There are valid questions to be asked of the RSPB when it comes to its ‘neutrality’ on shooting (as enshrined in its Constitution via the absurdly antiquated Royal Charter of November 1904), but overall of course the RSPB does a superb and important job: its reserves (though tiny compared with the area of land managed for killing birds) look after vital habitats; it is involved in critically-important conservation projects here in the UK and across the globe; and its staff (at least many of the ones we’ve met) love birds and want to do whatever they can to protect them. And it is absolutely beyond reproach when it comes to recording and analysing crimes against birds (largely, of course, the persecution of birds of prey).
Every year the charity releases a Birdcrime Report (which can be downloaded for free as a pdf). The new report covers 2019, and has a welcome focus on the wildlife crimes that underpin the grouse shooting industry (which the RSPB wants licencing rather than banning outright – something we’ve previously discussed in Grouse Moors | Licencing Slaughter).
The take-away headline in the Report, which is cleverly laid out in clickable sections (our screenshot isn’t clickable of course), is that there were 85 confirmed incidents of the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey in Britain in 2019, and half of all confirmed persecution incidents in the past seven years have occurred in landscapes supposedly already “protected” for nature, such as national parks (many of our national parks are in fact privately managed grouse shooting galleries and wildlife persecution is rampant with them – see for example Shooting in National Parks or listen to our podcast with Mark Avery from 2019 on the subject).
The whole report is of course well worth reading. If you’re a lobbyist for the grouse shooting industry you’ve got to hope that no-one finds this thing because it’s incendiary, but if you’re a regular member of the public with a love of birds while the report is quite depressing (despite the positive actions outlined inside) it’s good to see just how pointed the RSPB’s criticism of grouse shooting has become.
In case you don’t have time to read it (make time, though, it’s worth it), here’s our TL:DR handy guide based on the Reports sections noted above:
- Self-regulation has failed
“Shot. Trapped. Poisoned. This is the sad fate of many birds of prey in the UK, particularly in upland areas. RSPB figures, population studies and the government’s own research agree that the problem is more concentrated in areas where land is managed for driven grouse shooting.
Killing birds of prey is a criminal offence. Yet in 2019 there were 85 confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution. You can read a breakdown of these figures in the Appendices. Victims included buzzards, red kites, peregrines, goshawks, hen harriers and many other protected species. These are only the incidents we know about: more birds will certainly have been killed and not found, or their deaths not reported.
This is unacceptable. Now is the time for action.”
- Why are people kiling birds of prey?
“Birds of prey are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Yet they continue to be targeted, often in connection with grouse moor management.
Driven grouse shooting involves red grouse being ‘driven’ by beaters towards a line of waiting guns, concealed in grouse butts. In order to manage these estates to support the largest possible number of red grouse, some gamekeepers kill protected birds of prey – and other predators – on the basis that they may reduce the number of grouse available to be shot.
It is clear that the law provides little deterrent, and that the systematic eradication of predators has become commonplace on some moors.”
- 2019 case studies
Case studies referred to include: the shocking photograph, taken by a member of the public on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in 2019, which showed a young golden eagle flying with a metal spring trap attached to its leg; the ridiculously lenient ‘punishment’ given to gamekeeper Allan Wilson, who pleaded guilty to a catalogue of crimes including shooting and trapping badgers, an otter, goshawks and buzzards, possessing a banned poison and installing 23 illegal snares on a Scottish shooting estate; and a buzzard found freshly dead in April 2019 near Tintwistle (just north of Valehouse Reservoir in the Peak District National Park), lying close to the remains of a red-legged partridge – both contained the pesticide Alphachloralose (it’s illegal to use Alphachloralose in baits in this way, and illegal to poison any bird of prey).
- Raptor Persecution Hotspots 2019
Once again, North Yorkshire emerges as the county with the highest number of confirmed raptor persecution incidents. “Despite incredibly hard work by the North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce, this county remains a danger zone for birds of prey“. [We’ve written extensively about this part of the country, click to see our articles – waronwildlife.co.uk/?s=north+yorkshire]. Scotland’s Strathbaarn and Strathdon are also singled out, with the report saying that “raptor persecution cases in Scotland almost exclusively occur on land managed for gamebird shooting, and particularly driven grouse moors” and that “Satellite-tagged raptors have also disappeared with notable regularity on the grouse moors in the Strathdon area of Aberdeenshire, part of the Cairngorms National Park“.
- Save our Skydancers
In a section devoted to the UK’s most relentlessly persecuted bird of prey, the RSPB says that “A government study published in 2019 revealed that, of 58 British hen harriers tagged over 10 years, 72% were either conﬁrmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly with no evidence of a tag malfunction.” and states unequivocally that “the single factor affecting hen harrier recovery is illegal killing.“
In a well-aimed swipe at ‘brood meddling’ they also say that “Since brood management began in 2019…all five of the chicks which were fitted with satellite tags as part of brood management have disappeared, four of them in suspicious circumstances.” As so many of us have repeatedly pointed out, it barely matters how many Hen Harriers produce chicks if those chicks are still being targeted and wiped out by the shooting industry…
- Raptor crime in lockdown
While not strictly relating to 2019 of course, it’s excellent to see the RSPB focussing on the wildlife crime incidents that were widely reported during this year’s lockdown – when most of us were isolating indoors but gamekeepers went out on a crime spree. Pointing out that “in January 2020, a joint ‘zero tolerance’ statement was issued by BASC, the Countryside Alliance, Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation and CLA, condemning all forms of raptor persecution” the RSPB say that instead, crimes continued, and police investigations included a number of search warrants on grouse shooting estates. Again unequivocally the RSPB says that “the RSPB Investigations Team was inundated with reports of crimes against birds of prey. Most of these related to land used for game shooting in the uplands and lowlands”.
- The Law has Failed
Organisations like the RSPB don’t ordinarily say that ‘the law has failed’, but they make a welcome and very powerful statement with “Stronger regulation is needed to address the failings of the shooting community, which has proven incapable and unwilling to respect the law.” This of course harks back to their position on the licencing of grouse moors and doesn’t go anywhere near suggesting a ban, but it is nevertheless a strong condemnation of lawlessness within shooting.
- Pushing for Change
In another parargraph that we (and we’re that sure most people interested in tackling wildlife crime) would agree with, the RSPB says that, “The RSPB’s Investigations Team is fighting hard to end raptor persecution, working with enforcement partners, decision makers and statutory agencies across all four UK countries. You can read more about what the team has done in this blog: community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/b/investigations/posts/blog“. The entire team are selfless, dedicated heroes frankly, and it’s been incredibly heartening to see how well Mark Thomas has filled the (rather large) boots of his predecessor Bob Eliot (now chief-executive at campaigning Scottish charity OneKind.
- Public Outrage is Growing
In its final section the RSPB looks at how “the public is playing an increasingly powerful role in the push to end raptor persecution“, highlighting Hen Harrier Day 2019 and Operation Owl (which works to “to increase public awareness of bird of prey persecution and to seek support in tackling it head on“). The section ends with a quote from Chris Packham: “The public has, quite rightly, had enough of birds of prey being systematically, illegally slaughtered.”
Yes, we the public have had enough of our raptors being exterminated to protect the profits of the grouse shooting industry. It’s really heartening to see that the RSPB has not only had enough of it too (which to be fair has been their position for many, many years), but are speaking out against it in increasingly strong terms and specifically and repeatedly laying the blame at the door of the grouse shooting industry.
It’s worth noting that this report on Birdcrime coincided with the launch of a separate RSPB press-release, this time on stopping the burning of grouse moors (we wrote about that at ‘RSPB calls for a ban on peat burning.Why?‘). There is no doubt that our largest and most-important charity is saying in public what is has thought for years now. And that is fantastic news.
Now, if it could only be persuaded to protect Red Grouse themselves as well…
Please go to a summary of the Report on the RSPB’s website by clicking the image below: