Birds of prey fight for survival in Derbyshire

A male merlin in the Peak District

A male merlin in the Peak District - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson analyses our complex relationship with birds of prey and how these fascinating birds are fairing in Derbyshire

Hen harrier day, Carsington

Hen harrier day, Carsington - Credit: Archant

Our relationship with birds of prey is a challenging one. In many cases we revere them, such as when Neil Armstrong, in July 1969, landed on the moon and said those immortal words - ‘Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.’ We see the peregrine falcon as a dashing and incredibly skilful hunter. We emblazon numerous coats of arms with eagles, hawks and falcons and bird watchers flock together from miles around to watch what many of them consider to be the elite of the ornithological world.

Consider the huge number of people who flocked to the Dark Peak to catch a glimpse of the recent lammergeier, a barn door-sized bird which had wandered miles away from its home in Switzerland. Could you envisage the same for a small innocuous warbler from America?

We can juggle our love of raptors with a British history laden with appalling persecution. Over the past few hundred years we waged an incredibly ugly and deadly war against any living animal that was thought to be a threat to game stock such as pheasants and red grouse. This often thoughtless and uneducated battle even persecuted many species like merlins and owls that were never a threat to game birds. It was just the mind-numbing belief that if it had a hooked beak, it was a problem. When these raptors and owls became rare they then fell victim to two hobbies, taxidermy and egg collecting.

Today the world is a very different place to that inhabited by the Victorians and Edwardians. Land ownership is changing and we now have a public that sees such persecution as outdated and deplorable. Luckily, we have become motivated.

Short-eared owl

Short-eared owl - Credit: Archant

The Hen Harrier day held at Carsington water in 2019 (2020 was a virtual affair due to Covid) was an uplifting and well supported event. Egg collecting and shooting birds for taxidermy has declined dramatically since the 1930s. Poisoning of birds, the use of illegal traps and shooting raptors to ‘defend’ game birds has also declined, but it has not stopped. Vigilance and education are key to keeping these trends moving in the right direction.

It is was therefore incredibly heartening to read the latest interim report from the effective Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative (BOPI) about the 2020 raptor breeding season in the Peak. The BOPI was set up in 2011 as a collaboration of groups including the Moorland Association, the Peak District National Park, Natural England, the RSPB, the National Trust, the National Gamekeepers Organisation and local police forces, and was supported by local raptor groups to monitor raptor breeding success and persecution in the Peak.

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The report highlights fantastic news about peregrines. They had their best year in a decade, with 14 fledged youngsters from six known nests. Merlins had increased from 11 known nests in 2019 (with 41 fledged young) to 15 nests, with 50+ fledged youngsters. Goshawks, heavily persecuted in recent decades with virtually no successful nests, had seven nests producing 16/17 flying young.

The blot on the copy book, however, is a long-standing and shameful one. No hen harriers were found to have bred in 2020, compared to 2018 and 19 when successful breeding had occurred. This bird elicits more discussion, debate and text than any other raptor at the moment. Yet even with a day dedicated to it across the whole country we seem unable to stop, let alone reverse, its tragic decline across our grouse moors. Short-eared owls also fared poorly in 2020 but this has a natural explanation. Shorties feed almost exclusively on voles and the population of these was at a low. This is a natural phenomenon as vole populations cycle in a boom-or-bust style.

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon - Credit: Archant

Unfortunately, the report also demonstrates that illegal persecution is still present in the Peak. One egg collector was caught earlier in the year after vigilance by local gamekeepers who watched him behaving suspiciously on moorland in the northern Dark Peak. He was later arrested by the police and found to have numerous eggs, including those of peregrines. He also had three golden plover eggs and one curlew egg in an incubator. These were also seized and were later hatched, reared and returned to the wild. There are still incidents of illegal poisoning of raptors and monitored hen harriers still disappear (44 across upland Britain in 2020).

Our relationship with raptors is at last changing from the dark days of the last century. As a population we care far more because we are far better educated. We want change and, I believe, actually expect it.

We have fantastic initiatives such as the BOPI, which has brought in new players to support and build on the work of the many conservationists and raptor groups of the past forty years. However the battle, whilst pushing forward on some fronts such as with peregrines and merlins, is definitely not won yet. We have so much more to do that will have to include continued monitoring and ultimately public pressure and political will.

Hen Harrier Day, Carsington

Hen Harrier Day, Carsington - Credit: Archant

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