North Yorkshire emerges today as by far the worst county in Britain for the illegal persecution of protected birds of prey, with at least one species said to have stopped breeding in the area.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has labelled the region’s history in prosecuting offenders “appalling” and called for new laws which would hold estate managers criminally liable for the actions of their staff.
The RSPB’s Birdcrime report, released this morning, reveals at least 81 cases of persecution against so-called raptors in the UK last year.
But for the first time in three decades, there were no prosecutions.
In one case, a gamekeeper was allowed to escape with a police caution after being filmed setting pole traps on a grouse shooting estate in the Yorkshire Dales.
Across North Yorkshire, the RSPB has recorded 54 incidents of persecution since 2012 and 19 last year alone. They included four shot buzzards, four shot red kites, two poisoned red kites, a shot peregrine, a buzzard nest destruction and seven incidents relating to the illegal use of spring traps.
In West Yorkshire, two red kites and a sparrowhawk were shot, and the tally in the south and east of the region includes shootings of a buzzard, a marsh harrier and a red kite.
Guy Shorrock, a senior investigations officer with the RSPB, said: “It’s not a new problem - North Yorkshire in particular has an appalling history of the illegal persecution of birds of prey. Looking at the last five years, there’s probably twice as much as any other county.
“It’s a large, rural county, with a lot of game bird shooting and large areas devoted to grouse shooting. Unfortunately, it’s not a good recipe.”
He added: “Species like hen harriers, which should be a regular breeding bird, haven’t bred in the county since 2007.”
The charity says the illegal killing of birds of prey is associated with land managed for intensive driven grouse shooting.
Its head of investigations, Bob Elliot, said: “We have a major issue with birds of prey being deliberately and illegally killed, despite having full legal protection. This type of crime has serious consequences for the populations of species, such as the hen harrier, and we must see a change in attitude and more effective law enforcement to protect these birds for years to come.”
The RSPB is campaigning for the Scottish system of “vicarious liability”, in which employers can be convicted unless they can prove they have taken actions to prevent crime, to be rolled out across the rest of the UK.
Mr Shorrock said: “if you ran a pub and your staff served drinks to 14 year-old kids while you were on holiday, you would be liable. It’s the same thing.
“Without that, gamekeepers are going to chance it if their employers want them to - that’s the reality of it.”
The RSPB condemned police after a gamekeeper on the Mossdale Estate near Hawes was filmed resetting two of the three pole traps found by a member of the public.
Such traps, in which a metal spring is placed on an exposed post, were outlawed in 1904.
Police cautioned the suspect but did not send him to court.
North Yorkshire Police said it had trained more officers in wildlife protection.
Inspector Jon Grainge said: “We’re pleased the report recognises the steps we have taken, but understand there is more to be done to prevent the continuation of this crime.”