Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site). During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located. And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.
The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution. First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn. After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests. He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area. 24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others. Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.
Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations. Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry. That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird. You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous. This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though. Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?
What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution. Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?
The recent shooting of a Red Kite (link) obviously had an impact as the number of friends and colleagues who contacted me to express their disgust at the incident was overwhelming.
The Northern Kites release project is a model of community involvement and connection to our threatened wildlife and, without it, it’s questionable whether the shooting would have created such a stir. Other birds of prey are persecuted to almost unbelievable levels but many, many incidents never make the news.
One of my own favourite birds, the Hen Harrier, may well be the most persecuted species in Britain, but community involvement with the birds that have nested in Northumberland this year (link) is raising the profile of this elegant species. After all, we can only appreciate what we know.