THE poisoning of birds of prey and corvids such as magpies was anecdotally a common occurrence during the previous century.
Corvids find eggs irresistible and lethal pesticides would be injected into a hen’s egg using a syringe and hypodermic needle. The egg would be placed in a prominent position and another magpie or crow would be accounted for.
Raptors would be dealt with in much the same way only in their case the pesticide would be injected into the carcase of something like a rabbit. Apart from it being an illegal practice for more than 100 years, the indiscriminate use of poison in the open countryside poses a threat to all manner of wildlife and, of course, to domestic species, particularly dogs and cats.
One could be forgiven for assuming that such things don’t happen nowadays but recent high-pro le cases show that this sadly is not the case and that the length and breadth of the country there are still individuals who see fit to operate outside the law in pursuit of their own very narrow aims.
The latest case to be tried in the courts involved a gamekeeper from Norfolk who was convicted at the beginning of October of poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk in 2013, using the banned pesticides mevinphos and aldicarb. The guilty person will be sentenced in November.
Whilst this is one of the worst cases of raptor poisoning to be uncovered in England, another case of illegal poisoning made the headlines in Scotland earlier this year. In this case 16 birds of prey (12 red kites and four buzzards) were found dead from poisoning in Ross-shire.
More bad news that may have the same cause is that two hen harrier chicks satellite-tagged this summer in Lancashire have gone missing within a very short space of time.
It is thought that the sudden failure of the satellite transmission can only be explained by human interference as there have been few “natural” failures of the devices over the years.
To put this loss in perspective, hen harriers are England’s rarest bird of prey with only four pairs breeding successfully in England this year.
Those cases of raptor poisoning that come to light are probably only the tip of the iceberg with many more incidents going undiscovered. A report released by Scottish Natural Heritage only this summer highlighted the absence of golden eagles from large tracts of habitat suitable for the species in Scotland’s southern uplands.
One of the area’s breeding eagles was poisoned near Peebles in 2007 and the implication from the report is that persecution of this iconic species continues in the area and is preventing its spread.
Upsetting the balance?
There are arguments from some quarters that too many raptors upset the “balance of nature” though in many ways such an argument is counterintuitive.
However, legitimate and genuine concerns need to be addressed through engagement and debate and not through the illegal use of indiscriminate poisoning.
Many readers of this magazine will spend large periods of time in the countryside both through work and leisure pursuits.
I would urge you all to be on the lookout for sick birds of prey, or carcases of the same, and to report these to the local police Wildlife Crime Unit or to an organisation such as the RSPB.
If those responsible realise that their chances of being caught are increasing and that the courts are prepared to pass down suitably harsh sentences, then a practice that should have been consigned to the previous century may indeed be forced out during this one.
Only last week I and two of my sons watched a hunting sparrowhawk chase a swallow around our field for 10 seconds or so.
It was like watching two fighter planes do battle and a sight that I feel privileged to have witnessed.
We must be vigilant to ensure that the great strides forward in raptor conservation over the last few decades are not reversed. And in case you’re wondering, the swallow, as I would have expected, got away.