The Birdcrime report exposes the relentless persecution of Birds of prey across the UK

Female Hen Harrier in flight (c) Pete Morris

Todays Blog is written by Heather Mathieson, Investigations Liaison Officer, she outlines the findings of the latest Birdcrime report and the criminal persecution which our birds of prey continue to face.

The latest RSPB’s annual Birdcrime report details the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of protected birds of prey. Laws designed to help safeguard their future are failing to prevent these serious crimes from happening, acting as little or no deterrent to those who choose to intentionally persecute them. In 2022, there were 61 confirmed raptor persecution incidents across the UK. Rare and highly protected species, including the Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon and Hen Harrier, were shot, poisoned or trapped. Astonishingly, 46 of those incidents happened in England, with 12 taking place in North Yorkshire.

The Birdcrime report, alongside peer-reviewed papers, intelligence and data from wildlife crime incidents continues to affirm that raptor persecution is significantly linked to land managed for gamebirds, where birds of prey are often deliberately targeted to reduce potential predation on gamebird stocks and limit disturbance to quarry species on shoot days. In 2022, at least 64% of total incidents in the UK, was associated with land managed for pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting. In England, 72% of all persecution incidents were associated with this industry.

Birdcrime case study - 5 goshawks (c) Suffolk Constabulary

Hen Harriers – a red listed species – are still being relentlessly targeted, particularly in areas dominated by driven grouse moor. Since January 2022, the RSPB Investigations Team have discovered that 38 Hen Harriers were killed or ‘suspiciously disappeared’ in Northern England, with eight satellite-tagged birds being persecuted or disappearing in one area near Birkdale in North Yorkshire. Two of the most shocking incidents recorded in 2022 involved Hen Harrier persecution in Northern England. A satellite-tagged male harrier had his head pulled off while still alive, and four Hen Harrier chicks were trampled to death in the nest.

A recent peer-reviewed RSPB study found that survival of tagged Hen Harriers in the UK was very low, with birds living on average for only four months.  As much as 75% of annual mortality of tagged birds was due to illegal killing associated with grouse moor management. If this relentless killing continues, the future of these rare and threatened birds remains at serious risk in the UK.

The chronic persecution of Hen Harriers in England will continue to hamper the recovery of the species unless significant regulation is introduced. The immediate licensing of driven grouse shooting is essential. By creating greater public accountability for these crimes the police can tackle the persecution of Hen Harriers on a more established footing, enforcing legal standards and ensuring estates operate within legislative boundaries.

In 2022, the UK Government licenced White-tailed Eagle reintroduction scheme in England has had a major set-back. As evidenced in the report, that year two White-tailed Eagles were confirmed as having died from ingesting bait laced with pesticides. Since 2021 five White-tailed Eagles have been persecuted across the UK – two in Northern Ireland and three in England. All died from ingesting poison, and all involved young birds. The report highlights the significant case of a young eagle which died in 2021 on a pheasant estate in West Sussex.

A poisoned White-tailed Eagle found in West Sussex, (c) RSPB Investigations

This was the first confirmed record of a reintroduced White-tailed Eagle to have been killed, and the first case of this species being persecuted in England since their extinction in the 18th Century. On the same gamebird estate, three days after the eagle died from ingesting poison, a Labrador Retriever suffered the same fate after ingesting the same pesticide – Bendiocarb. Frustratingly, the police investigation failed to hold anyone to account for these crimes.

There were only two successful convictions for raptor persecution crimes in 2022, despite many clear cases of being detected by the Police, NECU and RSPB Investigations. Both individuals were employed as gamekeepers. Disappointingly, in one case – where multiple birds of prey were shot or poisoned – the gamekeeper only received a 200-hour community order and was ordered to pay £1,200 in fines, costs and compensations. As this case highlights, existing laws are failing to protect birds of prey, acting neither as a deterrent or as an appropriate punishment for the crimes committed.

As Birdcrime 2022 reveals, unlike previous years, the detecting and recording of raptor persecution in 2022 was - and continues to be - impacted by the current strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). The association of dead birds with this disease is likely to have caused multiple cases of raptor persecution to go undetected and unreported. Birds which test positive for HPAI undergo no other testing and are incinerated, without confirming the actual cause of the bird’s death, typically determined through x-rays, post-mortems, or toxicology analyses. The restrictions that these procedures have placed on the investigative powers of enforcement bodies is demonstrated in a case study within the Birdcrime report, where two Sparrowhawks were found dead, alongside, and on top of two white doves, which were suspected to have been laced with poison. One of the Sparrowhawks and the two doves tested positive for HPAI and therefore no further analysis as to their cause of death (or that of the second Sparrowhawk) was ever undertaken and the police investigation was closed.


Dead Sparrowhawk lying on suspected poisoned bait (c) West Yorkshire Police

The RSPB continues to call for the licensing of driven grouse moors as this is key to effectively tackling soaring crimes against birds of prey. As the report highlights legislation to license grouse moors is currently being considered in Scotland under the Wildlife and Muirburn Bill. In addition to this the report asks for more appropriate sentencing when raptor persecution cases go to court. The RSPB is calling on Magistrates to give those that commit these crimes, sentences which reflect the severity of the crime. By doing so this may effectively deter others from committing these illegal acts. In addition to these requests, the report asks for the introduction of additional regulation for pheasant and partridge shooting and improvements to testing procedures associated with HPAI.