BIRDS of prey are continuing to be relentlessly and illegally killed and North Yorkshire has once again emerged as the worst county for raptor persecution.

Today marks the publication of the RSPB's Birdcrime 2018 – the only report summarising offences against birds of prey in the UK.

It reveals 87 confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution in 2018 and 15 of these were in North Yorkshire.

The report highlights persecution blackspots and these are primarily in areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting.

Between 2012 to 2018, there were 86 confirmed incidents in North Yorkshire, with the second-highest being 26, in the Scottish Borders.

The Northern Echo:

Short-eared owl shot in the Peak District Picture: RSPB

Despite being legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, rare birds including buzzards, red kites, peregrines and owls were among those killed last year.

One red kite, found dead near Wath in Nidderdale last October, was found to contain two pieces of shot.

However further examination revealed that it had survived these injuries only to be later deliberately poisoned by a cocktail of toxic pesticides, two of which are banned.

And studies suggest that many more birds will have been killed and not found, meaning the RSPB's figures only offer a glimpse into a far larger problem.

The Northern Echo:

Illegally set spring trap Picture: RSPB

Mark Thomas, head of investigations UK at the RSPB, said: “The illegal killing of birds of prey has gone on for far too long.

"Raptor persecution is a stain on our countryside and once again North Yorkshire emerges as the county with the highest number of raptor crimes to its name.

"Current legislation and sentences are proving woefully inadequate and offering absolutely no deterrent to those who want to see birds of prey eradicated from our hills.

"This culture of criminality in our uplands cannot be allowed to continue."

Sadly, detecting crimes and catching the culprits remains a big problem.

Only one person was convicted of raptor persecution in 2018.

The previous year, RSPB officers saw a gamekeeper shoot and hide two short-eared owls on a Cumbria grouse moor. He was arrested there and then by North Yorkshire Police and later fined £1,210.

Hen harriers – rare, moorland birds known for their splendid aerial courtship display, the ‘skydance’ – are being hit hard by illegal killing.

A recent government paper revealed that 72 per cent of satellite-tagged hen harriers were confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed during a ten-year study by Natural England.

North Yorkshire Police Sergeant Stuart Grainger said everyone needs to work together to stamp out the crime.

He said:“North Yorkshire’s wonderful countryside should be a haven for birds of prey and we are committed to doing everything we can to put a stop to this unacceptable persecution.

“Since the launch of our Operation Owl in February 2018, we have seen a much greater awareness from members of the public about raptor persecution and the important role they can play in being vigilant whilst they are out enjoying the local area.

"Like other forms of rural crime, raptor persecution is not a problem that the police can tackle alone and we need everyone to keep their eyes open for illegal traps and poisoned bait.

The Northern Echo:

North Yorkshire Police Sergeant Stuart Grainger

“If you come across anything suspicious, take as many photographs from as many different angles as possible, as well as photos which clearly show the location, and report it to the police as soon as you can.

“We have been working hard to train a range of outdoor groups including staff in both of our National Parks, Mountain Rescue teams, and community organisations, and the force has doubled the number of Wildlife Crime Trained Officers. 

“We must reduce the number of wild birds that suffer and die unnecessarily, and send a clear message that this crime will not be tolerated in our countryside.”

The Birdcrime report is highly critical of the management of land for grouse shooting, but the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners and managers in England, said today that grouse moors are a proven friend of the environment and not an enemy.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: " RSPB’s Birdcrime report has morphed into a blunt and unfounded attack on all grouse moor management with no supporting facts.

"RSPB’s view that it is ‘criminal, unsustainable and environmentally damaging’ is not shared by government and other agencies.

The Northern Echo:

Harriers are among the protected birds of prey being targeted Picture:

“Grouse moors can take great pride in their conservation work. If our moors were not managed for grouse shooting we simply would not have the same abundance of wildlife and protected priority habitats."

She added: “Wildlife on grouse moors is bucking national trends of decline such as the curlew and lapwing. Birds of prey, for example, Hen Harriers have had a record breeding season and there have been encouraging reports on Merlin and Peregrine Falcon on grouse moors."