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Sixty years of protection but the killing continues

Last modified: 13 December 2013

Adult male hen harrier perched on heather, RSPB Loch Gruinart reserve, Islay

Hen harrier

Image: Andy Hay

Despite 2013 being the 60th year of legal protection for wild birds, the latest RSPB Birdcrime report released today tells the continuing story of illegal persecution of the UK’s birds of prey.

Birdcrime 2012 reveals 208 reports of the shooting and destruction of birds of prey including the confirmed shooting of 15 buzzards, five sparrowhawks and four peregrines. 

The report also includes over 70 reports of poisoning incidents. Confirmed victims of poisoning include nine buzzards and seven red kites. The real numbers are almost certainly higher as many incidents are likely to go unnoticed and unrecorded.

This report follows on from the news earlier this year that in 2013 hen harriers failed to breed successfully in England for the first time since the 1960s despite enough suitable habitat to support over 300 pairs.

Bad management stopping the return of the golden eagle

Some areas of the UK’s countryside including parts of the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland have become ‘no-fly zones’ for birds of prey. Several studies have concluded that persecution on intensively managed upland grouse moors is the key issue affecting some bird of prey populations. This has prevented the populations of species such as the golden eagle and hen harrier from occupying parts of their natural range, especially in England.

'Derbyshire boasts some of the most spectacular uplands in the country but it is disgraceful and unacceptable that birds of prey are systematically removed from parts of it'

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: 'There are few sights in nature as breathtaking as witnessing a peregrine stooping or hen harriers skydancing. These are sights we should all be able to enjoy when visiting our uplands. 

'However, these magnificent birds are being removed from parts of our countryside where they should be flourishing.'

He continued: 'Current legislation has failed to protect the hen harrier. The absence of successfully breeding hen harriers in England this year is a stain on the conscience of the country. It is therefore vitally important that the Government brings forward changes to wildlife law in England and Wales that deliver an effective and enforceable legal framework for the protection of wildlife.'

Progress in Government

In its latest report, the RSPB assesses the Government’s progress on implementing changes that will make a real difference to birds such as the hen harrier. A significant development is the publication of the Law Commission’s recommendations following a consultation on potential changes to wildlife law in England and Wales, set out in their ‘Interim Report’ released this October.

The RSPB is heartened by some of the Law Commission’s recommendations including the recognition of the seriousness of some wildlife crimes and the recommendation for an option for these cases to be triable at the Crown Court, where higher penalties are available. 

However, we believe tougher legislation is needed to punish employers whose staff commit wildlife crimes and are calling on the government to introduce the provision of vicarious liability, where employers would be legally responsible for the wildlife crimes committed by their employees. This has been introduced in Scotland and early signs are that it may be having some deterrent effect with a reduction at least in the number of confirmed poisoning incidents.

Martin Harper added: 'The RSPB is pleased that the Law Commission has recognised the need to extend criminal liability in England and Wales to those who ultimately benefit from wildlife crime.  However, despite an admission that the majority of consultees, including the RSPB, were in favour of the introduction of vicarious liability in England and Wales, the Law Commission has recommended an alternative version of extending criminal liability that we fear will be ineffective. 

'We want to see the Government getting tough on wildlife criminals by making changes that will make a lasting difference to the prospects of threatened species like the hen harrier.'

Bird crime, a priority for police

Derbyshire Police Crime Commissioner, Alan Charles is seizing the initiative on wildlife crime. He said: 'Derbyshire boasts some of the most spectacular uplands in the country but it is disgraceful and unacceptable that birds of prey are systematically removed from parts of it. That is why it has become a priority in its own right within my first Police and Crime Plan. 

'I’m pleased to say that in response, my Chief Constable’s delivery plan formalises and puts in place a clear structure for dealing with wildlife crime.'

The RSPB believe that stronger laws combined with a long-overdue change in attitudes from some within the driven grouse shooting industry are essential if birds of prey are to return to their rightful place.

Martin Harper concluded: 'Wildlife laws have been flouted by some in the driven grouse shooting community for too long. It is time for this industry to prove to the rest of the country that they can leave archaic activities behind. They must show their activities are sustainable and don’t rely on the illegal killing of birds of prey to promote ever increasing grouse-bags. 

'The government must also demonstrate their commitment to enforcing wildlife laws with a strong rescue plan for birds such as the hen harrier. A key test of this will be whether birds of prey are allowed to make their home throughout our uplands once again.'

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In more depth


    Birdcrime 2012 (2.5Mb)
    Offences against wild bird legislation in 2012

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