RSPB Birdcrime 2016 Report – a mixed response

The poisoning of wildlife is thankfully becoming less common

But the use of traps like this to take raptors seem to be increasing

A mixed response to the release of RSPB’s Birdcrime 2016 report as was expected. The figures do look a bit better in 2016 with (only!) 81 confirmed raptor persecutions but game management can’t boast an improvement until these figures have a sustained drop over a lengthy period. And of course until satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers stop disappearing over grouse moors. And until male hen harriers provisioning females on nests in the north of England stop disappearing. And until ghostly figures with shotguns stop appearing in the middle of the night at goshawk nests. We must also bear in mind that in remote areas and in darkness many more crimes must remain undetected and unreported.

It is good news that the use of pesticides to kill wildlife has reduced. Unfortunately – and this can’t really be seen from the way RSPB have listed their statistics – the use of Fenn traps and similar traps seems to have correspondingly increased.

I have always had respect for BASC – at least in Scotland – and I was really pleased to see this organisation, the first time so far as I am aware for any shooting or game management organisation, to have led the field with a frank and honest statement. Their acting chief executive said that killing the raptors to protect game birds was a “fool’s bargain” and that his members had to stop or risk shooting being banned. He further made the admission that there were “criminals among us” who risked “wrecking shooting for the majority. All of us need to realise that the killing of raptors is doing us no favours. It risks terminal damage to the sport we love.”

He realises that expelling members who were convicted of raptor persecution was not enough, and that shooting needed a cultural shift to make such people pariahs. “Peer pressure is a powerful force in shooting. We must make clear that wildlife crime has no place in our community.”

I have been making similar assertions in my new book, Killing by Proxy: an analysis of wildlife crime (Thirsty Books, £9.99 and due for publication later this month), and the last BASC comment is worth reading in conjunction with one of the blogs written by freelance journalist James Marchington, who specialises in writing about Britain’s wildlife, the countryside and fieldsports. The blog is entitled Poisoned eagles and the Osborne connection, and Marchington writes

‘Another eagle falls victim to illegal poisoning. The story is reported in the Guardian. And once again the name of Mark Osborne is not far away. Osborne is known for his ability to take a poor grouse moor and turn it around, vastly increasing grouse numbers – and the moor’s value – in a few years. Of course it could be coincidence, but several moors run by Osborne have been at the centre of illegal poisoning scandals in recent years.’ 

‘Local keepers are hopping mad at the damage done to shooting’s reputation. And there’s no doubt where they are pointing the finger’.

‘Just a few greedy estates are trashing the damage done to shooting and undermining all the good conservation work done by the vast majority of shoot managers in Britain. Surely we are best placed to weed them out?’

This blog was written in 2009 after the poisoning of a golden eagle. Sadly the weeds are still thriving.

The editor of Shooting Times believes that some young gamekeepers feel coerced by their employers to kill raptors. “If the shooting community refuse to admit it, the future for our sport could be bleak.” This ties in nicely with the title of my new book.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation view is that “very few stupid keepers and landowners” broke the law. “These dinosaurs sully the good name of modern shooting, putting at risk its long-term future. The only effective solution lies in changing the collective mindset of those involved.” Could they be beginning to see the light?

The Moorland Association wants more to be done to prosecute people ‘who injure wild birds’.  Their director, Amanda Anderson, said: “Any incident of bird of prey persecution is unacceptable and the full force of the law should be felt by those breaking it.” She also said that more could be done to help restore the hen harrier population, which is a complete turn-around from her comment in the Sunday Times in August when she claimed that “If we let the Hen Harrier in, we will soon have nothing else.” Difficult to give credence to the Moorland Association’s views when they swing so widely from one view to another. Nevertheless she can now be held to her most recent opinion.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association claims to have expelled six members in five years over alleged wildlife crime but that most members were law-abiding. They said that “In Scotland, the greatest issue we wrestle with is the lack of access to legal measures to solve species conflicts. We feel this would have more impact than any other measure to prevent wildlife crime.” This seems to infer licences to kill raptors would be preferred rather than their members simply working within the current law and shows little promise for meaningful change or an admission that they are the architects of their own misfortune.

Tim Bonner, head of the Countryside Alliance, said that historically gamekeeping techniques had devastated hen harrier populations but that there was a “generational shift” taking place towards better conservation. “It’s our role to encourage that change of attitudes.” This is a strange comment on hen harriers and a complete lack of acceptance of what is taking place. There is nothing ‘historical’ about the devastation of hen harriers; it is very much ongoing and substantiated by the regular loss of satellite-tagged harriers over grouse moors.

I can see nothing from the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) and indeed wonder if they are still in existence. If not, it is a pity as I thought they were quite a forward-thinking organisation.

Demonstrating how unlikely it will be for England and Wales to have any improvements in legislation that might curb raptor persecution, Jim Shannon MP (DUP, Strangford, NI), one of the bedfellows of the Conservatives, was quoted as asking Parliament on 2 November,

The number of birds of prey across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has risen astronomically to the detriment of songbirds. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs does occasionally grant licences to cull birds of prey, but many country people and landowners who want to avail themselves of such licences in order to achieve a balance in the countryside find the process to be off-putting. Indeed, sometimes they cannot get a licence. There are too many birds of prey and too few songbirds and mammals, so will the Leader of the House grant a debate on that or call for a statement from DEFRA?

Despite the encouraging views of BASC, with folk like Shannon in places of power, I think they have an uphill battle.

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