Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, reports on the latest scientific report which highlights the continuing threat to the peregrine falcon in the north of England

For millions of years the process of evolution has continued and shape and push life to achieve things that leaves us gasping in amazement and struggling to comprehend how such things are even possible. The peregrine falcon is one of those species which has pushed the evolutionary envelope. Holding the title of the fastest animal on the planet this is a bird that can come out of the heavens like a thunderbolt at speeds reputedly in excess of 200 mph. 

Man has had a long history with this amazing bird. It has been used in falconry for more than 3,000 years, beginning with nomads in central Asia. Henry VIII made it a felony to take the eggs of birds of prey because of their value for falconry. In recent years the illegal taking of peregrines for falconry has been tackled by innovative forensic techniques such as DNA profiling.

 The profile of the peregrine really came to the fore during the 1950s and 60s. Due to our use of organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, and their accumulation in the food chain. In several parts of the world, such as the eastern United States, this species became locally extinct and the peregrine became an endangered species. The global collapse of the peregrine population helped alert the world to the implications of these chemicals in our food chain and the recovery of the species has been something of a cause célèbre amongst conservationists.

Unfortunately, the prowess of this astonishing bird is not appreciated by everyone. In recent years, there has been an increasing conflict with some members of the pigeon racing community. Despite research showing the major losses of racing pigeons are not due to predation by raptors, species like the peregrine have suffered from at the hands of individuals taking the law into their own hands.

However, undoubtedly the main problem for the peregrines in the UK remains its unpopularity on many upland estates managed for red grouse shooting. Every year we receive reports of peregrines being illegally shot, trapped and poisoned. We have no doubt these reported incidents can only ever be the tip of the iceberg of what actually takes place.

Last week the RSPB launched its annual Birdcrime report for 2010. As usual the shooting community were quick to challenge RSPB figures and downplay the extent of the problem. We believe the shooting industry must be fully aware of the scale of persecution. Whilst the gamekeeper is the man who typically ends up in court, we believe it is the managers and employers lurking in the background who allow and direct their staff to commit these criminal acts on their behalf who are the real culprits. In 2012, Scotland is set to introduce an offence of vicarious liability to try to make these individuals more accountable for what take places on the land they manage and the actions of their staff.

Whilst the few crimes that are discovered give us a good insight into where these offences are being committed and the occupations of those involved, it can only ever provide a narrow window to view what is really taking place.

 In the UK we are fortunate to have a dedicated network of volunteers, Raptor Study Group Workers, who are involved in monitoring the populations of many birds of prey. The data gathered by such people has been put to increasing use and in recent years a succession of peer-reviewed scientific papers has provided a disturbing insight into the levels and impact of human persecution on raptors. Research on species such as golden eagle and hen harrier have confirmed the profound affect of persecution associated with land managed for red grouse shooting.

The most recent study looking at peregrine breeding success in the north of England has just been published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. This has revealed the shocking extent of persecution of peregrines that attempt to nest on England’s grouse moors.

The paper was jointly produced by RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF), who coordinate raptor monitoring work across the north of England. The study used Google Earth to map the characteristic 'strip burning' that is typical of moorland managed for intensive grouse shooting. This map was then combined with nearly three decades of nest monitoring information that had been collected by the teams of dedicated volunteers. Breeding success of peregrines breeding on grouse moors was half that of other habitats. Only a third of nests produced young on grouse moors and the higher levels of breeding failure meant that peregrine populations on grouse moors were not self-sustaining. Regional extinction was only prevented by the immigration of birds reared from more productive nest sites away from grouse moors.

The study also looked at all the distribution of confirmed and probable incidents of peregrine persecution between 1990 and 2006 across the study areas in northern England. It found that these incidents occurred far more frequently on grouse moors than on other habitats, despite there being more pairs breeding away from grouse moors.

So there you have it, if peregrines only chose to nest on grouse moors they would rapidly become extinct. It will be interesting to see how the shooting community react to yet another piece of scientific work clearly spelling out what is happening in our uplands.

The Government has already identified bird of prey persecution as one of its six wildlife crime priorities and earlier this year, it added peregrine to the list of priority species. This was a welcome decision which this study fully indicates. Unfortunately, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime. The government need to find ways to put pressure on the shooting industry to reduce the level of offending. Species like the hen harrier with just a few pairs left in northern England, despite habitat for over 300 pairs, are desperately in need of such help. The RSPB 2010 Birdcrime report has identified a series of areas where Government needs to step up to address illegal persecution of birds of prey and secure the future of our raptors.

The peregrine may be the fastest creature on the planet, but unfortunately still not fast enough to escape the hand of man in large parts of our uplands.