The countryside is somewhere everyone should be able to enjoy. Getting outdoors is good for our health and wellbeing, and connects us with nature – a connection we need to hang on to more than ever these days. National Parks should offer the perfect places to do just this.
But in some areas, as you may know, our countryside is being undermined by criminal activity. Some wildlife is seen as a threat to commercial interests, laws are broken, and culprits escape justice and continue their practices. Policing the hills is vital in ending this and keeping our countryside safe for people and for wildlife.
The RSPB’s Investigations team was called out to an incident in the Peak District National Park in March last year (2018), when a walker reported a dead bird lying in the heather near a wooden post, on a grouse moor near Langsett. Apart from the fact it was on its back and clearly dead, it looked otherwise fit and healthy, with no obvious injuries. It was clearly freshly dead. Bob Berzins is a keen walker, climber and fell runner, and has done some great work monitoring and highlighting habitat damage in the Peak District. He suspected there wasn’t something quite right about this situation.
Bob called the RSPB’s Investigations number (01767 680551) and we collected the bird. We then contacted Natural England to have the bird tested for poison, but they declined to take the bird. (Natural England have a dedicated scheme for investigating wildlife poisoning incidents.)
We needed answers, so the RSPB paid to have the bird privately tested. An initial post-mortem examination by the Scottish SRUC laboratory confirmed food items in the crop and gizzard of the raven. The bird was sent for toxicology tests by Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), who confirmed the presence of the highly toxic agricultural pesticide aldicarb. This product was banned in 2007, but remains one of the key products used for illegally poisoning birds of prey. The SASA tests confirmed that the cause of death of the raven was due to illegal poisoning.
So how was the raven poisoned?
Further DNA testing on the food in the bird’s gizzard showed that the raven, shortly before its death, had been feeding on sheep and rabbit carrion. Something had been laced with aldicarb. This was clearly a deliberate act. Aldicarb is highly dangerous: just half a teaspoon of this substance could kill a person. This is a popular area with families, and if a child or dog had found this raven and come into contact with it, there could have been tragic consequences.
Ravens are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. This was now a matter for the police.
We’re now nearly a year on and, despite our persistent enquiries to South Yorkshire Police, as far as we are aware no investigative progress has been made. Not even a further search of the area to check for any other poisoned baits or victims. We appreciate the demands of policing. Yet the significance of this crime is that it adds to a pattern which is blighting the National Park.
The northern Peak District has a bad reputation for the killing of birds of prey, owls and ravens. Populations of goshawks and peregrines have plummeted in what is known as the ‘Dark Peak’, in the north, where much of the land is intensively managed for driven grouse shooting. Whereas numbers are faring well in the southern ‘White Peak’, where little driven grouse shooting occurs.
We don’t know at this stage where the poison bait that killed this raven was placed, only where the raven was found. The Dark Peak is a known black spot for wild bird crime, with 24 confirmed raptor persecution incidents recorded in one 10-kilometer grid square alone between 2000-2016.
We have shared our concerns with Superintendent Nick Lyall, chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, and with the National Wildlife Crime Unit. We await a response from South Yorkshire Police and will keep you updated.
The RSPB is in no doubt that ravens and raptors are persistently being targeted on grouse moors in the norther Peak District.
What will it take for this to stop?
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