The Peak District. It is the pride and joy of Derbyshire, with rolling hills and sparkling rivers, all of it home to a fantastic array of wildlife. This beautiful example of English countryside draws millions of visitors every year, and all attracted by the legendary beauty and biodiversity of the area. But since 2011, there has been something else going on here. It is called the ‘Bird Of Prey Initiative’. A five year project aimed at, you guessed it, restoring birds of prey to the area. Launched due to the dwindling numbers of raptor species present, it is headed up by five organisations: The Moorland Association, The National Trust, Natural England, Peak District National Park Authority and the RSPB. South Peak Raptor Study Group and The Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, were also involved in the initiative.
So what species are they targeting? Well, three of my favourites actually: The short-eared owl; merlin and the peregrine falcon. In fact, it is due to the presence of such species that the area has earned itself Special Protection Area (SPA) status. The end point was 2015, by when the scheme hoped to, increase merlin pairs from 22 to 32, to maintain 25 breeding pairs of short-eared owl and to increase peregrine pairs from 13 to 15. Sounds reasonable does it not? Not at all unachievable. After all, an area such as the Peak District should, in theory, be more than capable of supporting such numbers.
We now find ourselves nearing the end of 2015 and, unfortunately, these targets have not been achieved. In fact, for some species such as the peregrine, numbers have actually decreased, with just four pairs now present. However, the numbers of short-eared owl are thought to be ‘stable’ as are the numbers of merlins, with chick numbers of this species doubling during the initiative. So things could be worse, but they could also be better.
The classic worry is illegal persecution. Since 2011, both goshawks and peregrines have been found dead in the National Park, with injuries consistent with shooting or illegal trapping. Some goshawk eggs have also been found smashed in the area and convictions have been brought. These incidents however, are just a taste of the persecution that has occurred in the Peak District over the years. Grouse shooting is a large land use in the area and, as we know, the case of raptors and grouse is becoming something of an ‘age old argument.’ Now we jump on the gamekeepers, but not all are guilty of this practice. In fact, some gamekeepers in the area have been actively involved in the monitoring scheme of these raptors, helping to tag and ring merlins. These are the good eggs, but we still have to find the bad.
So what happens now? Well, the group has stated that they are renewing their initiative and will be working closely with landowners and managers to restore raptor species. This is, of course, a good thing. It is surely better than abandoning the scheme altogether, but there is a superstition that a new initiative will be met with the same failure. Calls for banning grouse shooting are prevalent these days and are considered as a solution to the problem. However, whether we like it or not, this is probably unlikely to happen in the near future. This is not soon enough for our raptors, so if changes to populations are going to be made, changes of plans have to be made. This is more likely to come with harsher punishments for those who persecute raptors, and these punishments have, albeit slowly, been improving.
We should not be disheartened. Yes, targets have not been met, some numbers have fallen and persecution follows us about like the plague. Such problems are no doubt an issue and big ones at that, but it can be addressed, and remember:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
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