Birds on the brink

With 1 in 4 British birds facing the risk extinction and the rising numbers of illegal killings, the need for tougher sanctions and protection is now.

163

UK bird species at risk

23

Critically endangered species

700+

illegal killings

4

Successful convictions in 5 years

Silent fields and empty skies

The UK is moving closer and closer towards a period of rapid extinctions for our wildlife. In particular it’s our bird species that are feeling the ever-increasing pressure from our actions. Habitat loss due to intensive farming, fatalities from illegal persecution and climate change are just a few of the factors putting pressure on populations of some of our most beloved species. 

The hardest hit species are those that rely on agricultural land, with the UK seeing a 55% decline in most farmland birds since 1970. This information comes from the latest report from the BTO and RSPB. The sobering report published in November 2019 clearly indicates a general downward trend for the 130 species surveyed.

 

Broken down by habitat, the farmland bird index shows an average decline of 50 – 55%, but some species like Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge and Tree Sparrow have all declined by at least 90%. Woodland bird populations fell by 30% overall, but appear to be split by how dependent they are on their woodland ecosystems. More generalist species like long-tailed tit and black caps were hit less severely, taking advantage of urban gardens and other food sources. Meanwhile habitat specialists like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Tit have seen declines of 80% in less than 50 years. Sea birds and wetland species appear to be doing the best of all UK bird groups. 

However, Lapwing, Puffins, and Ringed Plovers are some of the worst hit species, with all of them appearing on the RSPB red list.

RSPB red list

The Redlist is a conservation assessment created by the RSPB in collaboration with organisations like Birdlife international, Joint Nature Conservation Committee and British trust for Ornithology. The assessment analyses UK bird species and calculates the risk of extinction based on;

 

  • Global conservation status.

  • Historical population trends.

  • Breeding population trends.

  • Changes in UK breeding ranges.

 

Species that have seen significant reductions in these categories are placed onto the red list, while those with more moderate declines are placed on the amber list. These lists are used to prioritise conservation efforts in areas where they are most needed.  This effort can be in the form of direct fieldwork, habitat management or lobbying governments and organisations for legislative aid.

Predator persecution

When looking at the species listed as conservation priorities, certain groups of birds appear more frequently, specifically coastal specialists and birds of prey. Hen Harriers, Merlin, White tailed eagles, Montagu's harrier and Honey Buzzards are just a few of the raptor species that are rapidly declining across the UK. While habitat loss is a driving cause for many species nearing extinction, there is a more direct and hands on reason for declines in these species. Despite being legally protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, many birds of prey are facing increasing persecution and illegal killings are on the rise. Since 2012 over 700 birds of prey have been killed through poisoning, shooting or snaring incidents. One case in Scotland involved the poisoning of 16 birds on a single moorland, using banned and illegal pesticides.

Peregrine Falcons (below) are one of the most persecuted species of bird. Eggs and juveniles like the one photographed above are often prize items for many illegal collections. While barn owls (below) are often killed indescrimantly by illegal poisonings that target larger species of birds of prey

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With some species like the Montagu's harrier having only 5 breeding pairs in the UK, this represents a major threat to the persistence of many iconic species. Despite this, prosecution of offenders is low with small fines of £400 often the only repercussions. Additionally, the statute for limitations on crimes committed under the wildlife and countryside act is 3 years, after which prosecution is not possible. Only 1 in 87 crimes resulted in a conviction in 2017 and 2018, with the criminal ordered to complete 225 hours of unpaid work for trapping and killing birds of prey using a banned pesticide, despite previous offences including animal cruelty. The maximum term for offenders under the law is 12 months in prison, although this has never been set as a sentence. Calls for the strengthening of the law and stronger enforcement have repeatedly been made, although no such changes appear to be on the horizon.

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Wildlife and countryside act 1981.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is the primary legislation which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK. Under the law all birds, nests and eggs are protected, as such it is an offence too:

 

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.

  • Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.

  • Intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird. 

  • Have in one's possession or control any wild bird, dead or alive, or any part of a wild bird, which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954.

  • Have in one's possession or control any egg or part of an egg which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954.

  • Use traps or similar items to kill, injure or take wild birds.

  • Have in one's possession or control any bird of a species occurring on Schedule 4 of the Act unless registered, and in most cases ringed, in accordance with the Secretary of State's regulations (see Schedules).

  • Intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird.  

Killing for profit?

The topic of bird of prey persecution is often marred as a smear campaign against the shooting industry. Boiled down to nothing but a witch hunt, but is it?

The truth is far more complicated than you might think. 

Throughout the UK 40 million pheasants and six million red-legged partridges are released onto shooting moors every year. With the shooting industry generating around £2 .5 billion for the UK economy and providing almost 80,000 jobs. Alongside these positives to the economy, around two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting. With nearly £250 million spent on conservation and habitat management each year according to the countryside alliance. That means the shooting industry spends more than the government each year on conservation. In 2018, public spending was just £239 million, according to governmental figures. This shows the potential benefits that shooting moors and the shooting industry provide to species in the UK, a side of the argument that is often overlooked. However, while on paper it may benefit many species, the realities are not always as good. 

Bad individuals, not a bad industry?

 

When you look at the locations of illegal bird killings, almost 4 in 5 occur on shooting moors. These events including poisonings, shootings and trappings, are usually aimed at reducing the number of stock birds predated. Every game bird that is killed or taken by a bird of prey, is a loss of income for the game keepers and estate holders. However, it is important to realise that not all game keepers or moor owners are killing birds or prey illegally. It could be the use of a broad brush by conservationists to colour the entire industry as bad, that creates animosity and reduces the chances for mutual benefits. Many of those accused of illegal killings state they were protecting their livelihood and ability to provide for their families. However, while this may be true its not a valid excuse. The birds are legally protected and predation rates are not as high as many attempt to suggest. 

Studies have proven that on average 5 - 8% of game bird mortality is caused by natural predators. While this is a large number of birds, it is the way that shooting moors are stocked that causes such high mortality.  Roughly 46,000 tonnes of gamebird "biomass" is released into the countryside each year. Meanwhile the estimated total biomass for all native UK breeding bird species is just 19,500 tonnes. As such, the stocking densities of moorland make them the perfect hunting ground for birds of prey, with more than double the available food compared to other areas. As such, instead of blaming the birds for coming to the moorland, more should be done to make sure more natural food sources as protected. 

As important as it is to highlight the problems, those that are doing good work should also be praised. Glenlivet estate in Scotland is one such place.

I had the privilege to visit the estate in 2018 while looking for mountain hare.  It is actively managed as a shooting moor but also as a wildlife hot-spot that brings in additional money through tourism. A number of activities like wildlife safari's and guided tours, attract those more interested in shooting wildlife with a camera than a gun. While there I met a local guide, who was part of small community actively talking to other estates to promote this way of life, as a way of safeguarding our natural wonders as well as the sport of shooting. These are the prime examples of gamekeepers we should be praising as conservationists. 

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Why we need birds of prey

The killing of birds of prey is not just about the loss of individual birds, but the loss of balance in ecosystems. As Apex or top-level predators, they have an impact throughout the food chain and cutting them out can have a drastic impact.  As regulators of herbivorous and insectivorous species, birds of prey help maintain a balance. Overstocking and high population levels can deplete natural food sources, increasing the costs for moor owners to replace what’s lost or artificially feed the game birds all year round.  Some shooting moors like those photographed opposite have had to start artificially burning scrub land to encourage growth after over grazing by game birds. Additionally, birds of prey do not specifically kill game birds and will eat a variety of rodents and species typically considered pests. This type of pest control has also been shown to actively reduce the risks of diseases in captive populations. A benefit that would likely disappear with the birds themselves.

 

 

For scientists and conservationists, birds of prey populations are a good way of monitoring the health of a habitat in general. Peaks in bird populations can indicate a boom in prey species, while drops in their numbers indicate that the quality of an ecosystem is declining. 

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Several moorland's in the Pennines have had to start burning the moors after high stocking of game birds depleted natural food sources. The barren patches of ground can be seen just above the path through the centre of the image. Also of interest is the line of black dots, these are the shooting stations themselves. During off peak seasons, game birds are fed at these stations to ensure they stay nearby when the shooting starts. Despite being a perfect habitat for birds, none can be seen in the miles of open skies.

To the Brink and back again

Amidst all the doom and gloom, its important to remind ourselves that it is possible to save a species from going extinct. One of the best examples of this in the UK is the Red kite.

 

Officially extinct in England and Scotland by 1871, a handful of individuals remained in mid Wales. This was the case until the 1960’s when conservation efforts for the species began. Protection of the remaining population and re-introductions in the 80’s helped the species thrive. There are now close to 2,000 pairs in the UK, representing almost 10% of the entire world’s population of red kites. 

What needs to be done?

While it may seem like a daunting task of solving illegal persecution, there are a number of things we can do to help. 

 

​Education

A key factor in reducing the number of birds killed is to increase the understanding of not just the ecological role of the birds but the possible economic benefits. Including topics like these in countryside management courses necessary to become game keepers would help protect our species. 

 

Awareness

Raising awareness of the plight of our birds may help bring these issues to the forefront of public thinking. While pressure from conservationists is sometimes successful, changes in the general perception of such events may stop future killings. Even if the actions of current gamekeepers do not change, a cultural shift may mean future generations don’t think the same way about birds of prey.

 

Financial support / incentives

The primary cause of many killings is the loss of income to land owners. Conservation efforts in many countries across the world already use compensation for killed livestock as a way of lowering conflict. If a financial stipend was payed at the rate of average killings by birds of prey to each land owner, it may reduce the need many game keepers feel to kill predators. 

 

​Stronger sentences

Higher penalties applied to those that kill birds illegally may also prevent some from carrying out such acts. While technically illegal, current regulations are considered by many to be too lenient. Small fines and unpaid work are often the only hardships imposed to criminals who knowingly kill endangered species. 

How can you help?

Issues in conservation can sometimes seem far away or impossible to solve, but this is one problem that each and every one of us in the UK can help with.

Donations to organisations like the RSPB can help fund monitoring and new conservation projects.

Why not offer your time and help out at local centres or without even leaving your home. Every year the RSPB run a number of surveys like the Big Garden Bird Watch that asks the general public to send in their sightings. Having a cup of tea and watching the birds can help inform conservationists about general trends in our bird species and inform our actions.

If you see or suspect someone is killing animals illegally, the government recommends phoning the emergency services on 999 if the action is in progress or 101 if there is evidence of a past crime.

You can find guidance online here

Or If you are unsure of what constitutes illegal activity, the RSPB provide a list and explanation of the types of activities here.

The elephant in the room

The truth is that is it not just the shooting industry that needs to change the way it thinks about killing birds of prey. While scenes of mutilated animals like elephants often creates outcries of disgust from the general public, the sight of a dead bird of prey often does little to stir the same emotion. This apathy towards species that call the skies of the UK home is plain to see. There are 415,000 Elephants left in Africa, with each poaching incident bring us closer to extinction of one of the most iconic species on the planet. Each death is a reminder that greed often overpowers ethics and money overpowering compassion, but is the same not true for birds of prey? The need to stop such travesties is plain to see, with people watching the plight of certain species half a world away with some invested interest. However, here in the UK we have our very own mass extinction happening. Bird species have declined on average 45% since 1970, and yet few look up to wonder where the birds have gone.

Written by Rhodri Phillips