INVESTIGATION - Harrogate’s shame as birds of prey wiped out

One of the four Red Kites to be released onto the Harewood Estate today tests its wings for the first time.  July 15, 2002.
One of the four Red Kites to be released onto the Harewood Estate today tests its wings for the first time. July 15, 2002.

Attacks against birds of prey in the Harrogate district have been branded a “national disgrace” as it emerges 14 treasured red kites have been viciously killed with deadly poisons.

North Yorkshire has been consistently named the worst county for persecution in England and Wales since 1991, with the RSPB reporting 87 raptors have been confirmed shot, poisoned, or trapped.

Now, since a protection scheme was brought in at Harewood in 1991 to save red kites from the brink of extinction, it’s emerged that 21 have been killed with pieces of poisoned meat - with 14 dying in Nidderdale alone.

“The scale of poisonings is a disgrace for North Yorkshire,” said RSPB Investigator Howard Jones.

“People travel great distances to see red kites. We are so fortunate to have these birds in our area.

“But some people will not tolerate them and will go to great lengths to ensure they are not in our skies any more.”

Red kites were released on the Harewood estate in 1999 as part of a special project to protect them from extinction.

The scheme, which released 69 young birds between 1999 and 2003, drew wide acclaim and was hailed a national success with an estimated 300 birds since thriving in the district.

But, say investigators, they now are the target of “indiscriminate” abuse.

“The re-release of red kites has been a great success,” said Mr Jones. “They are a wonderful site in our skies.

“But they are scavenger birds and are vulnerable to poisoned bait.”

In North Yorkshire, 21 red kites have been found poisoned. Fourteen were in areas surrounding the far south and north of Nidderdale, around Blubberhouses and Masham.

These deaths aren’t as a result of misuse of poisons, said Mr Jones, but are targeted attacks.

“In Blubberhouses recently a red kite was poisoned with a substance banned since 2001,” he said. “We believe it was stockpiled.

“It’s extremely toxic - even a few granules can kill a human. A bird of prey will die instantly.

“There’s a very clear difference between abuse and misuse. These are targeted abuses.”

The red kite deaths are indicative of a wider problem, he said, with birds like peregrine falcons also being killed.

Buzzards have been shot and poisoned in Nidderdale and once a peregrine falcon was found flying with a trap still attached to its leg.

The situation is so bad that the hen harrier - which traditionally lives on uplands - failed to breed last year for the first time.

“We see it as the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr Jones. “Bird of prey levels are not what they should be.

“There has long been a historical conflict on grouse land. They are seen as a threat.

“There are several upland areas in Yorkshire used intensively, mainly for shooting. We believe there’s a growing intolerance for birds of prey.

“The biggest indicator of the problem is an absence of upland birds like the hen harrier and the peregrine falcon, which should be thriving in Nidderdale.”

There have been so many birds of prey killed in unusual circumstances in the county that every one found must now be sent to a Government scheme for analysis.

And the RSPB is calling for stricter penalties to act as a deterrent against perpetrators, even asking for landowners to be held responsible for crimes committed on their land.

“It’s a disgrace that we have a species in England like the hen harrier on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird,” said Mr Jones.

“People talk about conservation and think about far-flung issues. We have, on our doorstep, an issue where the main limiting factor is persecution that is ultimately avoidable.

“These are hard statistics,” he added. “There’s not enough deterrent. We would like stricter penalties and stronger sentences for prosecutions.”

Hen harriers on ‘verge of extinction as breeding pairs’

Investigators say one of the biggest indicators that birds of prey are being targeted in the district is a distinct lack of breeding hen harriers.

There should be 300 pairs in England, and 10 in the Yorkshire Dales, say experts, but last year, for the first time, there wasn’t a single breeding pair.

“It’s a national scandal,” said expert Paul Irving, chairman of the North East Raptor Forum and the Nidderdale AONB for the Yorkshire Dales Upland Bird Study Group.

“As a breeding bird, they have essentially disappeared.”

Mr Irving studies birds of prey in the district and carries out most of his field work in Nidderdale.

There have been 11 attempts to introduce breeding pairs in North Yorkshire since 2003, he said, but almost all have failed.

Birds disappear, eggs are destroyed, and chicks killed.

“There’s no natural explanation,” he said.

Police trap discovered

An illegal spring trap, branded ‘barbaric’ by the RSPB and banned in this country for more than 100 years, was discovered in the district last year.

A gamekeeper at the Swinton Estate, Ryan Waites, was caught on film setting the trap by investigators who set up covert cameras in the bushes nearby.

Waite, who admitted two charges of illegally setting a spring trap, said it was for catching squirrels and not birds of prey.

Magistrates in Harrogate, ruling that his conduct had been reckless, fined him £250.

Bowland Betty

One of the last surviving hen harriers in the North of England was found illegally shot dead in Nidderdale in 2012.

Bowland Betty, as she was known, was fitted with a satellite tracking device with Natural England following her progress as she flew around the country.

When she disappeared off the radar in June that year, she was tracked to land near Pateley Bridge where she had last been seen.

Her body was found on grouse land in Nidderdale. She had been shot.

“Bowland Betty was a beautiful, amazing bird,” said her trackers at the time. “We will probably never know what happened.

“Perhaps this fearless, naive bird went a wing beat too far and had to run the gauntlet to regain the grouse moor which she knew as home.

“We grieve that, illegally, she was cut down in the prime of life. I hope she has not died in vain.”

Facts

- 21 red kites have been poisoned in North Yorkshire since the re-introduction of the species at Harewood House in 1999

- 14 out of these 21 birds were found inside the Nidderdale AONB designation

- The poisons used included carbofuran, alphachloralose and strychnine. A few granules of carbofuran could kill a human being

- Since 2002, 17 nesting attempts made by hen harrier in east Nidderdale. Only four were successful. No breeding attempts have been made since 2009

- No breeding peregrine falcon on East Nidderdale grouse moors since 1994

- North Yorkshire has consistently been the worst county in England for bird of prey persecution offences since 1990-2012

- There have been 87 confirmed bird of prey persecution offences between 1990-2012