these days when PC Gareth Jones’ phone rings he is braced for bad news. PC Jones is the Wildlife Crime Co-ordinator for North Yorkshire Police and in recent weeks he has found himself investigating a raft of crimes against one of the country’s most graceful birds of prey.
The first call came a couple of months ago – a red kite had been found dead in suspicious circumstances – and more have followed. So far 10 of the birds have either been shot or poisoned in North Yorkshire and at least a further three in the west of the county. One had been laying eggs just a few hours before it was killed, another had to be put down because its wing was so severely damaged.
At this time of year there is often a spike in bird of prey persecution, but this year has been particularly bad and the incidents has thrown a spotlight on a breed which was once persecuted into virtual extinction in the UK.
Gradually reintroduced through breeding programmes at a number of locations, including Yorkshire’s Harewood House, in recent years their population have increased and while the recent attacks are undoubtedly cause for concern, according to Liam Stokes, head of shooting campaigns at the Countryside Alliance they remain one of conservations great successes.
“The persecution of the red kite in North Yorkshire harks back to the time in which they were almost exterminated from England, Scotland and Wales, but conversely reflects their remarkable comeback,” he says. “It is easy to get mired in despair over the state of our birds of prey. Every raptor death is greeted with a torrent of anger and grief, much of it justified.
“In this age of social media, in which anger is so readily amplified and people are keen to participate in shared outrage, every tale of a bird suffering an unhappy fate is repeated endlessly.
“On the one hand this mass concern for individual raptors is very valuable – anything that inspires people to care more about our wildlife can only be a good thing, and increased awareness of particular crimes can help identify perpetrators and deter potential criminals.
“There is however a risk that we end up with a very distorted view of how birds of prey are faring in the British countryside, tricking us into thinking or, perhaps more accurately, feeling, that they are under siege, clinging to survival by the tips of their talons, when in fact many species are thriving.”
According to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, between 1999 and 2003 a partnership involving Natural England, RSPB, Harewood Estate and Yorkshire Water released a total of 69 young red kites into the county. They were sourced from The Chilterns where a similar release programme had begun a decade earlier.
In 2001, a satellite breeding programme became established in the Yorkshire Wolds and when two kites from the 1999 release at Harewood bred successful they became the first pair in East Yorkshire for 150 years.
“The police have condemned the attacks as ‘disgraceful, ‘cruel’ and ‘totally unacceptable criminal acts’. Quite right too,” adds Liam. “From at least as far back as the 18th century the glorious, soaring red kite was condemned as vermin, reviled as a predator of domestic fowl and game birds.
“As persecution sent the population tumbling, seemingly final nails were hammered into its coffin by the Victorian fashion for taxidermy and egg collecting. By the turn of the 20th century a tiny handful of red kites remained, sheltering in the valleys of Central Wales.
“Yet these nails in the coffin were not final. The last hundred years has seen the red kite’s fortunes reversed in a turnaround that at first glance appears miraculous. Yet this was no divine intervention, this reversal was a result of the determined work of land owners, dedicated individuals and organisations.”
From an estimated 10 pairs in 1930, by 1997 there were 160 pairs in the UK. Reintroductions from Scandinavia and Spain returned the red kite to the Chilterns in England and the Black Isle in Scotland, and proved so successful that further reintroductions were planned.
In 1999 the Yorkshire Red Kite Project was established, sending the raptors soaring across the region from their release site at Harewood Estate in West Yorkshire.
“The population increase since 1997 has been extraordinary,” adds Liam. “Those 160 pairs became 1,600 pairs by 2013, a 1000 per cent increase in 16 years. An increase in a raptor population is not necessarily surprising – peregrines, sparrowhawks, buzzards, honey-buzzards, ospreys, marsh harriers, Montagu’s harriers, golden eagles and hobbies have all enjoyed population increases in the same period – but only the buzzard can rival the red kite for the sheer scale of recovery.
“The resurgence of the red kite, and indeed all these wonderful raptors, is one of the British countryside’s great conservation success stories, achieved through the collaboration of conservation charities and land owners. It is unfortunate then that among a tiny minority this return to pre-Victorian numbers of red kites seems to be bringing with it a distinctly Victorian attitude towards killing them.
“Let’s not mince words: six dead red kites in North Yorkshire, protected by law, in the space of two months, is appalling. The comfort to be taken is that this time around these incidents are in the context of a population that is in rude health. An increasing population of raptors is always going to lead to increased conflict with both commercial and conservation interests, but law breaking is never, never the answer.”
Any land manager who believes that there is a localised case for controlling a bird of prey can apply to Natural England for a licence. Recently the organisation was deemed to have acted unlawfully after it rejected an application licence application to control buzzards which were feeding on pheasant chicks.
“That case re-affirmed the vital principle that wildlife management decisions relating to protected species must be made on a case by case basis, using facts on the ground to determine whether a localised licence should be provided,” adds Liam. “That such legal recourse exists makes the illegal killing of birds of prey even more reprehensible. The rural community must speak with one voice in condemning action outside the law, and play a proactive role in stamping on persecution. Information on suspected wildlife crime can be given anonymously to Crimestoppers, and anyone witnessing wildlife crime in progress should be on the phone to 999 immediately.
“The glorious story of the red kite’s recovery is being tarnished. We can’t let that happen to one of our great conservation successes – the resurgence of the British raptor.”