The damage politics has caused to our so called ‘protected’ raptors

In 1967 Britain’s first raptor protection group the North West Raptor Group was established by a small band or dedicated raptor conservationists working in the north west of England. The group was set up to try and reverse robberies of eggs and nestlings from the few Peregrine eyries remaining that were often being robbed each year in parts of the English Lake District and the northern Pennines.

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After the 4 chicks contained in this ground nest had been ringed in the presence of estate gamekeepers and the Wildlife Crime Officer for Lancashire, the two larger females nestlings disappeared with 48 hours

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The two remaining chicks left in their nest

At that critical time records show that only seven active Peregrine falcon territories remained throughout north west England, each eyrie being located in the more remote regions of northern England where the influence of pesticide had failed to eradicate a small nucleus of breeding pairs. One of the first things the group decided to do was to introduce full protection 24/7 at two nesting sites both of which were well-known for the high incidence of robberies taking place during the breeding season.

It was in 1967 that raptor activists received a letter from the Nature Conservancy Council advising these individuals of a proposed changes to the existing wildlife legislation. The letter informed the few activists with an interest in protecting birds of prey that in the future they would require a licence before they could legally visit Schedule 1 raptor nests to check content, protect nests or to ring nestlings.

It seems a curious irony the only individuals requiring a licence to visit such nesting sites in England were those few experienced people in the main who had done their utmost to protect these rare threatened species together with their nesting sites. On the other hand it has been accepted practice for many years that on moorland where red grouse are shot to turn a blind eye to the accidental/intentional disturbance of Hen Harrier and Peregrine nests found by moorland gamekeepers.

No one should under-estimate the abilities of estate gamekeepers, these PROFESSIONAL individuals are highly skilled and experienced people, being completely familiar with each and every square acre of the moorland they patrol each day of the week. Gamekeepers also each have a sound knowledge and understanding of most forms of wildlife, in particular raptors and where these species nest on the beats they are paid to manage.

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Single one day old Peregrine chick survived after ice chippings had been intentionally placed on two eggs to kill the developing embryo inside the shells

It is precisely because of this knowledge and experience estate keepers are able to find a majority of occupied raptor nests positioned on their moorlands beats, very often going out of their way to inspect potential or known nesting territories without the required licence during the breeding season.

The point here is a simple one but very important legally. In 2009 Natural England in an e-mail sent to the North West Raptor Group stated the following: “we would not expect experienced field workers to unintentionally visit Hen Harrier nests and to discourage this, or prevent visits without prior consultation your permit will not include Hen Harriers in Lancashire.”

This is a total nonsense of course because this placed members of the NWRG at a disadvantage putting them in a very serious legal position of possibly being taken to court and prosecuted because of their knowledge and experience when coming across any nest members were unaware of.  There is more than a suspicion Natural England’s decision takes no account of Schedule 1 raptor nests found and visited by unlicensed gamekeepers because of their wish to maintain diplomatic and political relationships with the estate owners together with their employees.

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The nesting cliff of a pair of Peregrines completely destroyed after  several tons of square blocks of rock holding up the nesting ledge was intentionally removed.

There have been a number of occasions where active Peregrine and Hen Harrier nests have undoubtedly been found and disturbed by gamekeepers in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, some intentionally located, others by accident but all without a licence. Of course many of these uncoordinated and by chance unlicenced discoveries, resulting in the disturbance of an active nest, may have been reported to the RSPB or Natural England. However, it is important to point out that on one hand Natural England make no song and dance about these unlicensed and uncoordinated nest visits, while on the other hand they have removed the licences from experienced raptor workers who may from time to time unintentionally discover an active nest of one species while looking for another, this is unavoidable and happens to all licensed raptor workers, to claim otherwise is nonsense.

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One adult Peregrine and three unfledged chicks each shot to death on nesting ledge.

As Peregrine numbers expanded in Cumbria’s Lake District National Park, warning notices were positioned below a number of targeted nesting cliffs in an attempt to prevent rock climbers from causing disturbance to occupied nesting sites. These signs proved ineffective and problematic with many climbers simply choosing to ignore the advice being given. One additional complication with these public notices, they forewarn the less scrupulous individual that a particular cliff was occupied by nesting Peregrines making eyries an easy target for eggs collectors and of course pigeon fanciers who are well-known for their anti-Peregrine feelings along the west Cumbrian coast where eyries continue to be destroyed in most years.

In 2010 a decision was taken by Natural England to withhold Schedule 1 licenses held by members of the North West Raptor Group at the request of United Utilities for use on their Forest of Bowland estate. Without any shadow of a doubt this decision was politically motivated with one main objective, to prevent the NWRG from publishing details the widespread persecution of raptors and their nests taking place in the Forest of Bowland.

As we now know this inappropriate and illogical decision resulted in the loss of all Peregrines and Hen Harriers from Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, reducing this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to a raptor free zone, a situation totally unprecedented in England.

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A member of the North West Raptor Group examining a clutch of 3 Peregrines eggs found abandoned in Forest of Bowland

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The same Peregrine territory as above but different site and year, containing second abandoned clutch of eggs. This territory, following persistent interference reported to the police over several seasons, has joined the additional 18 abandoned territories in the Forest of Bowland   

Following the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) in 2004, estate owners in the Forest of Bowland, including the management of United Utilities, strongly argued all Schedule 1 licence holders should not be allowed to visit any Schedule 1 raptor nest to monitor their content without the prior approval of the landowner, United Utilities felt this licensed activity was not a part of open-air recreation as covered by the CRoW legislation.

Significantly as early as April 2007, and despite arguments being made by grouse moor owners seeking to restrict access to licensed individuals on to their moorland estates, Natural England aware of the very serious adverse consequences for breeding Schedule 1 raptors on grouse moors issued clarification to avoid any misunderstandings in the future. Natural England’s explanation clearly upheld the right of all unpaid license holders to visit the nests of Schedule 1 species without the approval of estate landowners on red grouse moors in England. However in 2010, at the request of United Utilities and RSPB, Natural England in order to get around their own advice, instead took the illogical and fateful decision to withhold two specie licenses they had previously issued to members of the NWRG for over 40 years for use in Bowland. This mindless action then prevented group members from undertaking any further visits to both Hen Harrier and Peregrine nests anywhere within this moorland region of west Lancashire. United Utilities by successfully persuading Natural England to withhold licenses created the first licensed monopoly, permitting only those individuals to visit and monitor nests on any Bowland estates with the consent of the estate owner, in so doing establishing a precedent which contradicted their original advice to all licence holders in England.

Perhaps not realising the consequences of their actions Natural England’s decision taken in 2010 to withhold licenses previously held by members of the NWRG has now directly culminated in the region becoming a raptor free zone. This decision providing gamekeepers with the freedom to manage protected raptors with impunity without the fear of any experienced individuals looking over their shoulder, and far less chance of anyone being caught or brought to justice for their illegal actions.

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This was the natural scene captured just two days ago depicting 2 fledgling Peregrines capturing prey item dropped by one parent. The image was taken at a nesting site with no protection one mile outside the Forest of Bowland boundary. Says it all really.

Below is a part of the document sent to raptor workers by Natural England April 2007

  1. Interpretation of legislation is a matter for the Court. However, this letter sets out the understanding of the relevant Natural England staff as regards the scope of the CRoW Act access right. We believe that it is appropriate for Natural England, its partners and members of the public to rely on this interpretation unless or until case law establishes otherwise.
  2. People doing this kind of activity need to be empowered to do two things: disturb birds at their nest (which is the purpose of the licence) and enter land in the first place. There is no suggestion that they would be relying on CRoW rights to disturb birds at their nest, even for monitoring purposes, as that is what a licence is for. However, the licence is only for disturbance; it cannot authorise entry onto private land.
  3. As regards the issue of entry on to the land in the first place, we believe that, as long as the person doing the monitoring is doing so on a voluntary basis (i.e. they are not doing so for payment), they can reasonably be regarded as taking part in open-air recreation; accordingly the CRoW Act access right applies and the permission of the landowner is not required. If, however, the monitoring is being undertaken for payment, we believe that it falls within the scope of the general restrictions set out in Schedule 2 of the CRoW Act; in this case, the CRoW Act access rights does not apply and, in the absence of any other statutory or contractual right, the landowner’s permission is required.

The way Natural England manipulated the situation, circumventing the access clarification they had already provided to all licence holders, was underhanded and against the spirit of advice they had originally given in 2007 to ensure ‘protected’ raptor received the protection to which they were entitled under UK Wildlife legislation.

At a time when Britain’s raptors need all the support experienced individuals are willing and able to provide, there should be no place for politics but in reality as events in 2016 have shown, politics and not conservation is now undermining the well-being of these iconic birds of prey throughout England’s uplands, in particular on moorland where driven grouse shooting takes place. The inappropriate exclusion of a dedicated and experienced raptor group from the Forest of Bowland was a disgrace and one of the most inappropriate and damaging decisions Natural England could ever have taken. The abandonment of all active Peregrine territories, followed this season by the loss of all breeding Hen Harriers from within the Forest of Bowland was preventable and should not have been allowed to happen. It’s time now that everyone began  to think about putting the birds first and politics and their own self-interest last, otherwise there is a real possibility the Peregrines along with the Hen Harrier may be prevented from ever returning to breed within the Forest of Bowland.

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This is what politics has done to the Forest of Bowland

2 comments to The damage politics has caused to our so called ‘protected’ raptors

  • The Watcher

    So who is protecting the birds of prey in the Forest of Bowland? The RSPB, another Raptor group? This should be made public, so we can ask them why there are no nesting Peregrine & Hen Harrier this year. This is a AONB and supposed to be the home of the Hen Harrier. It’s disgraceful, who do I contact to ask?

    Editor’s Comment. Sadly no one was protecting the Peregrines. The RSPB were supposed to have been protecting the Hen Harriers. We suggest you contact the organisation responsible for the disaster, Natural England at Peterborough but don’t expect a truthful reply.

  • Trapit

    It will always be an uphill struggle against people on the ground twenty four hours a day. Removing experienced field workers from the equation has been a spectacular own goal.The raptors of Bowland are in the match of their lives,it’s the last few minutes of extra time and the result is a foregone conclusion.