Above: The victim: buzzards habitually use posts or poles as vantage points to watch for prey
For all the conservation successes, Britain’s raptors are still routinely persecuted – and this is a systematic campaign that isn’t dying out. GRAHAM WELLSTEAD investigates
THE recent increase of the peregrine in the wild has been widely commented on and I, for one, am delighted with the rise in numbers. I have gone from not ever seeing a live peregrine in the wild, or as a falconry bird, for the first three decades of my life, to seeing them now on almost a daily basis. They have taken to using man-made structures as their nest sites and continue to do so.
The last figures I have are for 2002, with 62 sites on buildings, and this figure has probably now doubled. Peregrines are nesting in sites such as Salisbury Cathedral: an ancient site abandoned until recently, although a pair of kestrels moved in and caused a flutter of hope that the peregrine had returned. Too much to hope that this was a sign of site faithfulness, where birds return to a spot used previously, or young birds recognise home. A classic case of site faithfulness was when peregrines reared on a building in Edmonton, Canada, took up residence on an identical building 300 miles away in Calgary.
Cathedrals are popular with the species, as they are often the only tall structure in a given area, and I know of at least six currently home to breeding birds. Industrial buildings, such as Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and buildings such as the Tate Gallery and Battersea Power Station in London are also utilised. My own county, Surrey, has several, with Sutton, Kingston and Woking all doing well, and some are equipped with web-cams during the breeding season. If you are online you can watch something remarkable, something no one a few short years ago would have thought possible.
Widespread too, though, is the killing of buzzards, owls and kestrels. These three are all too often targeted with pole traps – a circular version of the old gin trap – or the modern trap used for rats, the Fenn trap. The trap is placed on top of a pole and is set off when the hawk or owl lands on the post. It usually smashes both legs, leaving both bird and trap hanging down the side of the pole. Imagine yourself in that position, both legs smashed, the weight of the trap adding to the pain.
Eagles, too, are frequent targets. There is little doubt that, given half a chance, golden eagles would recolonise suitable habitat in England rather than be restricted to Scotland. The white-tailed eagle, the subject of a reintroduction scheme started in 1975, brought back a bird that had been extinct in the British Isles since 1901, yet it has already begun to suffer. Wind-turbines are being credited for many bird deaths and, among the raptors, we find the white-tailed eagle on the list.
Most recently we had a boost for the failing population of red kites – reduced to a handful of pairs surviving in mid-Wales. Initially 90 birds were reared and slow-released in the Chiltern Hills and are famously now seen soaring across the M40 motorway near High Wycombe. Known by some as the Red Plague, they are everywhere: in the open farmland and even in the suburbs. They drift over my garden and aggravate my hawks. My red-tailed hawks particularly hate them – perhaps it’s the red tail of the kite which sets them off. They are being shot and poisoned seemingly wherever they occur, even in Ireland where they are new arrivals.
Also targeted are our newly burgeoning goshawks, their return founded in some degree by escaped falconry birds, together with their smaller cousin the sparrowhawk, for years hammered toward extinction by gamekeepers. Tawny owls are also targeted with pole traps.
So why the Raptor Wars? In spite of all the good news, peregrines and others are still under attack with shooting and poison. A breeding pair, with three chicks in the nest, were poisoned in Shropshire in 2017. They are not alone. Fortunately, the babies were rescued and fostered into other nests, to survive and fledge successfully.
Every year we read of the persecution of the hen harrier. Satellite-tagged harriers and eagles disappear off the system in mysterious circumstances. Some are recovered, some not. Buzzards, goshawks, sparrowhawks and tawny owls all suffer persecution where game birds – notably pheasants – are reared. For the predator, a visit to a rearing or release pen must be like dropping into the local supermarket. But eagles, harriers and red kites that target grouse are, themselves, a target.
The recent figures on raptor deaths in the UK, published by the RSPB, clearly show the problem and its cause. Annually, since 2000, the figures have remained fairly constant, rising and falling by a few cases over a mean level of 100 cases of persecution per year. It cannot be coincidence that these figures show that most cases occur on keepered estates. In spite of the stand taken by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), which forbids shooting and other methods of killing raptors, it continues.
There are many gamekeepers who would never even consider any form of killing hawks, but also a significant number who do. For who else other than the keeper whose job/roof/family relies on sufficient numbers of birds over the guns, and of course his employer – the landowner – has any reason to kill these birds?
As well as being a champion breeder of roller canaries, Graham Wellstead is a professional falconer of great experience.
For more features from Cage & Aviary Birds, click here.