Why the illegal killing of birds of prey is surging across the UK

The UK’s largest bird of prey is the white-tailed eagle. This one was found having been poisoned on a shooting estate in Dorset (RSPB)
The UK’s largest bird of prey is the white-tailed eagle. This one was found having been poisoned on a shooting estate in Dorset (RSPB)

Birds of prey are being illegally shot, trapped and poisoned in near-record numbers across the UK, but particularly in England, with over two thirds of the confirmed killings in connection to land managed for gamebird shooting, the RSPB has said.

The "devastating" 2021 Birdcrime report, which the charity produces annually, reveals that 108 birds, including golden eagles, peregrine falcons and white-tailed eagles were among those targeted by gamekeepers trying to artificially boost numbers of game birds on their land, so paying customers can shoot them.

In England alone there were 80 confirmed incidents – this is the second-highest figure on record for the country after 2020’s "unprecedented surge", the RSPB said.

But the charity warned that the confirmed cases only represent "the tip of the iceberg", and many more illegal killings will not have been recorded.

It also issued an urgent call for the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s lead in licensing grouse moors, in which licences can be rescinded in the event of any connection between the estate and criminal raptor persecution. The laws are yet to come into force.

Current laws "are failing to protect birds of prey from being illegally killed", the report said, adding that "the actual punishments that are handed out act as little or no deterrent", while only those carrying out the crimes face any punishment at all, and managers and land owners face few consequences.

Alongside grouse shoots, pheasant shooting estates are also among the key areas where crimes are routinely being committed.

The report found that in 2021, over two thirds (71 per cent) of all confirmed incidents of raptor persecution related to land managed for gamebird shooting, where birds of prey are seen by some as a threat to gamebird stocks and illegally targeted and killed.

Two of the worst counties based on 2021 data – Norfolk (13 incidents) and Dorset (12 incidents) – are lowland areas, dominated by pheasant and partridge shooting.

The third worst county was North Yorkshire where 10 incidents were recorded and which includes grouse, pheasant and partridge shooting estates.

One "shocking" incident involved a gruesome mass grave of birds of prey located by the RSPB and the police down a well on a pheasant shoot in Wiltshire.

In Scotland, a golden eagle was found having been poisoned and lying beside a dead hare laced with the same deadly banned pesticide on a grouse shooting estate with a history of raptor persecution.

A ‘mass grave’ of illegally killed raptors was found down a well in Wales (RSPB)
A ‘mass grave’ of illegally killed raptors was found down a well in Wales (RSPB)

In Wales, RSPB officers assisted North Wales Police in investigating a poisoned red kite and a shot buzzard and uncovered “the worst case of illegal pesticide storage” the team had ever seen. They found 18 toxic products, many of which are banned, on a pheasant shooting estate.

Mark Thomas, the RSPB’s head of investigations in the UK, said: “The illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey has no place in modern society. In a nature and climate emergency, the deliberate destruction of protected species for financial gain is completely devastating and unacceptable.

“The time for reform is now long overdue. Licensing driven grouse moors is the first step in clamping down on those estates engaged in criminal activity at no loss to those operating within the law.”

Beccy Speight, chief executive at the RSPB, added: “The evidence shows that the illegal persecution of birds of prey - which is time and time again linked to gamebird shooting – is holding back the recovery of some key species.

"This year’s Birdcrime report is another reminder of the appalling methods deployed by some, and why there is a need for swift and effective change in our countryside."

You can read the RSPB’s Birdcrime 2021 report here.