While the nation was in lockdown because of Covid-19, there were those taking advantage of the situation by perpetrating wildlife crime. The authorities were and still are pre-occupied trying to control a public so long constrained by lockdown that now people are taking liberties and at the same time putting themselves and others at risk. And of course, there has been a lack of volunteers who would normally be available to help guard vulnerable nesting sites. Hence, the wildlife criminals – I do not mince my words – have once again seized the opportunity to pursue their nefarious ways.
For example, there has been an increase in the illegal killing of raptors throughout the UK. It has to be said that most of these crimes occur in areas where shooting is popular – either an unhappy coincidence or a pointer to the root cause of such activity. And now I read that in Derbyshire’s Peak District, where Britain’s first National Park was established, peregrine falcons have been targeted and their eggs and chicks taken to be reared and later sold for vast sums of money.
Peregrines have had a chequered history down the years. When it was a royal sport, falcons were in great demand and of course not protected by the law, so that young falcons were regularly taken by enthusiasts for the sport. Of course, these days such activities are strictly illegal with most falconer’s birds supposed to be captive bred. But now some with eyes firmly riveted on their wallets, are returning to the bad old ways and taking young falcons from the wild or their eggs which of course go into incubators to produce youngsters.
Peregrines were very much under pressure during the war years, especially on England’s south coast, because of their predation upon carrier pigeons bringing messages from the front or indeed from aircraft that had been shot down. However, once hostilities ceased, peregrines were once again protected only to suffer from the use of new pesticides - most notably DDT - in the immediate post war years. Treated seed ingested by the pigeons that were their main prey, carried on down through the food chain and peregrines and other birds of prey first started to become infertile and then die. Hence, such noxious chemicals were controlled, and in some cases banned.
Now peregrines are under threat again, so valued by those who follow the sport of falconry that they are prepared to pay big money for young falcons – up to £8,000 a bird. Among the most enthusiastic followers of the sport are Middle Eastern in origin. Those, who have got rich on the world’s dependency on oil, have the resources to pay that kind of money for what is generally regarded as the king of all falconry birds.
I must confess that seeing such a bird in action is indeed a thrilling sight as you might expect of a bird that is capable of exceeding 200 miles per hour in the stoop. I have watched peregrines on many occasions yet one memory from a glen where I once spent a good deal of my time, sticks in my mind. I had been scaling the side of the glen when a peregrine took off from a rocky ledge above me and drifted down the glen below me. Suddenly I was aware of a little posse of pigeons a long way down and clearly the peregrine had noticed the same group and now began to home in on them. I’m sure my jaw dropped when I saw the falcon accelerate as it made a bee-line for the pigeons. With the peregrine now travelling at considerable speed, it rapidly overhauled them and finally hit one of them a mighty blow sufficient to decapitate and kill the victim instantly. It then followed the tumbling body down into the glen - lunch had been served!
The report I recently read suggested that three of the estimated 40 peregrine nests in that part of the Peak District National Park had been robbed of either their eggs or young chicks resulting in a serious depletion of the Park’s peregrine population which, if repeated in other parts of the country, would result in a significant reduction in peregrine populations.
Add to that the killing of raptors such as hen harriers, which has been occurring on or near grouse moors, not to mention golden eagles and of course peregrine falcons and buzzards and we are beginning to slide down a very slippery slope which begs the question, are we returning to the bad old days when all raptors and indeed all carnivores, plus hedgehogs were unmercifully and universally slaughtered with impunity? All as a measure designed to protect game.
These days, there is much more awareness of the precious wildlife resource we have in these islands, much more desire to protect that resource and laws that give it vital protection. No such laws existed when open war against such creatures was pursued towards the end of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth century. Even such birds as ospreys were killed willy-nilly and by 1916, had been driven to extinction as breeding birds in Britain. Miraculously, during the 1950s ospreys returned to Scotland of their own volition and with considerable help from many volunteers as well as professional organisations, re-established themselves.
Sea Eagles were similarly eliminated and red kites too, save for a rump of them that hung on in central Wales. Were they eliminated by those who follow the sport of shooting - who knows? Both these birds have been successfully re-introduced in recent years and are now prospering again. But clearly there are those who have only their interest in shooting birds such as red grouse at heart and care not a fig for the likes of harriers, kites, buzzards, peregrines and eagles. And those currently in possession of peregrine chicks taken from the wild either as eggs or chicks, have no interest in the survival of these magnificent raptors in our countryside.
Shooting brings substantial income for some landowners and some suggest that is probably the root cause of the killing of birds of prey, whether or not the perpetrators of these crimes are directly or indirectly connected with them or those who shoot. Now the theft and selling of peregrine falcons by people who clearly know their birds of prey and where they are to be found, is a growing problem. These people have only the profit motive in their minds when they steal eggs or chicks which, as previously said, they can sell for vast sums of money on the international market.
We need to take wildlife crimes such as these very seriously and all of us should always remain vigilant especially if we are aware of the presence of these birds in our own area. These are as much crimes as common theft or burglary - crimes which most of us universally condemn. They should not be tolerated by anyone and the full force of the law should be brought to bear on the offenders.