Bird Crime: The law has failed our birds of prey

Self-regulation within the capercaillie shooting community has failed and urgent action is needed to prevent protected birds of prey from being illegally killed and to bring this industry into the 21st centuryst Century and to contribute to overcoming natural and climate crises.

That is the message from the RSPB’s bird crime report released today (October 1st), which shows that birds of prey continue to be systematically killed, especially where land is cultivated for capercaillie shooting.

The report reveals 85 confirmed cases of birds of prey persecution, in which birds such as buzzards, red kites, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and chicken carriers have been shot, captured and poisoned. The highest concentration of these occurred in the highland areas of northern England and Scotland, with North Yorkshire being the worst county for the sixth consecutive year. Half of the confirmed incidents occurred in protected landscapes.

All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Deliberately killing or injuring one is a criminal offense and can result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in prison depending on the jurisdiction.

Golden Eagle, Copyright Ron Marshall, from the Surfbirds Galleries

There have been over 1000 confirmed cases of bird of prey persecution in the UK over the past 10 years. Despite hard work by police forces, RSPB investigations and volunteers monitoring birds of prey across the UK, the law does not protect these birds.

The RSPB has stated that the next decade will be no different without urgent changes. That year, the illegal destruction of birds of prey continued even during the COVID-19 lockdown, as the RSPB investigation team reported the busiest spring ever, dealt with several reports of the pursuit of birds of prey, and assisted police with an investigation, one of which many took place land used for gamebird shooting.

In addition to illegal killing, more and more birds of prey with satellite tags are disappearing under suspicious circumstances via driven grouse. Since the beginning of 2018, 45 tagged chicken carriers – a rare and heavily persecuted bird of prey – have been known to have been illegally killed or disappeared under suspicious circumstances. In 2020, only 19 successful nests were recorded in England, although there are habitat and prey that can accommodate more than 300 pairs. Analysis of government data released in 2019 found that illegal killing was the main factor in limiting the number of chicken carriers in the UK.

The RSPB calls on the government to act now to address the environmentally and polluting practices associated with the most intense forms of grouse bog management, including the tracking of birds of prey and the burning of bog vegetation on peat soils, our main carbon stores.

Mark Thomas, RSPB UK Investigation Director, said: “The Birdcrime report shows once again that protected birds of prey such as chicken-carriers, peregrine falcons and golden eagles are relentlessly pursued, especially in areas dominated by capercaillie shooting.

“At a time when the world – and Britain in particular – is experiencing a catastrophic decline in wildlife populations, the destruction of rare wildlife seems to be the opposite of progress. Healthy raptor populations are key indicators of the health of our environment. Still, if the illegal killing stopped, more than twelve times as many carriers could breed in England. The shooting group has had decades to get their house in order, but it is perfectly clear that they cannot control the criminals within their ranks. Current legislation has failed to protect our birds of prey and it is time to make urgent and meaningful changes.

“The illegal killing of birds of prey is just one of the symptoms of a totally unsustainable capercaillie shooting industry. The burning of internationally important moors is another extremely important issue. This destructive peatland management practice not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, but breaks down the peat, impoverishes wildlife, and increases the flow of water over the bog surface, leading in some cases to devastating flooding in downstream communities. In a climatic and environmental emergency, this is simply not acceptable. Today, at the start of the annual burning season, the RSPB is again calling for the government to ban the burning of moorland on moorland.

“UK governments need to introduce stricter legislation to bring the capercaillie shooting industry into line with the law, eradicate practices that are harmful to the environment and meet the goals of the UK Conservation Agency.”

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