Tag Archives: wildlife crime

“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

Spokesperson for the ‘Custodians of the Countryside’.

Bird photographs courtesy of RSPB Birdcrime 2020 [gunsights added by NERF]

“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” At least that is what the ‘Custodians’ would have us believe. In truth, that is far from the reality that we see on the ground. The latest RSPB Birdcrime Report, covering 2020, puts that nonsense to rest, again.

Whilst the general public were obeying the Government’s instructions to stay at home during the Covid – 19 lockdown to save the lives of our families and neighbours, the raptor killers were plying their trade across the countryside that the ‘Custodians’ were supposed to be protecting. You could be forgiven for asking – ‘how did that work out?’ The simple answer is – not well at all if you were a bird of prey on land used for game shooting. You could also be forgiven for thinking ‘well that is not new’ and you would be correct. The statistic that makes 2020 different is the scale of the killing. Lockdown gave the raptor-killers free reign to go about their daily business without fear of being caught and the latest statistics published by the RSPB reveals just how effective they were. You can read the full Bird Crime Report here.

Across the UK there were 137 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, the highest annual number recorded by the RSPB and agreed by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. The shocking statistics reveal that there were 57 cases of shooting, 17 cases of trapping and 35 cases of poisoning of birds of prey. In total 63% of the reports came from land associated with game shooting [34% pheasant and partridge shooting, 28% grouse shooting and 1% mixed shooting]. Of the 137 confirmed cases, 99 occurred in England and c 66% of those were located in North Yorkshire making the county the hotspot for bird of prey crime for the 7th year in succession.

Following the release of the latest Birdcrime report there will no doubt be cries of derision from the game shooting industry; shouting foul, it’s nothing to do with us, we have zero tolerance of persecution, it was the bad apple brigade trying to discredit us and anyway 137 is a small number. ‘Nothing to see here, move along’.

Indeed 137 is a small number; but it has to be seen in context when discussing raptor persecution. The real question is not how many victims were found; it is – what percentage of victims were found? Most birds of prey are predominately brownish, perfectly camouflaged, a dead body will cover less than 1000 cm2 and they are killed on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land that is predominately brown. The amazing thing is that any are ever found and the true figure must be very, very significantly higher than the number reported. The phrase ‘the tip of the iceberg’ is frequently used when discussing raptor persecution statistics and it is an accurate description of the scale of the crimes against birds of prey. When searching for the victims of persecution the phrase ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ is appropriate; but in 2020 no one was allowed to look in the haystack. Unlike the individuals who are employed in the game shooting industry, who were allowed free range over the countryside, the general public were confined within our homes. We were oblivious of how high the body count of protected species was becoming.

The negative media coverage criticizing the game shooting industry over recent weeks has, or should have, caused reputational damage to the industry; but does it care? There have been numerous reports of multi-agency, Police led, raids on shooting estates. Mr Phil Davies, the Countryside Alliance representative on the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG], has rightly been removed from the Group following his involvement in a webinar where fox hunters were advised about tactics that they could use to avoid prosecution when conducting illegal hunts. You can read more about this on the Raptor Persecution UK Blog here.

A damning article entitled ‘Reports of raptor killings soared during the U.K.’s lockdown’, published in the National Geographic, a highly respected publication with global reach, focuses on the disgraceful illegal killing of birds of prey on shooting estates during the Covid lockdown period. You can read the full article here, although you will have to share an email address to read it.

Now we have RSPB Birdcrime spotlighting the fact that 137 confirmed cases of raptor persecution, the highest number on record, were reported in 2020. It also highlights the fact that 63% of the birds of prey that were slaughtered were killed on land associated with game shooting and 40% took place on protected landscapes, in our National Parks and in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or their Scottish equivalent.

It is a national disgrace and we all know it, so what response can we expect from the shooting industry in light of this latest report? “Move along, there’s nothing to see here” followed by attacks on the integrity of the RSPB and suggestions that a small amount of persecution is only part of the story, all is well and raptors are thriving. We have heard it all before. It’s as predictable as day follows night.

NERF has been calling for the licensing of the shooting industry, with the licence being applied to the land, not the owners or managers of the land, for several years. Once again we reiterate that call for licensing of shooting estates and it has to be implement without further delay. The public require it and our natural environment deserves it. We know that Government Departments set media alerts for reports such as the National Geographic article, Birdcrime and blogs, including the NERF website. Defra Ministers and Natural England know what is happening to our birds of prey, they know the scale of the problem and they know the causes of the problem; it is persecution by individuals connected with games shooting. The RSPB report identifies the fact that of the 186 individuals convicted of raptor persecution 66% were gamekeepers and a further 6% were also connected to the game shooting industry. The Government has published its own data which confirms these facts. How much more evidence do Ministers need before they take meaningful action?

The Government also knows that land management practices on upland shooting estates, which includes heather burning, adds to global warming and destroys countless reptiles, amphibians, the eggs of early ground nesting birds, kills billons of insects, which is the primary food source for upland birds, and leads to increased downstream flooding. Having had these facts reinforced, again, with these latest reports will Defra Ministers and Natural England grasp this nettle with both hands and actually do something about it rather than tinkering around the edges with schemes such as Hen Harrier Brood Management and the ludicrous Hen Harrier Southern Re-introduction proposal. They might; but regrettably the chances of that happening are next to nil under the current Government and we are all the worse off for that.

In theory the Wildlife and Countryside Act provides all of the protection that raptors require. In reality it is inadequate because it fails at the compliance and enforcement stages. It is time for a change of emphasis, a change in enforcement strategy and sentencing guidelines; changes that will actually protect our iconic birds of prey are long overdue. They, and you, deserve nothing less.

If you have information in respect of any bird related crime please contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101

NERF

28 October 2021.

Short-Eared Owl found dead on the Wemmergill Estate in County Durham County Durham, again

Whenever a bird of prey is shot or poisoned, let’s not get pedantic about whether or not an owl is a raptor, the shooting industry usually offer one of two bland statements, sometimes both.: firstly ‘we have zero tolerance of raptor persecution’ and secondly ‘there’s no proof of persecution’.

Unfortunately, neither statement stands up to scrutiny. The oft used ‘zero tolerance’ statement is a classic example of Hobson’s Choice in action.; without positive action it is meaningless. An examination of the websites of the Moorland Association, BASC, the NGO and the Countryside Alliance at 1450 today reveals that not one of these organisations has a news item condemning the shooting of this bird. Those of us who follow these raptor crimes closely recognise this familiar response and it comes as no surprise.

Raptor persecution is happening across the northern uplands; that we know as a matter of fact. Regardless of how many times the shooting industry tries to play down the problem, the data doesn’t lie. What we don’t know is the scale of the problem. We are constantly told that ‘it’s just a few bad apples.’ Really? If it is just a few they are highly mobile popping up all over the uplands, killing something, anything, and moving on to the next. If there are just a ‘few bad apples’ as claimed, where are the ‘good apples’ helping the Police to rid their industry of criminals?

‘You can’t prove it was persecution’. Well, in this case we can. The Short-eared Owl was shot with a shotgun, and found on a grouse shooting estate, it was killed illegally and there is an ongoing Police investigation.

Shooting this bird was a mindless act of brutality; for what? For fun, to prevent it from eating the odd grouse chick? Really? They eat small mammals, predominately voles. If shooting this bird wasn’t despicable enough it was killed during the breeding season. If it was paired and had eggs or chicks it is likely that the eggs failed to hatch or the chicks starved to death. Unfortunately, this is not the first Shortie to be killed in the same area; two other bodies were found shot and unceremoniously stuffed down a hole in 2015. In addition to these 3 Short-eared Owls a Hen Harrier, satellite tagged and called Marc by the RSPB, disappeared without trace when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped working on the same grouse moor.

This latest incident occurred in the North Pennines AONB as did the disappearance of the Scottish bred Hen Harrier called Reiver, reported 3 days ago. Despite the valiant efforts by Chris Woodley-Stewart and his colleagues who work tirelessly to enhance the AONB, the outstanding natural beauty of the region is diminished every time a bird of prey is persecuted.

There is probably a statistical model for calculating the probability of finding 100% of raptors being killed and found in 2000 km2; if there is then the probability of finding them will be infinitesimally small. It is logical therefore to assume that many more birds of prey have met a similar fate; whilst we will never know the true figure it is reasonable to believe that the numbers will be very significantly higher than those recorded.

Someone knows, or seriously suspects, who is responsible for the death of this bird and if you want to help end the blight that pervades your community then please:

  • pass the information to Durham Police on 101
  • alternatively, if you have information in respect of this, or any other bird related crime, contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
  • you can also pass information to the Police anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555111

NERF

21 October 2021

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

Red Kite found poisoned at Scrampston, North Yorkshire.

On the 16th March 2020 the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, told the public to avoid unnecessary social contact. On the 23rd March the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the public to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. The country entered the first round of Covid-19 lockdown.

With the exception of essential workers who were vital to the continued safe running of the country the general public obeyed the Government’s edict and stayed at home, often enduring great hardship. Families were separated for months, schools were closed, weddings were cancelled, holidays were cancelled and thousands of people died as a result Covid-19. Families were unable to participate in funeral ceremonies to say a dignified farewell to loved ones.

All raptor work was suspended and Raptor Workers complied with the Government’s guidance and stayed at home to save lives. Regrettably, though perhaps not unsurprisingly, not everyone stayed at home to save lives. On the contrary wildlife criminals were out in the countryside taking the lives of birds of prey. The Covid-19 lockdown provided the criminals free reign to carry on – business as usual.

In April, during lockdown, a Red Kite was found dying at Scrampston, north-east of Malton in North Yorkshire. The bird did not survive and was submitted to WIIS, the Governments’ Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme, for toxicology tests to be carried out. Scientists at WIIS have confirmed that the bird was poisoned with a combination of Brodifacoum and Bendiocarb at levels higher than would normally be found in the natural environment.

Red Kites are predominantly scavengers and are therefore susceptible to poisoning. North Yorkshire has been the epicentre of raptor persecution for many years. When these two factors collide it is fair to say that across large areas of the North York Moors Birds of Prey are living on borrowed time.

If anyone reading this article is under the impression that this Red Kite was the only Bird of Prey poisoned in North Yorkshire during the first lockdown, or believes that this unfortunate bird was poisoned with the last few particles of Brodifacoum and Bendiocarb in the possession of the poisoner responsible for the death of this Red Kite they should think again. The chances of finding a poisoned bird before the poisoner has an opportunity to pick it up and dispose of it are infinitesimally low. Conversely, the opportunity to poison, and or shoot, high numbers of raptors without the risk of being caught is extremely high.

Whilst this article is specifically commenting upon one poisoned Red Kite in North Yorkshire it is worth reminding readers that poisons set out in the open to kill raptors are indiscriminate and all wildlife and pets in the area are at risk of death. Whilst society abhors the poisoning, and all other forms of indiscriminate killing of wildlife the individuals who lace the countryside with poison baits do not share that view and appear to have little or no conscience and killing predators is a daily event; killing anything else in the process is just a bi-product.

If you have any information to assist this or any other investigation please contact:

Police Wildlife Crime Officer Jez Walmsley at Malton Police Station (Tel: 101) and quote incident reference #12200055801.

Alternatively:
Call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.
Or you can contact the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.

NERF
25 November 2020

Licences to take wild Peregrine chicks – Part 2

On the 15th April 2020 Dave Slater, Director for wildlife licensing confirmed that Natural England had licenced the removal of 6 Peregrine chicks from the wild, by three individuals, over the next 2 years. [see here]

Understandably both Raptor Workers, who are committed to monitoring and protecting these magnificent birds, and members of the public who delight in seeing the masters of the skies in both wild places and our cities. NERF was dismayed by this decision and posted this response on the NERF website.

On the 20th April 2020 NERF wrote to Lord Goldsmith of Richmond, the Minister of State for the Pacific and the Environment. His portfolio includes the UK environment and conservation. In the letter we reminded him that the country was currently in lockdown as a result of the Covid – 19 pandemic and that the BTO has, understandably, suspended all Wildlife and Countryside licences and ringing permits for the foreseeable future. These restrictions apply to England’s rarest and most endangered species. At the same time Natural England has licenced the removal of 6 Peregrine chicks from the wild. It is NERF’s opinion that this is both unreasonable and irresponsible at the present time. The removal of these chicks cannot be classed as ‘front-line work’ and the multiple journeys to and from the nests cannot be classed as ‘essential’ under the Corona Virus Regulations.

Accessing Peregrine nests is a dangerous activity and an accident and subsequent rescue would put unnecessary stress on both the rescue and medical services. The British Mountaineering Council [BMC] has warned climbers and hill walkers to curtail their activities during the pandemic and that the Mountain Rescue Teams are also in lockdown and unavailable in case of an accident.

NERF has called on Lord Goldsmith to suspend the licences during 2020. The full text of the letter can be read [here]

Similarly we wrote to Tony Juniper, Chairman of natural England. The full text of the letter can be read [here]

Twelve days later neither Lord Goldsmith nor Mr Juniper have responded to our letters. Time is pressing and we await their responses.

NERF

2 May 2020

Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group – NERF Activity Report Summer 2019

The Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] is a police led sub-group of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime. Chaired by Superintendent Nick Lyall, the RPPDG is charged with reducing raptor persecution in England and Wales. A similar group tackles the same issues in Scotland.

NERF has been a member of the RPPDG since the Group’s inception in 2009. As a result of our commitment to the RPPDG NERF was presented with the PAW Partner of the Year Award in 2014.

Members of the RPPDG are required to provide the Chairman with 6-monthly reports of their activities undertaken in support of the objectives of the Group. The NERF summer 2019 report is set out below.

During the summer of 2019, the Gateshead based Friends of Red Kites [FoRK] became full members of NERF and the Yorkshire Kites and the Washburn Raptor Monitoring Scheme / Yorkshire Kites Project became associate members / Advisors to NERF. Geographically the North of England extends to 37,331 km2 and NERF member groups operate in c60% of the region.

In common with previous breeding seasons, NERF members were extremely busy committing thousands of hours surveying the forests, in-bye and uplands for breeding raptors. The process includes surveying for ‘black hole’ species; in habitat that historically held breeding birds from which they are currently absent, or habitat which is eminently suitable for a particular species, but for various reasons (often related to persecution at the population level) either are not found or are significantly under represented. Despite historical absence it is essential that these areas are extensively covered during the pre-breeding season in order to produce continuing trend lines.

Collectively NERF’s priorities are the three Harrier species, Goshawk, Peregrine, Merlin, Raven, Short-eared Owls and Long-eared Owl. In addition individual groups focus on local priority species such as Osprey and Buzzard. The remaining raptor species were surveyed in accordance with available local resources.

During the breeding season members monitored hundreds of nests, often in remote, difficult to reach locations, and in adverse weather. Qualified and licenced members fitted BTO rings, passive integrated transponders [PiT tags], GSM tags and satellite tags to a variety of species.

NERF is a partner in the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Plus and members were involved in surveying, monitoring, protecting, ringing and satellite tagging chicks throughout the North of England.

The results of the work undertaken during the breeding season will be published in the NERF Annual Review 2019.

NERF members co-authored a scientific paper; Investigating Hen Harrier diet;

  • Metabarcoding‑based dietary analysis of hen harrier [Circus cyaneus] in Great Britain using buccal swabs from chicks’.

Kevin Nota, Stephen Downing, Arati Iyengar 27 August 2019. Conservation Genetics DOI 10.1007/s10592-019-01215-y

The second NERF Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Day was held in Goathland, North Yorkshire on 10th August. Despite severe weather warnings issued by the Met Office the event was well attended.

Members attended the RPPDG Satellite Tagging Awareness Workshop and various Operation Owl events, NERF members supported the RSPB Investigations Team training Durham Wildlife Crime Officers. In addition NERF has long-term commitments to the following long-term projects & partnerships:

  • PiT tagging Merlin
  • PiT tagging Peregrine Falcons
  • Hen Harrier DNA Project with SASA – lead in England and Wales
  • Peak District – Upland Skies Project
  • Partnership with Protected Landscapes [National Parks & AONBs]
  • PAW – Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group
  • Hen Harrier Satellite Tagging Consultation Group
  • Hen Harrier winter roost monitoring and summer nest monitoring
  • Merlin research paper NERF / RSPB
  • Rare Birds Breeding Panel
  • Sheffield Lakelands Landscape Project
  • Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Days
  • Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative
  • European Hen Harrier / Short-Eared Owl Group

It is worthy of note that all activities undertaken by NERF and our member groups are self-funded.

NERF

5 October 2019