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Wildlife crimes involving raptors

An ill or injured bird of prey could be evidence of wildlife crime and veterinary surgeons can play a crucial role in reporting anything suspicious

07 April 2020, at 9:00am

For most people, the idea of intentionally harming a wild bird is unthinkable. Yet sadly there are those who illegally shoot, trap and poison birds of prey. This not only causes harm to individual birds but also affects the population and distribution of the species, and the ecosystems to which they belong. This is a problem which is continuing, often unseen, despite efforts by police and conservationists.

Birds of prey – or raptors – are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To intentionally kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. The RSPB has a dedicated Investigations Unit whose job it is to help prevent and detect these crimes, working with police and other government agencies, with the long-term aim of ending the systematic persecution of the UK’s raptors.

The results can be brutal. In 2019, a male hen harrier was found alive, caught in an illegally set metal spring trap on a Scottish moor. Despite dedicated work by a vet, the bird’s leg could not be saved and the bird had to be euthanised. The RSPB has seen birds peppered with shots, with more than 10 pieces showing up under X-ray, and poisoned by substances left out in the open which also pose a serious risk to people and pets.

So why does it happen?

Raptor persecution is usually associated with game bird shooting, particularly driven grouse shooting in the upland moors of northern England and Scotland. On land managed intensively to support the highest possible number of red grouse to be commercially shot, birds of prey are seen by some as unwanted pests and systematically eradicated, regardless of the law. Since 1990, two-thirds of people convicted of raptor persecution offences have been gamekeepers and many moors have become crime scenes, largely empty of birds of prey.

In the Peak District’s northern Dark Peak, which is dominated by driven grouse moors, no peregrine falcons bred whatsoever in 2017. Rare hen harriers, which should be found in their hundreds across the English uplands, produced just 12 successful nests in England in 2019. This species could go extinct as a breeding bird in England in our lifetime. In both these examples, independent scientific reports have concluded that persecution is the major contributing factor.

There’s a problem in lowland areas too. Reports sometimes come in from dog walkers finding birds like buzzards and owls dead or injured near land managed for pheasant and partridge shooting. Some people with racing pigeon interests have also been known to target sparrowhawks and peregrines, especially around towns and cities.

The RSPB, which is a conservation-led rather than a welfare organisation, takes a neutral stance on the ethics of shooting but steps in when criminality and conservation issues arise.

In 2017, RSPB Investigations Officers witnessed a gamekeeper shoot two short-eared owls on a grouse moor in Cumbria. They filmed him disposing of one body by hiding it in a dry-stone wall, and stamping the other into the boggy ground. They phoned the police and after a dramatic chase across the moor the man was arrested there and then. The RSPB employs half a dozen fieldworkers to deploy covert cameras, monitor problem areas and gather evidence to assist with police investigations. But they can’t be everywhere at once.

How you can help

More often than not cases come to light as a result of a phone call or email by someone who has found a dead or injured bird of prey in suspicious circumstances. Reports like these are crucial. The latest Birdcrime report, produced by the RSPB, showed 87 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution in the UK during 2018. However, the team is concerned that many crimes are going undetected and unreported.

Veterinary surgeons play an important role in helping detect incidents of raptor persecution which could otherwise be missed. A buzzard or sparrowhawk brought into your surgery may have been the victim of an unfortunate accident or a natural death, but there’s also a chance it has been deliberately targeted.

If you do come across an ill or injured raptor, and suspect there may be criminality involved, please immediately report it. The end of this article has more information on how to do this. If you are uncertain of the best course of action, please contact the RSPB’s Investigations Unit for advice. The details of any examination or treatment may be important evidence and this information needs to be retained. If a bird dies or has to be euthanised it should be carefully labelled and stored pending any investigation that may be needed. The BSAVA Manual of Wildlife Casualties (2017) has a helpful chapter “Investigating Wildlife Crime” written specifically for vets.

Mark Naguib is an Advanced Practitioner in Zoological Medicine based at Battle Flatts Veterinary Clinic in Stamford Bridge, near York. For the past six years, North Yorkshire has clocked up more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other UK county, and Mark has seen the results of many of them.

“We get quite a lot of buzzards,” says Mark. “One came in about a year ago which had a fractured leg: it was a classic shotgun shot case. Sadly, in North Yorkshire we are the bird of prey persecution capital of the UK, so we have a lot of shot and poisoned birds come through.”

Mark and his team regularly X-ray birds which turn out to be shot, providing clear and crucial evidence that a crime has taken place (Figure 1).

“On an X-ray, there’s no way you can mistake a shotgun pellet for anything else,” says Mark. “Though it’s very easy in birds to miss fractures, especially in the shoulder area, because they’re very different anatomically to dogs and cats. It’s really important to assess that area really thoroughly both when the bird is awake and when you X-ray it. The positioning of the X-ray is really important too. We see a lot that have been missed.”

While fractures may indicate a bird has been the victim of shooting (Figure 1), a bird with missing feet may indicate a trapping offence (Figure 2). The RSPB has received images of barn owls with their feet severed by metal spring traps. Meanwhile a swollen crop is often a sign a bird has ingested something so toxic that the food did not have time to get from the crop down into the body before it died.

Unlike the RSPCA, which deals with welfare issues, the RSPB doesn’t have the capacity to rehabilitate injured birds, so vets are an invaluable asset when it comes to treating raptors which have been illegally targeted.

“I think it’s something which all vets should be doing if they can,” added Mark. “It’s a really valuable service and a way of giving back to the community and helping our wildlife which is under a lot of strain at the moment from man-made causes. It’s also really interesting! Everything about birds is awesome, their anatomy, their physiology… they’re the species I enjoy working with the most. Wildlife work is very rewarding and if you’ve got an interest in it there are lots of places you can learn about it. And we’re always on the end of the phone if anyone wants advice.

“[As an animal lover,] it’s very frustrating [that people are deliberately harming these birds]. We can only do what we can do, to raise awareness and help the ones that can be helped. With any wildlife work, the end goal has to be rehabilitation. By that, we mean the release of a bird which can go on to have a good quality of life independently. If it cannot be treated, we euthanise it. If that’s the case then at least we can limit their suffering.

“Being a vet, I don’t often get to see the birds I’ve worked on being released, but I have been present for a few including … when a peregrine falcon was released. To see that bird flying again was fantastic, it really makes it worthwhile.”

Illegal wildlife poisoning is a particularly worrying problem. Poison baits, typically involving an animal carcass laced with a toxic pesticide, are illegally placed in the countryside to target birds of prey or other predatory animals (in birds of prey, look for a swollen crop indicating that it has died soon after feeding). These place other wildlife, people and companion animals at risk.

The RSPB is also asking vets to report incidents involving wildlife or pets which may have been poisoned. A government scheme will arrange for the necessary post-mortem examination and toxicology tests to be undertaken (any samples from such animals should be retained in case needed for testing). If a bird of prey you are treating dies, or has to be euthanised, please don’t incinerate it. The body may be valuable evidence.

Finally, if you obtain any information about raptor persecution or suspect that it is taking place, please get in touch with the police and RSPB Investigations. The RSPB employs designated Intelligence Officers who are trained in handling sensitive information. All methods of contact are treated in complete confidence; no calls are recorded and your details will not be passed to anyone else without your permission.

TAKING ACTION

For more information about reporting wildlife crime, please visit RSPB’s website.

In the first instance, please call the police on 101 and ask for a Wildlife Crime Officer

Please report any wildlife or companion animals which may have been illegally poisoned to the government Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS) on Freephone 0800 321600

Please also immediately report potential crimes relating to birds of prey, or animal poisoning incidents, to the RSPB. Call 01767 680551 (England, Wales, NI) or 0131 3174100 (Scotland), or email crime@rspb.org.uk

The RSPB regularly pays for X-rays of birds of prey to look for signs of criminality and to support the work of the police. The RSPB are very grateful for the support from many vets who often undertake this work free of charge or at a reduced cost

Jenny Shelton works for the RSPB as part of the Investigations Team which helps detect and prevent crimes against birds of prey. She coordinates communications to help raise awareness of the issue which is affecting some of the UK’s most at-risk species.

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