50 for the Future – Ending raptor persecution

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week’s 50 for the Future article, Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland‘s Head of Species and Land Management, discusses the issue of raptor persecution and the need for tighter hunting regulations.

Number 4: End the illegal persecution of birds of prey and other wildlife through better enforcement of the law and higher penalties.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the UK’s native birds of prey were either extinct or had severely reduced populations. This was brought about by the activities of game preservers and collectors in the Victorian period. Magnificent species such as white-tailed eagles, ospreys, and red kites disappeared from Scotland altogether and hen harriers were restricted to Orkney.

Fortunately, by the late 20th century, the majority of species were recovering their populations, thanks in part to legal protection and greater public enlightenment. Some raptors, such as ospreys, returned to Scotland through natural re-colonisation. Others, such as white-tailed eagles, returned due to successful reintroduction programmes. Today, the populations of many of our birds of prey are of international conservation importance, most notably those of the golden eagle and peregrine falcon, but some illegal persecution continues.

Birds of prey are highly vulnerable to human and wider environmental impacts on their populations. They are generally long-lived species with low reproductive rates, so any unnatural mortality can have severe consequences on their populations. A good example of this was seen in the 1960s, when the peregrine falcon population was decimated by the impacts of DDT, an agricultural pesticide which was used in abundance at the time.

Peregrine falcon © Neil Aldridge

Whilst the use of DDT is now banned, the biggest threat to raptors today remains illegal killing by humans. There is now a wealth of evidence to link wildlife crime of this type to game management in particular. Whilst many game managers adhere to responsible practices, some individuals choose to ignore wildlife protection laws. In these places, gamekeepers are employed to produce large numbers of gamebirds for sporting clients, and in some instances natural predators are still not tolerated.

Over many years there has been dialogue between conservationists and game managers to resolve this problem; an approach that has met with partial success, most notably in the lowlands. In the uplands however, and particularly on land managed for driven grouse shooting, raptor crime is still prevalent. This is evidenced by the absence of certain raptor species and the number of persecution incidents recorded.

A potential solution would be to introduce tighter hunting regulations. Whilst the Scottish Government has put in place some sanctions to deal with perpetrators of wildlife crime, effective enforcement is difficult when crimes are carried out in remote locations. In contrast to the voluntary approach taken in Scotland, most other European countries have much stronger hunting regulations in place, and consequently there is far less illegal raptor persecution. As such, a modern regulatory hunting system with stronger sanctions, including the possibility of removal of hunting rights, could act as a real deterrent to wildlife crime. Those who manage sporting estates in a responsible and lawful way would not be affected, but those which continue to persecute our iconic birds of prey would be made to face the consequences.

A golden eagle in flight © Jon Hawkins, surreyhillsphotography.co.uk

Imagining a Highland landscape without a golden eagle or peregrine falcon soaring above is, for many people, reason enough to save them from human persecution. But the emotional reasons to save our raptors are backed up by very real ecological reasons to conserve them. Birds of prey are a key part of the healthy and functioning ecosystem that both RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust are working towards.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

by Duncan Orr-Ewing Head of Species and Land Management, RSPB Scotland

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Duncan Orr-Ewing from RSPB Scotland discusses the issue of raptor persecution and the need for tighter hunting regulations.

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