Not too many people I suspect take the time to sit down to ask themselves why iconic raptors like peregrine, hen harrier, goshawk and red kite remain absent from the majority of moorlands in England used for shooting red grouse. Take Geltsdale and the Northern Pennines as a general example, void of these raptors and why, simple reality really, persecution to maintain maximum numbers of game birds for the wealthy few in our society to shoot.
In contrast we must consider the unprecedented expansion of the peregrine falcon into England’s inner cities during the last two decades, simply incredible. A recent scientific study published on the Raptor Politics web site has shown clearly that breeding peregrines located on red grouse moors are at least 50% less successful than those pairs breeding in other habitats. The reason for this unacceptable poor productivity throughout England’s uplands is the illegal control of raptors by gamekeepers. What better example can there be than the failure of 14 peregrine territories each located on grouse moors in the Forest of Bowland which last year all failed to produce a single fledgling.
Consider for one moment also the plight of the hen harrier, reduced to just 4 successful breeding pairs in England last year. Not only that, because of their persecution by moorland gamekeepers the hen harrier remains restricted to just a single upland estate in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland where their protection is being enforced by the land owner United Utilities Plc. It is significant that although various scientific studies have demonstrated there is sufficient suitable moorland habitat in England to support upwards of 300 pairs the hen harriers remain conspicuous because of their total absence from 99.9% of moorland shooting estates in Northern England. This is in my view totally unacceptable in the 21st Century.
Because of persecution the goshawk is another species being restricted to specific woodland habitats owned by a few sympathetic landowners like the Forestry Commission. Where the goshawk has attempted to breed in woodlands locations adjoining red grouse moors their persecution has been relentless. A good example is the Upper Derwent Valley in Derbyshire. Despite this region being owned by Severn Trent Water, because Derwent Valley is surrounded by red grouse moorland, last year only a single successful goshawk nest was recorded. In the same location in 2010 three goshawk chicks were discovered dead below the nest on the ground just days after the chicks had each been BTO rung. On closer examination of the dead chicks it was found someone had removed the BTO rings from the legs of each of the chicks. The complete story can be read here by going to page 6 of the PDF report.
In stark contrast comparing the plight of raptors in the uplands of England with the remarkable success of birds of prey like the red kite reintroduced into areas like the Midlands, these birds are making a remarkable recovery with very little persecution so far.
The number of red kite nests in this single region has soared to 26 territories, according to new figures. The rise is all the more remarkable because last year’s (2010/11) appalling winter led to a fall in breeding pairs elsewhere.
Red kites began to establish territories once more in Shropshire and Herefordshire back in 2006, after an absence of 150 years. In 2007, the first pair were recorded breeding there and more than 100 chicks have since fledged as breeding pairs expanded in both counties.
Less than 70 years ago the red kite was a species on the verge of extinction in Britain, with only two known nests and fewer than 30 birds, all located in the remote valleys of west Wales.
The chief culprits responsible for the decline was persecution by farmers, gamekeepers and land owners who shot or poisoned red kites because they mistakenly believed they preyed on their livestock and game birds. Accidental poisoning from agricultural pesticides was also to blame.
But in the past three decades red kites have staged a remarkable recovery, with up to 1,000 birds in Wales and the English border country.
The resurgence is due to the efforts of tireless campaigners who have gradually convinced landowners that red kites pose no threat to their animals or game stocks, while the use of pesticides in agriculture has been reduced to help to save the environment.
Another factor has been the establishment of feeding stations to help kites during bad weather in many regions of Wales, England and Scotland.
There are now breeding colonies in the East Midlands, Yorkshire, Northumberland, the Chilterns, Hampshire, Scotland and Northern Ireland – but these birds have been re-introduced from abroad. A small number of red kites are now being seen in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, but it was disappointing that in 2009 the first red kite nest found in the area appears to have been robbed of a complete clutch of eggs.
Red kites in Shropshire and Herefordshire are regarded as ‘honorary Welsh’ because they originate from the growing indigenous population in Wales.
According to The Welsh Kite Trust’s annual breeding season report, just published, the number of nests in Shropshire rose from 18 in 2010 to 20 in 2011, and from five nests to six in Herefordshire.
The Midland increase contrasts with Wales where the number of nests fell from 554 to 502.
Tony Cross, consultant ornithologist with The Welsh Kite Trust, said: “The 2011 breeding season followed a second severe winter in succession and the coldest December in more than 100 years.
“The number of kites attending the feeding stations reached an all-time high, reflecting the reliance on these daily hand-outs during periods of adverse weather.
“If the feeding stations had not been operating, we would have seen a much higher level of mortality and the breeding population may well have shown a decrease for the first time in decades. “As it turned out, very few dead birds were reported during the winter.”