All birds of prey are protected by law (and have been for more than half a century – see The Protection of Birds Act, 1954), but as most of us know all too well illegal persecution is taking place across the UK. Stories like the article reproduced below from the Swindon Advertiser are sadly commonplace, but this one has a particular resonance because the part of Wiltshire featured in the Advertiser is actually pretty close to an important (if absolutely misguided and contentious) raptor ‘reintroduction’ project…Natural England’s Hen Harrier ‘brood meddling’ scheme (see Hen Harrier Brood-meddling 101 for details), which aims to placate grouse moor owners by moving Hen Harrier chicks off grouse moors and putting them – as NE desperately claims – somewhere safe: south Wiltshire.
Can we really link an unnamed teen arrested for killing Red Kites and Buzzards, as reported in the Swindon Advertiser today, with brood meddled Hen Harriers? Not directly perhaps, but when it comes to ‘brood meddling’ and a horribly entrenched attitude to birds of prey we most certainly can.
While not condoning the illegal persecution of any raptor in any way, it is true to say that Common Buzzards are common throughout Wiltshire, and Red Kites have become firmly established in the county east of Swindon (and are at least regularly seen right across to county borders to the west and south). The latter presumably originate from the Chilterns reintroduction scheme in the early 1990s. But both species are still being persecuted, despite being largely scavengers and having minor impacts on shoots.
There are no details what the teen arrested in Wiltshire does for a living or why he is connected with an investigation into raptor persecution, but given that this is a rural part of a largely rural county – not far from where The War on Wildlife Project co-ordinator Charlie Moores lives in fact – and that the ‘teen’ has access to guns it’s a safe bet that he’s likely to be connected with agriculture and/or the shooting industry. And just look at the last paragraph in the Advertiser’s article below and the mention of a Hen Harrier disappearing in ‘very suspicious’ circumstances…
A teenager has been arrested on suspicion of raptor persecution after police raided properties in Pewsey and Beckhampton.
Wiltshire Police said officers had seized firearms and found the carcasses of a number of birds of prey, including buzzards and red kites, in Beckhampton, near Avebury. The properties were raided on Wednesday.
The 19-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of raptor persecution, an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
PC Marc Jackson, Wiltshire Police Rural Crime Team, said: “Following an extensive search of both locations, we have recovered the remains of a number of birds of prey, including red kites and buzzards.
“The recovery of these remains presented a number of complex challenges and we are grateful for the support from other agencies.
“Our enquiries continue into how these birds were killed and disposed of. If anybody has any information that they think could support our investigation, please contact us on 101.”
Those convicted of killing a wild bird can be given an unlimited fine by the courts or sent to prison for up to six months.
Last year, Wiltshire Police joined other forces and charity RSPB to support Operation Owl – a nationwide police campaign to help people to spot the signs of persecution of birds of prey and encourage them to report it.
The Devizes-based rural crime team’s PC Emily Thomas said earlier this year, as the campaign was relaunched for 2020: “If you come across a dead bird or suspicious object, this could be a wildlife crime scene. Every piece of information may be crucial in prosecuting an offender.”
Raptor persecution is a nationwide problem. In 2019, the RSPB issued an urgent appeal after a rare Hen Harrier went missing over Wiltshire. It was feared the bird had been killed, with the charity branding the circumstances in which it had disappeared “very suspicious”.Swindon Advertiser, Police arrest Wiltshire teen on raptor persecution charge, 23 Sept 2020
The Hen Harrier referred to in that last paragraph was called Vulcan.
Vulcan had fledged from a nest in Northumberland and had been satellite tagged as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project (hear a podcast about this here). RSPB officers had followed Vulcan’s progress as he flew south from Northumberland to the Peak District and then on down to Dorset. The last transmission from the bird’s radio tag had put the bird’s location near Calstone Wellington. RSPB Investigations staff and Wiltshire Police said at the time they had searched the area, which is managed for pheasant and partridge shooting, but were unable to find Vulcan or his tag.
Now, Calstone Wellington is a small village south of Calne, and is remarkably close to Beckhampton (and the world-famous heritage site of Avebury), where this latest wildlife crime is apparently centred. You could walk between the two villages in a couple of hours…
Where this story really should set the alarm bells ringing is that both Calstone and Beckhampton are relatively close to Parsonage Down NNR and Cherry Lodge Farm, the proposed site of Natural England’s ludicrous Hen Harrier ‘brood meddling’ scheme. In fact, Beckhampton is just 22 miles by road to the north of Cherry Lodge Farm.
That sort of distance is gentle exercise for a Hen Harrier. According to data from Natural England itself, one tagged male Hen Harrier was found to be flying approximately 55 miles per day, and Hen Harriers from the northern uplands are known to have flown to France and back (unless they disappear in ‘very suspicious’ circumstances en route of course)…
Shooting lobbyists will no doubt rush to say that just because Buzzards, Red Kites, and a Hen Harrier were killed near the planned site of brood meddled Hen Harrier chicks doesn’t mean that the chicks released by Natural England (NE) will be killed. No, it doesn’t mean that, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll be safe either. Buzzards and Kites are persecuted by the shooting industry, but on nothing like the scale of Hen Harriers which makes NE’s claim to sponsors of their pro-shooting scheme that they have done everything they can to find a ‘safe’ release site sound utterly preposterous. As critics of the scheme – which include the RSPB, leading campaigners, researchers, scientists, and birdwatchers – have always said, the reason that Hen Harriers are nowhere near as widespread as they should be is not do with breeding success but the relentless persecution and poor survival rates of young birds.
Young birds just like Vulcan…
Which strongly suggests that Wiltshire’s displaced Hen Harriers won’t stand much of a chance of changing the ‘entrenched attitude’ paradigm any time soon…