Operation Owl assembles in Helmsley, North Yorkshire

RSPB staff took arms against the ongoing problem of raptor persecution in North Yorkshire last weekend as our Investigations team joined North Yorkshire Police on a mission known as ‘Operation Owl’.

On Saturday 18 February, we joined police officers and staff from the RSPCA, Yorkshire Dales National Park and North York Moors National Park at Brimham Rocks, a beautiful tourist spot in Nidderdale, with the aim of raising public awareness and rooting out those responsible.

It looked like half the police in the county had turned up that morning, along with a number of local press – a really great result. We demonstrated how pole traps catch raptors and ran a video about raptor persecution on a big screen. Later we paired up to take posters to local vets, hand out leaflets to visitors and generally spread the message throughout the community.

We were back out again on Sunday, starting in Helmsley town square (putting posters in local shops and cafes) then heading up to the North York Moors visitor centre.

Police and RSPB outside Helmsley's Thomas the Baker, who were more than happy to display our posters

North Yorkshire has long been a blackspot for the illegal killing of birds of prey: in 2016, 20 of the UK’s 83 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution took place here. And over the last five years, North Yorkshire has notched up more than twice as many of these incidents than any other county.

Strikingly, not many people we spoke to knew this. Most were shocked to see images of trapped or shot birds, and had no idea that this sort of thing was happening on their doorstep. The question most people asked was ‘Why?’.

Locals show their support for Operation Owl

To illustrate the issue we’d prepared a short video, featuring recent Wildlife Law Enforcer of the Year Acting Inspector Kevin Kelly and RSPB Senior Investigations Officer Mark Thomas speaking about the different methods of illegally catching raptors, what signs to look for and how to report anything suspicious.

We ran the video on a loop on a big screen, which we moved from location to location. It drew quite a crowd!

Have a watch of it here:

Some locals, however, have been actively concerned about the criminal activity that’s giving their region a bad name. Last year, Keith Tordoff, who runs a sweet shop in Patley Bridge (the oldest sweet shop in England, in fact), offered £1000 of his own money as a reward for information about who was killing red kites in the area. So far no-one has come forward.

This was the other item on our agenda. Over the weekend, the RSPB launched its Raptor Crime Hotline, to provide people within rural communities with a means of reporting raptor crimes in confidence. To promote the hotline, we distributed 1000 beer mats, featuring the number, to local pubs. 

Explains Guy Shorrock, Senior Investigations Officer,: “Illegal killing is not only robbing people of the chance to enjoy watching birds of prey but has serious consequences for their populations. We are sure there are people within rural and shooting communities who know who is committing these crimes but are cautious about speaking out. This 24-hour hotline provides a completely safe and confidential way to pass on information – calls are not recorded and are treated in the utmost confidence.

“We would like to see shooting organisations showing their support by including the hotline on their websites and encouraging their members to come forward with information regarding crimes against birds of prey in the UK.”

The number to call is 0300 999 0101.

Assistant Chief Constable Amanda Oliver, of North Yorkshire Police, also added:

"The launch of the RSPB's confidential 'Raptor Crime Hotline' is welcomed. I would always advise the public who wish to report any wildlife crime to contact the police, however I believe a further confidential contact point such as this will help contribute towards the fight in reducing the persecution of birds of prey and bringing those committing this despicable crimes to justice."

It was great to see such commitment from the local police, many of whom had given up their day off, and we’re grateful to all the local businesses who offered up their support by displaying our posters and beer mats. Everyone we spoke to was naturally appalled at the idea of birds of prey being deliberately and illegally killed in such cruel ways; clearly public attitudes are not in support of those who are doing it. Hopefully, in spreading the word, we may have reached one or two people who are sitting on information they want to share, but haven’t been comfortable sharing before now.

#OpOwl caused quite a twitterstorm over the weekend. Engagement like this shows how strongly people feel about these crimes.

As if to confirm our hopes, during Sunday’s debrief we received our first hotline call.

And though calling it an omen might be a stretch, on Sunday afternoon several teams got beautiful views of a barn owl from their patrol cars. My colleague Guy took this lovely photo, which seemed like a fitting and hopeful end to Operation Owl.

Barn owl, credit Guy Shorrock