Hundreds of protected birds of prey killed by criminals in the UK, RSPB says

From barn owls to golden eagles, dozens of the UK’s most treasured wild birds were brutally targeted and killed last year according to the latest figures from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The charity said evidence shows birds of prey killings have been largely concentrated on and near grouse shooting moors. It is now calling on the UK governments to toughen legislation on grouse shooting.

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The UK Government confirmed it has no current plans to carry out a review of the management of grouse moors, but the Scottish Government said it is considering licensing of grouse moor shooting.

Despite being legally protected, there have been over 1,300 confirmed incidents of birds of prey persecution across the UK since 2007.

North Yorkshire has seen the highest number of incidents with 147 recorded since 2007, followed by the Highlands with 71.

In 2019, there were 85 cases recorded across the UK. Confirmed incidents included:

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In Birstwith near Harrogate a kestrel was found grounded and suffering injuries after being shot.A young golden eagle was spotted in the Cairngorms National Park with an illegal trap clamped to its leg.In North Yorkshire a buzzard was found to have been poisoned after testing positive for Carbofuran.In County Antrim two peregrine falcons were also found to have been poisoned after testing positive for Aldicarb and Carbofuran.

Despite the shocking numbers, the RSPB said the figures collected by their investigations team and other sources only represent known incidents, with many remaining undetected and unreported, especially in remote areas.

The RSPB said half of the confirmed incidents occurred within protected landscapes, with many happening on and near driven grouse moors, where teams of beaters push grouse towards shooters.

Grouse shooting is legal in the UK but killing a protected bird could result in an unlimited fine or a jail sentence.

A red kite which was shot in Herefordshire (RSPB)

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Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK, said the killing of birds of prey was just one symptom of a “wholly unsustainable” grouse shooting industry, alongside burning peatlands to help boost grouse numbers for the sport.

Peatlands are burned to encourage the growth of heather which is a source of food for grouse.

Peatland burning

He said: “This destructive grouse moor management practice not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, it degrades the peat, impoverishes wildlife and increases the flow of water across the bog surface, in some cases causing devastating flooding in local communities downstream.

“At the start of the annual burning season, the RSPB is renewing its call for moorland burning on peatland soils to be banned by the Government.

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“UK governments must implement tougher legislation to bring the driven grouse shooting industry in line with the law, stamp out environmentally damaging practices and deliver on the UK’s nature recovery targets.”

A UK Government spokesperson said they recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime but have no current plans to carry out a review of grouse moor management.

They said: “We are clear those found guilty of killing these majestic animals should be subject to the full force of the law.”

Clear pattern

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, added there is a “very clear pattern” of bird of prey persecution cases occurring on Scotland’s driven grouse moors.

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He said: “The recent recovery of a satellite-tag from a golden eagle, which disappeared on a Perthshire grouse moor in 2016, wrapped in lead sheeting and thrown into a river, is unequivocal proof not only of serious, organised crime, but also the lengths to which the perpetrators of these offences will go to dispose of evidence and cover up these crimes.

A white tailed eagle poisoned in Scotland (RSPB)

“It is long overdue that the Scottish Government ends this appalling cycle of destruction of our natural heritage, by enacting a licencing system for grouse shooting, with immediate effect.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said it is considering licensing of grouse moor shooting.

“We are giving careful consideration to the recommendations in the Werritty report – the in-depth independent review of grouse moor management we commissioned and we will publish our response later this autumn,” they said.

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“We are monitoring activity very closely and criminal acts carried out now will be taken into account if and when we come to consider any licensing decisions in the future.”

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs was contacted for comment.