Police arresting gamekeeper Tim Cowin on Whernside Moor
Yesterday we blogged about a buzzard that was shot in Northamptonshire – a sad end to another rollercoaster year in the fight against raptor persecution. We never know what each year will bring; what crimes might be suddenly uncovered or what events may occur. Here, we reflect on 2018, including the losses but also the determination and the action being taken by the RSPB, police and other partner organisations to change the future for our birds of prey.
Abroad, the year stared well, with heavy sentences issued to bird trappers on Cyprus thanks to the involvement of RSPB, BirdLife Cyprus and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS).
But at home, it wasn’t long before the first tragedy of the year struck. In January 2018, a young golden eagle named Fred disappeared suspiciously from the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. Chris Packham made a powerful short film about Fred: Watch part one below, and the story continues here.
In February the RSPB took part in Operation Owl, an initiative led by North Yorkshire Police to raise awareness over raptor persecution. This was a huge success, with impressive numbers of police turning out, doing patrols, issuing posters to businesses, and speaking to locals. We also handed out beer mats promoting the Raptor Crime Hotline (0300 999 0101). Already this has yielded some positive intelligence.
At Easter, we issued footage showing individuals paying unwanted attention to a goshawk nest. One is shown hitting the nest tree with a long stick, and later several gunshots are heard. You can read the full story here.
Then in April, we were shocked by an image of a red kite’s heart, which showed a piece of lead shot lodged within it. This followed a post-mortem of the bird, found dead in Bedfordshire. The X-ray revealed a staggering 10 pieces of shot in the bird’s body – but the piece lodged in the bird’s heart was from an earlier occasion: the kite had been shot at twice in its life, surviving the first incident only to be shot again and finally killed. More here.
Mark Thomas (taking up the role of Head of Investigations in January 2019) was co-author on a paper, Raptor Persecution in the Peak District National Park, published in April. This found a statistically significant association between land burnt for driven grouse shooting and raptor persecution. It also showed that populations of goshawks and peregrines had declined in the Dark Peak, were there are more driven grouse moors, while in the White Peak – virtually free of driven grouse shooting – populations of both species had increased. You can read the paper here.
Catching people committing raptor persecution offences is always difficult, and successful prosecutions are rarer still. In August, we released covert footage taken at peregrine nest in Bowland. The video first shows the female bird being flushed off the nest, then the individual crouching by the nest – we believe he was setting two spring traps here. The next morning, the male peregrine appears, and is caught in one of the traps. The bird remains trapped and is seen thrashing about until nightfall, when an individual appears with a torch and seems to put the male bird in a bag and take it away. Neither birds were seen again. Read the blog here and watch the video below.
Frustrated but not deterred, we were pleased to launch our Raptor Persecution Map Hub in August – an integral tool in the future fight against raptor crime. Created by Helen, Matt and Col, the Map Hub is a set of online maps providing the most complete picture of known, confirmed raptor persecution incidents across the UK. It currently spans 2012-2017, and will be added to each year. Hotspots in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders, for example, are clearly visible. Have a look at the Map Hub here. Chris Packham was also a fan, popping over to see it at our stand at BirdFair.
A big win for the team came in August when gamekeeper Tim Cowen pleaded guilty to killing two short-eared owls on Whernside Moor, Cumbria. We had witnessed Cowen back in 2017 shoot both birds and hide the bodies on the moor. We called the police, who arrested him there and then. The full story and video are here.
This brings us to the red kite found shot in Northamptonshire, which I mentioned earlier.
This was dominated by the news of nine hen harriers disappearing in suspicious circumstances in just 12 weeks. Over 30 hen harriers were tagged this summer in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project. By November, eight of those (Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen, Thor, Athena, Stelmaria, Margot and Arthur) had disappeared in suspicious circumstances, along with another bird, Heather, tagged in 2017. This was a devastating blow, and who knows how many untagged birds also vanished. Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Cathleen reflects on how the UK’s hen harriers fared in 2018 in this blog.
An eyewitness account of a red kite being shot out of the sky painted a vivid picture of persecution in the Peak District. A climber heard gunshots and saw the bird fall from the sky in June 2018, near Saddleworth Moor. He described it as ‘like a balloon bursting’. No leads were forthcoming.
The RSPB’s Birdcrime report came out at the end of September, revealing 68 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution in 2017, but only four prosecutions relating to raptor crime. We hope this report helped bring these issues to more people’s attention, including those who have the power to make the changes we so desperately need to see.
More shocking images emerged – this time of a hobby and a buzzard each with a severed foot, believed to have been caused by becoming caught in a spring trap. Both were found close to each other on the Isle of Wight. The buzzard was found dead in March 2018, the hobby was found alive in September 2018. It was sadly later euthanized.
An appeal for information was issued in December when two owls were found shot in the Peak District. This striking image of the short-eared owl, found alive but wounded, caused great anger and sadness on twitter. The bird had severe injuries and was later euthanised.
This string of incidents shows, if any more proof were needed, how urgently change is needed. Earlier this month, RSPB Scotland published The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland 2015-17, setting out why those in power MUST act now to end illegal persecution. But there is hope, measures are being taken in Scotland and some areas like the disappearance of sat-tagged birds are at least being addressed.
Whatever 2019 brings, we’ll be out there doing out utmost to prevent and detect crimes, and bring the perpetrators to justice.
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