Where have all the Falcons Gone asks the Independent?

Where have all the falcons gone? Dramatic decline has set alarm bells ringing among conservationists. A disastrous decline in moorland peregrine numbers has led to bitter feuding between conservation groups and accusations levelled at grouse shooters CAHAL MILMO Author Biography Independent MONDAY 14 OCTOBER 2013.


After an eighteen year RSPB presence in the Forest of Bowland, the Bird Protection Society are pondering  the cause of the disappearance of an entire Peregrine population in just 3 years.

Once described as the “Switzerland of England”, the Forest of Bowland offers an ideal habitat for the peregrine falcon. With its rocky outcrops and vast tracts of upland, it was until recently home to a thriving population of some 15 pairs of Britain’s fastest bird of prey.

But almost as rapidly as Falco peregrinus sweeps from the sky to secure its quarry, the number of the species in the 880-square-kilometre beauty spot stretching across Lancashire has plummeted. In just 3 years, the population has tumbled from 30 birds to just a single breeding pair.

The dramatic decline has set alarm bells ringing among conservationists, who point out that there are now more of these graceful predators living in England’s cities than across a vast swathe of the North stretching from the Peak District to the Yorkshire Moors and the Pennines.

The reasons for the disappearance of Bowland’s falcons are still not fully understood. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say that elsewhere the illegal killing of raptors – birds of prey – by rogue gamekeepers on moorland used for shooting red grouse is thwarting attempts to conserve species. Hen harriers, once abundant in the UK, are on the verge of extinction in England after the last two pairs this year failed to breed.

The crisis is also causing strains within the conservation movement, sparking an unseemly row between the RSPB and a group of local raptor campaigners.

The Independent can reveal that the charity, Europe’s largest dealing with wildlife, has used one of the world’s biggest law firms, Clifford Chance, to write to the North West Raptor Group demanding the removal of “libellous” material from its website. The NWRG claims the RSPB has failed to protect the local peregrine falcons, and has not been candid about the scale of their decline.

Terry Pickford, the NWRG’s founder, accused the RSPB of “intimidation”, saying the group, which had its licences to monitor bird-of-prey nests in Bowland restricted in 2010 by the Government’s wildlife adviser Natural England, was raising legitimate concerns about the decline in peregrine numbers and the safeguarding of the species. The group had previously complained to the RSPB after two of its members were approached by a warden earlier this year while watching a peregrine site and later asked to attend a police interview. The two men were told they had no case to answer but the RSPB said its warden had acted appropriately.

Mr Pickford said: “It feels like the RSPB does not like criticism and is going to extraordinary lengths to stop it. We are a small group in Lancashire who believe passionately in what we do and here we are receiving letters from a giant firm of London lawyers threatening legal action. It’s hard not to see it as anything other than intimidation. It makes us even more determined.”

The RSPB denied its actions were heavy-handed, saying it respected the right of others to criticise but the legal letter had been sent to protect volunteers from what it believed were unsubstantiated and defamatory allegations on the NWRG website. It said Clifford Chance had sent the letter without a fee as part of a “pro bono” charitable partnership. A spokesman said: “Normally we take this type of criticism on the chin but we have a duty of care towards our staff and we must protect them from untrue claims. We are not a litigious organisation and the decision to send this letter was not taken lightly.”

The row is symptomatic of rising anxiety among conservationists as they see the success stories of bird-of-prey conservation in recent years, such as the widespread return of the red kite across England and a rise in buzzard numbers, offset by problems for some of Britain’s most iconic hawks.

Despite its problems in Bowland, which experts said could be related to natural causes ranging from last year’s harsh winter to competing bird species as well as human intervention, the peregrine falcon has recovered strongly from near extinction in the 1960’s due to use of DDT pesticides. There are now some 1,400 breeding pairs across Britain.

Sources told The Independent that many of the abandoned peregrine sites in Bowland were on land owned and managed by energy and water company United Utilities, which is regarded as a model of sustainable moorland management. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the company.

But conservationists say the falcon and other species are also markedly absent – or have had numbers dramatically reduced – in areas that coincide with the 850,000 acres of upland moor in northern England where some 500,000 grouse are shot annually in an industry worth £67m a year.

David Morris, the RSPB’s area conservation manager in the North-west, said: “We are deeply alarmed and concerned by this drop in numbers of peregrines in Bowland. We don’t know what is causing it.

“We have seen a pattern elsewhere where commercially driven grouse moors have in recent years geared up in the intensity of their management of the land. There is no escaping that in these areas species like peregrines or goshawks are just disappearing. They have become absolute black holes for the birds of prey. We are not anti-shooting but grouse shooting has become commercialised to an unsustainable level and that has included rogue gamekeepers on some estates persecuting birds of prey and systematically removing them.”

Some 70 per cent of the 152 people convicted for persecution of birds of prey under the Wildlife and Country Act were employed in the game industry, according to the RSPB.

Among the measures being sought by conservationists to tackle the problem is the introduction of vicarious liability, making the owners of grouse moorland estates responsible for the actions of employees. The introduction of the measure in Scotland last year has seen a sharp drop in the number of poisonings of bird of prey.

Moorland owners strongly denied any systematic destruction of birds of prey, pointing out that it was only because of the habitat created by estate workers, for wild birds including grouse, that species like the hen harrier were present in the first place.

A spokeswoman for the Moorland Association said: “We would condemn any illegal killing of birds of prey. We believe very strongly that there is room in the uplands for the full sweep of birds that should be there. There must be a balance and we are working with all sides to explore ways to manage birds of prey numbers sustainably.”

Can not believe this carnage of Peregrine Falcons has been allowed without anyone being held accountable. At least the independent is doing something about it and getting the story out there please read the link. The Way the big (supposedly) bird protectionist group have acted is a downright disgrace. Stick in there Terry your the only one doing any good.

Thanks to ‘Hawker’ who provided the above article originally as a comment.

Follow the link below to Terry Pickford’s original article which sparked the outrage when he highlighted the disappearance of all but one of Bowland’s peregrine falcons in just three years.

Bowland Raptors: The final Solution by Terry Pickford

Peregrine Holocaust England’s Northern Uplands

Alleged Bowland Peregrine Disturbance, NO CASE TO ANSWER SAY THE POLICE

11 comments to Where have all the Falcons Gone asks the Independent?

  • Well, well, the RSPB are not going to like this article as it shows them up for what they have become. Why are they wondering what has happened to the raptors on Bowland and their own reserve at Geltsdale in the Northern Pennines.

    They know the reasons why and are indirectly responsible because they have turned a blind eye and allowed it happen. When Mark Avery was Conservation Director of the RSPB he rang me to ask if I had heard that certain gamekeepers were showing an UNHEALTHY interest in the Eagle Owls at Geltsdale, obviously they were as they disappeared from the reserve soon after.

    The RSPB wardens on Bowland, they know who they are, are not above lying to discredit honest, decent people who have given up their time in the past to monitor and protect these raptors, WHY?…… Because they told the truth and my word have they now been proven correct , since the NWRPG lost their licenses to monitor throughout BOWLAND and the RSPB took charge the Peregrines have not nested and the Hen Harriers are also gone, makes you want to ask why their wardens are still in employment as there is nothing much left to protect.

    The two so called stalwarts who I once had great respect for have it seems done an about face and now visit Eagle Owl nest sites during the day and far to often (not a crime), is it any wonder the 3 nest have failed this year?

    The solicitor’s FREE ????????, I don’t think so, letter could have caused untold damage, thank god it was proven that there was no case to answer, it beggars belief as a solicitors letter like that would cost over a thousand pounds. Do the RSPB members really know where their membership money is going? Very little of it is being used for what you think it is.

    As for their statement with regard to Vicarious Liability, which it seems they are working hard to bring before the government, why then didn’t they support the e-petition when I started it, WHY? Because it wasn’t there idea and they want the glory.

    We all supported the RSPB campaign for birds of prey in the belief that it would make a difference, what has gone wrong?

    The present government have shown that they are not wildlife friendly by sanctioning the culling of Badgers when scientific evidence has shown it will make no difference, they have seen the public outrage but choose to ignore it.

    Natural England are siding with gamekeepers and have issued licenses to disturb and destroy 4 Buzzard nests; the same gamekeeper has now applied for licenses to kill Buzzards and Sparrowhawks. Surely to God this cannot be allowed as it will make a mockery of the words, PROTECTED under THE WILDLIFE and COUNTRYSIDE ACT, if we went out and shot these landowners pheasants we would be in trouble but it seems there is one rule for them and another for us.

    If you haven’t read the article written by Mark Avery about Pheasants I suggest you do, it is an eye opener, these introduced ALIEN species are causing our natural wildlife all sorts of problems, millions bred and released to be shot, many left laying to feed the very creatures that these landowners want to poison, trap, shoot and even bludgeon to death in the name go greed and so called sport.

    Why does The RSPB want comments made on Facebook removed and why do they want to silence Raptor Politics, what are they so afraid of? Well in this country freedom of speech is still allowed but they do say that the truth hurts.

  • nirofo

    If the RSPB are so perturbed by the strange “disappearance” of iconic Raptors from Bowland and are not certain of the cause, then maybe they should approach Natural England and plead with them to re-instate the Schedule One licences to the NWRPG. At least they will then have a team of experienced Raptor workers who know what they are doing keeping a ever watchful eye on the goings on in Bowland. Come on RSPB, get real and do the honourable thing for once.

    Editor’s Comment. We will pass on your comments to the Chairman of the North West Raptor Group, however we are aware from information via a friendly gamekeeper Raptors in Bowland will NOT be allowed to return in any worth while number. In the early 1990’s, when Dr. Derek Ratcliffe was asked on camera during a BBC Television documentary, what was the reason for collapse of the eighteen pairs of hen harrier in Bowland, he replied, I cannot think of any other reason other than persecution. In the same film when the BBC asked on camera the same question to the RSPB regional officer in Bowland, he stated we have no evidence. Off camera he told the BBC director of the film, the collapse had been caused by gamekeepers but he had been instructed not to say so on camera by senior RSPB managers. Here we have history repeating itself once again.

    One significant point worth highlighting, in the future as there will be no raptors in Bowland to protect, licenses will no longer be an issue.

  • skydancer

    The RSPB seem to be very confused as to what is happening to birds of prey on moorland throughout the northern uplands, in one paragraph of this article the RSPB seem to be blaming “rogue gamekeepers”as they have put it, then lower down in the article in the Independent David Morris the RSPBs area conservation manager for the north west says” we are deeply alarmed and concerned by this drop in numbers of peregrine falcons in Bowland, we don’t know what is causing it”. If Terry Pickford had not highlighted this scandal, no one else would have known either.

    If the RSPB don’t know what is happening to peregrines and hen harriers in Bowland after 18 years involvement in the area, then maybe the answer to their problem is incompetence and they should step aside and leave it to the North West Raptor Protection Group who do know and care about the fate of so many falcons, either that or grow a backbone and confront these “rogue gamekeepers” before its too late.

  • nirofo

    I don’t get this phrase “rogue gamekeepers” that the RSPB and others seem keen going on about, in my book they are all with very few exceptions, “ROGUE GAMEKEEPERS”. It’s about time that Natural England, Scottish Natural heritage and the RSPB stopped using such silly phrases when they all know, and everybody else involved with Raptors knows, that gamekeepers and birds of prey don’t mix and never will do until they get serious about putting a stop to this blatant Raptor persecution once and for all. Don’t try to kid us all with your ridiculous attempts to whitewash something so serious as the criminal activities on the shooting estates, it doesn’t work and never will. I can understand up to a point that NE/SNH have to cowtow to their masters whims, but the RSPB should be above all that, their sole reason for being is supposed to be for the protection of birds, unfortunately it seems that it doesn’t apply on shooting estates.

  • Peter Robertson

    My name is Peter Robertson and I am Regional Director for the RSPB in Northern England. The article published by the Independent and reproduced here contains a factual error which I would like to correct. The RSPB did not, as stated in the article, send a solicitors letter to the North West Raptor Group. We did, however, send a solicitors letter to the owner of this website (Raptor Politics). As the website is anonymous (no organisation or individual claims ownership of the website on its pages and no contact details are given), we wrote to the name and address of the website owner given to us by the Internet Service Provider. We asked that defamatory comments about individual RSPB staff and volunteers and about the Society be removed and that some form of moderation be introduced to prevent similar comments in the future. We are not aware of any formal link between the Raptor Politics website and the North West Raptor Group, although we are aware that some members of the group post comments on the website.

    We have written directly to a number of members of the North West Raptor Group offering to meet to discuss any concerns that they may have so that we can work together more effectively to address our common concern of safeguarding populations of raptors in the Forest of Bowland. We have not received any response to these invitations but the offer remains open and I can be contacted directly at peter.robertson@rspb.org.uk to arrange a meeting.

    • Admin

      The RSPB wrote to the domain name registrant – not the site owners

      There is a contact form for the site owners – see the link at the top-right of every page

      It is not the intent of this site to defame the RSPB, or individuals working for the RSPB – where is the profit in that? Maybe you should consider taking a serious look at the behaviour of your operatives in Bowland instead of attacking the messenger.

      The North West Raptor Group can be contacted by writing to their secretary, Daniel Marsden. If, when you write, you include an offer to reimburse the legal costs incurred by two NWRG members in defending themselves against the defamatory allegations made against them recently by one of your employees, I’m sure it would be accepted as a sign that you intend to act in good faith.

  • Here Here Nirofo,
    My sentiments exactly, the RSPB are not doing what it says on the tin and are not fit for purpose.
    How much longer will it take their members to realise that the hard earned money they donate to this organisation is not being used for what they think it is, I regret ever becoming a member and begrudge them every penny that they had from me before I saw the light.

  • john

    Same here chrissie , I wish I could have back the money I have donated over the years , never again and I have spread the word amongst other birders .

  • paul williams

    Intentionally/Recklessly Disturbing a Schedule 1 Wild Bird ( Peregrine Falcon ) Would someone define the Government law on this subject

  • paul williams

    Does anyone know what it say’s in the white paper???

  • paul williams

    Would the RSPB like to define my question?