Today Natural England has published the licences for taking peregrine falcons for falconry. We are meeting with the agency tomorrow [7 May] to discuss this but we have serious doubt as to the justification for granting these licences. The RSPB’s Senior Investigations Officer, Guy Shorrock, describes the historical background to this ... 

The recent decision announced by Natural England (NE) to allow three people to take a total of six peregrine chicks from the wild this spring for use in ‘traditional cultural’ falconry and to set up a captive breeding program has sparked something of a furore. 

With nearly four decades since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came into force, it is fascinating to look at the peregrine as an example of how successive governments have failed to learn lessons of the past and build upon progress when the opportunity arises. 

The 1980s – The ‘Amnesty’ and falcon thieves at large 

At the start of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the legislation introduced a bird registration scheme. This required anybody keeping a bird of prey, or many other rare breeding birds, from avocets to wrynecks, to register their possession with the government. This was intended to make people accountable for birds kept in captivity and to try and reduce the taking of wild birds. 

This, of course, included the peregrine falcon, a thunderbolt of evolution and highly prized by falconers. Almost nobody knew how to breed peregrines at this time, and with birds costing up to £2000, the financial incentive was obvious, and birds were regularly taken from the wild. Earlier in my career I spoke with a couple of falconers, who referred to the start of registration as the ‘Amnesty’. In other words, declare what you already had in captivity, get it registered and effectively make it legal, even if its provenance was perhaps questionable. Not surprisingly there was a bit of surge in the taking of peregrines before the Act came into force as people started ‘stocking up’. 

The peregrine was still recovering from the well documented, catastrophic population crash in the 1950s and 60s, caused by the presence of organochlorine pesticides in the food chain. In addition to the perennial killing of peregrines by some involved with game bird shooting, the additional taking of birds for falconry was an unwelcome extra problem. Consequently, the RSPB, raptors workers, volunteers, landowners and others spent a huge amount of time and effort, including gruelling 24-hour watches, trying to protect nest sites from the falcon thieves. Methods included marking eggs and chicks with ultraviolet fluorescent grease or dye, in case these were later recovered by police at falconers’ premises. These methods did result in a few prosecutions, but it was hugely labour intensive. For the criminals involved, the risks were low and the rewards substantial. Something needed to change. 

The 1990s – The fightback and the DNA revolution 

I started at the RSPB in autumn 1991 and earlier that year the RSPB had embarked on what turned out to be its last private prosecution. An individual from Liverpool had claimed to have bred goshawks in captivity. Was this claim true? My colleagues decided to try the ground-breaking step of using genetic profiling to get some answers. 

Genetic profiling was still in its infancy, with the first ‘genetic fingerprint’ produced in 1984 by Professor Jeffreys at Leicester University. In 1986, DNA profiling was first used to aid a more mainstream criminal investigation, both securing the conviction of the perpetrator but also exonerating an innocent man. Since then the technology has continued to evolve and human DNA technology is now a routine core part of criminal forensic science and solving thousands of serious crimes. 

 In 1991 its first ever use in a UK wildlife crime case was fairly revolutionary and this showed three goshawk chicks were not related to their declared mother. Despite a paltry fine of £100, the revolution had started and here at last was a forensic tool that would start to give some meaningful answers. We were highly fortunate that the then Department of the Environment (DoE - now Defra), were looking at DNA techniques to support bird registration and had funded Nottingham University to develop DNA profiling in birds of prey. Defra kindly allowed us to take advantage of this work for criminal cases, which we duly did. 

 With my own university background in biochemistry I jumped straight into this work. With the RSPB leading the charge, with great support from DoE, various police forces, various professional falconers, in particular Jemima Parry-Jones, we started checking captive breeding claims of peregrines and goshawks. All was laid bare – widespread criminality was confirmed. This included two high profile cases that led to custodial sentences for the laundering of large numbers of peregrine falcons. The game was up, and the falcon thieves knew it. 

  Wild taken or captive bred? DNA testing confirmed this was one of over 20 peregrine chicks illegally taken from the wild – a man was later jailed.  Guy Shorrock (RSPB) 

Not surprisingly we also saw a significant drop in declared captive breeding claims and thankfully less peregrine nest sites being raided for their chicks. I suspect this remains the most effective use of a forensic technique to tackle wildlife crime in the UK. I also believe that these high-profile cases were a significant catalyst in the development of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) in 1996 and many things that followed. Whilst having the DNA testing to expose the lies, what was essential was the government’s own bird registration scheme. This did three crucial things: 

  • It ensured individual birds were identifiable by uniquely numbered rings; 
  • It told us where the birds were being keptand 
  • It told us the claimed familial relationships allowing us to compare suspect birds with declared parents, siblings & even grandparents. 

With this success we hoped the government would expand registration & DNA testing to protect some of the world’s rarest birds, such as globally threatened parrots, from illegal trade. 

The 2000s – U-turns and willful blindness 

Things started quite well, in 2001 we saw new powers for police and wildlife inspectors to take samples for DNA testing and then Defra contributing £143,000 to develop modern DNA tests for several raptors. 

Unfortunately, most of this decade was then taken up by the deregulation and ultimate dismantling of much of the bird registration scheme. Apparently, this was to reduce the regulatory burden on bird keepers and reduce costs to the taxpayer, though we could never get consistent figures for those costs. The legislation, which had until then been shown to be very effective, is, it must be remembered, supposed to be about protecting wild birds. However, rather than increase registration fees in line with costs, to maintain the scheme, the government appeared to pay more heed to the concerns of bird keepers and dismantled much of it. 

The RSPB were at the fore in a fairly acrimonious battle. However, even with good support from the police, the PAW Forensic Working Group and JNCC (the government’s own scientific advisors), Defra were blind to the value of registration and the clear necessity to undertake DNA testing effectively. This was typified by one of their statements during the process, ‘There is no clear evidence that bird registration has a deterrent effect on the illegal taking of peregrine from the wild for commercial sale’. Not exactly Defra’s finest hour – after all their sterling earlier work to support DNA testing, they had now gone from hero to villain. 

 By 2008 just nine birds of prey species were required to be registered. This included peregrine, but the government reduced the level of registration controls meaning that once birds were sold or moved on it was effectively impossible in most cases to find them. This was an utterly obvious loophole for criminals to exploit. Defra assured us that peregrine would still be subject to sales controls and that ‘DNA testing will remain available to test the legitimacy of birds’. 

The 2010s – Sleeping on watch and ‘we told you so’ 

At the start of the decade, infamous falcon smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum was caught trying to smuggle 14 eggs taken from Welsh peregrine nests to the Middle East. The peregrine is listed on Appendix I of CITES - the system for regulating international wildlife trade - which gives it the highest level of international protection, up there with elephants and rhinos. Whilst the registration scheme had no direct bearing on this particular case, it was a salutary reminder of the value of wild-sourced birds, with reports these birds were worth £70,000. You will see at the end of this news article myself repeating the warning that had already been given to Defra. 

 RSPB Investigations placing some of the illegally taken peregrine chicks from Wales back into wild nests – all fledged successfully (peregrine parents don’t notice the extra offspring as it appears they can’t count!).  RSPB 

At the same time, the sport of falcon racing was taking off in the Middle East, increasing the demand for peregrines and a rise in the value of birds with UK prices fetching up to £5,000 or more for a female peregrine. It was clear peregrine nests were still being raided for falconry. For example, in 2015 an RSPB covert camera filmed this yet unnamed man taking a peregrine chick from a site in South Yorkshire. We later received good information about people allegedly laundering wild taken peregrines for the Middle East market. 

I was getting increasingly concerned about what was going on so obtained some peregrine captive breeding and export data via Environmental Information Requests (EIR). This really set the alarm bells ringing. Around 2008, about 350 peregrines were declared captive bred each year, about the same as the 1990s. Some ten years on this had more than doubled, and hundreds of these birds were being exported outside the EU. So peregrines were clearly big business within the multi-million falconry market. Why had this surge in prices and captive breeding claims not triggered the alarm at Defra – were they asleep? 

 At the start of 2018, I raised concerns with Defra but, needless to say, they did not agree with my assessment of a significant laundering problem or that full registration was needed for effective enforcement. Their response included that their ‘Wildlife Inspectors conduct risk-based inspections to ensure compliance with these regulations’. Bearing in mind those past assurances about the use of DNA testing, when I asked how many such inspections had been done since the 2008 registration changes, I was then informed no such records were kept! (Incidentally, I am reliably informed the answer is zero). 

In a classic ‘We told you so’ the short-sighted legislation changes in 2008 have come back to bite us, or more accurately, peregrines. With the price of peregrines soaring in recent years, there are increasing signs that wild chicks are again being taken for the captive market in the UK and abroad. So, a problem we thought we were on top of, appears to be resurfacing. With the reduced registration controls now on peregrines it has become far more difficult for the enforcement agencies to trace suspected wild-taken birds and their alleged relatives. Despite all the advances in DNA technology, we are now less able to catch people laundering peregrines than we were over 20 years ago – hardly progress. 

Lessons learned the hard way 

So, against this backdrop what have we learned? 

  • If you give criminals an opportunity, which Defra have done, then they will take advantage of it. 
  • Defra have simply failed to keep an eye on the situation since 2008 and have failed to take the initiative to ensure DNA testing was used to check captive breeding claims and create a tangible deterrent in the falconry world. 
  • We now have a problem, of unknown size, with wild peregrines being laundered into the captive market. 

There are two government wildlife crime Priority Delivery Groups for CITES and Raptor Persecution. The work of both these groups now includes a focus on the illegal taking, trade and export of peregrines falcons. Much of this work could have been avoided, and the government needs to regain an awful lot of ground just to get back to where we were and to ensure peregrines are properly protected. 

 

  Peregrines are now a familiar site in many urban areas bringing joy to thousands of people. RSPB 

Where we are now? 

So, we now come to the role of NE and their recent decision to allow legal take of peregrines for cultural values connected with falconry. They have recently published some redacted versions of the licences and technical assessments. With the price of peregrines for falcon racing in the Middle East, many people are understandably concerned whether the commercial use of peregrines of British provenance may be the true underlying motive for these licenses. 

The RSPB has asked some searching questions, and, in fairness, NE have been helpful and open in explaining their decision-making process. However, what is worrying is that NE appear to have been looking at this issue very much in isolation without proper consultation or addressing the bigger picture. Whilst the legality of the decision to grant these licences needs further scrutiny, there are several key concerns for the RSPB 

Alternatives 

Firstly, there seems to be an obvious alternative solution which seems to have been far too readily pushed to one side. There are plenty of wild-disabled peregrines already in captivity, and we know these have been used for breeding for over two decades. On the basis of advice we received from an internationally renowned falcon breeder, there is no obvious reason to us why this should not be the first approach. Astonishingly, NE do not appear to have sought this type of advice. Similarly, wildlife geneticists do not appear to have been consulted. Building a British peregrine studbook from just three pairs, the numbers involved in the recent license decision, is highly improbable, and one of the applicants has indeed stated an intention to apply for 80 more birds in the next ten years. Whilst NE claim it is just six birds within the next two years, why on earth would you licence six birds without getting a proper understanding of just how many more birds may be needed to make this project viable? 

Traditional culture or just a commercial undertaking? 

There is no cultural tradition involved in the commercial trade and export of peregrines, the use of artificial insemination or the artificial production of hybrid falcons. In fact, traditional falconry practice did not even involve permanent removal of birds from the wild. So it is particularly worrying that despite the stated cultural aim of enabling traditional falconry, and whatever the intentions of the three applicants, there appears to be nothing to prevent future progeny from the birds taken under licence being used for commercial breeding, export or even to produce hybrids. NE may claim that future use of these birds is outside their area of authority. Well if that is the case, then these licences to take wild birds simply should not have been granted unless appropriate controls to keep the studbook together purely for falconry are absolutely guaranteed. 

Criminality 

Peregrines are still widely persecuted in large upland areas of England, with additional pressure of birds being illegally taken from the wild for commercial use within the falconry market. The history above shows just how vulnerable this species is to illegal activities. There appears to have been no consultation with either of the government wildlife crime Priority Delivery Groups (CITES and Raptor Persecution) both of whom are dealing with the illegal taking, trade and export of peregrines. There is already a problem, of unknown scale, with illegal taking of peregrines for falconry - so why are NE allowing another six birds to be taken? The government need to collectively address the problem of criminality before NE even consider allowing further licensed take. 

 Peregrines are still heavily persecuted in large parts of our uplands – the additional licensed take of wild birds is unhelpful and unnecessary 

And finally 

Though outside the formal reasons for granting the licences, NE’s have also tried to sprinkle in some claimed compensatory conservation benefits. These are so weak they don’t bear any further commentary. Disappointingly, NE didn’t even consult with the Northern England Raptor Forum, whose members devote thousands of hours of their own time in monitoring peregrines and other raptors. They feel at first hand the heartache when birds are killed and nests are raided. 

 I know many NE staff care greatly about nature conservation, and when you read the recent press reports it is difficult not to sympathise with the intense pressures on the organisation.  Their budget has been cut by more than half in the past decade, and staff numbers have been slashed from 2,500 to an estimated 1,500. We need a strong NE, well-funded, and able to stand up for nature. 

NE’s declared purpose still states, ‘We're the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide’. Amongst a range of functions is ‘promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity’. 

At a time when nature is in crisis, they are simply not getting the level of support from government to allow them to work effectively to protect our natural environment.  

Effective nature conservation needs joined-up government and assessment of all the evidence. This clearly has not happened when you look at the last four decades for peregrines and the recent issuing of these licences. This has not done NE any favours within the public eye and we would suggest they need to fully review this decision and focus on what their true function should be. Their primary function should be helping peregrines by advising the government to reinstate full registration controls and supporting the government wildlife crime Priority Delivery Groups to crack down on all peregrine crime. This would seem to fit rather more comfortably with ‘promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity’ than what they have allowed here. After all the human abuse peregrines have faced from the era of organochlorines onwards, this is surely the very least this special bird deserves. 

 

 

 

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