The fight to save the peregrine falcon in Bowland

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2014 | UPDATED: 00:03 24 October 2015

Terry Pickford holding peregrine chick

Terry Pickford holding peregrine chick

NOT Archant

There are fears that Bowland could eventually become a raptor-free zone and that’s a scandal, writes Terry Pickford

We like to think our treatment of wildlife has improved since 1947 when Bowland’s only breeding pair of peregrines were shot and their clutch of four eggs destroyed. The reality is the situation today is almost as bad today as it was back then.

In the spring of 2009 an organisation I am involved with, the North West Raptor Group, recorded 17 occupied peregrine territories in this beautiful, wild corner of Lancashire. Just four years later, 15 of those 17 territories had been abandoned leaving just one successful breeding pair.

So what changed? In 2010 Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment, withheld the licences which had allowed our group to monitor peregrines in Bowland for more than 35 years. Why? We had been told they would only be granted if we signed confidentiality agreements - basically gagging us from publicising what we found there. We refused.

In the 47 years I have been involved with raptor conservation in the north west, I have learned three important things. Firstly, red grouse shooting and birds of prey do not mix and I doubt this will ever change. Secondly, relationships with estates seem to be held in higher regard by some politicians than the security of the endangered raptors they have a statutory duty to protect. Thirdly, the hen harrier, the peregrine and the goshawk, in particular, are declining at alarming rates on special protected moorland where they should be safe.

The Popular Handbook of British Birds explains the peregrine falcon is found chiefly in open and more or less treeless country. In the breeding-season it frequents coastal or inland cliffs, moors and mountainsides. This might have been accurate until the end of the 20th century but today this situation has changed. Peregrines have become a very rare migrant, almost disappearing as a regular breeding species in our northern uplands. At the same time, for the first time in 60 years, the hen harriers did not breed in England this past season.

Many will be shocked to learn there are now more nesting pairs of peregrines inside London than in the whole of the Northern Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales, the North Yorkshire Moors, the Forest of Bowland, the Durham uplands and Derbyshire’s Dark Peak. If you have any doubts, please consider the following tragic facts:

* In the Northern Pennines historical territories once frequented by the peregrine have been reduced from 15 breeding pairs to just four. This year two of these sites were unproductive and a third nest was robbed of a clutch of eggs. The last site was successful.

* Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland has witnessed an unprecedented peregrine population crash with only a single breeding success recorded this past year. In the last four years 15 peregrine territories have been found abandoned, resulting in the disappearance of at least 30 adults.

In 2009, 25 Bowland peregrine territories were examined by licensed members of our raptor group. Seventeen were occupied, six sites failed following the disappearance of eggs or chicks. A total of eleven territories were productive, fledging 24 young. This result was considered by us to have been a very poor breeding season. Two female chicks vanished from a brood of four soon after being ringed.

By 2011 the work once undertaken by our group was now being carried out by a small number of voluntary RSPB wardens who are also members of the recently established Bowland Raptor Study Group (BRSG). This new group agreed to sign the confidentiality agreement and are now licensed to monitor raptors throughout the whole of the Forest of Bowland. Compared to the 17 territories found occupied in 2009, only nine on moorland owned by United Utilities were monitored in 2011. Although seven of these sites contained eggs, just five hatched. Two pairs were successful, fledging four chicks. I find it difficult to comprehend why the additional territories at a higher risk do not appear to have been monitored at all in 2011. Had these sites already been destroyed?

Our raptor group decided to make it own investigation this season.

Working without licences, using telescopes to view nests and exercising common sense and a great deal of care to avoid any disturbance, NWRG members checked 20 peregrine territories. To my surprise, only four were occupied, and two of those were eventually destroyed. Just a single territory was successful. Was it a coincidence that in the four years following the removal of our licences by Natural England, 15 of the territories occupied in 2009 had been abandoned by 2013? Let us also not forget three eagle owl nests were also found abandoned this year. A clutch of eggs from a fourth nest disappeared.

With such depressing facts, the question must be asked: Why aren’t the RSPB, Natural England or the Northern England Raptor Forum speaking out about this indefensible state of affairs?

Why are crucial details including missing eggs and chicks, together with the loss of so many adult peregrines that once occupied the 15 abandoned territories being kept so secret?

Under the European Wild Birds Directive, Bowland’s moorland has been designated a Special Protected Area (SPA), which in theory if not in practice, affords vulnerable species such as the hen harrier and peregrine enhanced protection.

Peregrines continue to disappear from grouse moors, not only in the Forest of Bowland but also from a majority of northern England’s uplands where red grouse are shot. Can the abandonment of 15 historic peregrine territories in such a short period be a coincidence? I certainly don’t think so.

With so many peregrine territories abandoned I’m surprised we hear so little from the relevant organisations tasked with conserving protected fauna and flora within Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. Who should take responsibility for what has been allowed to happen? What purpose has now been served by withholding licences provided to the one raptor group that might have made a difference had they not been prevented from doing so?

Terry Pickford has spent almost 50 years involved in bird of prey conservation and his work has featured on television. He was a founder member of the North West Raptor Group and was a member of a Government working group for five years.

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