Who on GOOGLE EARTH is killing the world’s fastest birds of prey?

Shocking new research by the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum has revealed the true extent of persecution of peregrine falcons – the world’s fastest bird – that attempt to nest on England’s grouse moors.

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Copulating peregrines, a sight no longer observed on a majority of red grouse moorlands 

in Northern England today.

Download the peregrine paper PDF file here

The paper is published in the international scientific journal Biological Conservation. The study used Google Earth to map the characteristic ‘strip burning’ that is typical of moorland managed for intensive grouse shooting. This map was then combined with nearly three decades of nest monitoring information that had been collected by teams of dedicated volunteer monitors from raptor groups across the north of England.

Comparisons of the fortunes of peregrine falcons breeding on grouse moors with those breeding in other habitats in northern England revealed that breeding success was half that in other habitats, for example on other moorland, open country and forested areas. Only a third of nests produced young on grouse moors.

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Peregrine ground nest containing 3 day-old chicks together with a fourth egg on the verge of hatching into a dangerous and univiting environment. On a majority of Bowland estates persecution is a real threat to breeding birds of prey. After all four chicks had been BTO rung at 3 weeks old in the presence of estate gamekeepers, the two larger chicks disappeared from the nest within two days.

Dr Arjun Amar, of the FitzPatrick Institute for Ornithology – formerly an RSPB scientist – is the paper’s lead author. He said: “I was shocked at just how low the bird’s breeding output was on grouse moors; they were significantly less likely to lay eggs or fledge young.” He added: “The few birds that did lay eggs or fledge young on grouse moors did just as well as those breeding off grouse moors, which suggests that a shortage of food supplies can be ruled out of the equation. The only logical explanation for these differences is that persecution is rife on many driven grouse moors.”

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A peregrine eyrie the way nature intended.

The RSPB report shows breeding success of peregrine falcons on grouse moors was only 50% successful compared with those breeding in other habitats in northern England. This year 74% of the total number of peregrine eyries in the Forest of Bowland were lost.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the global population collapse of the peregrine alerted the world to the long-term effects of pesticides, such as DDT, which built up in the food chain and caused the peregrine to lay eggs with dangerously thin shells.

The UK’s peregrine population thankfully recovered after these pesticides were withdrawn, and ultimately banned.

However, increases in peregrine numbers have not been uniform, and their recovery has been particularly slow in some areas where intensive management for grouse shooting is the dominant land use. Red grouse can form part of the peregrine’s diet which has led to historical persecution of the peregrine on grouse moors.

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Northern England Peregrine study area, with grouse moors shown in black.

Although peregrines have been fully protected by law since 1954, there have been numerous confirmed persecution incidents on land managed for grouse shooting over the years. However, many conservationists believe that these reported incidents are just the tip of an iceberg, and that the true number of offences is really much greater. This study examined how widespread this persecution was and whether it occurs at a scale that could have an impact the bird’s population.

Paul Irving, chair of the Northern England Raptor Forum, added: “To people who visit and live in the uplands of northern England, the peregrine should be a familiar bird in an iconic landscape. However, the guilty few deny the pleasure of many.”

The data used in this study was collected by a community of dedicated volunteers across the north of England and it is a great resource to help inform conservation actions.

The Government has identified bird of prey persecution as one of its six wildlife crime priorities and earlier this year, it added peregrine to the list of species. A welcome decision which this study vindicates.

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Dead peregrine embryo found several feet from nest scrape. Two additional day old chicks disappeared from this nest scrape. Far too many peregrine eggs containing dead embryo’s at the point of hatch are being found in ground nests throughout the Forest of Bowland.

Paul Irving added: “Now it’s up to the Government and the Police to turn fine words into action. So far, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime and this needs to change urgently to help species like the peregrine.”

The study also looked at all the distribution of confirmed and probable incidents of peregrine persecution between 1990 and 2006 across the study areas in northern England. It found that these incidents occurred far more frequently on grouse moors than on other habitats, despite there being more pairs breeding away from grouse moors.

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A day old peregrine chick and single egg containing dead embro can clearly be seen on the verge of hatching. Circumstances recorded at this site and several additional sites in Bowland are identical and it is difficult to accept this is pure coincidence! The single nestling captured above had disappeared from the nest one week later. 

The higher levels of breeding failure meant that peregrine populations on grouse moors were not self-sustaining and regional extinction was only prevented by more productive birds nesting in sites away from grouse moors.

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s Conservation Director. He said: ““If you removed these highly productive birds there would be real trouble. If the whole of the north of England were managed as intensive grouse moor, peregrines, we fear, would be extinct across the region.”

Recently the Government minister, Richard Benyon, suggested that birds of prey are adequately protected in England. However, this peer-reviewed research further highlights that wildlife laws are flouted meaning the peregrine population is not adequately protected. The populations of this and other iconic birds of prey are faltering in some areas dominated by grouse-shooting estates.

In recent years, peregrines have started to breed in the centres of many cities, enabling more people than ever to experience the thrill of seeing these magnificent birds close up. Martin Harper added: “The fact that peregrine falcons are nesting in cities highlights the stark contrast between urban areas and areas of suitable habitat in the English uplands where the species is largely absent.”

Last year, 134,000 people enjoyed seeing peregrine falcons with the RSPB’s Date With Nature viewing scheme at 11 sites across England and Wales. Six of the sites were urban, including Manchester city centre, and five were rural, including Malham, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Martin Harper added: “The results of this study suggest that without the highly productive birds in other habitats, the peregrine could go extinct on driven grouse moors. To me it is unacceptable that a few lawbreakers are removing a species which has lived in our uplands for thousands of years. The shooting industry has repeatedly assured us that the illegal killing of birds of prey is not tolerated on moors, and we hope they will be quick to act to improve prospects for peregrines on upland shooting estates.”

The RSPB launched its latest annual Birdcrime report on Thursday 3 November which again highlighted the persecution of birds of prey, including peregrines. The report identified a series of areas where Government needs to step up to address illegal persecution of birds of prey and secure the future of our raptors.

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The full reference for the paper is: Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations. Arjun Amar, Ian R Court, Martin Davison, Steve Downing, Trevor Grimshaw, Terry Pickford & David Raw. It is published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The on-line abstract can be found here.



9 comments to Who on GOOGLE EARTH is killing the world’s fastest birds of prey?

  • Dave

    It is very curious and somewhat disturbing information contained in the report was allegedly supplied by a raptor group that no longer exists. The Cumbrian raptor group disbanded several years ago for lack of support, so can someone please explain how can a non-existent organisation be a member of the northern England raptor forum? Perhaps more relevant how can any data credited to a group that no longer exists be used in support of such an important Scientific paper?

  • John Miles

    The answer is one man. Peter Davis. Remember the Red Kites at Grizdale were released by the Forestry Commission under the advise of the Cumbrian Raptor Group!! No wonder they lost so many birds in the first year!

    • Mike Price

      I have been looking forwards reading this publication since Dr Amar gave us an insight into it at the Northern England Raptor Forum conference in 2010.I feel that this particular study will be very hard for the that wish to create a smoke screen and muddy the waters to deny.

      Those involved in these crimes seem to think they are above the law, accurate, solid and reviewed studies are the only way we can convince those in a position to ensure that the laws of the land are upheld, that they are being flouted continuously. To harp back to your article “why do they do that?” the problem I have with some of the people I speak to from within the shooting community is, that they expect (notice that word) that things should be done on their terms, anything else is in their view unacceptable, and viewed as an attack on their sport/industry and must be being done to give them all a bad name.

      If they were to admit how bad the problem is they would indeed face some serious questions but without that how can you begin to work towards a solution? How can you trust someone who either won’t accept these facts no matter what evidence they are presented with?

      My problem with that is this, for anyone of us to work together there must be a level of trust, trust can only be earned, my experience from those I have spoken too is that they have no interest in even starting to make any steps towards building up trust, they want to attack everything as this is in their view is the best form of defence.

      Hiding behind figures such as the that fact that only a small number of people are ever prosecuted, or that this year less poisoned birds were found is another ploy employed by the spin doctors that seek to undermind any proof that is offered about the level of persecution in areas where driven Red Grouse hold an interest, whether this is intended or not it is clear to see that this offers a element of collusion in offering the criminals something to hide behind.

      I am sure whilst we all applaud a drop in the figures until a continued trend in this area is seen, those figures prove nothing, I don’t need to explain the many reasons why this figure is most likely unrepresentative of the actual number of birds poison, we all know and understand that the chances of finding a dead raptor are low and therefore are likely to be many times higher than the reported figures in any one given year (the odds of finding the perpetrator(S) are even less likely.

      It is time that people stopped pretending it isn’t going on and got behind the efforts being made to put a stop to this illegal behaviour, the first step might be to protect the people who are put in such positions that their good name, their livelyhood and their homes are at risk if they do not toe the line, extending the the vicarious liability laws that have just been introduced in Scotland might be a good starting point but perhaps licencing shoots and being able to remove that licence for a time as a form of punishment where persecution is proving would be a bigger deterrent?

      I try to stay positive about the fight against raptor persecution but unless people are willing to stand up and be counted from within the industry this will be a very difficult fight, that I feel ultimately will result in a real turn of public opinion about shooting in general, I am beginning to agree with many of my peers that this might be the only way the problem could be resolved, not something I take lightly as I am in no way anti shooting and it doesn’t sit well with me to see a nut cracked with a hammer. Unfortunately speaking online with people involved in shooting yesterday was what led me to this conclusion.

      • Mike Price

        Forgive my ignorance, but being fairly new to the raptor protection debate I am at a loss as to why all the effort appears to come from one side, I don’t mean just the agencies themselves (I am rarely in contact with them) but whenever a debate or discussion takes place all those involved with shooting instantly seem to toe the party line and start with smoke screens and rubbishing of the facts, moreover most of the people involved, who are so against these illegal acts seem to don the kid gloves and begin to pander to their egos.

        I don’t understand it and I would like someone to explain to me why we are expected to dance to their beat and tread on egg shells?

        Surely there is enough evidence of illegal killing of raptors to challenge the powers that be over these issues in a formal and concerted effort. Everyone cries out in disgust at the issues of illegal hunting in Malta yet we try so very hard to accomodate the interests of what it is fast becoming evident is more than just a few bad apples that act unsupported within the shooting industry.
        With the release of the latest document Amar, A., et al. Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land use data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations. Biol. Conserv. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.10.014 yet more evidence that the number of instances of raptor persecution are majorly under discovered and/or reported.

        Perhaps I am not party to some secret master plan that is going on behind the scenes, in the meantime little seems to change in the field and the raptors continue to suffer in areas related to the shooting of driven Red Grouse.

        Perhaps there is some hidden agenda that keeps people from rocking the boat too much, lest they fall foul to the whims of the people who have the power to make their interests unattainble, again at the cost of the raptors that are being destroyed year on year.

        I don’t understand why given the growing weight of evidence, the minister in charge of such issues was quoted as saying “There are very good laws in place to punish the illegal killing of any animal. If they are not being effectively enforced, they must be and we will take steps to make sure that happens. However, this is a good opportunity to applaud gamekeepers for the wonderful work they do in providing excellent biodiversity across our countryside.”
        When faced with the question in the House of Commons on the 30th June from the Labour MP Angela Smith (Penistone & Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire) who asked the following:

        “Only two weeks ago, a gamekeeper was convicted for illegally killing birds of prey in my constituency. Is it not time to think about introducing a vicarious liability offence to ensure that landowners and estate managers supervise their gamekeepers more closely and more effectively”?

        Lots of questions will we ever see satisfactory answers?

  • harrier man

    Peregrines in Durham only breed over the lowland half of the county it has been well over a decade since any success has been seen over the large tracts of the uplands. One pair annually breeds close to the pannines but only produces one young every other year more than likely interfered with due its close proximity to a grouse shooting estate.

    • Admin

      This is a strategy used by keepers in some areas of Bowland to manipulate the number of chicks in a nest, year on year. It’s called brood size manipulation. As you can also see from the images taken of dead embryo’s at a number of peregrine nests in Bowland, it’s a very common method of control the inexperienced field worker would miss altogether..

  • paul williams

    Another strategy used by gamekeepers in Bowland to to ensure that the hatching embrio dies in the shell is to place one half of a second egg shell of a hatched chick over the next egg that is pipping out.

  • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

    It seems to me that some people involved in raptor conservation consider it more important to say the right thing rather than do the right thing!

  • Dave Wallace

    hello!,I am sending this comment to congratulate Raptor Politics for writing and publishing what I consider to be one of the finest web sites of its kind. I find your articles very interesting and topical. Thank you and keep up all the hard work that you are doing.