If there are two words in the world of conservation that I find some of the most abhorrent, it would have to be raptor persecution. In 2016, in a world of heightened awareness of the state of vulnerability that our planet and ecosystems find themselves in, you would think that something as medieval as mindless raptor persecution would have somewhat ceased by now. But hang on! It has! Over the decades, incidences of raptor persecution have not only fallen, but they have fallen dramatically. Or at least, that is what we are led to believe. However, some of us have remained rather sceptical on this point, because, after all, just because something has not been reported, it does not mean it is not happening. In fact, if you were very sceptical indeed, you might attribute the fall in raptor persecution cases to the heightened savviness on behalf of the persecutors, who are perhaps becoming more adept and more driven to hide their crimes. Why would you not, when you are aware that the issue of raptor persecution is perhaps more publicised now than it ever was before? Well, it would seem that this claim of falling raptor persecution cases has been somewhat thrown into the spotlight with the publication of a new Scottish Natural Heritage report, which shows that the level of persecution of one particular bird in Northern Scotland has not changed in 25 years. Which bird? The red kite.
Distressing news? Yes. Surprising news? Not really. The report, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage has been published as a follow up to a paper published in 2010, which showed that it is continued persecution that is responsible for the poor rates of spread of re-introduced red kites in Northern Scotland. The 2010 study utilised data collected between 1989-2006, whilst the latest study used data from 2007-2014. Comparing the two, the studies have highlighted the fact that there has been no change in persecution rates in North Scotland in these 25 years. There has been no dramatic fall in persecution levels. Scepticism is not even required this time, because even in a time of heightened awareness, these crimes are not even being covered up. The evidence is staring us in the face and it says that red kites are still being illegally killed at a very high rate each year.
So, what is the state of the red kite in Scotland? Currently the breeding population remains at approximately 283 pairs. Doesn’t sound too bad! Maybe, but maybe it does when we consider that that number should be around 1,500 pairs, when compared with the population growth of re-introduced kites in other areas of the UK. In Northern Scotland the number stands at 70 breeding pairs. Northern Scotland is a big place with vast expanses of countryside, to say that 70 pairs of red kites is a little low is a huge understatement. In addition, those populations introduced in the Chilterns, which were introduced at the same time as those in Northern Scotland, have increased to over 1000 breeding pairs. The difference between the two areas? No illegal persecution.
The report stated that is is ‘clear’ that persecution is still ‘the major factor limiting the population growth of red kites in North Scotland.’ It also states that there is ‘no evidence’ that the rates of persecution has changed in the 25 year period that spans both reports. So, what now? What will be the outcome of this? Well, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham, had said how pleased she was that red kite numbers have increased in Scotland. Ok. She also said that it is ‘extremely disappointing’ that such success has been essentially ruined by those who practice illegal persecution. It is. This has been followed by sentiments to the tune that illegal persecution is unacceptable, that Scotland has the strongest wildlife legislation in the UK and how the Scottish Government has been responsible for the removal of over 700kg of illegal poisons in Scotland, used to target birds of prey. Now, although that last point is a very good and very valid one, these thoughts of ‘disappointment’ and calls of ‘unacceptable’ seem to join the long list of others that have been said before about similar crimes and will, no doubt, be said again.
Although we might hesitate to say ‘heard it before’, we sort of have. These two reports are not the first, and again, nor will they be the last to document the damage that illegal persecution can do and is doing to our native raptor populations. History has already shown us in great detail the extent that this damage can reach, with extinction being a common word associated with the raptor species of the UK. After all, it is now because of illegal persecution that we are fighting for the survival of another raptor: the hen harrier. Sadly, when it comes to really tackling the underlying cause, we continue to ignore, avoid and overlook. Yes, red kites have had a spectacular recovery since their extinction, but this does not mean that we can approach illegal persecution with a forgiving or a soft eye. Raptor persecution is a persistent and difficult problem and one that is associated with the game shooting industry. Catching and prosecuting those that commit this crime is exceedingly difficult, but more should be done to prevent it and more should be done to make wildlife crime a serious crime instead of a mere trifle that one might get a slap on the wrist or fined for. No change in 25 years? No good!
It may well be the case that Scotland has the best wildlife protection laws, but that does not mean that these laws are water-tight, nor that they are the best that they could be. Unfortunately, when it comes to wildlife crime laws in the UK, being ‘the best’ is a poor accolade to have. After all:
‘There is little choice in rotten apples.’ : The Taming Of The Shrew – William Shakespeare
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