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
We see some shocking images in our team, but this week a photo came in that will stick with all of us for a long time.
This is a picture of the heart of a red kite, following a post-mortem examination. On the left, there’s a silver item lodged in the muscle: it’s a piece of shot. But incredibly, this isn’t the piece of shot that killed the bird.
Image: Zoological Society of London (ZSL)
Last April, we blogged about a red kite that was found dead in Bedfordshire. The bird was x-rayed, and found to contain a staggering 10 pieces of shot. This was deemed the cause of death.
However, new developments have emerged following the post-mortem. These results are now back, and reveal that this unfortunate bird had also been shot at an earlier occasion. Three of the pellets were in fact historic. One of them was lodged in the bird’s interventricular septum, meaning that, effectively, this bird had been flying around, possibly for several weeks, with a bullet in its heart.
Even now, a year on, there's still no clue as to who was responsible for shooting this kite - on either occasions. It was found at Daintry Wood, Toddington: if you have information call police on 101 or our confidential raptor crime hotline: 0300 999 0101.
This isn’t the first time a bird of prey with a historic wound has come to our attention. At the start of 2017, one of our satellite-tagged hen harriers, Carroll, was found dead in a field near Alnwick, Northumberland. Her body was sent to Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for a post-mortem, and found to have been suffering from an infectious disease, which had caused her death. But with this came the discovery of two shotgun pellets in her leg and neck. There was no visible injury, indicating that the wounds had healed: remarkably, Carrol had survived being shot.
Later in 2017, a peregrine was picked up in Cumbria. It too it was found to have historic shot wounds. Clearly the bird had lived through the injury - but the fact remains that it had, at some point in its life, been illegally targeted.
Stories like these make you wonder not only at the toughness of birds and the pressures they face (never mind how anyone could intentionally shoot something so marvellous), but how many more birds are suffering from historic shotgun wounds. These examples only came to light once the birds had died, so it could be that the red kite you’re watching from your car, or the peregrine you’re lucky enough to spot on a cliff edge or cathedral, is living with some unwanted foreign object lodged within its small body.
Guest blog by Howard Jones, RSPB Investigations Officer
Goshawk, credit Roy Mangersnes
My job as an investigations officer can take you into some privileged positions. One moment that particularly sticks in my mind, is the time when I arrived with a couple of my colleagues to check on an active goshawk nest in the Peak District that we had been a putting a considerable amount effort into protecting that spring. We were visiting the nest site on a regular basis under an approved license, every time expecting the worst to have happened and the nest to have failed – as has often happened to goshawks breeding in the Peak District.
As we walked down to the nest site, with the female chittering away above us, we were stunned to see a juvenile goshawk sitting on a branch close to the nest tree that would have just left the nest. This was a rare moment of amazing intimacy to see this chick taking its first few steps in life away from the nest, heading into a sadly hostile environment for birds of prey. All was well with the nest and we swiftly left buzzing about the magic moment that we had just witnessed.
Sadly, these uplifting moments are rarely felt in this job. Most of the time, you witness nests failing due to human pressures and incidents of raptor persecution. A goshawk nest that we monitored last year in North Yorkshire tells a familiar tale of humans impacting upon these magnificent birds. The site in question had a history of failures so a covert monitoring camera was installed to try and find out why this might be.
This short video shows what happened at this site near Helmsley, North Yorkshire:
This goshawk nest site should have been safely tucked away in woodland where the public don’t go, yet far too many people were paying unwanted attention to this nest and causing unlicensed illegal disturbance. One evening a figure is seen repeatedly walking behind the nest tree and 11 shots are fired, while the goshawk alarm calls around the nest site. This is a serious cause for concern. The sight of two individuals visiting the nest, commenting ‘she’s on’ and then hitting the nest tree with large sticks is also hugely troubling with regards to their motives.
The nest failed. Four unhatched eggs were found in the nest and taken away for analysis - one had a well-developed chick inside it. This was one bird that would never take its first flight.
North Yorkshire Police have been investigating and need help with regards to the events in the video. Please call 101 if you have any information or call RSPB confidentially on our raptor crime hotline – 0300 999 0101.*
The four cold goshawk eggs, credit Garry Marchant
This appeal also comes ahead of spring and the breeding season and has a wider message. Unfortunately, there are individuals out there who want to harm birds of prey. North Yorkshire is the raptor crime capital of the UK and this incident again underlines the problems faced. A goshawk nest inside the North York Moors National Park should not face such troubles and yet these issues continue to arise inside national parks and other protected areas.
The recent public awareness campaign, Operation Owl, by North Yorkshire Police gives a glimmer of hope for the future and we will also continue to put in efforts to catch the individuals committing this type of crime. Cameras and other methods used by RSPB in a targeted way are a window into a dark world which we would otherwise know nothing about but the public need and want to know about. Nevertheless, both the police and RSPB rely on your vigilance in spring to spot suspicious behaviour and then tell us.
So if you’re out and about this Easter, please keep your eyes and ears open and report any signs of bird of prey persecution or disturbance.
Do you recognise these men? Call North Yorkshire Police on 101.
*The nature of these enquires meant it was decided to release the footage once all other options were exhausted, plus the unexpected number of unlicensed visits to the nest site resulted in three separate police enquiries, inevitably causing a delay. We appreciate this is frustrating, however we know first-hand the excellent work North Yorkshire Police do to tackle to raptor crime.
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