2020 was ‘worst year on record’ for persecution of birds of prey in UK, says new RSPB report

Press release from RSPB (27th October 2021)

The RSPB’s Birdcrime 2020 report has revealed 137 known, confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution last year – the highest number recorded in 30 years.

Produced annually by the RSPB’s Investigations unit, Birdcrime is the UK’s only full data set on confirmed incidents of raptor persecution – namely the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey.

There were 137 confirmed incidents in 2020: the highest total since recording began in 1990. The overall rise in numbers can be attributed to the unprecedented number of incidents detected in England (99) during 2020, many of which occurred during Covid-19 lockdown.

The victims included 58 buzzards, 20 red kites, 16 peregrines, six sparrowhawks, three goshawks and other protected birds of prey including rare hen harriers and golden eagles. Based on population studies for significant species, it’s believed that the true number killed is far greater, with many crimes going undetected and unreported.

The crimes took place across a variety of land uses. However, a minimum of 85 (62%) of all confirmed incidents were in connection with land managed for or connected to gamebird shooting. Bird of prey persecution shows a clear link to pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting, with incidents being more widespread in lowland areas and more concentrated in upland areas. In addition to Birdcrime data, peer-reviewed scientific studies based on satellite tagging and bird of prey populations, crime data and court convictions, show that raptor persecution has the most negative conservation impact on driven grouse moors. A Government study in 2019, identified criminal persecution by humans as the main factor suppressing the UK population of hen harriers: a red-listed bird species which nests on heather moorland.

North Yorkshire is the worst place for birdcrime in the UK for the seventh year in a row. Twenty-six of the 137 confirmed incidents occurred in North Yorkshire. Of these two thirds were directly related to grouse shooting and a further four incidents to other types of shooting. Victims in the county included 16 buzzards, two peregrine falcons, two red kites and one goshawk.

All birds of prey are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To intentionally kill or injure one is a criminal offence and could result in an unlimited fine or up to six months in jail. Yet in 2020, there were only two prosecutions for raptor persecution offences.

The RSPB is calling on the governments of the UK to act now and implement a system of licensing for driven grouse shooting, to create greater accountability and ensure all estates operate to legal and high environmental standards. Failure to comply with licensing requirements should result in licence revocation for a defined period and therefore removal of the right to shoot as a meaningful deterrent to illegal behaviours.

The wildlife conservation charity is also urging for action to end other associated environmentally damaging land management practices, including a ban on burning on deep peat. The RSPB would also like to see a significant reduction in the numbers of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges, currently millions, released into the countryside each year as there is growing evidence of environmental harm.

Mark Thomas, the RSPB’s Head of Investigations said “Although we have become used to the illegal killing of birds of prey, the figure for 2020 is truly shocking.

We are in a climate and nature emergency. All land must be managed legally and sustainably for people and for nature, and not accelerate the worrying loss of UK wildlife we are already experiencing.

The RSPB welcomes the announcement by the Scottish Government to licence driven grouse moors there, but this has to happen now in England as well. Licensing should be conditional on compliance with wildlife protection laws, and if breached, should result in removal of the right to shoot. Those shoot operators who behave legally and responsibly should have nothing to fear from this sanction”.

Chief Inspector Kevin Kelly, Head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) said “Raptor Persecution is a National Wildlife Crime Priority. This report puts an emphasis on why it’s a priority and why it will remain a priority for years to come. I am disappointed in such a significant rise in incidents as the crime figures go a long way to undermine the hard work that’s done daily to tackle raptor persecution. I feel the Priority Delivery Group holds the key to success, this has gone through a period of change, bringing leadership, accountability and some fresh positive partners in. That said, the hard work lays ahead of us and we will be judged on our actions, not our words.”


The RSPB 2020 Birdcrime report can be downloaded here:

The Birdcrime 2020 appendices (breakdown of data) can be downloaded here:

So you know when the game-shooting organisations say that raptor persecution is in decline, it was an historical issue but it’s no longer a thing, that the industry has a ‘zero tolerance policy’ towards raptor persecution and it’s now just the work of a rogue keeper or two?

They’re lying.

2020 was the worst year on record.

Just think about that.

UPDATE 16.00hrs: “They all know what is going on, and they cover it up” – police inspector’s view on gamekeepers and raptor killing (here)

21 thoughts on “2020 was ‘worst year on record’ for persecution of birds of prey in UK, says new RSPB report”

  1. It’s about time someone actually wants to try and fix this problem.
    For far to long driven grouse moors, and land owners have been trying to hide the truth, licensing will be a good starting point, but will need to be controlled properly or nothing will change, they have proved they can not be trusted by these numbers of birds being killed, sadly I don’t think the government has a backbone, and they will not want to upset the wealthy landowners, after all I expect there are a few mps who like to murder the grouse, pheasant, and partridge.
    Let’s see what happens in Scotland where many protected birds are killed and have been for decades to protect their income.

  2. It’s worth also remembering that for much of 2020 there were fewer members of the public out in the countryside due to covid restrictions, so our ability to witness birds of prey being killed and find their bodies was lower than usual.

  3. Satellite-tag the game keepers, just the same as business employees’ vehicles are fitted with trackers, for safety reasons of course.

  4. Shocking but not surprising. And of course we know the numbers of illegally killed Raptors is probably a lot higher. The banning of DGS can’t come quickly enough, but in the meantime, surely it is common sense to at least introduce a licence scheme. This persecution won’t stop until we hold the land owners to account.

  5. The backbone question is of limited significance. The bigger problem is that a sizeable proportion of our elected representatives are heavily invested in the game shooting industry. Lord Benyon, a current Defra Parliamentary under-secretary, is but one conspicuous example.

  6. One thing I find puzzling is that over the years with my family I have been to falconry displays in the UK, and everyone of those displays mentions the poisoning of African vultures by big game poachers.

    And yet nothing is ever mentioned about the illegal killing of birds of prey on there own doorstep.

    If this was mentioned at these events more people would be aware.

    Or is it that the majority of falconry displays rely on ‘country shows’ for their income.

    1. SPOT ON!!! I know one falconer who actually uses display boards about hen harrier persecution, that were passed on from an exhibition about Scottish predators, but he is very much an exception. He was once flying his birds on an estate down in the borders where he’d had permission to do so when he was approached by a gamekeeper who asked if he’d be interested in four goshawk chicks ‘that were going to be shot out anyway’. He kept stoom, but when he got home reported the incident to the SSPCA. When he returned to fly his birds at another estate he was brusquely told his permission had been withdrawn – he’d been blacklisted. So he’s never been a fan of the estates or blind to what goes on, or been happy keeping his mouth shut. If even a half or a third of falconers were like him what a great asset that would be.

      It’s incredibly frustrating that when falconry displays have never been more popular they are so reluctant to bring up the issue of ‘domestic’ raptor persecution, they’d get a bit of hassle for it, but the public support would be so much stronger. We had birds of prey brought along to the wildlife events we used to run so at the very least a bit of appreciation for them would be encouraged in an area where casual violence towards wildlife was quite prevalent. In retrospect I never actually got the chance myself to see how much they may have discussed raptor persecution. As falconry is technically a field sport then not too surprising raising awareness isn’t quite what it should be. Certainly falconers can be surprisingly frequent mouthpieces for ‘the other side’ on social media, so bloody frustrating.

      A few years ago pictures came out of the Angus Glens – it just so happens the world capital of grouse moor propaganda and smearing of their detractors – purporting to show a golden eagle wearing a highly degraded, falling apart satellite tag harness. They are actually designed with biodegradable stitching to fall apart after five years when the battery runs dry so the birds aren’t carrying dead weight – so even as a genuine pic it wouldn’t demonstrate a real problem. However, rather conveniently it wasn’t a good image. If, let’s say, someone had wanted to manufacture such an image how could they do it? Very easily if you know a sympathetic falconer with a golden eagle. Just make up a mock up of a degrading satellite tag harness, or even use one taken from a dead eagle, then put it on the bird, cut some of the straps, fly it and click away until you get what you want. Such people visiting the Angus Glens are not unknown.

    2. It is surprising isn’t it that falconry groups tend to keep quiet about illegal raptor persecution in the UK ? I approached some of these groups for comments and I was quite shocked at their vehement defence of Grouse Moors , Jemima Parry Jones is heavily involved in the shameful brood meddling fiasco and yes, Country shows are the main arena for falconry displays , I suspect that a large number of true falconers are anti persecution but choose to stay quiet about their real feelings .

  7. What can I do to help stop this? Is there a petition which can be signed necessitating a hearing in parliament? I want to help. Can the RSPB coordinate action to change legislation? Is it not time to stop talking and saying how dreadful this persecution is?

  8. Last year the country was in lockdown for many months, denying public access to the countryside. It was noted however, that those employed in the land management on grouse moors and other game bird estates were still permitted to go to work.

    These figures regarding the illegal persecution of birds of prey are absolutely damming to the whole game shooting industry (63% of the reported crimes associated with gamebird shooting) .

    The shooting industry can not claim that the persecution was being undertaken by visitors or outsiders to the moors or countryside, as the lockdown prevented visitor access.
    This persecution can only have come from those employed within the game shooting industry, and still able to access the moors or countryside for work purposes.

    The fact that the figures from last year are the highest recorded figures for years, also suggests (as was predicted by many contributing to this blog) that the criminals within the game shooting industry would use the opportunity of lockdown and lack of potential witnesses to their crimes, to go on a killing spree.
    What the headline figures don’t tell us, is whether the crimes were concentrated in a particular geographical area, and therefore likely to be the work of a small proportion of those employed by the industry, or whether the crimes were more widespread, which would suggest a far greater proportion of those employed in the industry were involved. [Ed: read the report and look at the appendices – the crimes were geographically widespread]

    It will be interesting to see how the various associations and organisations representing the game shooting industry respond to these figures.
    Even more interesting will be how the various game keeper organisations respond, as the figures suggest that nearly 2/3rd of raptor persecution is associated with game bird shooting and management, which suggests the involvement of gamekeepers.

    Whilst it is very tempting to see the vast majority of game keepers or shooting estates as bad, this is perhaps very unfair, as I suspect that some of the reported incidents of raptor persecution were made by those in the industry who were disgusted by the activities of the criminal element.
    However, whilst these reports have no doubt identified crimes which had been committed, the information provided hasn’t always lead to the offender or offenders being identified and prosecuted.
    This has to change.

    If the various organisations representing the game shooting industry want to maintain any form of credibility, then they have to develop a process whereby “whistle-blowers” will not be penalised if they identify and inform the authorities regarding estates or syndicates which engage or promote bad or illegal practice, or where criminals are able to operate unchecked. They also have to openly encourage the naming of those within the industry who are responsible for these crimes, and actively assist the authorities in gathering evidence to secure a conviction at court.

    It is all to easy to be very angry at these figures, and blame the entire game shooting industry. What mustn’t be forgotten is that there will be some who are employed in the game shooting industry who are passionate about conservation, and who see legitimate game shooting as a way to fund and manage the land so that conservation, including the preservation of raptors can take place. (whilst I don’t understand why anyone would take pleasure in killing wild creatures, I do understand that the world we live in has created the business and financial incentives behind game bird shooting to fund conservation). Their voice should be heard and not be drowned out, and they should be encouraged to speak out, openly about what takes places within the industry, even if that means standing up to wealthy vested interests who profit from the criminality which takes place. At the moment I suspect the consequences of such talk often has grave consequences for those who dare to put their heads above the parapet.

    Also the various shooting organisations need to be very mindful of the recent court case regarding those involved in fox hunting and using trail hunting to hide illegal fox hunting.
    The shocking number of illegal raptor persecution crimes committed last year could well lead to the public perception being that legal methods of game bird management is just a cover for illegal activity, and that those involved in the game shooting industry conspire to hide their crimes in a similar fashion to those involved in that hunt webinar.

    As such those in the game shooting industry who are committed to conservation and the principles of shooting set out by the BASC, and other shooting organisations; and who manage their estates in an entirely lawful manner need to think very hard about their response to these figures published by the RSPB.
    Silence isn’t really an option.
    Doing nothing isn’t really an option.
    I would suggest the only way forward is to rid the game shooting industry of the criminals, and to do that in a very open, honest, transparent and public way.
    This can not be done by internal mechanisms within the industry itself, but should involve the police, the courts and the media.
    Failure to do this will simply lead to an even stronger perception that the game shooting industry has much to hide, and much of what is being hidden is associated with criminal behaviour.

    1. “Whilst it is very tempting to see the vast majority of game keepers or shooting estates as bad, this is perhaps very unfair, as I suspect that some of the reported incidents of raptor persecution were made by those in the industry who were disgusted by the activities of the criminal element.”

      “It is all to easy to be very angry at these figures, and blame the entire game shooting industry. What mustn’t be forgotten is that there will be some who are employed in the game shooting industry who are passionate about conservation, and who see legitimate game shooting as a way to fund and manage the land so that conservation, including the preservation of raptors can take place.”

      “those in the game shooting industry who are committed to conservation and the principles of shooting set out by the BASC”

      I think that is rather naive of you. The most bloodthirsty of gamekeepers all maintain they are passionate ‘countrymen’ who are ‘the only people’ who ‘really care about conservation’.

      What do you think happens to the millions of birds they shoot?

      1. It isn’t unusual for criminals to have a warped justification for the crimes they commit.
        Having just read Insp Hagens comments in the National Geographic article you are probably right.
        But that would mean a terrible indictment on the game shooting industry and those who work in it, and at odds to the increasing number of raptors I have seen in recent years over some moors; which can be contrasted with the “bad” moors where raptors are totally absent, and where their absence can only be explained by illegal persecution. Surely, there must be some estates where illegal persecution doesn’t take place and isn’t tolerated by the owners, and explains why I am seeing raptors, where in the past there were none?

  9. Sue wrote:-
    ” The banning of DGS can’t come quickly enough, but in the meantime, surely it is common sense to at least introduce a licence scheme. This persecution won’t stop until we hold the land owners to account.”

    Whilst it is understandable that you want to see some progress what you propose will fail.

    The kill for kicks horde and their champions in Holyrood will do all that they can to prevaricate with the aim of perpetually delaying licensing legislation or, as a last resort, producing something that has the right sort of label, but is more worthless rubbish like vicarious liability.

    The Holyrood junta are on the wrong side and will remain so. They are not to be trusted and, therefore, must never be allowed wriggle room.

  10. Having now had time to fully read the RSPB report, another very shocking fact contained within the report is- “Along with 2020 being the worst year on record for raptor persecution, it also has the highest proportion of incidents occurring within protected landscapes, with 40% (40.1%) occurring within either a National Park, AONB or Scottish National Scenic Area.”

    This makes a total mockery of the current way the UK manages and operates its National Parks, and other protected areas.
    If wildlife can not be protected within these protected areas, where can it be protected?
    It is absurd that such areas have strict rules governing such things as planning permission, development and land use, but that unregulated and unlicensed driven grouse shooting is able to take place, and that these areas are associated with so much of the illegal raptor persecution which is taking place.

    If the government, and that includes not only the Westminster parliament, but the Scottish, Welsh and NI assemblies want to be taken seriously when it comes to their commitment to protecting nature and the environment, then they have to change the rules regarding DGS within national parks, and protected areas.

    If DGS is the problem, then it should be banned within National Parks and protected areas, and replaced with more sustainable “walk up shooting” where artificially high grouse population densities, and all the environmental issues associated with this, are not required.

    If compensating landowners for the loss of revenue generated by DGS moors within protected areas is an issue, then a levy could be imposed on all the remaining DGS moors, so that the entire game shooting industry pays and funds conservation work in a “levelling up” process.
    I am sure there will be other solutions which could be considered.

    But to continue to allow so much raptor persecution to take place within National Parks and AONB’s is simply unacceptable, and suggests the government really isn’t serious when it talks about conservation, the environment and protecting nature.
    If “public money for public good” is really a government commitment, then a good place to start would be in the National Parks, AONB’s and ensuring that raptor persecution and all the ills associated with this are eradicated.

    The shooting industry and it’s various organisations and associations have had long enough to resolve this issue internally. Their strategies are clearly not working, and far stronger enforcement and protection for National Parks and other protected areas is clearly required.
    If that means a total ban of DGS from those areas then so be it!!!

  11. North Yorkshire … again! Welcome to bloody Yorkshire!
    So many knowledgeable, committed & indefatigable professionals have worked extremely hard, over the course of many years, in the hope of reducing the number of raptor persecution incidents, both in North Yorkshire & across the wider UK. Thank God that they have … and that they continue to do so! What would the figures have looked like had they not been out there?
    Sadly, it seems that some groups, professions, families & communities are still willing to, at best, turn a blind eye to the illegal killing of raptors and, at worst, support and protect individuals & groups who are responsible for such acts. They should be ashamed, but they won’t be! I wouldn’t be surprised if some braggarts keep scores or notch bed posts or gun stocks!!!

  12. It was exactly the same situation during the Foot and Mouth crisis over 20 years ago. The public were prevented from using footpaths and public rights of way across open moorland etc. and the gamekeepers and land managers went into overdrive killing all unwanted species. Nothing has changed; the Covid-19 lockdown removed all potential witnesses to wildlife crime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s