While we were in lockdown, the wildlife criminals were out in force

It’s been understood for some time now that many grouse moors – those blighted areas of our uplands intensively farmed for Red Grouse and often owned by remote groups with little or no interest in anything other than the profit that comes from selling birds to shooters – are also killing-fields for protected birds of prey.

An exaggerated mischaracterisation? Well, let’s see what the data shows. The Hen Harrier is almost extinct as a breeding bird in England because of deliberate, targeted persecution (and the subject of a disgraceful government-sanctioned ‘brood meddling’ plan to keep their numbers artificially low on behalf of the shooting industry): the species is ten times more likely to die over grouse moors than any other habitat and 72% of young satellite-tagged Hen Harriers (birds fitted with lightweight satellite tags used to track their movements) will disappear in ‘suspicious circumstances’ (essentially legalese code for ‘killed’) on grouse moors in northern England. The welcome return of Red Kites via numerous introduction schemes has been throttled in some areas (notably the Peak District) by persecution. Peregrine falcons now breed more successfully in urban locations than they do in the uplands. Unknown numbers of everything from Golden Eagles to Goshawks and Short-eared Owls also disappear in ‘suspicious circumstances’ over grouse moors.

It was feared (or suspected) that wildlife criminals would exploit the Covid-19 lockdown to ramp up illegal killing while monitors and field workers were obeying the rules and staying inside. Latest figures released by the RSPB show that the wildlife criminals have indeed been out in force, selfishly and illegally turning their guns and poisons on raptors.

According to a recent press-release, the RSPB’s Investigations Unit has been ‘overrun’ with reports of birds of prey being illegally killed in recent weeks. Police have also been called out to investigate multiple cases involving the shooting, trapping and suspected poisoning of birds of prey following reports by the public.

Infographic copyright Rob Thomas

The RSPB say that they are currently aware of many confirmed incidents involving the targeting of birds of prey involving Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Common Buzzards, Red Kites, Goshawks and a Barn Owl in the last six weeks alone. Significantly – given how the industry whines that it is unfairly picked on while claiming it is doing all it can to rid itself of the barrel loads of bad apples it supports – amongst the cases being dealt with by the police are a number of ongoing investigations on land managed for grouse shooting.

Examples of recent persecution listed in the release include a Common Buzzard found shot at Shipton, near York. Its wing was fractured in two places and an x-ray revealed several pieces of shot within the bird’s body. Thanks to the care of local wildlife expert and rehabilitation marvel Jean Thorpe the buzzard recovered and was released.

Over the Easter Weekend, a Red Kite was found shot dead near Leeds. It had 12 shotgun pellets lodged in its body.

The following weekend, wildlife presenter Iolo Williams recovered a dead Red Kite in Powys, which had been shot. Reports also came in of a further two shot Red Kites in the area, which is managed for pheasant shooting.

In Scotland the police are following up several raptor persecution cases and multiple reports of illegal trap use on grouse moors.

Mark Thomas, the excellent RSPB Head of Investigations UK (and a man whose patience with the shooting industry long ago ran out) was quoted saying, “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.

Spring is the time when birds of prey are most visible and therefore vulnerable, as they put on courtship displays, build nests and find food ready to breed. It is clear the criminal actions are targeted and malicious in nature, taking out birds before they have the opportunity to breed, often in areas where they have previously faced persecution.”

So, an industry that already traps, snares, and shoots millions of native animals every year’ which burns and pollutes, which sprays lead shot over huge tracts of land, is also ‘deliberately taking out birds before they have the opportunity to breed‘. That’s the shooting industry for you folks…

Mark Thomas’ statement is backed up by Superintendent Nick Lyall, the head of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, who said: “Over recent weeks, I have been sickened by the number of raptor persecution cases that have come to my attention as chair of the Raptor Persecution Delivery Group. I know that there are officers currently investigating a number of crimes against wild birds of prey which have occurred since lockdown began.

It is clear that lockdown has been seen as a green light by those involved in raptor persecution offences to continue committing crimes, presumably in the belief that there are fewer people around to catch them doing so.

I remain grateful to everyone involved in investigating these crimes, and thankfully in the vast majority of the cases I am aware of, it looks like some really good lines of enquiry are taking place which should lead to arrests and interviews.”

That this slaughter reflects appallingly badly on the shooting industry was recognised in a tweet by the Shooting Times editor Patrick Galbraith who noted that “If we don’t take the bull by the horns, the future looks bleak“. The demise of this crime-ridden industry might indeed be seen as bleak by some (mostly those who enjoy using sentient beings for target practice), but it will be warmly welcomed by many others.

Despite such an ‘influential’ spokesperson acknowledging the problems shooting is creating for itself, the killing spree continued this week with three birds of prey found dead in the Staffordshire Moorlands, inside the so-called Peak District National Park (a well-known raptor persecution hotspot where more than 95% of land is in private ownership): on the 16th May a buzzard and peregrine were discovered dead in a wooded area of Longnor, and on the 19th May a second peregrine was found dead near Wetton.

Remarkably with no apparent hint of irony, the perennially quotable Alex Hogg, chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has apparently written to MSPs to complain of wildlife crime, or more specifically the alleged “increased numbers of walkers on estates and a spike in the number of animal snares and traps sabotaged“. He is also claiming that some individuals are using online sites to incite others into criminal, destructive acts. At The War on Wildlife Project we have always recognised that these abominable devices are private property, but to try to deflect the story away from rampant raptor persecution to trap damage and then indirectly request that prying eyes be kept away is – sadly – rather typical fare for the blunt-instrument-end of the shooting industry.

The fact is that it has been illegal to kill raptors for over sixty years – more than half a century! – yet while the rest of us have remained indoors to stop the spread of a lethal disease, the ‘super-spreaders’ of wildlife crime have apparently been out in force. Many people who follow the shooting industry’s abhorrent illegalities won’t be surprised if more victims of wildlife crime are still to be found. It seems they just can’t stop themselves. Which makes it way past time we stopped them instead. Watch this space…


  • If you have any information about birds of prey being killed in your area, call the police on 101 or the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline: 0300 999 0101.