Raptor Persecution in East Anglia

Is raptor persecution again rife in East Anglia?

Steve Piotrowski

Introduction

For the past 20 years, Suffolk ornithologists have been at the forefront in efforts to assist the spectacular recovery of breeding raptors that has taken place in our region. As a result, our skies are now graced by Buzzards and Peregrines, which were so uncommon 30 or so years ago. Our Marsh Harrier populations have risen to such an extent that the species is now a common sight in coastal areas in all seasons. Red Kites are slowly colonising Suffolk’s countryside, no doubt aided by introduction schemes elsewhere, and nesting Hobbies are as plentiful as they have ever been. However, are these recoveries now under threat due to the actions of the selfish few?

There have been incidents of breeding raptors being shot and poisoned all over Britain, especially in and around the grouse moors of Britain’s uplands. Last year was the first time that Hen Harrier failed to produce any young in England and there has been a campaign to save the species from becoming extinct as a breeding bird in this country. Suffolk people are quite rightly appalled at the needless slaughter of birds of prey, which is almost always carried out to appease the wishes of the shooting fraternity, but are livid at the fact that such crimes are now occurring right here in our own county.

Nesting Peregrines Return

From 1991-1997, a wintering pair of Peregrines near the Orwell Bridge raised speculation that they might breed. SOG members lobbied the Highways Agency and eventually a strategically-placed box was fixed to one of the piers under the bridge. It took another ten years before breeding took place, the first time that Suffolk had seen nesting Peregrines for over 200 years. Peregrines have bred successfully there for the past eight years and boxes have also been fixed to tall structures in Lake Lothing, Ipswich Docks (in-situ box on a new block of flats), the Port of Felixstowe and Bury St Edmunds. Most have seen some degree of success, with chicks reared from the Lake Lothing box and eggs laid at Ipswich and Felixstowe Docks. A pair is also pioneering the Sizewell nuclear power stations complex and another was thought to have hybridized with an escaped Lanner Falcon on Orfordness.

Shot Peregrine

Proof of persecution came in the form of a recently shot Peregrine that was found beside a public footpath next to Chad Brook near Long Melford on August 20th in West Suffolk. The incident was superbly described by John Grant in the East Anglian Daily Times on September 9th 2014 and his story was posted on the EADT website

SOG member Darren Underwood co-found the injured and very approachable young female Peregrine, which showed no obvious external injuries. He assumed that it had perhaps accidentally flown into the fence and was stunned and, with the help of a local resident, put it in a box and contacted the Mulberry Court Veterinary Surgery in Sudbury. Darren said: “They were excellent and very caring and when they took an X-ray of one of the bird’s wings they found it had several pieces of lead shot in it.” Veterinary Surgeon, Jan De La Rey said: “We saw there was puncture wounds over most of her body and a most noticeable fracture to its right wing.”

After being peppered by gunshot, the bird is now being rehabilitated at Lavenham Falconry at nearby Monks Eleigh with the aim of returning it to the wild when its recovery is complete. Owner Steve Younge said: “It is doing very well. We have kept it hooded to keep it calm. I think she will survive. We’ve just removed the bandage from the wing and it’s gone back into its correct position. It is eating very well and, in the next two or three weeks, we will try to build up its strength and fitness and see where we go from there, but the hope is to return it to its rightful place in the wild.”

There was some speculation as to whether this wounded bird was raised by a pair of Peregrines in Bury St Edmunds, which would be the first breeding record of the species in west Suffolk in modern times and possibly the first time the species has ever nested in the area. However, although a juvenile was photographed in the town, there is no known nest.

Suffolk police and the RSPB are appealing for information and RSPB is offering a £1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in relation to the shooting. The charity’s investigations officer Mark Thomas said: “This bird has only recently left its nest and has already been shot, presumably by a person who intended to kill it. Numbers declined during the last two centuries due to illegal killing, but unfortunately we are still having birds shot and poisoned. Whilst it is good news that the bird has survived, it is unknown if the bird will make a full recovery.”

Other Peregrine incidents in 2014

The Long Melford bird was the 17th Peregrine known to have been targeted in the British Isles in 2014 and these are only the ones that have been reported – how many more have been killed?

The Raptor Persecution Scotland blog, which highlighted the Suffolk Peregrine incident, makes grim reading.

It states:

In February a poisoned Peregrine was found dead in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. In March, a shot peregrine was found dead in Dorset, England. In April, a shot peregrine was found dead near Stirling, Scotland. In May, a shot Peregrine was found critically injured in Devon, England. In June, the public foiled an attempted poisoning of six Peregrines in Co. Dublin, Ireland. In June, a poisoned Peregrine was found dead in North Wales. In July, four dead Peregrines suspected to have been poisoned were found in Gwynedd, NW Wales. In August, a shot peregrine was found critically injured in Co. Wexford, Ireland.

The loss of a single one of our magnificent raptors in such circumstances is a tragedy, but at least in the case of Peregrines we are dealing with a species which is rapidly expanding its range. The BTO Bird Atlas 2007-2011 (Balmer et al 2013) show a 200% range expansion since 1968-1972 and the breeding population is now at an all-time high. This is mainly down to the fact that the species has taken to our towns and cities, nesting on high buildings and sometimes hunting at night with the aid of streetlights.

Montagu’s Harrier “missing in action”

A recovery such as that of the Peregrine population is not mirrored by Montagu’s Harrier, which has been living on the edge as a UK breeding species for decades. Early in the 19th century it was considered to be the commonest harrier in East Anglia and small numbers bred on Suffolk’s heaths and marshes right up to the 1960s. It was extensively persecuted, however, with adults shot and nests destroyed year after year until it became virtually extinct.

[#34 Montagu’s male released with radio tag]

The RSPB has posted a very worrying report on their website and the account is summarised as follows: A female Montagu’s harrier, shown being fitted with a satellite tracking device on the BBC’s The One Show, has vanished in Norfolk under unexplained circumstances. Scientists working on a project to track raptor migration routes tagged three Montagu’s Harriers, the UK’s rarest breeding bird of prey, including this adult female in Norfolk in July – Rare tagged bird missing in action.

 

The tiny satellite trackers, fitted to the harriers’ backs, reveal the migration routes the birds take between Europe and their wintering grounds in Africa. The missing Montagu’s Harrier, a three-year-old bird nicknamed ‘Mo’, was last detected leaving a roost site at first light on the Sandringham Estate close to Great Bircham, Norfolk, on 8th August 2014.

Ben Koks, of the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation, who fitted the tag, said: “Since 2005 we have tagged 58 Montagu’s harriers, and a sudden loss of signal is exceedingly rare. It is very unusual that an experienced bird like this would abruptly disappear, especially whilst the tag was in the process of sending data, as it had done successfully for the previous few weeks.”’

RSPB Senior Investigations Officer Mark Thomas said: “There are very few possible reasons for Mo’s disappearance, either she was caught by a fox and the tag was immediately taken underground, or she suffered illegal persecution and her tag was deliberately destroyed. With only seven pairs in the UK the loss of a breeding female is a serious setback to this threatened bird of prey.”

Naturalist and The One Show presenter Mike Dilger filmed the item with Mo earlier in the year. He said: “It’s a very sad situation. I personally helped to tag Mo: she was a beautiful, healthy harrier and by now she should be zipping through the skies of Senegal. This is a tragic loss of an amazing and rare bird.”

The tag fitted to this bird was sponsored by the owner of Lush Cosmetics, Mark Constantine, who named the harrier after his wife Mo. Mr Constantine has offered a reward of £5,000 for information on the missing harrier. The two other birds tagged, Madge and Mark, have begun their migration and in September were nearing their wintering grounds in Senegal.

Buzzards under threat

We have witnessed a remarkable return of Buzzards to the Suffolk countryside and many parishes now host at least one breeding pair. It became extinct as a Suffolk breeding species at the beginning of the 20th century as a result of persecution. Ticehurst (1932) said: “Little wonder that this fine bird has died out as a nesting species, every gamekeeper’s hand was against it, no one seems to have given it sanctuary”.

Suffolk undoubtedly had the habitat requirements for the species return, but its re-colonisation was initially very slow due, it was thought, to persecution. The New Atlas (Gibbons et al 1993) highlighted conspicuous gaps in the eastern fringe of the Buzzard’s breeding distribution that “coincided with well-keepered estates”. It is now a common sight throughout East Anglia.

Sadly, as I write this article towards the end of September 2014, I have received two reports of Buzzard remains found in suspicious circumstances: one at Lavenham (Peter Evans) and another at Newbourne (Mark Piotrowski). Surely we’re not going back to the bad old days when anything with a hooked bill is subject to intense persecution?

Hen Harriers

One raptor that is most unlikely to return to Suffolk as a breeding species is the Hen Harrier as these birds are persecuted relentlessly by some of our more unscrupulous game preservationists throughout Britain. Ticehurst (1932) was in no doubt that Hen Harriers bred in Suffolk in the early part of the 19th century, but were lost as nesting species due to historic persecution. Persecution of nesting Hen Harriers on upland grouse moors has pushed the species to the brink of extinction in England and as a result it is a rare visitor to Suffolk where it used to winter in good numbers. This summer conservationists, monitoring nests on the United Utilities Bowland Estate in Lancashire, were full of optimism when chicks fledged from nests, the first Hen Harrier chicks to fledge in England since 2012. However, two females named Sky and Hope, which had been satellite-tagged, have vanished in unexplained circumstances. The lightweight solar-powered satellite tags are designed to be operational for around three years so that scientists can track their movements. Both tags have stopped transmitting. Sky’s signal stopped suddenly on the evening September 10th, when data suggested that she was roosting, while Hope’s last known location was sent on the morning of September 13th. Both birds had remained in the Bowland area since fledging. Searches have been conducted but neither bird has been found. Experts think that it is unlikely the loss of their satellite transmissions is due to technical failure. Bob Elliot, RSPB head of investigations, said: “In our experience, this satellite technology is normally very reliable and it is rare for them to fail for technological reasons. Losing two birds in such a short time frame and in the same geographical area is strange. Based on the last known data and our understanding of the technology, Sky appears to have suffered a catastrophic tag failure at roost, suggesting either natural predation or human intervention as the likely causes for her sudden failure to transmit. However, we would not expect natural predation to stop the tag transmitting data so suddenly. Hope’s tag was transmitting reliably, with no evidence of any technical problems.”

Discussion

In 1978, whilst carrying out SOG’s Ringed Plover survey close to Sizewell A Nuclear Power Station, I came across a dead second-year male Marsh Harrier close to a carcass of a rabbit. The harrier was a magnificent specimen, so freshly dead that its eyes still glistened and I suspected that it had been poisoned as its stomach appeared to have caved inward. I found an old fertiliser bag nearby (probably used to carry the rabbit?), collected the bird and bait and took it to Jeremy Sorensen who was then warden at nearby RSPB Minsmere. I used a couple of sticks to pick up the bait, chopstick-like, and placed it in the bag. This course of action was fortunate on my part as a subsequent report by the RSPB revealed that the rabbit was so heavily laced with a weed-killer type of poison that it could have killed me had I touched it!

Jeremy was devastated by my find as Minsmere’s Marsh Harrier population was rising very slowly from a single pair in 1971, which constituted the sole British breeding record for that year (Piotrowski 2003). At that time, there was a heavy reliance on the bigamous behaviour of the males to pair with two or perhaps three females, so the loss of a male was a real setback. The RSPB investigated the incident and confirmed that poisoning was the cause of the bird’s mortality. The landowner was contacted and initially denied that the bird had been found on his land so, in the company of Jeremy, we went with him to the spot where the bird had been found and land ownership was confirmed. Apparently, his gamekeeper was reprimanded, but no further action was taken against the perpetrator of such a hideous crime!

Since that day, I have developed a personal hatred against those who commit such crimes and have supported campaigns that strive to highlight the issues with a view to strengthening the law. Whilst researching my book The Birds of Suffolk, I was touched by a passionate passage in Ticehurst (1932) under his account for Montagu’s Harrier. It reads: “Being a bird of prey its advent is almost always met with hostility amongst gamekeepers and it is only because of the bird’s extreme persistency that it survives today at all. The records of this bird in Suffolk are mournful reading indeed, for they consist mostly of birds killed on their nesting ground year after year. The wide open heathlands suited to this bird are becoming more restricted annually, yet there are few left where birds turn up regularly, perhaps not more than four or five pairs in the whole county, and almost as regularly they are killed. Here above all, is a case where protection can still save a fine bird from extinction, for it has not yet entirely disappeared. In so many cases protection has come too late, in some cases, as with the Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, etc., a hundred years too late. But in the case of this Harrier it needs the goodwill of all the landowners whose properties the birds may frequent. In 1912 I located two pairs of these birds which had settled down to nest on an East Suffolk heath. Sanctuary for them needed the help of only three landowners whose co-operation I tried to enlist. Two of them were enthusiastic and the requisite orders were given for the birds’ safety, but the third replied that he did not blame his keepers if they killed every ‘hawk’ and he certainly should not give any instructions to the contrary. I believe all four birds were killed lest an odd game chick or two should be taken. How any landowner, who ought to be proud to give a pair of these birds harbourage, can care so little for the wild life on his property that he should acquiesce in illegal destruction of almost our rarest breeding bird passes my comprehension.” History shows that Ticehurst failed in his gallant attempt to save the Montagu’s Harrier for future generations.

This article is not intended to be a direct attack against the shooting fraternity. I have many friends who shoot and some modern-type gamekeepers that I know are just as passionate about wildlife as me and wouldn’t dream of harming raptors or carrying out any other illegal activities. However, shooters must urgently get their act together and exert peer pressure to make more unscrupulous game preservationists think twice before committing a crime against wildlife. In East Anglia, we have some gigantic game estates where commercial shoots take place regularly throughout the autumn and winter. Attitudes must change and there should be more severe penalties for the perpetrators of wildlife crime, such as the suspension or permanent withdrawal of shotgun licenses or making landowners vicariously liable for wildlife crimes committed on their land if committed by their employees or those with permission to shoot. For example, a successful wildlife crime prosecution on a Scottish estate may jeopardise the payment of agri-environment grants to that estate.

As TV presenter and Hen Harrier campaigner Chris Packham has said: “It’s incredibly disheartening to discover that two of this year’s (Hen Harrier) chicks have already apparently failed to survive. It shows how vulnerable Hen Harriers are and that four nests are nowhere near enough. Without satellite tagging, these disappearances might never have come to our attention but technology is on our side and we will keep watching.”

Finally, will we ever forget the furore that took place when Natural England was working on the proposed reintroduction of White-tailed Eagle to coastal Suffolk? Further, should birds eventually attempt to colonise naturally (e.g. from the Netherlands) can we expect them to be left undisturbed?

How can you help?

  • Embrace the power of the social media. The use of Twitter, Facebook, etc., has proved to be an invaluable tool for those wishing to highlight wrong doings. Tweets from high-profile personalities such as Chris Packham and Mark Avery have resulted in a “Twitter storm” so much so that the issues have been forced into the public arena. Following one such “storm”, principally campaigning against the shooting and poisoning of Hen Harriers on grouse moors, the issue of “why do we want to shoot birds” was featured on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. The discussion was most enlightening!

  • Be vigilant whilst out in the countryside, report anything suspicious and take photographs wherever possible.

  • If you come across a dead or injured raptor, collect it and take it to a vet or wildlife rescue organisation for its death or injuries to be further investigated.

  • If you suspect poisoning, then collect the bird and also look around for bait. Sometimes bait is so heavily laced with poison that the birds die at the spot. However, as a word of warning, be very careful how you pick it up as the poison could harm you by penetrating your skin (as in the 1978 Marsh Harrier case above). If you are able to stay with the find, it would be best if the crime scene is left intact, so ring 999 and wait for the arrival of the police. If you a dog owner be wary of your pet picking up items that could be contaminated.

  • Hopefully, we have seen the end of pole traps, but if you find one, take a photograph, dial 999 and wait for the police.

  • Support campaigns that highlight wildlife crime. Suggested changes in the law could include stricter conditions for those in possession of shotgun licenses, licensing of gamekeepers and a ban on grouse shooting.

  • Voice your concerns to your elected representatives – e.g. your MP, County Councillor, etc.

  • Report any snippets of information to the RSPB Investigations team even if it’s only hearsay. This can help the RSPB build up a database of where wildlife crimes are being committed.

  • Look at the RSPB’s website link “Wild Birds and the Law

Anyone who suspects that a wildlife crime may have been committed or has any information on the cases highlighted above should contact wildlife crimes officer PC Mark Bryant on 101, or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. If a crime is in progress or it a case of suspected poisoning then ring 999 and await the arrival of the Police. Alternatively, call the RSPB’s investigations team on 01767 680551.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks are due to Darren Underwood for collecting the injured Peregrine and taking it to a vet for further examination and to John Grant for his EADT article and comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

References:

Balmer, D.E., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B.J., Swann, R.L., Downie, I.S. & Fuller, R J. 2013. Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford.

Gibbons, D.W., Reid, J.B. & Chpman, R.A. 1993. The new atlas of breeding birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991 British Trust for Ornithology, Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and Irish Wildlife Conservancy. Poyser. London.

Piotrowski, S.H. 2003. The birds of Suffolk. Helm. London.

Ticehurst, C.B. 1932. A history of the birds of Suffolk. Gurney and Jackson, London.