Illegal bird of prey killings fall to lowest level in decade, but ‘true figure may be far higher’ | Birds #Illegal #bird #prey #killings #fall #lowest #level #decade #true #figure #higher #Birds

Confirmed incidents of the illegal persecution of birds of prey have fallen to their lowest levels for more than a decade, according to the latest RSPB Birdcrime report.

But the conservation charity warned that the reduction in incidents to 61 in 2022 is distorted by a failure to examine dead raptors caught in the avian flu outbreak for signs of illegal killing.

Since the H5N1 outbreak began in Britain in 2021, hundreds of dead raptors have been sent directly to Defra for testing. In most cases, if a bird tests positive for bird flu, no further postmortem tests are undertaken. Moreover rules prevent carcasses that test negative from being moved to other labs to be examined for signs of persecution such as shooting or poisoning.

According to the RSPB, at least 94 dead birds of prey that tested negative in England and Wales in 2022 were not given a cause of death, leading to fears that the number of birds persecuted could be much higher than the recorded figure.

The RSPB is also concerned that fewer cases of illegal poisonings are being picked up. There has been an unexpected decrease in the total number of suspected raptor poisoning cases submitted to the government-run Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme: 297 birds of prey were examined in 2021 but in 2022 this dropped to 155 birds of prey. Just nine were recorded as deliberately poisoned, compared with an annual average of 31.5 over the previous four years.

According to the RSPB, its annual compilation of confirmed cases of illegal killings of birds of prey has always been the tip of the iceberg of raptor persecution, which is mostly driven by a desire to protect game shoots involving species including red grouse, pheasants and partridges.

Convictions are vanishingly rare because evidence is difficult to gather on remote estates with little public access. Of 191 individuals convicted of bird of prey persecution-related offences from 1990 to 2022, 67.5% have been gamekeepers. Of two successful convictions in 2022, both were gamekeepers.

Confirmed cases of raptor persecution rose during the coronavirus lockdown years to the highest ever figure of 137 in 2020, falling back to 108 in 2021.

The RSPB warned that hen harriers continue to be “relentlessly” targeted because of their perceived threat to red grouse shoots. Since January 2022, RSPB and Natural England data reveals that 39 hen harriers have been confirmed killed or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Eight satellite-tagged birds have been persecuted or disappeared in suspicious circumstances in the same area near Birkdale in North Yorkshire.

A satellite-tagged bird called Free had its head pulled off while still alive, and four hen harrier chicks were trampled to death in a nest monitored by Natural England. Another tagged hen harrier called Dagda was shot dead in May 2023 on a grouse moor at Knarsdale, near the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale on which it was breeding.

A controversial government-backed scheme to reduce conflict between grouse moors and hen harriers allows landowners to apply to remove chicks nesting on their moors and rear them in captivity. Data from satellite-tagged hen harriers in the Brood Management Scheme released this week shows the survival rate for captive-reared birds from fledging through the challenging winter months to the following May is 44% compared with just 24% for wild birds.

The Moorland Association has said such figures show the Brood Management Scheme is working to boost hen harrier numbers. No chicks fledged in England in 2013 but numbers rose to 141 chicks fledging this year; England’s moorlands should naturally support at least 300 pairs.

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But a recent study in the journal Biological Conservation by the RSPB found that tagged hen harriers in the UK lived on average for just four months, and the risk of dying as a result of illegal killing increased significantly if birds spent more time on areas managed for grouse shooting. Previously, a 2019 government study concluded that hen harriers suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, most likely as a result of illegal killing.

An RSPB spokesperson said: “The RSPB maintains its objections to brood management and we remain unequivocal that with the illegal killing of hen harriers continuing unabated, the absolute priority for meaningful recovery must be an end to illegal persecution.

“We also believe that brood management is ethically unsound, it is about hen harriers fitting in around the unsustainable management of grouse moors, rather than grouse moor management adapting to coexist with hen harriers, with large areas in the English uplands internationally designated for this threatened and fully protected bird of prey.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime, which is why we have more than doubled funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit to over £1.2m for 2022-25 – supporting them to help protect these precious animals.

“Where any hen harriers or other species are killed illegally, the full force of the law should be applied. This can include an unlimited fine and/or a six-month custodial sentence.”

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