Clee Hill Peregrines – A History of Persecution in South Shropshire
Since 1995 at least one pair of peregrine falcons, (falco peregrinus), a specially protected bird of prey under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, have nested or attempted to nest at Titterstone Clee Hill, South Shropshire. In 1997, following the establishment of the Shropshire Peregrine Group,(SPG), the site was wardened by a member of the group under licence from Natural England and the British Trust for Ornithology. (Schedule 1 Licence Wildlife & Countryside Act to disturb breeding peregrine falcons in Shropshire.)
The traditional nest site used is located at a disused quarry owned until 2015 by Hanson (UK), who also operate a large working quarry adjacent to the disused area. On occasions both sites have been used during the breeding season, indicating that more than one pair of peregrines nest in the area. Whilst the working quarry is closed to members of the public and access is monitored by CCTV, a public viewpoint permits visitors to view the quarry workings and the resident peregrines on the occasions the site is used.
Peregrines have nested or attempted to nest at the disused quarry – the “incline”, every year since 1995, with the exception of 2000 when the site was unoccupied. In 2005 Hanson constructed a public viewpoint above the disused quarry where information about various archaeological features in the immediate area was displayed.
The viewpoint was in fairly close proximity to the “incline” nest site, and the same year RSPB planned to organise an “Aren’t Birds Brilliant” scheme featuring the nesting peregrines. The project was shelved in April of that year when one of the breeding pair disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Following the fatal poisoning of the breeding pair of peregrine at the “incline” site in May 2010, the SPG organised patrols by volunteers during the breeding season, supervised by local police and supplemented by camera surveillance
Since 1995 the two nest sites have successfully fledged a total of 35 young peregrines, the majority from the” incline” site which has been more closely monitored by the SPG. A brief history of the site is attached.
Clee Peregrine bringing prey into nest. Falcon ringed at Worcs Cathedral 2008. Poisoned at Clee Hill, Shropshire 2015
Prior to 2003 no reports of human disturbance were reported and apart from one year when the site was not occupied,the annual breeding attempts were successful. The site and the presence of nesting peregrines is well known to the general public, and even before the viewpoint was constructed in 2005, visitors from the West Midlands area would visit Clee Hill to watch the falcons during the breeding season.
Incidents of deliberate disturbance were first reported in 2003 when the site warden discovered an abandoned pigeon box on the track near the nest site. The same year two men were apprehended by police while attempting to release domestic pigeons, probably laced with poison, in the vicinity of the nest occupied at the time by breeding peregrines.
The following year a tiercel was found dead near the incline site and about the same time oil was poured deliberately onto the nest causing the female to desert.
In 2006 the site warden reported two persons acting suspiciously and disturbing the nesting birds at the incline site. The same year one chick was accidentally killed during a ringing operation by Dave Fulton, a licensed BTO ringer.
In 2009 Chris Neale, a local falconer from “Hawkeye” falconry, reported discovering
two young peregrines, both apparently poisoned, on the clifftop above the incline site. These birds were from a clutch of three young fledged earlier from the nest. This incident was not reported to Police or the site warden.
The 2010 and 2011 Incidents
The traditional” incline” site was occupied in early 2010 with the site warden making regular visits. On 5 May he reported that the female peregrine appeared “motionless” on the eyrie and the tiercel had not been sighted for some time. The local police and the quarry manager were informed and on 8 May a recovery operation was organised by the Peregrine Group. The dead female was recovered from the nest, (she had been in the process of incubating a clutch of three eggs), while the tiercel was found dead at the foot of the 50 metre cliff. Both birds had traces of a toxic substance on their bodies. The dead birds were taken by police who undertook a lengthy investigation into the incident during the course of which a number of suspects from local pigeon clubs were interviewed.
The death by poisoning of breeding peregrines received extensive coverage in the local media and a reward for information relating to the incident was offered by the Peregrine Group and the local Clee Hill Forum. Evidence gathered by police proved inconclusive, and the case was finally closed in early July. The post-mortem had revealed that both birds had been poisoned using diazinon, a substance usually found in sheep dips.
It became apparent that, after years of persecution including the deaths of between five and seven peregrines, additional measures were necessary to prevent a re-occurrence, not only to safeguard the peregrines whose presence attracted visitors to the area, but also to protect the reputation of the Clee Hill “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
Early in 2011 the Peregrine Group, at the invitation of the Clee Hill Forum, the Heritage Trust and other community and local interest groups including the RSPB and Hansons, the quarry owners, organised a series of meetings and a film show at which their future proposals for peregrine protection at Clee Hill were outlined, and a request made for volunteer observers.
The proposed protection measures included:
a) Volunteers to patrol the area.
b) CCTV cameras to monitor the nest site and surrounding area, including
c) Increased police patrols and
d) A direct and secure communication link to local police.
A total of 48 volunteers were recruited and funding for the project, £1,800 approx, was obtained from Hanson and the Shropshire Hills Management Committee.
The site was closely monitored by the Group site warden throughout March and early April, however, there were only very occasional sightings of peregrines in the area and a complete absence of activity which might have indicated that breeding would occur. By the second week of April it was decided to cancel the project and participating groups were notified accordingly.
On 14 April a dead adult female peregrine was discovered by a member of the public, tied up and hanging from the railings at the viewpoint near the incline nest site. The police were informed and the bird taken for examination to establish the cause of death. (there were no obvious injuries).
A lengthy investigation followed during which several members of local pigeon clubs were again interviewed. Toxicology tests on the dead bird were inconclusive and the incident was finally recorded as a “non-crime”.
On 17 August, at a meeting organised by the Clee Hill Forum, all interested groups were informed of the result of the police investigation. Those present were also informed that a pair of peregrines had bred successfully at a nest in the secure working quarry and had fledged one chick in June. They were also informed that the Peregrine Group was prepared to organise protection measures again 2012 provided there was sufficient local support.
In 2013 peregrines nested successfully at the “incline” and fledged two chicks. Volunteer patrols were deployed throughout the breeding period and were again augmented by surveillance cameras. There were no reports of suspicious activity.
The following year, 2014, nesting again took place at the same site. Unfortunately, as a result of the extreme inclement weather experienced during May, the nest was abandoned at the egg stage.
Clee Hill Peregrine feeding her chicks
The 2015 Poisoning Incident
In early April peregrines again returned to the area and nested at the “incline” site used the previous year. Breeding proceeded without incident until the 15th June when the adult male peregrine was found dead on the floor of the quarry below the
nest where the two chicks were almost fully grown and about to fledge from the nest. The dead peregrine was recovered and later collected by the Natural England Wildlife Investigation Unit. A report of the incident was made to West Mercia Police the same day, however, no police investigation commenced until the result of the toxicology tests to determine the cause of death was established. In the event no investigation was carried out until 3rd September, 10 weeks after the incident had been reported, when toxicology tests confirmed that the cause of death was poisoning b y diazinon, the same substance used to poison the pair of peregrines in 2010.
On 9th November, following pressure from RSPB, the police issued a press release appealing for information and offering a reward £1,000 for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible. Following the press release, the SPG were contacted by a person who claimed to be a member of a pigeon flyers group known as “The Blakenhall Pigeon Flyers Lost and Found”. The informant alleged that the Clee Hill peregrine killings had been organised and carried out by one or more members of the Blakenhall Group. Names and photos of those involved were featured on the restricted Facebook page used by the Group and forwarded to SPG who passed them to Police and RSPB/Investigations for further action.
On 9th January 2016 the SPG were informed by the police that the investigations into the killings were being dropped due to the “lack of intelligence and positive identification.” No mention was made by police of the Facebook material provided by the informant about the activities of the Blakenhall Pigeon Flyers Lost and Found. The SPG have requested that further enquiries into the group are carried out by the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU).
The Blakenhall Pigeon Flyers Lost & Found
Historic Image of English Pigeon Fancier holding two immature peregrine which were killed to protect racing pigeon stock
The Blakenhall Pigeon Flyers Lost and Found is the name of a controlled Facebook page used and controlled by its’ members, mainly pigeon flyers in the Walsall and Cannock areas of the West Midlands. Only members have access to the page by means of a password. The original purpose of the group’s Facebook page was to provide an information and contact point for the dissemination of information relating to lost racing pigeons
The page now regularly promotes the killing of birds of prey, specifically peregrine. goshawk and sparrowhawk, and encourages members to attack and persecute these species in the interests of protecting the “sport” of pigeon flying. It shows disturbing images of dead birds of prey which some members claim to have “removed”, and, frequently using profane and obscene language, extols the work of those members who succeed in “removing” them permanently. Certain individuals feature regularly on the page and appear to have more influence over other members and the illegal activities of the group generally. There is some circumstantial evidence that some members may have been involved in the poisoning of the peregrines at Clee Hill in 2015. Police are aware of the existence of the group and are reported to have interviewed some of the members in connection with this incident.
There is every likelihood that attempts to attack nesting peregrines at Clee Hill will continue for the foreseeable future despite the best efforts of the Peregrine Group, Police, and local community groups. The area is home to a number of active pigeon racing clubs, some of whose members regard attacks on peregrine falcons as being necessary to protect their “sport” of pigeon racing. To what extent these attacks are organised and controlled is not clear, although recent intelligence indicates that some groups of pigeon flyers make use of social media to organise the illegal persecution of birds of prey.
The fact that at least eleven peregrines have been deliberately killed at Clee Hill in the past seven years is a matter of concern for those organisations, RSPB, Natural England,, RSPCA and the Hawk & Owl Trust, whose role is to protect all wildlife from illegal persecution. To this end both RSPB and the Hawk & Owl Trust have recently highlighted the importance of birds of prey to the health of the natural environment and have campaigned extensively to “stop killing birds of prey!”
The Shropshire Peregrine Group, with the support of local wildlife organisations, West Mercia Police, and Midland Quarry Products, the site owners, will continue to organise protective measures at Clee Hill which will hopefully prevent further attacks. There is a feeling among local residents that “something must be done” and this sentiment may result in the offenders being identified with sufficient evidence produced to support a prosecution. A successful prosecution is the best form of deterrent and efforts will continue to persuade the police to devote more resources to the investigation of wildlife crime and in particular the illegal killing of peregrine falcons.
Finally, to prevent social media being used to promote the illegal killing of birds of prey, a formal complaint should be made to Facebook, through their complaints procedure, requesting that the offensive material relating to the killing and persecution of birds of prey, including images, be removed, and that the Facebook account in the name of the Blakenhall Pigeon Flyers Lost and Found be closed down. There is a complaints procedure for this action on Facebook. In order to have maximum effect, wildlife organisations such as RSPB, Hawk & Owl Trust, and all raptor protection groups should take the lead in this action.
The above report has been published by Raptor Politics with the full consent of the author below:
Co-ordinator Shropshire Peregrine Group