North York Moors residents make statement against raptor persecution with Banksy-style mural

Two retired teachers with a passion for wildlife conservation have sent out a message to criminals who persecute birds of prey.

The mural pointedly overlooks a grouse moor

Simon and Nicky Johnson painted the wall of a barn near their farmhouse in the village of Hartoft, near Pickering, with an eye-catching mural objecting to the killing of raptors in the North York Moors National Park.

The outbuilding faces a nearby grouse moor and a public footpath and bridleway runs past it.

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Simon and Nicky Johnson have lived in Hartoft for 30 years and are passionate about conservation in the North York Moors

The artwork has been admired by passing walkers, cyclists and horse riders since they designed it with the help of an artist friend. It was completed in time for Hen Harrier Day on August 8.

It features several species, including hen harriers, a goshawk, a red kite, kestrel, peregrine falcon, merlin and buzzard. A sparrowhawk has since been added following the suspected poisoning of a sparrowhawk in Gillamoor.

Nicky, who taught at local schools including Rosedale Abbey Primary, hopes the mural will raise awareness of the tensions between landowners, gamekeepers, local residents and conservationists following a spate of recent bird of prey deaths near grouse shooting areas.

They include the trapping and killing of a protected goshawk, which was caught on camera near Goathland, on the Duchy of Lancaster estate, and the deaths of five buzzards found buried in a hole with gunshot wounds near Bransdale Moor. In the village of Appleton-le-Moors, a buzzard which had bred this spring was also found with injuries consistent with being trapped and shot.

"We'd always been aware of generic raptor persecution, but this year there have been so many of these incidents not very far away from us. We originally thought we'd do a small mural on a piece of plywood, but in the end we painted the big one!" said Nicky.

"We get plenty of people wandering through the village and they've all been very complimentary. We wanted to make the point that a crime is a crime. We have the most wonderful raptors up here, but they are only passing through - they do not stay and breed. There is a local buzzard family I watch, and one of them has a damaged wing where someone has taken a pot shot at it."

Nicky's background in education has led her to examine the reasons why people choose to harm protected birds of prey.

"I'm always asking questions about why these people are behaving inappropriately and criminally. Is it bragging rights in the pub, pressure from their employer, is it expected of them, is it a challenge from their peers, a lack of education? I have taught the children of gamekeepers and they always know a lot about the natural world. It makes you wonder why, in adulthood, that callousness starts."

She also hopes that the mural may encourage debate between the various parties involved in both commercial shooting and conservation.

"The only way forward is for both sides to come together and admit that this is a problem in the uplands. Is this expected of keepers? You won't get many shoots holding their hands up and saying they expect keepers to kill predators. People are turning a blind eye, and when you speak to them I'm sure some of them know who is doing it. You will hear bragging in the pub, if you listen for long enough. The grouse shooting fraternity is feeling under the cosh, but they're fighting back inappropriately, by sniping.

"We live in a decent community up here, and there are some wonderful landowners - but there are elements who are causing harm. It's sad for both sides that they will not come together.

"When people close ranks, the entrenchment starts and they stop listening. Then the wildlife and the way of life are doomed."