bird’s                                                                                                                movements daily.

The satellite tag also provides the ornithologists with data about how much solar generated voltage the tag has available and also information regarding the bird’s mobility and temperature. When analysed in conjunction with one another it can tell us whether the bird is dead or alive.

By carefully analysing all the data it is possible to determine the most probable reason why an individual bird appears to have stopped moving. Obviously, the bird may have died of natural causes or been predated. In the event that the tag suddenly and without prior warning fails to communicate with the satellites overhead, within a predicted time frame, a situation frequently referred to as ‘stop no malfunction’ , the most likely reason is that the bird has been killed.

In both scenarios a thorough ground search is conducted by the RSPB Investigations Team in the area of the last known location of the bird using very sophisticated equipment. In cases where the satellite data indicates that the bird probably died of natural causes the dead bird is invariably located. In contrast when the tag inexplicably ‘stops no malfunction’ the dead birds are rarely located, a further indication that the bird was illegally killed and the tag destroyed.

Whilst the RSPB data has yet to be published [the scientific papers are being completed at the moment] by reading the high volume of press statements released by the RSPB over the life time of both projects, it is not unreasonable to assume that analysis of the satellite data will provide another damning indictment of the grouse shooting industry.

In addition to highlighting regions of high levels of persecution the satellite date also identifies previously unknown winter roosting areas. There is a saying amongst Hen Harrier workers – ‘Harriers bring Harriers’. By following the satellite tagged Harriers we are able to count the untagged birds that are also using the winter roosts, some of which were previously unknown prior to the development of satellite tags. That in turn allows researchers to better understand how Hen Harriers occupy the landscape across the northern uplands over winter. Using all of this data the statisticians are able to model the autumn / winter population more accurately.

Using the modelled winter population data and comparing it with the known breeding population gives us a better understanding of how the population is prospering overall year on year. This information can be used by the RSPB and other conservation NGOs to lobby Government to change legislation to better protect this extremely vulnerable species from disturbance during the autumn / winter roosting season.

Map showing Apollo’s’ journey

Raptor workers have long suspected / known that the UK hosts Hen Harriers from Scotland and the near continent during the autumn and winter. The use of satellite tags has now confirmed that ‘English Hen Harriers’ also travel vast distances to over winter hundreds of miles from their breeding sites. This satellite track indicates the movements of a bird that was originally tagged in the Forest of Bowland in 2019. The bird returned to Bowland earlier this year and is now back in Spain. Sharing this data with our European partners enables them to monitor the bird over-winter on our behalf and to potentially locate unknown local roosts, in much the same way that the RSPB Investigations Teams do in the UK.

The use of satellite tags has already delivered a tremendous amount of new data confirming the continuing high level of persecution on land managed for driven grouse shooting. Additionally the data has highlighted the remarkable mobility of Hen Harriers outside of the breeding season. However, there is still much to learn about these magnificent birds and the continued deployment of satellite tags is vital to achieving this goal.

Artist Dan Evans

Dan Evans, a Yorkshire-based artist, has kindly chosen to create an A2-sized oil painting of a male Hen Harrier, which has been donated to the Nidderdale Raptor Study Group for an online auction; all proceeds will go to RSPB Investigations to fund satellite tags for Hen Harriers. The painting was inspired after Dan had spent time with members of the Raptor Study Group monitoring Hen Harriers locally. This is a unique opportunity to acquire the original spectacular painting. To place your bid for the painting please click this link to the auction.

https://danevans.art/hen-harrier

Hen Harrier Oil Painting
Click the links to bid on the original or to purchase prints

In addition to the auction, a limited number of signed prints will be available. The price of these are £50+p+p (A3) and £80+p+p (A2). Click here for details:

https://danevans.art/shop/p/l5wlw125yctk1qr7k99vvjl9tqs5i9

 

 

 

Once again all profits from the prints will go to fund satellite tags through the RSPB Investigations Team.

We appreciate that these are extraordinarily challenging times and not everyone who would like to buy a print will be in a position to do so but still want to support the project. To ensure that you have the opportunity to contribute to this invaluable scheme, on any level, we have created a ‘Justgiving’ fundraising webpage. If you would like to help us donate satellite tags to the RSPB Investigations Team please visit:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/hen-harrier-sat-tags

We would like to thank you in advance for supporting this scheme; a scheme that will be of tremendous benefit to Hen Harriers by increasing their level of protection and also by revealing invaluable data about how they move through, and use, their natural environment throughout the year. We would be grateful if you could circulate the details of the project as far and wide as possible.

In the meantime we would like to wish you and your families a Happy Christmas and a peaceful and fulfilling New Year.

Stay well and stay safe.

NERF

1 December 2020.