The question of the persecution of birds of prey in our countryside has long been a controversial issue and, as Sebastian Oake reports, it remains a bone of contention.
The Glorious Twelfth is a well marked date in the countryside calendar but some people say it masks something rather less glorious and the beauty of North Yorkshire’s heather moors has long hidden an ugly truth.
Spectacular birds of prey or raptors make moorland their home, sharing it with the grouse bred for shooting, but figures point to them having a long history of being illegally persecuted.
Guy Shorrock, Senior Investigations Officer at the RSPB, says birds of prey or raptors have not always been welcome on grouse moors: “Hen harriers, peregrines, buzzards, sparrowhawks, goshawks, short-eared owls and red kites have ended up being shot, trapped or poisoned.”
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He points to Natural England data from satellite-tagged hen harriers between 2010 and 2017 that shows 72 per cent of the 58 birds tagged were killed or likely to have been killed on or around grouse moors.
In February 2018 North Yorkshire Police – which has 40 officers tackling wildlife crime – launched Operation Owl to combat the issue, firing the warning shots in a new drive to bring those responsible to justice.
The police joined forces with the RSPB, the RSPCA and the two National Parks in North Yorkshire to ask the public to be on the alert in the countryside and report any signs of crimes being committed.
Over the weekend of September 21 and 22 this year, Operation Owl is being officially rolled out nationally, co-ordinated by Superintendent Nick Lyall of Bedfordshire Police. He says:
“Events will be taking place all over the country as more and more forces are joining up all the time. To the public, I say: ‘Be our eyes and ears.’ To those involved, I say: ‘The net is closing in and your time is up.’”
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Most people would perhaps welcome the enlargement of Operation Owl but can they expect the campaign to solve matters? Has experience over the past 18 months in North Yorkshire shown that is going to be the case?
Yesterday the RSPB released its annual bird crime report, revealing all the confirmed cases of persecution in 2018 across the country as a whole. Unfortunately, it makes grim reading.
Yet again North Yorkshire has been confirmed as the worst county in the UK by far for illegal persecution of birds of prey. Nationally there were 87 confirmed cases, with 15 within North Yorkshire. Blackspots included Nidderdale and the Dark Peak area of the Peak District.
At first glance, Operation Owl would seem to have failed here but Guy says it should be judged in more ways than through a body count. “The operation may not have done much yet in cutting persecution but the success has been in raising public awareness.”
Sergeant Stuart Grainger, who is leading Operation Owl in North Yorkshire, agrees. He is regularly asked to do presentations to groups who may come across evidence in the outdoors, including 250 volunteers and rangers working for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
He believes achieving proper change could be slow. “I hope it doesn’t, but it could take years before we make great strides in halting bird of prey persecution,” he says.
So, if the killing is continuing, who is to blame? Guy Shorrock is in no doubt. “Since 1990 two-thirds of those convicted for raptor persecution have been gamekeepers,” he says.
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But he also believes such behaviour receives unspoken approval, even expectation, from estate managers and owners. “Gamekeepers are small cogs in big machines. The whole estate management and shooting industry is creating a playing field for gamekeepers to act in this way.”
This point of view is challenged by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. Its Chair, Liam Bell, says: “The NGO is not aware of any recent reports of raptor persecution in England and Wales but encourages people to report any evidence to be investigated. The NGO supports the Code of Good Shooting Practice and insists its members operate within the law. Anyone found to be doing otherwise and convicted of a wildlife crime has their membership withdrawn.”
Meanwhile, the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners, says this year has seen a record-breaking total of 47 hen harrier chicks born, most of them on grouse moors.
Amanda Anderson, Director, adds: “We condemn any wildlife crime and one incident is one too many. Those who break the law deserve to be punished. We are involved in a great deal of effort and many initiatives aimed at eradicating raptor persecution wherever it takes place.
"Gamekeepers and estates are actively involved in Operation Owl. The debate on this subject is all too often polarised which obscures the positive news. The path to more progress is people working together.”
These assurances do not cut much ice with those on the other side of the fence. And Guy Shorrock says the problem is much worse than the RSPB’s figures show. “The confirmed incidents are just the tip of a very large iceberg.
"Based on my 28 years of experience in this area of crime, I’d be astonished if we’re recording even one per cent of what’s actually taking place.”
Last year there was just one conviction in court for persecution. That so few perpetrators are caught and brought to book is perhaps not surprising. Sergeant Grainger explains: “These are largely hidden crimes. The people who do these things can take their time and work in remote locations, and of course the birds can’t speak for themselves.”
Guy puts it more bluntly: “If someone wants to shoot a hen harrier at 4.30 in the morning in the middle of a moor, who’s going to be there to witness it?”
There are signs that public frustration over grouse shooting is growing. A petition to Parliament to ban it was set up earlier this month by Wild Justice, fronted by TV naturalist Chris Packham. It received 70,000 signatures in its first week.
Can healthy populations of birds of prey ever enjoy peaceful coexistence with grouse shooting? Guy believes what is happening on the moors mirrors intensive agriculture, which has earned itself a bad name in the eyes of many who would prefer more environmentally friendly food production with room left for wildlife.
Ultimately, the RSPB would like to see an independent review of grouse shooting and for driven grouse shooting to be licensed with licences removed from those estates that do not follow the rules. Campaigners at the organisation also want the police to do more, saying there is not enough good quality enforcement work.
Whether much will change any time soon is not clear. Like the guns on the Glorious Twelfth, the arguments will rumble on and our sweeping moors of purple heather will remain a source of disagreement and distrust in defiance of their serene beauty.
The RSPB’s bird crime report for 2018 details individual incidents in our area. In November 2018 a satellite-tagged hen harrier known as River disappeared over Nidderdale. In April this year it was found dead on Ilton Moor on the Swinton Estate. It was x-rayed and found to have two pieces of shot in its body.
Visit www.rspb.org.uk/raptormap or www.operationowl.com or the National Wildlife Crime Unit’s site at www.nwcu.police.uk.
If you find a dead or injured bird of prey, witness unusual activity, or see a trap positioned on top of a pole, note the location, take a picture if possible and contact the police on 101, the RSPB in complete confidence on 0300 9990101, Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999.