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The Red Kite - Endangered and needing your help.

A red kite By Sue Trantor, courtesy of rspbimages.com

Being out in the countryside hiking, camping and climbing often gives us the opportunity to see wildlife. A most impressive sight is that of a bird of prey circling high above, in the clear blue sky, sightings such as this have at times been rare, but thanks to the hard work of individuals and societies such as the RSPB something is being done to conserve an important factor in our ecology.

The RSPB is currently running a campaign to protect birds of prey by creating more awareness and hopefully more respect for these creatures. CheapTents.com asked John Loder, an RSPB Campaign Talks Officer to tell us all about the campaign and how we walkers, campers and climbers can get involved and do our bit to help preserve a better future for these magnificent birds.

John is a volunteer, and is passionate about the RSPB and the important work that is done, he gives up his spare time to travel the North West of England giving lectures, talks and tutorials to all types of people on the work of the RSPB, its’ campaigns, how people can help and the pleasure that is gained from giving up time for others.

Interview With John Loder, RSPB Campaign Talks Officer

Since 2003, nearly two thousand incidents of bird crime involving or targeting wild birds of prey in the UK have been reported to the RSPB.
John Loder RSPB Campaign Talks Officer

CheapTents.com – The focus of this interview is to talk about the RSPB’s Birds of Prey Campaign, can you please tell us how this came about?

John Loder: “The Society feel it is the right time to bring the plight of our birds of prey (also called raptors) to the public’s attention. There have been some successes recently, think of the spread of ospreys, and the spectacular increase in red kite and white-tailed eagle numbers due to re-introduction schemes – all very high profile. But behind this is a tragic story of the systematic killing of many of these birds, by shooting, poisoning, trapping and nest robbing. Since 2003, nearly two thousand incidents of bird crime involving or targeting wild birds of prey in the UK have been reported to the RSPB.”

CheapTents.com – What are the aims of the campaign?

John Loder: “Put simply, we want the killers of these birds to stop it; to obey the law of the land. Often the illegal killing occurs in remote locations and is therefore difficult to detect. We want to ensure that:

  • Birds of prey continue to be fully protected.
  • The law is properly enforced so those choosing to break the law are punished.
  • These criminals know that public opinion is against them: that society is watching.
  • We have a stronger voice to help to protect these magnificent birds and allow everyone to experience the joy of seeing them.”
This Peregrine Falcon was trapped in the midlands, tragically the RSPB got too this bird to late, the distress and pain on its face is obvious and it had to be euthanised. This is one of the reasons for this campaign.

This peregrine falcon was trapped in the Midlands, tragically the RSPB got to this bird to late, the distress and pain on it's face is obvious and it had to be euthanised. This is one of the reasons for this campaign. By D Bromley, courtesy of rspbimages.com

CheapTents.com – Why does it matter if we are losing birds of prey, what value do they have?

John Loder: “Firstly, we all know about biodiversity – as creatures at the top of the food chain, birds of prey have their role. Persecution of birds of prey invariably has knock-on effects to the food chain

Environmental indicators – birds in general have been recognised as excellent indicators of the health of the environment and birds of prey have played a role in this. Think of DDT in the 1960’s – the danger of this chemical in agriculture was picked up very early when studies into the decline in birds of such as sparrowhawks found that it made their eggshells thinner, causing them to break during incubation. The connection was “If that does this to a bird, what is it doing to me?”

‘Heritage’ is a common buzz word nowadays, and names of birds of prey have found their way into our cultural heritage – just think of eagle, hawk, falcon, merlin, all used to imply excitement and speed, and used as a name for racing cars, fighter aeroplanes, and aero-engines. On the other hand there is a champion beer called ‘Hen Harrier’ produced in the Forest of Bowland – it is difficult to imagine that just a few years ago.

[The] hen harrier is known as Britain’s most threatened bird of prey…research has shown that the natural population in England should be around 200 pairs, but there are only about 15.
John Loder RSPB Campaign Talks Officer.

There is a value that can be quantified in financial terms – the pleasure people take from seeing birds of prey has been turned into financial gain where tourists are attracted by the possibility of seeing these spectacular sights. People flock to Mull and Skye to see white-tailed eagles. I persuaded my family to visit Mull recently, and we played our part in bringing in £1.6m extra to the island that year. Later on that same holiday we visited Loch Garten, one of a number of viewing sites run by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts to encourage people to visit places where the fabulous osprey can be seen raising their own families. 290,000 visit osprey sites every year, bringing in £3.5m.

Significant numbers of visitors visit mid Wales to see red kites at Nant yr Arian and Gigrin Farm. Peregrines bring in £0.5m to the Forest of Dean, and the 8 peregrine ‘Date with Nature’ sites have 120,000 visitors per year. The vast majority of these sites are in remote rural communities, bringing much needed revenue.”

CheapTents.com – How will an increase in Bird of Prey populations affect other endangered species of birds and small mammals that they hunt?

John Loder:  “By definition, birds of prey do what it says on the tin – they prey on other creatures. They can be sub-divided, however, into those that eat carrion and those that eat live prey, although raptors are opportunists and will eat a bit of both if it presents itself. Red kites are mainly carrion eaters, but that didn’t stop them being wiped out by the turn of the last century. Hen harriers, peregrines, and golden eagles are all persecuted in upland areas for the same reason – because they eat game birds, most notably red grouse. In some circumstances, grouse may form a major part of their diet and they can take a sizeable proportion of the shootable surplus of grouse. Conservation bodies, however, attribute declines in red grouse populations to a combination of the loss and deterioration of heather moorland, disease, and increased predation by foxes and crows, rather than from bird of prey activity.

There are misconceptions out there, and they have been around for hundreds of years.
John Loder RSPB Campaign Talks Officer.

Peregrines are persecuted by some members of the racing pigeon fraternity, but research has shown that 86% of pigeons lost each year fail to return to their lofts for reasons other than predation by birds of prey.

Similarly research was conducted to investigate the loss of songbirds by the poor old sparrowhawk and other raptors. Surprise, surprise, then, when they concluded that there was no evidence that birds of prey had population effects on songbirds.

Declines in farmland birds, and many of these fall under the ‘endangered’ banner, were mainly down to changes in our farmland practices having a detrimental effect on their habitat. So there are misconceptions out there, and they have been around for hundreds of years.”

CheapTents.com – What species are endangered?

John Loder: “As creatures at the top of the food chain, the natural order of things means there will never be vast numbers of birds of prey. Some species have always had low numbers for many years as our islands are at the extremities of their natural range. Others such as the white tailed eagle, osprey and red kite have relatively low numbers in most areas, but are recovering from near extinction a few decades ago, as a result of lots of TLC. But those that concern me most are the goshawk, golden eagle and hen harrier.

A White Tailed Eagle. By Ian McCarthey courtesy of rspbimages.com

The white-tailed eagle, the largest bird in the UK. By Ian McCarthey courtesy of rspbimages.com

The goshawk is a bird of the forests, looks like a sparrowhawk on steroids, and has been systematically persecuted in the Northern Peak District to just a handful of pairs.

The hen harrier is known as ‘Britain’s most threatened bird of prey’. Recent research has shown that the natural population in England should be around 200 pairs, but there are only about 15. This year was a particularly bad one, with only about 10 pairs breeding successfully in England.

The word ‘icon’ could have been invented for the golden eagle. The ultimate predator, symbol of the Scottish moorland, but again their numbers are being kept artificially low by poisoning, nest destruction and shooting, and there are just over 400 breeding pairs in Scotland.”

CheapTents.com – What direct actions are the RSPB doing to increase bird of prey populations?

John Loder: ” The programme of reintroductions may catch the headlines, but the resources needed are mind-boggling. This tactic of ‘pump-priming’ the populations of red kites has been very successful and now needs less attention. We seem to have got the recipe right for the white-tailed eagle, and there are hopes that an English population can be established soon. Protection of birds and nests is the priority for the RSPB Investigations Unit, that works closely with the Police and other agencies in rural areas. On a more day-to-day level, the RSPB recognises the value of input from farmers, and carries out a vast amount of research, education and co-operation on wildlife-friendly farming.”

golden eagle….numbers are being kept artificially low by poisoning, nest destruction and shooting, and there are just over 400 breeding pairs in Scotland.
John Loder RSPB Campaign Talks Officer.

CheapTents.com – Our readers spend a lot of time in the outdoors, is there any general advice that you can give them as to the best ways and times in which birds can be seen whilst hiking in the countryside?

John Loder: ” Birds are more likely to be heard than seen, so use your ears. Practise learning the songs and calls of common garden birds first – early mornings are the best time. Get yourself a cheap bird book that will fit in a map pocket. Compact binoculars don’t have to be expensive, and I use mine to help find a path when I’m out on the hills. Oh, and if you’re walking and birdwatching, go with like-minded people, as you do tend to stop fairly regularly.”

CheapTents.com – In the most popular walking areas in the UK which birds of prey could we expect to see?

John Loder: “In the Cairngorms the ospreys are returning to the lochs if there are plentiful fish stocks, and up on the moors there is the merlin, which is like a small kestrel, and the rare hen harrier, which has it’s stronghold in Scotland. If you’re lucky you may spot a golden eagle soaring at height. But they do have peregrines – they nest on the crags; listen out for the youngsters’ high pitched calls.

The Harrier. By Chris Gomersall, courtesy of rspbimages.com

A Harrier. By Chris Gomersall, courtesy of rspbimages.com

In the Lake District, ospreys are back in Bassenthwaite, and the lowland woods have sparrowhawks, which are secretive ‘ambush’ predators. You’ll spot buzzards in many rural areas, they can usually be seen soaring on the thermals, but they have a taste for insects so are found in the fields.

Mid-Wales is a haven for red kites, and on many of our coastal paths look out for kestrels hovering, and there’s a possibility that you will find peregrines here as well – they move to the estuaries to chase waders in Winter.”

CheapTents.com – As walkers/wild campers or climbers how can we minimise our impact on birds and wildlife?

John Loder: ” We now have the ‘right to roam’, but you have to be sensible and follow the Countryside Code. Many of the upland species of birds are ground nesters, so keep to the paths and ensure dogs are on a lead in the nesting/lambing season. I have an 8 metre lead: it gives the dog plenty of freedom and he learns not to pull after a while. As an ex-climber, I know that most of the routes are away from nests, but the tell-tale signs are a bird calling in distress. You will normally hear/see this at the bottom before you start.

The common sense stuff about litter applies, as birds can get tangled in fishing lines or swallow plastic bags in the water.”

CheapTents.com – If out walking and I saw someone obviously trapping or hunting birds of prey. What should I do? Is there an emergency phone number or do I just phone the police?

John Loder: ” If a matter is urgent, telephone the police, RSPB or appropriate agency. If your concern is regarding animal welfare or domestic animals, contact the RSPCA or your local wildlife centre.

If you would prefer to speak to somebody call the RSPB on 01767 680 551 (England and Wales) or 0131 311 6500 (Scotland). Lines are manned 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Messages can be left outside these hours.

There is a form on the RSPB website that you can use to report a wildlife crime to the RSPB. The more information you can provide, the more useful your report will be. Although it may be distressing at the time, try and remember a few salient facts, like: when, where, bird species, description of the suspect, evidence etc. Photographs are useful, however do not put yourself in danger.”

CheapTents.com – Finally, How can people help the campaign or get involved?

John Loder: “It’s easy – visit the RSPB Birds Of Prey Campaign homepage and then ‘sign the pledge’. By law you have to be 18 or over, and we will send you a free Birds of Prey booklet in the post.

If you’re in the North of England you may want me (or one of my colleagues) to give an evening presentation on the Birds of Prey Campaign to your local group – it doesn’t have to be a walking or conservation group, and I don’t charge a fee! Call the RSPB Denby Dale office on 01484 861148 and leave your details. And finally, thanks for giving me the opportunity to show how birds of prey are not only great to watch, but also have a vital role in maintaining the balance of our natural world.”

For more information please visit our update Blog readers help to protect Birds of Prey!

The RSPB and Critically Endangered Bird Species

The RSPB does a lot of work to raise awareness of critically endangered bird species and tries to restore declining bird populations. A lot of this work is done in conjunction with the BirdLife International. A large amount of money is raised for bird conservation through the annual Birdfair at Rutland water. Previous international campaigns have focussed on Rimatara Lorikeets, Gurney’s Pittas and the Albatross as well as many other species. For the past three years the main focus of BirdFair conservation has been on the Lost and Found campaign which hopes to verify whether certain critically endangered bird species still exist and where they are. In doing so effective conservation efforts can be made.

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  • Sam

    Can you comment on the recent Daily Mirror report that the Royal Pigeon Racing Association claims that up to 270,000 pigeons and songbirds are killed each day by peregrines and sparrowhawks, which suggests that bird of prey populations are healthy and there is no need to protect them?

  • Thanks for your question Sam. We have contacted John Loder, who has replied as followed:

    Let’s look at some more down-to-earth facts: three independent studies into the reasons why racing pigeons fail to return to lofts concluded that the numbers taken by birds of prey are small compared to other causes. An estimated 86% of the pigeons lost each year fail to return for reasons other than predation by birds of prey.
    Pigeons fail to return to their lofts for a variety of reasons. A UK wide study by the Government’s UK Raptor Working Group found that:

    * straying and exhaustion accounted for 36% of losses
    * collisions with solid objects like buildings and windows – 19%
    * collisions with overhead wires – 15%
    * predation by birds of prey – 14%
    * shooting, entanglement in netting, poisoning and oiling – 8%
    * predation by mammals, including domestic cats – 8%

    An average loft in the UK houses 73 racing pigeons – the research indicates that a typical owner will lose 38 pigeons each year. Of these, just over five would be killed by sparrowhawks and peregrines while 14 will have strayed, gone feral or died of starvation and exhaustion; seven will have died in a collision, six will have hit overhead wires; three will have been shot, poisoned or oiled, and three will have been eaten by a mammal.
    Straying accounts for the highest losses in racing pigeons and more needs to be done to understand the causes for this. Of those pigeons that were taken by birds of prey, a significant number of them had already strayed from their lofts and become feral before they were killed.

  • Michael Penn

    What A load of BS!!!
    I Lost 5 pigeons recently; all of them were seen being attacked and hunted down by hawks, probably migrating through the area. All the pigeon fanciers I have spoken to say the same thing – rapture numbers are exploding! Just what in the food chain controls the raptures now that there is this pop cultural love affair over birds of prey? I, today, seen a damn hawk hunt down and chew apart my prize pigeon, even with me running to chase it away – not a pleasant sight I can assure you! They are growing so bold that not even humans scare them any more! Why is it that birds of prey are more valuable and worthy of our protection than other species – like my pigeons???? I guess when the numbers finally explode to the point where there are no more other birds or small mammals left then people will wonder if excessive protection of raptures was not such a good idea after all. Now I guess I just have to cage my pigeons up if I don’t want to lose anymore but don’t give me any more BS about the damn birds of prey. If you love them so much cage them up to preserve them like we have to do with our pigeons. The Only Good Rapture Is A Dead Rapture!

  • Freddy Phillips

    Sorry to read of the loss of your pigeons Michael obviously this must colour your views on birds of prey (incidentally,they are “raptors” not “raptures” the latter being entirely worthy!- Never mind, I always want to put a “d” in “pigeon”). Given that prey species control the numbers of species preying on them there is little likelihood that hawks or owls will ever eliminate there food supply, in fact as Charles Darwin described the process of survival of the fittest the raptors are ensuring that the pigeon gene pool is constantly improving – which helps you to win your races. Of course the hawks get better as well which goes to show the whole thing is part of the natural order of things. Not much consolation though, I can see that.

  • Are birds of prey back?nThis BBC article from 4th March 2011 examines the current situation regarding of the UK’s birds of prey populationnhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12634698

  • A gamekeeper cooped a live pigeon in a trap for birds of prey on National Trust land, deliberately breaking wildlife protection laws, a court has been told.

    Glenn Brown, who has appeared in a tourism podcast promoting grouse shooting, was caught on undercover film recorded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, magistrates in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, heard.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/12/gamekeeper-live-pigeon-trap

  • I agree with what you say and know of a pigeon breeder in USA who only breeds from raptor savvy stock.

    by the way there is an ie in your use of their. call it a draw 🙂
    ” eliminate there food supply,”

  • Jim Woodcock

    That’s only really half the point. You saw the photo of the Peregrine (I always use capitals for vernacular names). Look how much pain it is in! The pole trap has cut into it’s leg and it is bleeding like hell, the bone is probably broken, it’s exhausted, it’s confused. The RAPTORS (!!!) do not know these pigeons are people’s racing birds. That Peregrine must be thinking “What in hell’s name is going on? I hunt down a nice meaty pigeon in my spectacular lightning-speed stooping way to eat and keep my species alive and then some mindless inhumane guy comes and puts down a trap that is now killing me in a slow and painful torture, he robs my nest of my lady’s and my family (I’m lucky the eggs never got DDT-poisoned) and he will never even eat my meat afterwards. Can somebody please RAM A BLOODY KNIFE THROUGH MY FACE now before I choke to death on my own misery? Thank you to the guy that does.”. I’m guessing you never will eat the bird’s meat because most Brits are specist (i got owned by the English language if I spelled that wrong) and I am a vegetarian any way. You have already helped to practically wipe out a wild bird by keeping pigeons in the first place. The wild Rock Dove (in the US known as the Wild Pigeon) is threatened because of pigeon-breeders who caught them and bred them into weird fast versions then let them go riot and make love in the towns so we now really only have feral Rock Doves that look nothing like wild ones. “When the numbers finally explode so there are no small birds and mammals left” – that’s what I call BS. Have you heard of “nature’s balance”? It goes like this: There is lots of prey (let’s say Wood Pigeons NOT RACING PIGEONS IN CAPTIVITY). The predators (let’s say Peregrines) increase in numbers because of the high amount of prey. But now there is loads of Peregrines all hunting the Wood Pigeons so the Wood Pigeons decrease. But now there is not enough prey to sustain the Peregrines so the Peregrines decrease. Now there is not much predators for the prey to be caught by so they increase again. Now there is plenty more prey so the predators can increase again. Now go smoke that. “The only good RAPTOR is a dead RAPTOR” – EVEN MORE BS!!! The RAPTORS are birds too. They are pure and wild and cunning and witty, unlike the pigeons of yours which are impure Rock Dove mutations that are under the command of horrid men and have to face the fact that their wild relatives are in danger because of them. Tell me – where is the sense in mollycoddling one species and brutally murdering the rest? Tell me if you can think of an excuse. We do not want to cage up the birds of prey. We want to keep them pure and preserve them (the first pigeon-keepers should have done this with Rock Doves) by keeping the wild ones safe. I tell you, it is much more enjoyable to watch the magnificent antics and dives of a wild hunting bird than to watch it doing the same boring routine (them pigeons must be thinkng “AAARRG! Not again!”) over and over. Smoke that too. When you have thought of any excuses for supporting this relentless torture of wildlife please comment back and see what us REAL bird-lovers have to shove up your pipe. Bye.

  • Jim Woodcock

    good research man! RAPTORS FOR THE WIN!!!!

  • The first custodial sentence for raptor persecution has been handed out to George Mutch, a gamekeeper in Scotland. RSPB’s Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said:

    “This sentence is an historic, landmark result. Mr Mutch has been sentenced to four months in prison following his conviction for the illegal killing of a goshawk; illegal use of a trap; and illegal taking of a buzzard and a second goshawk.”

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/388446-rspb-scotland-welcomes-first-uk-prison-sentence-for-raptor-persecution