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Government must get tough on raptor killers in Cumbria

Buzzard in flight. Photo Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Buzzard in flight. Photo Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Illegal persecution of birds of prey is still happening all too regularly in the UK countryside including in Cumbria according to the RSPB’s Birdcrime 2015 report, published today in a new online interactive format, and the charity is asking governments across the UK to take urgent action now to stop this slaughter.

The RSPB’s Birdcrime 2015 report reveals 196 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey including the confirmed shooting of 16 buzzards, 11 peregrines, three red kites, one red-footed falcon and one hen harrier.

The report, published online for the first time, also shows 50 reports of wildlife poisoning and pesticide-related offences. Confirmed victims of poisoning include 15 buzzards, four red kites, and three peregrine falcons. These figures represent only a fraction of the illegal persecution in the UK, with many incidents going undetected and unreported.

Cumbria is one of the worst counties in the UK for bird of prey persecution. Birdcrime 2015 reveals that there were five confirmed incidents against raptors including a poisoned buzzard and a poisoned peregrine.

Despite raptor persecution being identified as one of the UK government’s top wildlife crime priorities in 2009, the persecution of birds of prey still remains an issue of serious concern with around 590 birds of prey nationally having been confirmed poisoned, shot, trapped or destroyed in the last six years.

In 2015, a satellite tagged hen harrier, Annie, was found shot dead in Scotland in March, with another tagged bird “Lad” found dead, with injuries consistent with being shot, on Speyside in September. In England, another five breeding male hen harriers ‘disappeared’ from nesting sites. Although we will probably never know the fate of these individuals, the evidence2 shows that illegal killing remains the single biggest factor preventing hen harrier recovery.

In November last year, news emerged that another satellite tagged hen harrier, named Rowan, was also found dead with injuries consistent with being shot, and only three pairs of hen harriers successfully bred in England in 2016, despite there being enough suitable habitat to support over 300 pairs.

Martin Harper, RSPB Director of Conservation, said: “Our birds of prey are magnificent creatures and the sight of a hen harrier’s dramatic skydancing display flight is simply breathtaking. Everyone should be able to witness this but sadly millions of people are denied this opportunity. Our uplands are deprived of some amazing wildlife because of ongoing illegal persecution and it has to stop.”

It is not only conservation organisations fighting for the protection of our wildlife. Public anger is growing stronger over the ongoing persecution of our birds of prey and the state of our uplands, and more voices are beginning to call for change.

Martin Harper said: “There is growing public support to reform driven grouse shooting. People care deeply about the future of our birds of prey and their concerns must not be ignored.

“The status quo is not an option and we continue to call, throughout the UK, for the introduction of a robust licensing system for driven grouse shooting and an offence of vicarious liability for employers whose staff commit wildlife crime. Change is essential if we are to improve environmental condition of our uplands.”

For the first time in January 2015, an Aberdeenshire gamekeeper, George Mutch, received a four months prison sentence for the killing of a goshawk, the illegal use of two cage traps, and the taking of a buzzard and a second goshawk. The offences came to light during the review of footage captured by RSPB video cameras deployed on the Kildrummy Estate in August 2012, as part of a long-term project monitoring the use of cage traps in Scotland.

Bob Elliot, RSPB Head of Investigations, said: “This sentence shows that people who continue to break the law and kill protected species face the prospect of prison. The gamebird shooting community needs to demonstrate that its activities are sustainable and don’t rely on the illegal killing of birds of prey. And our governments need to demonstrate a strong commitment to enforcing wildlife laws andto making sporting estates more accountable for what takes place on their land.”

The RSPB is working hard to protect birds of prey, and projects such as the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project includes a combination of satellite tracking this threatened species, protecting their nests, monitoring and undertaking research, raising awareness among the public and working with volunteers, land owners and local communities to protect these birds.

The charity believes a change in attitude from some within the gamebird shooting industry and a commitment from the government to toughen up on legislation enforcement is essential if birds of prey are to thrive in their natural environment again.

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