It's fair to say that most people appreciate and understand the value of species at the top of the food chain and why they're important in a balanced environment. Yet despite nearly 50 years of legal protection, many birds of prey continue to be persecuted across the UK.

The dedicated work of raptor study groups plays a vital part in local monitoring and conservation of our native birds of prey. As such, many reports of incidents come into the RSPB via these study groups. 

A new report from the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) has shown that illegal killing of birds of prey remains a major problem for a range of species across the North of England. Populations of some of our best-loved birds, such as peregrineshen harriers and red kites are suppressed by illegal killing, primarily on land managed for driven grouse shooting. 

The golden eagle may be an iconic bird of Scotland, but historically it bred across much of northern England. The NERF report concludes that unless the spectre of persecution in the Scottish borders and the north of England is removed, they are likely to remain extinct as a nesting bird in England. Only one solitary golden eagle was seen in northern England during 2009. 

Traditionally, golden eagles could be seen in the forests of Northumberland. However, for the first time in three decades they were absent. 

Persecution in the south-east of Scotland is limiting the species' population growth in Scotland and preventing re-colonisation of northern England.

Paul Irving is the chairman of the Northern England Raptor Forum, an organisation created in 2006 to monitor the fortunes of the region's birds of prey. He said: 'With its iconic landscapes, northern England is enormously popular with tourists. However, our monitoring shows that the skies above some of our most important landscapes are largely devoid of the birds of prey which have hunted these areas for thousands of years.

'The situation with the hen harrier population continues to cause grave concern. Its failure to expand into eminently suitable habitat found throughout the northern uplands is now widely attributed to persecution as a result of the perceived conflict with grouse moor management. 

'This situation is absolutely intolerable and NERF calls on the authorities to use all of their powers to reverse the situation'.

Illegal persecution across northern England is affecting the fortunes of a number of the region's birds of prey, including hen harriers, goshawks, peregrines and red kites.

Copies of the report can be obtained from Steve Downing. E-mail nerfconf@hotmail.co.uk

Copies cost £12 each including postage and packing.