If England’s raptors are to receive the protection they deserve, politics should be consigned to the dust bin now!

In 1967 Britain’s first raptor protection group the North West Raptor Protection Group was set up by a small band or dedicated raptor conservationists. The group was established to try and reverse the robberies of peregrine eggs and nestlings taking place each year at the few historic eyries which then still existed in Northern England.

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After the 4 chicks were rung at three weeks old in the presence of estate gamekeepers, the two larger females nestlings disappeared.

At that critical time records show that only seven active peregrine falcon territories remained, 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 change to the existing wildlife legislation. The letter informed conservationists with an interest in protecting birds of prey that in the future they would require a licence before they could legally make any future visits to raptor nests to check content, protect nests or to ring nestlings.

It seems a curious irony the only individuals requiring a licence to visit and monitor Schedule 1 nesting sites in England are those few experienced people in the main who do their utmost to protect these rare and threatened species. On the other hand it has been accepted practice for many years in northern England’s uplands to turn a blind eye to the accidental/intentional disturbance of hen harrier and peregrine nests found by moorland gamekeepers upon the beats where they are employed.

No one should under-estimate the abilities of estate gamekeepers, these PROFESSIONAL individuals are highly capable and experienced people, being completely familiar with each and every square acre of the moorland they work each day of the week throughout twelve months of each year. Gamekeepers also each have a sound knowledge and understanding of most forms of wildlife, in particular raptors and where each species nest on the beats they patrol. It is precisely because of this knowledge and experience estate keepers are inevitably able to find a majority of occupied raptor nests on the moorlands  they manage on a regular daily basis, very often going out of their way to inspect potential or known nesting territories without the required licence during and outside the breeding season.

The point here is a simple one but very important legally none the less. Last year Natural England in an e-mail sent to the North West Raptor Protection 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 not only does this place experienced raptor workers at a disadvantage it also puts them in a very serious legal position of possibly being taken to court and prosecuted because of their knowledge and experience.

There is more than a suspicion Natural England’s position takes no account of Schedule 1 raptor nests found and visited by unlicensed gamekeepers because of a wish to maintain diplomatic and political relationships with the estate owners together with their employees. There have been a number of occasions where active peregrine and hen harrier nests have undoubtably been found by gamekeepers in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, some intentionally others by accident but all without licence. Of course these uncoordinated and chance discoveries, resulting in the disturbance of an active nest, have been reported by a number of unlicensed gamekeepers to the RSPB and Natural England. However, it is important to highlight on one hand Natural England make no song and dance about these unlicensed and uncoordinated nest visits, while on the other hand they remove 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.

As peregrine numbers expanded in Cumbria’s Lake District National Park, warning notices have been positioned below some nesting cliffs in an attempt to prevent rock climbers from causing disturbance to occupied nesting sites. These signs are proving ineffective and problematic with many climbers simply choosing to ignore the advice being given. One additional complication with these public notices, they also forewarn the less scrupulous individual that a particular cliff is 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 from Maryport in the north down to Eskdale in the south of the county destroying each year many of the nest they find.

This season the irrational decision taken by Natural England to revoke licenses at the request of United Utilities for use on their Forest of Bowland estate was without any shadow of a doubt politically motivated, of that there is now no argument. As we now know this inappropriate and illogical decision resulted in the failure of 14 peregrine territories, representing a 74% failure of all peregrine eyries established in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland this season. Additional to the nests lost containing incomplete clutches of eggs, significantly several adult breeding pairs of peregrines also simply vanished, a clear indicator of human interference. On two of Bowland’s most prestigious shooting estates where 7 historic peregrine territories had been established for many years, 100% of these nests were each wiped out. In the 35 years in which the North West Raptor Group has been active in finding and protecting peregrine territories in this region, this was unprecedented.

Natural England by agreeing to a request to revoke licenses held by the local raptor group at the request of an estate has now established a very dangerous precedent for other shooting estates owners in England to follow. After 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 licence holders should not be allowed to visit protected Schedule 1 raptor nests to monitor their content without the  prior approval of landowners. Estates owners like United Utilities felt this licensed activity was not a part of open-air recreation as covered by the CRoW legislation.  United Utilities by successfully persuading the Statutory Licensing Authority to revoke licenses held by the local raptor group preventing access to nests on their estates from 2010, Natural England created the first licensed monopoly, permitting only those licensed individuals to visit and monitor nests on the UU estate approved by the  company estate manager and RSPB.

In April 2007  Natural England aware of the very serious adverse consequences for raptors if the arguments being made by United Utilities, the police together with other estate owners regarding their interpretation of the CRoW Act were correct,  issued the following clarification statement to all licence holders, including the NWRPG. This clarification was provided to avoid any misunderstanding upholding the right of all unpaid licence holders to visit the nests of Schedule 1 species without the approval of estate landowners. Had the landowners arguement been upheld by Natural England, a majority of shooting estates would have excluded licenced raptor workers from visiting nests on their property completely. Now that one estate has managed to exclude a raptor group  from visiting and protecting schedule 1 raptor nests on the moorlands they own, despite the clarification provided by Natural England, other estates will undoubtably argue they have a right to do the same. 

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.

Clearly Natural England cannot argue both ways as they now appear to have done; here we have a situation where an estates request to deny access to one raptor group has prevailed despite the clear clarification given by Natural England to all licence holders. The way Natural England manipulated the situation to enable them to ignore their own clarification and ruling was underhanded and against the spirit of the advice they had originally been forced to provide to ensure raptor received the protection they enjoy under existing UK legislation.

At a time when the country’s economy is experiencing such huge financial upheavals resulting in ever-increasing fuel and energy costs for all of us, the spiralling amount of money we all spend on fuel to run our vehicles is now an important consideration for all self funding raptor workers. Can a majority of raptor workers continue to justify to their families spending several hundred pounds in just a few months each year,  in most cases taken from the house hold kitty to supplement an activity which to most of us is a passion and enjoyable hobby? The gamekeeper will not have to worry too much about this kind of problem, because for him his job will be safe and the costs incurred on running  landrovers and buying  ammunition, house rents, council tax and feeding his dogs will continue to be paid by his employer.

For those few experienced individuals who are fortunate enough and prepared to spend their own time and money funding their obsessive pasion protecting raptors in the years ahead, the support of Natural England not their hindrance will more vital than ever. A dwindling number of raptor workers who have undertaken this kind of qualified field work throughout their adult lives are acutely aware of a lack of experienced and knowledgeable field workers capable of coping with the demands of field work and the dedication required to protect and conserve persecuted raptor that remain on England’s uplands today. When the current generation of experienced raptor workers are no longer with us what will the future hold for our already threatened raptors I wonder with no one able or willing to step into the gap? One consideration we must all keep in mind, at the moment there are probably several hundred gamekeepers for each licensed raptor worker active in England today. In the years ahead this ratio will slowly but surely begin to increase in the keeper’s favour. When that time arrives all anyone will be able to say is god help our “protected” raptors.

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 recent events have shown politics and not conservation is now undermining the well-being of so-called protected raptors throughout England’s uplands. The exclusion of a dedicated and experienced raptor group this year from the Forest of Bowland was a disgrace and one of the most inappropriate decisions anyone with experience should have made. The loss of 14 active and productive peregrine territories in the Forest of Bowland this year was preventable and should not have been allowed to happen. Its time now that everyone began  to think about putting the birds first and politics and their own self-interest last, otherwise there is a very strong chance all the harriers and peregrines within the Forest of Bowland will be lost in the years ahead.





16 comments to If England’s raptors are to receive the protection they deserve, politics should be consigned to the dust bin now!

  • Falcoscot

    Do you think there is a future for large commercial game shooting because with costs going through the roof, particularly with pheasant shooting, and the younger generations more focused on computers than being outdoors I’m not sure the future looks that bright.

    What I’ll never understand is why only the White Tailed Sea Eagle is on Schedule 1A, surely all raptor nest sites should be given year round protection ? If this had been the case the Forestry Commission wouldn’t have been able to blow up my local Peregrine nest site !

  • harrier man

    We have lost all the breeding harriers and pergrines on the Pennines in Durham probably why we have so few if any field workers bothering to monitor here its just not worth the effort when you know you will not find a nesting attempt. I have already commented on natural england regarding hen harrier on other posts but very briefly i believe they are as bad as the grouse estate owners and the keepers themselves arrogant, ignorant and scared.

  • Falcoscot

    Could it be that certain biologists have a vested interest in keeping rare birds rare. I wrote to Richard Saunders (EN) to ask about whether they had examined the possibility of egg manipulation to create a surplus of young Harriers that could be released into area’s that were more Harrier friendly and didn’t even get a reply !

    • Ann Cardwell

      Now there’s a surprise, what did you expect? when last year the local raptor group raised their concerns with Mr. Saunders about a number of inappropriate nest visits and licence breaches he told them to “stop wasting my time” i have been told.

  • Falcoscot

    Well, anyone in charge of the welfare of the Hen Harrier in England at the present time should hang their head in shame !

    • nirofo

      Do you mean to say that there is someone in charge of Hen Harrier welfare in England ??? Please name them so that we can all tell them what we think of them.

  • Falcoscot

    Richard Saunders – Natural England.


  • skydancer

    Not only did Mr Saunders tell the local raptor group to “stop wasting my time” he also took their licences away for telling the truth.

  • Falcoscot

    Falcoscot, RP have just sent to you a private e-mail regarding your comment.

  • paul williams

    Why not revoke all licenses given to raptor workers and and instead give them to the gamekeepers as Natural England holds these individuals in such high esteem. After all, they heap praise on them, and compliment them for maintaining the biodiversity of our countryside.

  • paul williams

    I find it an insult that the Hen Harrier is still depicted as the “logo” for the Forest of Bowland. A logo that will soon be a sad reminder of days past. The county council should instead consider replacing this outdated sign with an image of a gamekeeper with a shot gun over his shoulder holding a dead harrier in his blooded hands instead.

  • Falcoscot

    Dont take any nonsense from any of these civil servants, they are answerable by law for their actions and if they refuse they are accountable.

    I would be interested to know the issues the raptor group had with Richard Saunders and his management of the Harriers and Peregrines in Bowland if anyone would care to fill me in, please !

    • Alan Carter

      Many past articles on this sad conspiracy have already been published on the Raptor Politics web site. Just search through the archive for this detail it makes very interesting reading and sheds light on the real villains in this shocking saga.

  • paul williams

    Falcoscot, To be honest with you, I have not been informed personally by the people who issue licenses the reason for revoking my license to monitor Birds of Prey in the Forest of Bowland. I assure you Falcoscot that I have absolutely, without question, done nothing wrong in my fieldcraft to be treated in such a despicable way. No one from the relevant authority that issues licenses has ever bothered to tell me “why they revoked my license”. I can only assume it had something to do with reporting three licence workers, one the chairman of the Northern England Raptor Forum for disturbing a nesting pair of peregrines for over one hour twenrty minutes. Another reason may have been the reporting of one of these same people for visiting a ground nesting peregrine with his grandson after been asked not to visit the nest containing 4 fresh eggs. In this instance not only was the request ignored by the individual, the visit was not coordinated, a clear breach of licence conditions. All these incidents were disregared by Natural England because of the assocation these people had with the RSPB. One set of rules for some people, another set for the NWRPG.

  • Falcoscot

    Paul, why do you need licenses to monitor these nests, cant the nests be protected from a distance where a license wasn’t required ?

    One of the biggest loop holes in protecting nest sites in this country is other than white tailed sea eagle the nest sites are not protected outside the breeding season. I have had to sit and watch the Forestry Commission completely destroy my local Peregrine nest site and there is very little that can be done about it. I have tried communicatng with them but have got nowhere so now it’s time to step it up a gear. As if it’s not bad enough the pressure from the game shooting industry, we now have public bodies destroying our raptor population aswell !

  • paul williams

    Falcoscot,I have had to monitor nest from a distance, however, what can I do my friend when I return a day or two later and the parent birds have disappeared, I am not allowed to nest visit because I reported very poor practise by RSPB/NE fieldworkers. What I witnessed, was raptor persecution by those entrusted to monitor peregrine falcons.