Visitors to North Yorkshire’s countryside are being asked to act as the “eyes and ears” of police as they seek to cut the number of illegal attacks on birds of prey.
The county has more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other in England, with protected species such as peregrine falcons, red kites and buzzards being shot, poisoned and trapped despite legislation.
Among the cruellest methods used are pole traps – spring-loaded traps fixed to the top of posts which have been outlawed since Victorian times.
Birds caught in this way can be left struggling for hours before being put out of their misery, or manage to break free with terrible injuries that soon become infected.
Sergeant Kevin Kelly, of North Yorkshire Police’s rural taskforce, said: “These traps are legal but the use of them on poles has been outlawed for over 100 years. They are horrendous.”
Intended for the pest control, the traps can be legally used for that purpose if set low on the ground or inside tunnels.
Often those caught using them on poles will plead ignorance or say they were trying to trap vermin, but Sgt Kelly said the risks to raptors were obvious.
“Birds of prey are perching birds. They’re in trees, on gateposts and fences looking for prey,” he said. “You wouldn’t put a trap on a pole to catch a rat.”
Today, he will join RSPB officers at Brimham Rocks, near Pateley Bridge, for the launch of Operation Owl.
Supported by the RSPCA as well as the county’s two National Parks, the initiative will combine police surveillance and training for park volunteers with work to raise public awareness.
Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s chief executive David Butterworth said: “The monitoring data, the number of confirmed persecution incidents and the absence of some species from large areas of potentially suitable habitat provide compelling evidence for an uncomfortable conclusion – illegal persecution is limiting the populations of some species of birds of prey in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
"Only through collective action can the persecution be stopped.”
His counterpart at the North York Moors National Park Authority, Andy Wilson, added: “Raptors are beautiful. They are an essential part of our National Parks, but their numbers have been diminished over many years by persecution from shooting interests.”
As part of the year-long operation, police will carry out surveillance checks on known raptor persecution hotspots at random times to disrupt offender activity and work with landowners to make them aware of the legal position on raptor persecution.
National Park volunteers will be trained to spot poisoned bait and illegal traps.
“One of the issues for us is geography,” said Sgt Kelly. “North Yorkshire is massive and the two parks are probably two thirds of it. How do you effectively police all this land?
“We can ask members of the public who are concerned and they can be our eyes and ears. By raising its profile, we should be able to make raptor persecution unacceptable.”
Anyone who spots a pole trap is asked to ‘spring’ it if they can do so safely, note the location, take a photo and report it to police via the non-emergency 101 number.
A helpline set up by the RSPB can also be used to report cases of the persecution of birds of prey anonymously.
Senior investigations officer Guy Shorrock said: “The landscape of North Yorkshire attracts huge numbers of visitors every year. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible history for the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey.
“We are proud to support North Yorkshire Police with this initiative and would ask people to report any concerns to them.”
Anyone with information can contact the RSPB hotline on 0300 9990101.