When A Falcon Falls

In July 2015, Stoke-on-Trent found itself home to something of an avian celebrity. Drawing in thousands of avid birdwatchers and wildlife lovers from across the country, our celebrity delighted crowds throughout the Midlands for weeks. But who was this VIP and why was he such a sight to see? Well, he was a red-footed falcon. A very rare sight indeed in the UK, but rarer still due to the species classed as ‘near-threatened’ on the IUCN Red List.



So who is the red-footed falcon? What do we know about this handsome little bird? Well, he is a species found across Eastern Europe and Asia, and, like many migratory raptors, he spends his winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Similar to the kestrel in his hovering behaviour when searching for food, this falcon feeds on small birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects. In total, we have approximately 300,000-800,000 red-footed falcons in the World, but they have been experiencing population decline, in the face of a number of threats.

The destruction of nesting sites is one of the falcons’ main problems. Across Europe, trees are felled for agricultural expansion and the timber industry, and consequently, nests and possible nest sites, are lost. In Eastern Europe, where the falcon usually resides, intensification of agricultural practices is also causing major habitat loss, whilst decreases in grassland management is impacting their food supply. In addition, the species experiences persecution during its migration. An example of this occurred in 2007 when 52 red-footed falcons were shot in a no shooting area of Phasouri, Cyprus. The birds were roosting when they were shot and the incident was described as a ‘massacre’ by many media reports. Two men were arrested for the shooting, but they claimed they had only shot four of the birds, after mistaking them for turtle doves. The men were fined £1250 each.



So! We were of course, overjoyed to see this rare species ruling the skies over our lands. But such joy and adulation did not last for long, with a rather dark shadow being cast over our Hollywood story. For in October of this year, our fascination with this little falcon came to an abrupt and cruel halt. Our celebrity was found dead in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire.

Us wildlife buffs were, no doubt, upset by such news, but for many, this sadness soon gave way to anger after a post-mortem examination concluded that our famous falcon had, in fact, been killed. Shot with a shotgun. Since the revelation of this news, there has been a public outcry, with wildlife organisations describing the crime as ‘sickening’. But despite this, the case is rather cold, with both suspects and motives for the killing being somewhat thin on the ground. Currently, The Wildlife Crime Unit are investigating the shooting and the RSPB has offered a reward of £1000 for any information concerning this crime.

As devastating and upsetting as this incident is, to some, it may not come as such a surprise. The case of our red-footed visitor joins a long long list of raptor persecution cases across the country. In the UK, we have a very long and very rich history concerning the persecution of birds of prey, and whether you like it or not, this particular fact, is undeniable. Admittedly, in some cases, the culprits have been caught and, they have been brought to some kind of justice (whether you agree with the strength of it or not). However, many persecution cases have remained and will remain, unsolved. In relation to our red-footed falcon, as with any mystery, there have been a number of suggestions thrown around as to why this unfortunate incident occurred. Two of the most prevalent are: accidental killing, with the shooter maybe mistaking the small falcon for a wood pigeon, or, purposeful killing, and therefore, persecution.



Now, you may not view raptor persecution with a particularly disapproving eye (that’s your choice) and you may not lose sleep over the loss of this falcon, but one fact remains; this action was illegal. As aforementioned, the reasoning for the shooting remains unconfirmed and the investigation continues. Although we may not know why this happened, one thing we do know, is that this is a needless loss of an individual who belonged to a spectacular species.

If the culprit is not caught, we may never know why this bird was shot and the case of the red footed falcon of 2015, will join a long list of cold cases.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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