In the long and sorry history of raptor persecution those involved have used a wide range of methods to carry out their dark deeds. Traditionally, this has involved an array of firearms, traps and poisons.
During my 27 years working with the RSPB there have been significant technological developments, such as covert cameras and satellite tagging, which have helped uncover evidence of criminal offences and located key areas of persecution. The use of satellite tags to monitor the movements of birds such as hen harriers and golden eagles has been a disturbing eye opener as to the serious threat these birds still face. In many cases these tags have inexplicably stopped transmitting, and the illegal killing of the bird and destruction of the tag is strongly suspected. The comprehensive SNH report in 2017 on satellite tagged golden eagles clearly linked most of these suspicious failures to areas of land managed for grouse shooting. This prompted a government review, due out later this year, and we hope further Scottish regulations to make sporting estates more accountable will eventually be put in place.
Golden eagle ‘Fearnan’ poisoned in 2013 - one of five satellite eagles found to have been illegally killed (RSPB).
Nine of the hen harriers tagged in 2018 as part of RSPB LIFE project simply ‘disappeared’ as their tags also suddenly stopped transmitting. Another bird, Vulcan, also vanished this January in Wiltshire. Earlier this week a paper was published which analysed the movements of 58 satellite tagged hen harriers during a ten year study by Natural England. The study showed the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study revealed that 42 of those tagged birds (72%) were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed. Satellite tag technology is painting a very clear picture of just how much persecution pressure these birds continue to be under from criminal activity centered on driven grouse moors.
It is hardly surprising that those involved in killing raptors, often funded by people with very deep pockets, have also sought to develop new methodology to both kill raptors and to minimise the chances of being caught. From detailed intelligence received by RSPB Investigations, including a number of illuminating discussions with gamekeepers and others in the shooting industry, it is clear those involved are exchanging ideas and continually trying to raise their game.
Historically species like hen harriers were easily killed by just walking up to an active nest site and shooting the female parent. Whilst we know this still happens, the use of covert cameras at nest sites, resulting in a couple of convictions, and forensic marking around nest sites appears to have made this method less attractive. Instead, hen harriers are probably increasingly being targeted at roost sites. Gamekeepers are vigilant to presence of hen harriers roaming estates and many roost sites are traditional. Operating in remote areas on the edge of darkness gamekeepers, sometimes several in a line and perhaps using dogs, can simply walk into roost sites with shotguns, ready to shoot birds as they are flushed.
The recent incident on a North Yorkshire driven grouse estate we believe is an example of this approach. Modern rifles and expensive optical sights now allow stationary raptors to be shot at huge distances. I remember someone marking on a map the locations of a perched harrier and point from where he had seen a keeper shoot the bird. I measured it on a map as a staggering 450 metres. These weapons allow the opportunistic shooting of birds well away from nest sites.
Shotguns, particularly semi-automatics capable of rapidly discharging a lethal barrage of lead, remain the weapon of choice. To draw raptors into shooting range a variety of methods are deployed, such as electronic calling devices or decoys, including plastic raptor models or live eagle owls. Electronic calling devices can be used lawfully to draw in animals like foxes, so they can be shot. However, the use of any sound recording to kill or take wild birds is unlawful unless licensed, for example with scientific studies. From the intelligence we have received, it seems clear that many estates are using these devices illegally to draw in raptors for shooting.
In 2014, at a goshawk nest site in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, masked men with guns below the nest were undoubtedly using such a device as part of their efforts to try to shoot the birds. Last year a gamekeeper in Cumbria was the first person to be convicted of unlawful possession of one of these devices, to which a range of raptor calls had been purposefully added.
The use of live decoys, such as a tethered eagle owl, to draw in mobbing raptors within shotgun range is another development. We have received reliable reports of such birds being tethered out on grouse moors. A few years ago, while assisting police with the execution of a search warrant in North Yorkshire I came across an eagle owl in a gamekeeper’s outbuilding. He looked rather sheepish as he tried to explain why he was keeping the bird. However, in a nearby woodland clearing we found a stout post with a large galvanised metal ring fastened to it and a shooting screen set up about 40 metres away.
A hide and a post where it is suspected a live eagle owl was illegally being used to lure birds to be shot (RSPB).
I have little doubt that the eagle owl was being tethered at this location to allow mobbing raptors and/or corvids to be shot. The use of a live decoy is illegal; however, the use of plastic decoys is far more difficult to challenge. Plastic decoys of owls and hawks are cheap to buy and can potentially be used lawfully to draw in mobbing corvids so they can be shot, though how effective this method is in reality is unclear. However, from intelligence and our own observations we know this has become an increasingly popular method of drawing in raptors so they can be shot.
A few years ago, I was on a shooting estate in the north of England on a protracted enquiry into illegal poisoning. During we one visit we saw a man, believed to be one of the estate gamekeepers, over half a mile away arrive and set up two plastic decoys of a crow and a hawk. Wearing camouflage clothing, he concealed himself with his shotgun in nearby rocks. Within 30 minutes he had shot two ravens – unfortunately, he was too far away to reliably identify.
In February 2016, there was something of a public furore when two birdwatchers recorded an armed individual on National Trust land in the Peak District National Park sat out near a hen harrier plastic decoy.
Armed individual in Peak District National Park waiting by a plastic hen harrier decoy
The following winter, we began intensive observations on another grouse moor in the Peak District. During fieldwork we had seen a plastic hawk decoy being used and eventually worked out that three bespoke shooting hides, similar to a grouse butt, had been constructed out on the moor. In front of one of these shooting hides, and next to place where the decoy was being set up, was a tell-tale patch of short-eared owl feathers – there seems little doubt one had been shot at this location.
A hidden shooting hide and tell-tale short-eared owl feathers next to the place where the plastic hawk decoy was being placed (RSPB).
We installed covert cameras and spent many hours watching these sites, often in bitterly cold weather. On many occasions between one and three males would arrive in the morning, set up a plastic decoy about 30 metres in front of their shooting hide, and then sit and wait for about three hours. Sometimes they would return for another session in the afternoon and they were over 30 occasions in total when these shooting positions were being used. We identified at least three gamekeepers as being involved. We knew reporting this would quickly be countered as corvid control, so we waited and watched hoping to confirm what we believed was really taking place. There were actually very few corvids in the area, and there is probably little point in killing them at this time of year as new birds will simply move into vacant territories. Corvid control mainly takes place in the spring to coincide with the grouse breeding season and there are legal and effective methods to control these birds, such as cage traps, which are not very labour intensive.
The fact the estate was spending thousands of pounds on manpower, the short-eared owl feathers and the use of a pigeon carcass alongside one decoy, convinced us all this effort was being directed at targeting raptors, not corvids. Despite many hours of video recording and observations not a single shot was fired, and we did not get that conclusive piece of evidence to show what we believed to be their true motive. We returned the following two winters, but it was clear that activity at the shooting hides had dramatically died off. This is a relatively public area compared to most grouse moors and this may have made them more wary. The following video includes some of the activity recorded at two of the shooting hides.
Link to video on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WVLJfAqST4&feature=youtu.be
The use of these plastic raptor decoys has been recorded on several other grouse moors in the north of England, including a number of other moors in the Peak District, we will be watching, but if you come across these items in suspicious circumstances please get in touch with us.
Probably the main development in recent years has been a shift to night time warfare on raptors. This can involve, for example, simply walking up to nest sites with a torch and a firearm, as this camera we placed at a goshawk nest in the Peak District National Park clearly demonstrates.
Expensive thermal imaging gear now allows raptors to be shot in the dark at roosting sites whether trees, crags or on the ground. I have been told several times that many gamekeepers are now carrying out most of their raptor persecution at night when the chances of detection are clearly dramatically reduced. This type of equipment can be used lawfully for things like fox control, making it easy to justify the possession of such items. We have also been told these devices are also being used to check if people, like ourselves. may be sat up and watching somewhere.
Clearly those within the shooting industry who are killing our raptors are determined to carry on their destructive habits and exploit any advantage they can gain through modern technology. Going forward, we can only hope that technological advances will favour the enforcement rather than the criminal community.
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