There were 85 confirmed incidents of the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey in Britain in 2019, according to the RSPB’s annual Birdcrime report.
Half of all confirmed persecution incidents in the past seven years have occurred in landscapes supposedly already “protected” for nature, such as national parks.
North Yorkshire was the hotspot for illegal persecution for the sixth year running, with the RSPB recording that a majority of incidents occurred on or near moors managed for grouse shooting. Persecution reports increased during the first coronavirus lockdown in the spring.
As well as the illegal killing, satellite-tagged birds of prey have been vanishing in suspicious circumstances. Since the start of 2018, 45 tagged hen harriers have been illegally killed or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Although this year was the most successful breeding season since 2002 with 19 successful nests, there is habitat to support more than 300 pairs. Analysis of government data found that illegal killing was the principle factor limiting hen harrier numbers in the UK.
Mark Thomas, head of investigations at RSPB UK , said: “Once again the Birdcrime report shows that protected birds of prey like hen harriers, peregrines and golden eagles are being relentlessly persecuted, particularly in areas dominated by driven grouse shooting.
“The illegal killing of birds of prey is just one of the symptoms of a wholly unsustainable driven grouse shooting industry.”
The RSPB is also calling on the government to ban the deliberate burning of moors managed for grouse shooting, with a ban supported by city mayors and councils across northern England including the Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.
Peat bogs on moors are a crucial carbon store, with UK peatlands storing an estimated 3,200mtonnes of carbon. But peat moorland is burned to stimulate the growth of young heather shoots, on which red grouse feed. This releases carbon into the atmosphere and degrades the peat, making it poorer for wildlife and less able to absorb water, increasing the flood risk for towns downstream.
There has been a seven-fold increase in burning on peatland in England from the 1940s to today. According to the RSPB there are more than 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors on European protected areas in northern England, covering around 950 sq km.
Environment minister Zac Goldsmith recently pledged to phase out the burning of moorland but there has been no action yet from the government.
Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, said: “In a climate and ecological emergency, the continued burning of precious peatlands is simply not acceptable and undermines the UK government’s legal obligations to restore nature. The government has long promised to end the burning of peat, it has widespread public support, and the secretary of state [for the environment], George Eustice, now needs to make good on this pledge.”
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said that 12 of the 19 hen harrier nests in England were on grouse moors, producing 40 out of the 60 fledged chicks.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms all forms of wildlife crime, including any incidents of bird of prey persecution, and the moorland sector has a zero tolerance approach to such activity,” she said.
Of the moorland burning, Anderson said that “controlled burning” of heather was only carried out where there was “no realistic alternative” and when undertaken in the autumn and winter did not harm the peat or moss underneath and also reduced fuel loads and the risk of summer wildfires.
She said: “Recent scientific research has shown that areas of blanket bog can be capable of increased levels of carbon capture with burning as part of the management. Heather (not peat) burning, therefore, is a crucial tool – amongst others – for the restoration and protection of our peatlands.”