The United Kingdom has little to boast in the way of big mammalian predators: no bears, no wolves, no lynx. Instead, the top carnivores in the UK are our birds of prey.
We have around twenty species of birds of prey that breed in the UK (some are resident all year round, whilst others are migratory): 5 of these are owls, whilst others include hawks, falcons, eagles and buzzards, as well as the Osprey. These majestic raptors are true icons of every British habitat: Peregrine Falcons nesting in city centres; Marsh Harriers soaring over reedbeds; Kestrels hovering over a motorway verge; or Golden Eagles cruising along a rocky ridge in the Scottish mountains. There are few people who won’t pause to watch a Barn Owl gliding like a ghost across a field or glance upwards at the mewing of a circling Common Buzzard.
Here at the Rutland Osprey Project we have been very lucky. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the team for nearly twenty years now, we have excellent relationships with local landowners: fish farmers, gamekeepers, estate owners and agricultural workers all contribute in a very positive and meaningful way every year to Project, ensuring an expanding breeding population of Ospreys in the area, as do local businesses and residents. We could not have achieved what we have without their support. Furthermore, work all along the flyway with local communities, education programmes in schools and events like World Osprey Week have led to increased understanding of birds of prey and their ecology as far south as Gambia. Our work is far from finished, but the prospects are fair.
But sadly, whilst the Osprey may be increasing in numbers, there are many birds of prey in Britain that are seriously threatened and in recent weeks this seems to have suddenly gotten a whole lot worse.
In Scotland, at the site of the Red Kite re-introduction on the Black Isle, as many as twenty Red Kites and Common Buzzards have been found dead; it is suspected that these birds have been poisoned, but as yet nothing has been proven. In the past 24 hours, a Red Kite has been reported shot in Northamptonshire – “peppered with bullets”.
The same story is repeated for eagles: both White-tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles (some satellite tagged) have been targeted by poisonings and shootings in Scotland, once again undoing the work of conservationists who have worked hard for the past fifty years to either re-introduce species lost to persecution or to protect the vestiges of populations on the edge.
Hen Harriers are now on the brink of extinction. Imagine that: with only twenty species of raptor in Britain, one of them is about to slip away – victim of persecution as it is seen as a threat to pheasants and other game birds by certain landowners on grouse moors.
And the troubles don’t end in the UK; if you’ve been watching Chris Packham’s Malta: Massacre on Migration you’ll have seen that many birds (raptors and other species) are threatened on spring migration by the attitudes of a minority of hunters, who see this annual killing as a right of passage.
There are a few things to take away from all of these examples of persecution. First of all, in the majority of cases the persecution is being carried out by a minority. In Scotland, a group of farmers and landowners from the Moray Firth have pledged a reward of £12,000 for information about the deaths of birds of prey in the Highlands. The same goes for Maltese hunting; the impression one gets from Packham’s films are that many of the Maltese people despise the mindlessness of the hunting: mere target practice.
Secondly, not all is bad for birds of prey in the UK and whilst some populations are in drastic decline, protection over the last 50 years has led to a recovery in the populations of Common Buzzard, Osprey and Peregrine Falcon. Sadly though, whilst persecution continues, even if by a minority, things are far from secure. One of the biggest challenges we face is overcoming a serious lack of empathy and understanding of the ecology of our birds of prey; removing people’s natural prejudices is a major difficulty, especially where economic fears and scapegoats are involved.
Finally, we can only secure the fate of Britain’s raptors with public support; the Osprey Project is very fortunate to have a strong, dedicated and passionate following and we thank every one of you for that, but if you have a chance, do have a read around some of these other issues and show your support – signing petitions, donating, volunteering, writing letters to MPs and promoting the fantastic work of organisations who are combating bird of prey persecution are great ways to start!