New laws to prevent raptor persecution? RSPB and GWCT debate

On Sunday's Countryfile Tom Heap investigated the issue of raptor persecution in Britain, talking to the RSPB as well as gamekeepers and representatives of the shooting industry. We ask: Is it time for new laws in England and Wales to hold landowners responsible for raptor persecution by their employees?

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Published: November 24th, 2014 at 4:25 pm

On Sunday's Countryfile Tom Heap investigated the issue of raptor persecution in Britain, talking to the RSPB as well as gamekeepers and representatives of the shooting industry. One of the key questions to arise from this is:


Is it time for new laws in England and Wales to hold landowners responsible for raptor persecution by their employees?

Norland moor sunset


The latest RSPB Birdcrime report outlines the stark facts about raptor persecution in the UK. In 2013 there were 164 reports of birds of prey being killed, including 74 poisonings and 49 birds shot.

Since 250,000 people signed a petition calling for an end to bird of prey persecution in 2010, around 560 birds of prey have been confirmed shot or destroyed.

The evidence for persecution

A number of reports over the years have highlighted the impact of persecution on bird of prey numbers and the link between grouse moors and raptor persecution.

The Government’s wildlife agency Natural England produced a study in 2008 which identified persecution as the prime cause of hen harrier declines. It found that very few harrier nesting attempts were successful on grouse moors and that persecution was limiting the species’ recovery in England.

Another study produced by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 2011 also identified persecution as the principal constraint on hen harrier numbers. The study found that persecution incidents in Scotland were directly linked to the distribution of grouse moors.

Raptor killing – an ongoing criminal problem

The police also have confirmed the seriousness of the issue by identifying raptor persecution as one of the six key wildlife crime priorities in the UK. Their conclusion , published in their 2013 Strategic Assessment, is that, ‘Intelligence continues to indicate a strong association between raptor persecution and grouse moor management’.

Evidence from the courts also adds to the picture. Court records show that 69% of those convicted for offences related to bird of prey persecution between 1990 and 2013 were gamekeepers.

The RSPB bases its policies on sound evidence, and this evidence is clear: the majority of bird of prey persecution offences in the UK continue to occur on land managed for shooting.

Landowners and their responsibility

From driven grouse moors on the heather clad hills of Scotland and uplands of England, to pheasant shooting areas in the lowlands of the UK, land managers and owners are responsible for the employment of gamekeepers undertaking game management and legal predator control. As with any other business, it is their duty to ensure that their staff operate within the law.

In sentencing a Norfolk gamekeeper to a 10-week suspended sentence for poisoning ten buzzards in November 2014 at Norwich Magistrates Court, District Judge Peter Veits criticised the running of shooting estates. He said, “Those who employ gamekeepers have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property. They also have a duty to ensure that their gamekeepers are properly trained and capable of keeping abreast of the complex laws relating to the use of poisons. In other industries, employers as well as the employee could be facing prosecution in such cases and I hope therefore that this case can serve as a wakeup call to all who run estates as to their duties.”

New laws and real leadership are needed to tackle the killing

The RSPB believes the introduction in 2012 of a new offence of vicarious liability for wildlife crimes by the Scottish Government shows concern about the widespread problems within the shooting industry and should make managers and employers more accountable for the criminal actions of their staff. We think there is a strong conservation case for the extension of this legislation to the rest of the UK.

Those who represent the shooting community need to show real leadership and demonstrate action that will make a difference on the ground. They can consign the illegal killing of birds of prey to the history books and the RSPB wants to see them step up and do it now.

Games and Wildlife Conservation Trust: NO

Tom Heap asked the RSPB's head of investigations, Bob Elliot, how many ‘bad apple’ gamekeepers were out there. He had no idea. Let me try and help out. We do know how many gamekeepers employed on grouse moors were prosecuted for offences involving wild birds. The RSPB publish a ‘birdcrime’ report each year so Bob should know the answer. The average annual number of prosecutions over the last decade? Less than two. Are the police asking for new laws? No.

We don’t need more laws – we need more common sense

For years, reported incidents of wildlife crime have been falling twice as fast as the national crime rate. So this is either a fast diminishing problem and so we don’t need more laws; or these criminals are getting better at hiding their crime. Since laws can’t fight hidden crime, making new ones is not going to make a great deal of difference. Just look at Scotland - in 2011, after years of campaigning, they passed new laws. The police have not made a single prosecution. It has not solved the situation.

What we need is more common sense. Clearly we need to tackle the cause of crime, as well as the crime itself. Take a close look at the motive for the illegal killing of a hen harrier by a gamekeeper on a grouse moor. A joint study by the RSPB and the GWCT demonstrated that hen harrier numbers can quickly increase in a small area, eat too many grouse, and put the gamekeeper out of a job. Sadly, once the gamekeepers are made redundant, there is not enough food, so the hen harrier population crashes back down. A lose-lose situation.

Laws can’t solve everything

The RSPB are jointly funding a ‘best practice’ driven grouse moor at Langholm. The idea is to show gamekeepers how you can have hen harriers alongside grouse. No illegal killing. After 7 years of determined effort, it has achieved two important objectives but has failed to achieve the one key objective that would reduce the motive for illegal killing. The motive remains in place and new laws will not change that. Despite the RSPB’s investment at Langholm clearly showing that such laws can’t resolve the conflict they still continue to campaign for new laws.
We don’t need more laws – we need more wildlife crime officers

We all know this. There is no surprise that law enforcement is an essential part of the proposed Defra recovery plan for hen harriers in England. There are five other parts to this plan – none require new laws. Perhaps it is time for campaigning charities to spend less time telling everyone else what to do and reflect on what they need to do? Right now, the RSPB are also campaigning to stop Defra implementing its hen harrier recovery plan. They only want the ‘workable’ parts to be implemented – or put another way ‘the bits the RSPB likes’. Sadly the bits the RSPB like are just more of the same. Surely it’s time to stop objecting and start embracing conservation techniques that increase bird of prey numbers around the world – the ones that remove the motive for crime?

Our birds of prey need new thinking and new leadership - not new laws.

Beware of campaigning charities pushing for more laws. They take years to formulate and they can become addictive. A charity can grow rich as the fundraising team make the most of all those press releases, launches and meeting with officials. The policy team love it: they will be centre stage at the important meetings. The PR team love it: new legislation is easy to understand, easy to explain, unlike some conservation issues. Campaigning charities don’t even have to pay for it – they expect the taxpayer to do that. The best bit is at the end: they don’t carry the blame if it’s ineffective – the politicians do.


Andrew Gilruth, Director of Membership, Marketing & Communications



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