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: email@example.com or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
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
People have just about had enough of raptor persecution.
With hen harriers down to just a handful of pairs in England, and no peregrines breeding in the Dark Peak in 2017 for the first time since 1984, clearly something needs to be done. Newspapers are catching on; the public are becoming increasingly environmentally astute; the Government is pledging to restore nature in a generation (no mention of raptor persecution in the 25 Year Plan, but still… read more in Martin Harper’s blog) and this fired-up new generation are taking their concerns to Downing Street to discuss the issues facing the wildlife they (we) love and are set to inherit.
We’ve seen how driven grouse shooting contributes to the illegal persecution of raptors (68% of those convicted of raptor persecution are gamekeepers), and that better regulation is needed. The intense management practices, including burning, also damages vital upland peat bogs in protected areas.
As a result of this frustration, a number of petitions are also emerging. And while they don’t guarantee success, they do provide a window into public opinion that can’t be ignored.
Last year, Mark Farrar launched his online plea to extend Scotland’s vicarious liability laws to England and Wales. This would hold landowners accountable for the crimes of their staff, on their land. Meanwhile the hard line, calling for an outright ban, is being pushed by Mark Avery and those who see no other way to end persecution. Most recently, Ed Hutchings launched an online petition calling for driven grouse shooting to be licensed. This too is gathering momentum – and we believe represents a firm but fair way forward.
Licensing is something the RSPB is strongly behind, and so Ed's petition is the one we're backing. Law-abiding estates would have nothing to fear from licensing, but estates found to be illegally killing hen harriers and other birds of prey could have their license removed. We believe licensing could help improve standards, increase accountability, giving our hen harriers, and other birds of prey, a better chance.
We found out from Ed – a writer, birder and RSPB supporter – what prompted his petition...
Ed Hutchings: 'People should sign the petition if they care about the ecology of our uplands'
“Like many people, I’m sick to the back teeth of raptor persecution. Why some individuals feel that these beautiful creatures should continue to be shot, poisoned and trapped in the 21st century is beyond me. The archaic attitudes of the 18th and 19th centuries aren’t tolerated anymore. The wording of Jane Grigg’s petition ‘Don’t ban Grouse Shooting’ [“Killing vermin is a social service which benefits ALL wildlife. Birds of prey are over-protected and are out of balance with natural habitats and species”] shocked me to the core and I decide to take action in the form of a petition.”
We’ve seen evidence linking gamekeepers to bird of prey persecution, and moorlands empty of raptors imply that much more illegal killing goes on undetected. So what needs to change?
“We have, and sadly it’s the tip of the iceberg. How many persecuted birds are not found? The true number would horrify the general public. The pertinent fact is this: if you want to shoot gamebirds for fun (an activity in which I once partook but now abhor), then you need to accept that you are raising unnaturally high levels of them in a natural environment inhabited by predators, including birds of prey. If you lose some, tough. Accept it or stop shooting. They’re not playing by the rules. Why should our natural heritage be decimated by the minority that enjoy shooting for leisure? It’s outrageous.”
The RSPB’s Birdcrime 2016 report revealed that there were no prosecutions for raptor crimes in 2016, despite over 80 confirmed incidents. In response, the RSPB is calling for better enforcement – and for driven grouse shooting estates to be licensed.
“It’s a farce,” Ed agrees. “The Government and courts need to start taking this more seriously and police forces need greater support in tackling these cases. There are laws in place to protect these birds, but these are clearly not working. Furthermore, the law is pitifully lenient on those that are prosecuted. The paltry fines and sentences are no deterrent – a large estate will pay the fine and take a slap on the wrist. I am of the opinion that if your estate is proved to have persecuted raptors, then you lose your right to shoot game. Simple as that. And this is where licensing comes in. We need a powerful message sent out that it won’t be tolerated anymore.
“People should sign the petition if they care about the ecology of our uplands. Important wildlife sites are being destroyed or damaged by the poor management of many driven grouse moors, while raptors continue to be disturbed and persecuted. Self-regulation has failed, so I am asking for a robust licensing system. Those who breach conditions would have their licenses removed. Law-abiding grouse shoots would benefit from improved public confidence. What have shooting estates to fear if they are legal and sustainable? I hope it will lead to some form of licensing in the future. Apart from a ban, I can’t see any other way forward.”
You can sign the petition here. It runs until June.
Back in August we reported on disturbing events at a marsh harrier nesting site on Denton Moor in North Yorkshire where a series of visits resulted in shots being fired, eggs being removed and the breeding attempt not surprisingly being unsuccessful. Some of those events can be viewed here.
Two armed men leaving the marsh harrier nest, male on the right believed to be carrying at least one marsh harrier egg.
North Yorkshire Police took the matter very seriously made a number of local enquiries to speak with landowners and land users, interviewed two men and made a public appeal for information. Since then the force have made further enquiries to assess whether any forensic voice analysis could be undertaken on the conversation recorded by the RSPB’s covert video camera. It was hoped that it may be possible to compare this recording with the voices of potential suspects obtained during interview.
Unfortunately, the technical assessment ruled the quality of sound on the covert recording, on this occasion, would not be sufficient to allow a meaningful comparison to be made. RSPB would like to thank the North Yorkshire Police for their continued efforts to progress this investigation. Anyone with any further information should contact the police on 101 or contact the RSPB Investigations Section firstname.lastname@example.org.