What do multi-agency searches for raptor poisoners tell us?

According to a statement released by Durham Constabulary, on April 21st, Operation Sunbeam, which included members of the Barnard Castle Neighbourhood Policing Team, RSPB, Natural England and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, saw searches carried out at two properties in Teesdale. This follows an incident last year when two Buzzards were found dead in Teesdale woodland. Forensic tests indicated they were illegally poisoned with a banned pesticide, and two men are reportedly ‘helping officers with their enquiries‘.

There are no details at the moment about which banned pesticide was used but ‘professional poisoners’ have a wide range to choose from, and will typically keep any of the following to hand: Aldicarb, Alphachloralose, Aluminium phosphide, Bendiocarb, Carbofuran, Mevinphos, Sodium cyanide or Strychnine. Many of the raptors found poisoned on or near shooting estates have ingested either Carbofuran (the poison found recently on the infamous Leadhills Estate – see (To the surprise of no-one) banned poison found on Leadhills Estate) or Bendiocarb (a constituent of the infamous ‘Nidderdale Cocktail’ used in the raptor persecution hot spot of North Yorkshire). Whatever they have used will be extremely toxic to anything – including humans – that come into contact with it.

While it’s of course encouraging to see multi-agency efforts to tackle wildlife crime like this, it’s concerning that they seem to be becoming more regular. As we reported on this site, in January this year a joint agency investigation was set up by Suffolk Police, Natural England, and the RSPB Investigations Team into the killing of a Buzzard. As Raptor Persecution UK has pointed out there were three such raids in March this year alone: in Lincolnshire following the poisoning of a Red Kite, in Dorset (another Red Kite), and in Devon following the poisoning of a Buzzard.

What does that tell us? That the efforts that are having to be put into tackling these crimes confirm just how serious and widespread the use of poisons to kill birds of prey really is.

 

While the killing of rare and threatened birds of prey like Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles do of course grab the headlines, there has actually been a speight of Buzzard killings in the last few months (this is the sixth we’ve covered since just mid-January and we’re not a comprehensive database by any stretch of the imagination).

It’s no coincidence that Buzzards, protected after once being persecuted out of huge areas of their range, are being increasingly poisoned and shot at almost exactly the same time that the number of shooting estates has been growing exponentially.

In fact, there have been dark mutterings from pheasant shoot operators about there being ‘too many Buzzards’ for years – that of course despite the industry releasing around 60 million non-native pheasants and partridges every year, while there are less than 100,000 pairs of native Buzzards across the whole of the UK (with their numbers apparently declining slightly in Wales).

So, yes, Buzzards have been increasing in numbers and most of us welcome that, but increasing at nothing like the speed that pheasants have (and these are non-native birds, remember, largely hatched in intensive breeding centres, imported to the UK, raised as young birds then released into the countryside solely to be shot). Plotting the astonishing rise in pheasant numbers gives an idea of just how massive the growth in shooting them has been in recent decades. (Along with the number of pheasants has come a parallel rise in the use of snares and traps to kill any wild animal that tries to take advantage of all this ‘new meat’ of course.)

Graphs from the British Trust for Ornithology’s Common Birds Census (which ran from 1962 to 2000) and the Breeding Bird Survey (which has now superceded it) gives a good visual representation of just how the numbers of pheasants has rocketed skywards. The image below shows an almost doubling of pheasants since the 1980s (coincidentally almost mirroring the rise in numbers of Buzzards).

So ubiquitous are these releases released by the shooting industry that a report in January 2021 (Tim Blackburn and Kevin Gaston in Biol Invasions. ‘Contribution of non-native galliforms to annual variation in biomass of British birds‘), stated that “around a quarter of British bird biomass annually is contributed by Common Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges, and that at their peak in August these two species represent about half of all wild bird biomass in Britain“. So if you could weigh all the birds in Britain, half of the total would be made up of birds released to be killed for entertainment! It’s worth noting, too, that at an average 530g partridges are less than half the weight (or mass) of pheasants.

Where are all those pheasants? All over the UK (even grouse moor operators are now stocking pheasants to keep the money rolling in during ‘poor’ grouse years), but we’ve some idea where they are concentrated thanks to the remarkable work of Guy Shrubsole. In 2019 he posted an article titled “The Shooting Estates that Rear 20 Million Pheasants a Year” on his “Who owns England” website. with the following table:

Copyright Guy Shrubsole, taken form “Who Owns England”

That list of postcodes might seem a little bit random, but go back to those multi-agency searches and previous poisonings and you begin to recognise a none-too-surprising overlap with some of the worst places in England for raptor persecution. None-too-surprising because who else wants to kill Buzzards (or Red Kites)? Some in the agricultural industry might have some old-fashioned ideas about birds of prey, but it’s shooting estates that won’t tolerate any losses to raptors.

Raptors actually take proportionately very few pheasants or partridges. If shooting estates really wanted to cut down on the numbers of pheasants NOT killed by their clients, data suggests that they ought to aim to remove cars from the road: a 2017 study in Royal Society Open Science journal found that pheasants are 12 times more likely than other species to end up as roadkill.

Even the very worst gamekeepers working today don’t have enough illegal pesticides in their sheds to achieve that though, which presumably means that the orders will continue to go out that Buzzards (and Red Kites) have to die instead…

 

Officers have teamed up with partner agencies on a special operation to target raptor persecution.

Operation Sunbeam included members of the Barnard Castle Neighbourhood Policing Team, RSPB, Natural England and the National Wildlife Crime Unit who carried out searches at two properties in Teesdale this morning (April 21).

It follows an incident last year when two common buzzards were found dead in Teesdale woodland. Forensic tests indicate they were illegally poisoned with a banned pesticide.

After gathering all the information, the team searched the properties for any harmful substances and two men are now helping officers with their enquiries.

PC David Williamson, who led the operation, said: “We will always do everything we can to support our rural communities and work with partners to act on information received about alleged criminal activity.

The positive action taken this morning will continue and I would encourage anyone with information about this type of crime to get in touch.

The action was part of the Health and Safety Executive’s Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme which makes enquiries into the death or illness of wildlife, pets and beneficial invertebrates that may have resulted from pesticide poisoning. 

Guy Shorrock, senior investigating officer for the RSPB, provided specialist advice on the subject.

He said: “The illegal killing of birds of prey is a serious national problem so we are delighted with the really well-prepared response from Durham Police, working with partner agencies.

We hope this sends a clear message that the illegal killing of birds of prey won’t be tolerated and action will be taken.”

Ian Guildford, investigative support officer for the National Wildlife Crime Unit added: “It was a very well organised response and great to see agencies coming together to tackle this type of issue.”

If you have any information call 101 or email PC Williamson at david.williamson@durham.police.uk

Durham Constabulary, Operation targets raptor persecution, 19 April 21
Photo from Durham Constabulary