North Yorkshire is top of the UK league for the illegal killing of birds of prey. Roger Ratcliffe reports.
Catching someone in the act of deliberately killing a bird like a peregrine or a goshawk used to be unheard of.
In the remote uplands of England the culprits were too cunning for police and wildlife investigators.
But like the traps they set to lure birds to their deaths, modern technology is now turning the tables and trapping them.
Hidden video cameras are now being used to ensnare some of the gamekeepers engaged in the slaughter.
Last week a covert filming operation by the RSPB led to the conviction of a gamekeeper at Chesterfield Magistrates Court.
Glenn Brown, 39, of Upper Derwent Valley, was found guilty of seven offences and sentenced to 100 hours of community service plus he was ordered to pay £10,000 costs.
Brown was arrested after an RSPB team filmed him using a cage trap baited with a live domestic pigeon on moorland to the west of Sheffield which is owned by the National Trust but leased for grouse shooting.
The operation was identical to one in the Scugdale Valley of the North York Moors three years ago when three gamekeepers were filmed using live pigeons in cage traps.
Sparrowhawks, peregrines or the much rarer goshawks are the typical victims of such traps.
Having entered to kill the pigeon, the raptors find they are unable to escape and can then be killed by the trap user.
According to the RSPB, North Yorkshire and Cumbria jointly top the UK “league of shame” for persecution of birds of prey.
In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, 27 attacks were reported. In South Yorkshire the total was 12; 11 in the West Yorkshire and four in the East Riding.
PC Gareth Jones, North Yorkshire Police’s Wildlife Crime Coordinator, has no doubts about who is to blame.
“Unfortunately, where there are organised shoots for grouse and pheasants there is a conflict between the shooting fraternity and birds of prey,” he says.
“Let me make it clear that I’m not tarring all gamekeepers with the same brush, because the majority of them are honourable.
“But there are still some rogue keepers who adhere to the Victorian attitude that anything with a hooked beak and claws is the enemy of game birds.
“As a result there are huge tracts of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors where there should be healthy populations of birds of prey, yet there are none.”
PC Jones cites hen harriers as an example. They are the bird of prey most associated with heather moorland, but they are now seriously endangered in England.
“We haven’t had a nesting pair in North Yorkshire for about four years.
“The only place in England hen harriers still nest is over in the Bowland area of Lancashire. There, the moors are owned by the Duke of Westminster and United Utilities and they have instructed their gamekeepers that they must coexist with these beautiful birds.”
PC Jones says that five years ago there was an attempt to involve North Yorkshire landowners in the Hen Harrier Recovery Project run by Natural England but it came to nothing.
“I hope that attitudes might change,” he says. “Because estates must surely see that the wider public finds birds of prey so charismatic – as shown by the interest in nesting peregrines at Malham Cove and Scarborough.
“Yes, birds of prey might have a slight impact on grouse numbers but estates will get people coming to stay in the locality, renting their holiday cottages and so on.”
In the past two years, there has been a spate of attacks on goshawks in the North York Moors.
Two were found shot, another was poisoned and there was also a case of illegal nest disturbance.
And earlier this year there were cases of red kites – their success re-introduction to Yorkshire on the Harewood Estate attracted enormous interest and publicity – being found poisoned a few miles away in the Lower Washburn Valley.
Doug Simpson, the coordinator of Yorkshire Red Kite project believes the deaths occurred because the birds ate poisoned baits left by farmers to control foxes and crows.
“It is worthy of note,” he says, “that this roughly coincides with the time when lambs are out in the fields in good numbers, and are vulnerable to attacks from foxes and crows.
“Clearly some individuals are still pursuing the practice of trying to control them with illegal baits.”
The RSPB says that cases of illegal shooting, poisoning and trapping have increased every year for the last decade.
The society’s conservation director, Dr Mark Avery, believes that nearly 2,000 incidents reported to the police since 2003 represent a fraction of what takes place.
“The conflict with land managed for the shooting of game birds remains the main problem for birds of prey,” he says.
“Particularly the upland grouse-shooting estates in northern England and Scotland. The main species affected are golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, goshawk, peregrine and red kite.”
The society is concerned the shooting industry appears unable to self-police, says Dr Avery and he believes new legislation is required to make the managers and employers of those committing these crimes legally accountable.
Options such as so-called “vicarious liability” – that holds employers accountable for crimes committed by their staff – and removing the shooting rights of convicted individuals and errant estates need to be considered, he says.
“These would provide a significant deterrent without imposing a burden on legitimate shooting interests.”
Reports of gamekeepers being convicted by courts cause great frustration for those involved on game shooting estates who conduct their affairs wholly within the law and also see their work as benefitting not just game birds.
Control of predators like stoats, weasels, rats and crows on grouse moors have been shown to produce healthy populations of wading birds like curlew, redshank, lapwing and golden plover.
Since 2007 the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), which works closely with shooting estates, has been engaged in a ten-year project on Langholm Moor in the Scottish Borders to find a way of managing grouse moors whilst resolving the age-old conflict with birds of prey.
No protected species are being controlled, and one tactic employed is the supply of carrion – dead animal matter – for birds of prey, so that they are less likely to depend on grouse for their diet.
Says the GWCT: “We abhor all cases of persecution of birds of prey, and regret the damage this causes to the image of people working on estates who are actually doing a lot of good for birds like waders.
“We hope that the Langholm Moor project will show that there does not need to be any conflict between wildlife conservation and game management.”