Countering the persecution of Peregrines

Under the post heading “Peregrine shot and killed nr Ossett, West Yorkshire“, the hugely influential Raptor Persecution UK website wrote (and you can easily imagine the author’s head shaking as the words were being typed), “Another victim to add this year’s growing tally, and it’s only the third day in February. This time it’s a peregrine.”

The Peregrine, named for the wanderings or ‘peregrinations’ birds make post-nesting as they look for new territories, is the world’s fastest bird, reaching huge speeds as it stoops down on its prey – prey which includes racing pigeons and so-called ‘gamebirds’ (an unattractive phrase which suggests some birds are just born to be killed as game). After recovering from almost being wiped out by DDT (high levels of the pesticide were found in the eggs, fat and tissues of the birds poisoning adults and thinning eggshells), after recovering from persecution from egg collectors, the ‘world’s most perfect flying machine’ remains at risk and now breeds more successfully in urban areas than in the countryside (have a listen to the podcast below with Ed Drewitt, author of ‘Urban Peregrines’, from 2016 to get the full picture – the issues we discuss are just as relevant today as several years ago).

 

Persecution still taking place

While Peregrines have rebounded spectacularly along our coasts (many birds have returned to former nesting sites as the population recovers from a low point in the mid-twentieth century when it was on the brink of extinction in the UK) and have found safe nesting sites that replicate secure cliff ledges in our cities (in London, for example, they use buildings like Tate Modern, Battersea Power Station, the Houses of Parliament, and Charing Cross Hospital), they are still being driven out of huge areas of what would have been considered ‘typical’ upland habitat: extensive open terrain where they can hunt. Especially those areas managed for shooting.

In fact, in some areas Peregrines are being forced out of the countryside by relentless persecution. Protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (which makes killing or injuring a Peregrine a criminal offence which could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail), Peregrines have been persecuted out of the northern part of the Peak District National Park (known as the Dark Peak), while numbers have gone up in the southern part of the park where shooting doesn’t take place. Pairs regularly fail to breed successfully (eggs and chicks disappear or birds ‘mysteriously’ fail to return to the nest) in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, once a stronghold for Peregrines. Yorkshire seems to have made illegally killing Peregrines an almost everyday adjunct to the rearing of huge numbers of Red Grouse for shooting in its national parks. Recent estimates by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups indicate that around a quarter of peregrine nests in southern and eastern parts of Scotland are subject to interference and killing. 

Still relatively rare and at low densities in most habitats, the usual voices amongst the shooting industry have called for removal of the legal; protections given to Peregrines, but as the RSPB puts it, “Continuing vigilance is needed to keep in check the illegal killing of peregrines by gamekeepers and pigeon fanciers, and the robbing of nests for eggs and chicks by egg collectors and falconers.”

 

Countering the persecution

But persecution by shooting interests and hobbyists is only telling half the story of course. While some self-appointed ‘guardians of the countryside’ still react to birds of prey as if the devil himself had sprouted wings and taken to hunting birds over moorland, others are increasingly thrilled to see the embodiment of ‘wild’ on their own doorsteps.

A good example of this is the growing numbers of people being exposed to these fantastic birds of prey in urban settings, watching urban-nesting Peregrines from viewing points or through specially placed nest cameras.

It’s something of an aphorism in conservation to repeat (in a multitude of versions) what Jacques ‘Captain Planet’ Cousteau (the pioneering ocean conservationist) is credited with saying: “People protect what they love.” Incipient cliche or not, it’s true: when they are given a chance to watch Peregrines, people do love them and do want to protect them. And what’s not to love. They are fast, they are sleek, they are beautiful, and in some ways they seem to have adopted us and our buildings (usually because they have no choice is the more prosaic truth of course, but the opportunities people have to see them up close is perhaps critical to the species’ long-term future). Their persecution is a national disgrace, and the public are increasingly angered by the deaths of what they clearly see as ‘their birds’.

Raptor persecution is the devil that stalks the countryside not the birds themselves, but attitudes are changing. The more that people come into contact with them, the more they understand that birds of prey (like all predators) are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and the more that Peregrines become part of our cityscapes, the more that criminals in the ‘wildlife management’ business that persecute them seem to be throwbacks to a far more ignorant era that we are no longer willing to tolerate.

 

Wakefield Peregrine Project

One area where urban Peregrines have been doing better than their rural near-neighbours is Wakefield, in West Yorkshire – literally just a few minutes (as the Peregrine flies) from Ossett.

Next week The War on Wildlife Project is taking to the road and heading for a meeting in Edinburgh (more on that later), but we’re also visiting the Wakefield Lush store as we head back south. The wonderful team at the store have been supporting and working with the Wakefield Peregrine Project, which has been monitoring nesting Peregrines on Wakefield Cathedral since 2015. During the last five years, the birds have hatched and raised seventeen young, as well as caring for one adopted youngster.

It’s an encouraging story, and one we’re looking forward to telling in the very near future.

 

In the meantime, if you’d like more discussion on this subject please have a listen to this podcast with author and peregrine expert Ed Drewitt.

“…evidence shows that if you enable people to love something first, to enjoy something first…for example seeing a Peregrine Falcon…then they’re more likely to feel empowered to protect it, to do something about it….”

Ed Drewitt | Urban Peregrines
July 2016