Raptors really are hugely impressive predators. Their incredible vision, effortless aerial acrobatics and ruthless hunting instinct make them the undisputed masters of the skies. They share some common traits like powerful talons to hold and kill prey, a hooked bill to tear flesh from their victims’ bones, and those incredibly graceful flying skills, thanks to powerful wings and aerodynamic tail, and the ability to use thermals, the wind, the lay of the land and stealth to survive. Raptors are now present throughout much of the UK, but remarkably scarce around the upland moors - often referred to as grouse moors.
No coincidence then that 68% of those convicted for raptor offences in Britain are gamekeepers. But they are the ones caught ‘red-handed’ and surely, just a small part of a much bigger picture.
Raptor persecution is a serious threat to our native birds of prey, many of whom suffered rapid depletion in numbers, through persecution, egg theft, nest and habitat destruction or chemicals such as DDT (now banned), that weakened their eggshells.
Some species are recovering after many years of conservation effort, but others are still critically endangered. There are 15 species of raptor breeding in the UK, here are the ones that are most commonly found in or around the upland moors in Britain.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
There are 500 UK breeding pairs of Golden Eagles in the UK. Eagles are incredibly agile for a large bird, and capable of stooping for prey at up to 120mph, this turn of speed is also important in the mating acrobatics, where they take it in turns to drop and catch sticks and stones in mid-air. Eagles are long-lived too - up to 30 years - and pair for life.
In June 2016, Scottish Natural Heritage published a report on satellite tagged Golden eagles. The report was described as “a damning indictment” of the grouse shooting industry, providing “irrefutable evidence” of “systematic, organised criminality”.
After examining the fate of 131 eagles fitted with satellite tags between 2004 and 2016, the study concluded: “As many as 41 individuals (31 percent) disappeared (presumed dead) under suspicious circumstances significantly connected with contemporaneous records of illegal persecution. “Overall, the report concludes that a relatively large number of the satellite-tagged golden eagles were probably killed, mostly on or near some grouse moors where there is recent, independent evidence of illegal persecution.”
You can read the full report here
Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
Buzzards are one of the most common raptors in the UK. They can be seen soaring on thermals in every county of England. This medium-sized hawk has a wingspan of up to 4ft 6in and varies in colour from almost white to dark brown. There are around 79000 nesting pairs. Many people hear their cat like ‘mew’ call without realising it came from the Buzzard. They are scavengers and general feeders from rabbits to worms. Once paired, buzzards mate for life and are highly territorial. They have been called ‘lazy’ due to their habit of sitting in wait, often on a fencepost for their prey – in reality, they are quick movers, adept at hovering and flying ‘fast and low’ to surprise prey. Males perform ‘rollercoaster’ aerial displays to impress the ladies at the mating time.
There are many reports of buzzards being shot and poisoned throughout the UK. In just two months between October and December 2017 - there were no less than nine individual media reports with 6 buzzards found shot in North Yorkshire alone. Following x rays, all had lead shot within them. North Yorkshire has a large number of grouse moors. One buzzard was shot during a pheasant shoot in Scotland - an alleged case of mistaken identity by the shooter, who was fined £500.
Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus)
The male and female have different colours. The pale-grey male is very distinct with his long black-tipped wings. Females and young are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail which gives rise to the name 'ringtail'. They fly with their wings held in a shallow 'V', gliding low in search of food, which mainly consists of meadow pipits and voles. Hen Harriers perform one of the most spectacular ‘sky-dancing’ and food passes during the mating season.
Hen Harriers are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981) and red listed in the UK as critically endangered. It is believed that only 3 nesting pairs remain in England. The latest survey showed just 545 nesting pairs in the UK. Hen Harriers are the high profile victims of grouse moor raptor persecution. Dr Mark Avery and Chris Packham are instrumental in the campaign to save Hen Harriers and have an annual event, usually in early August. The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) stated in 2017 “ Researchers have found that breeding Hen Harrier numbers in the UK, particularly in northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, are currently, or have been, constrained by illegal population control associated with management of grouse moors.
Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Peregrine Falcon has made a remarkable comeback from the 1960s when it fell victim to chemical poisoning, egg-collecting, falconers taking young and persecution. This was particularly acute during the World Wars when they were shot to stop them killing carrier pigeons.
Now, they range throughout the UK from their regular upland, craggy haunts to cities where their cliffs are buildings and their food is feral pigeon. The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on the planet, it’s Britain’s largest falcon. They are designed for speed, with curved wings around a metre in span and a stocky, slate-black body. The trademark dive for prey can see them reach speeds of 200 miles per hour - before stooping to take their unsuspecting prey ‘on the wing’
Whilst Peregrine Falcon numbers have increased overall, the 2014 national survey revealed that numbers have decreased in upland areas. The report continued The association of Peregrines with wild and remote places in the UK grows increasingly tenuous, as numbers nesting on traditional inland crags decline, and the numbers occupying lowland quarries and man-made structures continue to grow. In essence, Peregrine Falcons are being forced from their native upland moors into our cities to survive. They are a number of records on Peregrine Falcons found shot near grouse moors since 2016.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Once our most common raptor, Kestrel populations are in decline, particularly in Scotland. They are now amber listed - as of concern. The beautiful chestnut-bodied falcon, also known as a ‘wind hover’ because of how it ‘hangs’ in the air, head motionless, as the wings and tail working in unison before it drops on to it’s unsuspecting prey. Kestrel’s use old crow’s nests and make use of holes in trees and manmade structures to rear their young.
Kestrel populations continue to decline. Reports of shootings in Worcestershire and North Yorkshire were confirmed by x-rays, that showed the presence of lead shot. One kestrel shot on Christmas Day 2017 in North Yorkshire, that has a large number of grouse moors, suffered severe wing damage. It survived, but many more would have been shot or poisoned that were not found.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Merlin is the smallest Raptor found in the UK. But don’t be mislead, for what they lack in size, they make up for in courage. Merlin will intimidate ravens, buzzards with their incessant ‘chittering’ before they attack. Like other raptors, they follow their prey, tracking pipits and larks as they return to moorland in spring. Merlin uses fence posts and trees to eat their prey and this is often used to track the nests. Merlin's are ground nesting, that makes them vulnerable to predation.
Merlin provides little threat to red grouse, and they are often ‘tolerated’ by gamekeepers on grouse moors. Some Grouse moors are even claiming ‘conservation success’ as Merlin numbers increase in their area. This is because, other larger raptors are being killed, leaving a good food natural food source that isn’t the much prized red grouse. Despite these claims, Merlin is still endangered and red listed.
Save Me is Campaigning to stop Raptor persecution and wildlife crime in Britain
Currently, in early 2018, the Scottish government are proposing a review on shooting estates, with an idea to licence shooting estates, but, importantly including a ‘vicarious liability clause’ that would see landowners made responsible for illegal acts taking place on their land.
There are no such plans or considerations from the government in England & Wales. Save Me wants to see a review of England’s driven grouse moors, to consider licensing and the introduction of a vicarious liability clause, making landowners liable for illegal actions on their land.
We want to see the strengthening of the Wildlife Protection act 1981 to include custodial sentences for deliberate crimes against all wildlife, including raptors.
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