Peregrines are a fully protected species under Schedule 1 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act. And so I was dismayed to read an account on Mark Avery’s blog that Natural England had permitted a licence for peregrine chicks to be taken from the wild for falconry purposes. In a post on the 15thof April Natural England said:
“we granted licences for three falconers to permit the taking of a small number (six in total) of peregrine falcon chicks from the wild for use in falconry. Each falconer intends to take one male and one female chick to form a breeding programme with the other licensees”.
I have some personal history with this species, and its protection in the wild.
One of my favourite paintings, hanging on my wall at home, is a painting of a peregrine falcon in a valley in southern Scotland. Painted by the artist Chris Rose and called ‘The Carrifran lookout’, the bird sits on a boulder looking down the scree slopes and the open ground. The picture reminds me of a time in the 1990s when I was working as a seasonal countryside ranger for the National Trust for Scotland. One of my tasks was to protect peregrine falcons who were nesting at a famous beauty spot.
Peregrines had always fascinated me, this beautiful wild bird of prey, nesting on remote crags, fast in flight, catching other birds on the wing. At the time, I was aware that birds were (and still are) being illegally killed to prevent predation on game birds and racing pigeons. They also have eggs and chicks taken for collections and falconry.
Each year the peregrines seemed to fail at my location, with well-developed eggs, or young chicks going missing each year. My employers had been persuaded by a local police wildlife crime officer, and the RSPB, that something needed to be done. Would the Trust tolerate a painting or rare piece of furniture to be stolen each year? To their credit, the Trust stepped up and employed seasonal rangers at the site and mounted a 24-hour guard. I was lucky enough to be one of those rangers. It was a time I will never forget and had a profound effect on my career. In time, I would become the head of investigations for the RSPB.
A small caravan was moved onsite, and this was the base for the breeding season and helped house me and any volunteers. This was one of my first conservation contracts, so I was desperate that nothing would happen to the birds.
I was doing my usual patrol of the area one day and noticed a rusty white van arrive in the nearby car park. Fearing the worst, I made my way down to see who this was. I was relieved to find it was Dave Dick, the senior investigator for the RSPB in Scotland. From my conversation with Dave, the true reality of the situation, and the criminality involved, became apparent to me. Dave explained that whilst we might be protecting ‘my’ site, other eyries in the area were often targeted by egg and chick thieves. Monitoring by local licensed raptor study group workers was demonstrating a clear demand for peregrine chicks by criminals, and these peregrine chicks were being taken from the wild to satisfy the demand from falconers.
I spent many days in the field looking for signs of criminality and on occasion, assisted Dave with monitoring sites with a known history of problems. At least the pair I was responsible for did breed successfully and, despite some worrying moments, remained unmolested.
Nowadays, the fortunes of peregrines in the UK are much improved. They are doing better, particularly in our cities and on our coastlines. However, they are still persecuted, particularly in the uplands of the UK in those areas associated with driven grouse shooting, and by individuals involved in the racing of pigeons.
But back to the issues of today. The licensee has said the reason he will be taking chicks from the wild is to provide a supply of captive bred native peregrines for falconry purposes and also has the potential as a source for re-introduction should that ever be required in the future.
Potential re-introductions are one thing (although highly complex), but let’s not overlook the primary purpose of taking these chicks from the wild to breed. Falconry is, to use an old-fashioned expression, a “field sport” that involves killing live quarry. We may associate it with flying displays at hotels and country fairs, but the birds shown there are actually trained to hunt. Twenty years ago, the chairman of the Scottish Hawk Board told a Scottish Parliament committee that “many thousands” of rabbits and hares were killed by hawks and eagles in Scotland each year. And was the kill quick and clean? asked one MSP. “We would hope so”, replied the witness, but his answer left room for doubt:
“Our intention is to dispatch quickly whatever quarry species we are hunting. It is more difficult for smaller hawks to dispatch their quarry as quickly as a golden eagle or other larger bird. Falconers are normally on hand quickly in order to make straight in and dispatch the quarry immediately. We do not just sit there and watch the bird and the rabbit or hare having a fight on the floor—we will make in and dispatch the quarry as soon as practicable.”
And what of the Middle Eastern market, where the offspring of these captured chicks are intended to go? There are already close links between breeders in Scotland and wealthy enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There, falconry has metamorphosed from an ancient hunting culture into a multi-million dollar, highly competitive industry focused on racing. The birds are prized, but the training is intensive and uses huge numbers of pigeons and quail as feed and lures, while birds learn to kill live prey including ducks and stone curlews.
Here at OneKind we would describe this licence as allowing wild animals to be caught for sport and entertainment. There may be peripheral conservation side-effects, but these have to be set against the long history of illegal taking, both here and overseas. Peregrines should stay in the wild.
I will give the final word to Dave Dick. In a comment on Mark Avery’s blog, Dave says:
“As part of this ‘debate’. I would like to remind everyone about the really quite recent history of wild peregrine protection in the UK. Hundreds, if not thousands of local people, while communities in some areas, took part in protecting ‘their’ peregrines during the 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond, protecting nest sites from thefts by falconers, or those providing birds to falconers here and as far away as the far east. They did not do so [protecting falcons] that at some time in the future, when due to their sacrifice – 24hr watches are not easy to sustain – the population recovered enough to allow for the legal removal of these birds progeny, to spend a life in captivity.”