The RSPB Investigations team assists the statutory agencies to investigate crimes against wild birds in the UK.
Staff are based at the UK headquarters, Scottish headquarters and the Northern England Regional Office.
This blog will be used to keep you informed on key issues and court case results on a regular basis, but for legal reasons, we may only be able to report on certain aspects of our work.
If you witness a crime against a wild bird and wish to report this to the RSPB, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
It was bright and sunny on 22 May and I found myself heading down the M6 to meet my colleague, Guy, and some concerned locals near Dudley to check out a peregrine falcon's nest site.
Previously, we had received numerous phone calls from locals, who believed that several metal spring traps had been put on a peregrine nesting ledge. Spring traps can legally be used under cover to kill rats and other small mammals, but their use in the open is totally illegal.
While we sorted our climbing gear, it was nice to see a pair of adult peregrines flying nearby.
I put the ropes in place and Guy ascended from below. Guy's shocked voice came over the radio: 'James, you have to come and see this!'
We were astounded to see two metal spring traps pegged onto the nest ledge - clearly a deliberate and malicious attempt to trap and kill the adult peregrines. Fortunately, both traps had been sprung, but two unhatched eggs lay on the nest ledge.
We set about documenting the scene, photographing and videoing the evidence before, collecting the spring traps and eggs. This was then immediately reported to the Police.
The following day while in Northumberland, Guy and I received a phone call telling us that a local raptor worker, near Cannock, had found a male peregrine caught in a spring trap at its nest, which contained two young chicks.
They also found four other spring traps, including one with feathers and blood. The female had disappeared and we suspected she had also been trapped and killed.
I later saw the photograph of the male peregrine with the spring trap on its leg, which was horrific. This bird had to be euthanized because of its injuries.
The two chicks were taken into care and Raptor Rescue, a registered charity, took on the task of rearing the young without imprinting them - avoiding making the birds think they are humans!
I wondered how anybody could deliberately plan and carry out such cruel and barbaric acts on one of our most enigmatic birds of prey. A number of local people indicated they had heard stories that a number of disgruntled pigeon fanciers were involved. Peregrines and other birds of prey do take racing pigeons, though losses are small compared to the number of birds which don't return due to other factors. Research has shown that only 3.5% of racing pigeons are taken by peregrines each year. In contrast, 36% of pigeon losses are the result of birds straying and becoming exhausted.
The West Midlands and Staffordshire Police, supported by the RSPB, put out a press release asking for more information and with a potential reward of £1,000 for information leading to the conviction of any of those responsible.
What now for the chicks?
In the meantime we faced a problem. Peregrine chicks belong in the wild, but with no parents, how could this happen?
The best method was to get these young birds back in the wild by fostering them into wild peregrine nests. Fortunately, it appears adult peregrines cannot count!
This method has been used before in Scotland, but as far as we were aware, this was the first time in England. We had to consider the ages of the chicks, and the extra demands that this would place on the foster family, and decided that we would have to split up the chicks and place them into separate nests.
We contacted some licensed volunteers who monitor the breeding birds of prey in a particular area. As luck would have it, they knew of two nest sites, both with two young in, that were of the correct age. Peregrines usually have three to four chicks and so would be capable of rearing one extra.
Liaising with Raptor Rescue, the local volunteers and landowners, we arranged a date for the operation - 5 June, a day I will remember for the rest of my life.
The moments of truth
An early start saw Guy and I visit Raptor Rescue and the two orphaned peregrines. The birds were in brilliant health and very vocal - always hungry and crying out for more! We collected the birds and met up with a local volunteer, who was going to take us to the two foster nest sites.
Ropes were needed to access the nest site, so we geared up, and I descended to the peregrine nest ledge, where I found two well-fed and happy young chicks. I was delighted to see that they were the perfect age for the orphaned chick I had carried down with me.
The decisive moment was upon me; I gently removed the young chick from its carrying bag and carefully placed it onto the nest ledge, next to its step-sisters. Without a glance at each other, the three young peregrines all fixed their attention to me, and occasionally the food remains in the nest.
The young bird was back in the wild where it belonged; for me those seconds will last forever.
I then descended to the bottom of the cliff and, knowing the parents were watching from afar, we left them to acquaint themselves with the new addition to the family.
Time was pressing. We drove to the second site. I assisted Guy as he secured the last chick in its carrying bag, and descended towards the nest ledge where its future lay. I had the pleasure of being able to watch Guy as he placed the second orphan into the nest; again, the age of the chicks was perfect.
As I watched Guy prepare to ascend, I noticed the chicks moving, and saw the foster chick huddled in between the others. It had been accepted immediately!
With huge grins on our faces, we headed home. The following day we had great news from the local volunteers that the adult peregrines had been seen feeding all the chicks, apparently oblivious of the new arrivals in their family.