Over the last few decades, bird populations around the planet have been experiencing a dramatic and unprecedented decline. Illegal killing, taking and trade of wild birds (IKB) is a main driver of extinctions of wild birds globally, and it is the most significant threat, after habitat loss, to migratory birds. IKB is a global problem requiring urgent and coordinated international action.

Poisoned red kite (image courtesy of Guy Shorrock). 

In 2015, BirdLife International published the report ‘The Killing’ which estimated around 25 million birds were illegally killed around the Mediterranean each year. In 2017 an updated report ‘The Killing 2.0 A View to a Kill’ was produced which added information from Northern and Central Europe plus the Caucasus. The scale of the problem is clear and the BirdLife Partnership remains fully committed to supporting national authorities to achieve zero tolerance to IKB, in line with their commitments under the Bern Convention and Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The ‘Flight for Survival’ Campaign uses seven key species to highlight the threats to migratory birds, including species like the turtle dove which is in serious decline in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

In Rome during May this year Italy hosted a joint Bern Convention and Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals meeting with representatives of 25 Mediterranean and European countries and over 20 International Organizations and NGOs to discuss IKB. Whilst there is a strong focus on the well documented illegal killing of migrants around the Mediterranean, the principles also apply to the serious problems of raptor persecution here in the UK.

This work has resulted in the draft ‘Rome Strategic plan 2020-2030: Eradicating Illegal Killing, Taking and Trade in Wild Birds in Europe and the Mediterranean Region’ (RSP) which is the culmination of many years of dedicated work by governments and NGOs. This week it is hoped that the RSP will be adopted by the Bern Convention Standing Committee in Strasbourg. It offers a milestone opportunity for governments to agree collective action across Europe during the next ten years to tackle IKB. In line with every good plan, the RSP has a vision

  • Bolder action to achieve zero-tolerance and aiming at the eradication of IKB
  • By 2030, reduce IKB by at least 50% compared with 2020 baseline.

There are five proposed strategic objectives with the RSP:

  1. Improving understanding of the scale and scope of, and motivations behind IKB
  2. Ensuring IKB is incorporated effectively and efficiently into national legislation
  3. Ensuring that effective and efficient enforcement of relevant legislation is undertaken
  4. Ensuring ensure effective and efficient justice for IKB-related offences
  5. Establishing an active prevention of IKB.

These objectives are accompanied by targets and indicators along with a self-assessment ‘Scoreboard’ to allow governments to assess progress at the national level towards eradicating IKB.

In the UK we already have a clear understanding of the IKB issues in relation to raptor persecution. This is built on decades of detailed population monitoring, supported by a huge network of volunteers in Raptor Study Groups, and the more recent use of satellite tag technology. A suite of peer-reviewed scientific studies now paint a very clear picture of where raptors continue to do badly, in particular where land management is dominated by driven grouse shooting. This work, and the catalogue of crimes in the RSPB's annual Birdcrime report, shows the problem is simply not going away and far more needs to be done.

In line with the RSP, some legislative improvements are clearly needed here in the UK, in particular to make in-roads into the Organised Crime Groups involved in the most serious levels of raptor persecution. The RSPB have repeatedly advocated the need for vicarious liability to be incorporated into the legislation outside of Scotland, to make managers and employers criminally responsible for the actions of their staff. The RSPB is also calling for the licensing of driven grouse moors so that the right to shoot is dependent on legal, sustainable management. Grouse shooting licences could then be removed if illegal activity is identified, which would act as a deterrent, again in line with the RSP.

Parts (3) and (4) of the proposed plan are where we believe far more work needs to be done in the UK and this will require the political commitment of governments to push for zero tolerance during the next ten years to at least halve the current levels of illegal killing. We believe a genuine reduction in the levels of persecution will be reflected by an improvement in the conservation status of species like the hen harrier in England, and the golden eagle across large parts of Scotland.

The huge scale of the IKB problem needs bold declarations of intent from governments around Europe and the political will to strive to achieve ambitious targets. Hopefully the UK and other countries will seize the opportunity the RSP offers to take meaningful action. Looking forward to 2030, and in the spirit of that famous Monty Python sketch, when we ask: “What has the RSP has ever done for us?”, hopefully there will be an impressive catalogue of improvements in reducing IKB and improving the state of nature conservation for millions of birds across Europe.