Birds of prey become the hunted

THERE’S enough room for everyone, humans and animals, in this country.

It’s a sentiment we’ve heard more than once in the past week, following a spate of deaths of protected birds of prey from poisoning.

Programmes to reintroduce eagles and kites are now under serious threat because of ongoing poisoning, a sad reflection on our society in the International Year of Biodiversity which celebrates life in all its forms.

And, because of its failure to protect wildlife, the Government is facing the prospect of heavy fines under the EU Birds Directive. Indeed, efforts being made in the North and Britain generally are shaming us. Laws in the North are tougher and there also appears to be more public support, as evidenced by 200,000 signatures collected by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Alphachloralose is the number one poison of choice today and the most prevalent toxin threatening the red kite reintroduction in Wicklow, according to Damian Clarke, project manager for the Golden Eagle Trust (GET), the group running the eagle and kite programmes. “Despite the fact that it has been banned for some years in the UK, we still continue to allow its production and use in Ireland. This is unsustainable and we have a duty to afford kites from Northern Ireland the same protection as in the UK,” he stressed.

In fairness, it must also be said that probably only a handful of people are continuing to break the law in the Republic by putting out poisoned-laced meat bait for foxes. There may be no deliberate attempts to kill the birds, but, being carrion feeders, they are irresistibly drawn to meat. Despite this threat, many eagles have travelled the length and breadth of Ireland. At least three of the 55 white-tailed eagles released in Kerry have travelled to Scotland and back, without being harmed.

One male eagle travelled to the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, and back over an eight-month period. Another satellite-tracked eagle called Fiadhna, after nine-year-old Fiadhna Tangney from the Black Valley, Co Kerry, left Killarney after release in August 2009 and has now visited 28 of the 32 counties, according to Dr Allan Mee, project manager.

“It is heartening to know that Fiadhna can cross the country and roost and feed on literally hundreds of farms in many counties without coming to any harm. To my mind, this shows that the vast majority of farmers respect nature and do not use poisons,” he said.

Permits were issued to collect up to 20 fledglings per year from Norway during 2007-2009, as Norway has a healthy and growing eagle population. Another reason the Norwegians donate the birds is that Ireland is still seen as being a suitable area for the species. But the Norwegian authorities are, said Dr Mee, concerned to learn about the casualties caused by illegal poisoning.

Environment Minister John Gormley has pledged to bring in laws banning the use of poisoned meat baits which are targeted at farm pests believed to prey on lambs. How long the Norwegian wildlife directorate is prepared to wait for the minister to take necessary steps to give protected birds a future in Ireland is a moot question.

Of three poisoned red kites found in the last month, a female found in Kildare had been released in Co Down in 2008 as part of a reintroduction programme in Northern Ireland managed by the RSPB.

Robert Straughan, red kite project office, said the RSPB is seeking a coordinated approach between all relevant statutory and voluntary organisations to tackle crimes against birds of prey in the North. There, the new Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill will introduce tougher fines and custodial sentences for those committing crimes against wildlife. The RSPB is seeking an amendment to the bill to make it an offence to possess certain pesticides. Environment Minister Edwin Poots has signed the RSPB pledge to stop illegal killing of birds of prey and the Ulster Farmers’ Union is also supporting the red kite project by including a red kite in its redesigned logo.

The Golden Eagle Trust made a formal complaint to the EU Commission, last December, that the Departments of Environment and Agriculture, are in breach of the 1979 European Union Birds Directive. That is because current legislation in Ireland permits foxes to be poisoned with meat baits, without adequate safeguards to prevent the inevitable poisoning of birds of prey. Two years before the latest complaint was submitted, the European Court of Justice found against the Irish Government for a range of failures to satisfactorily implement this directive. The Government will face further, potentially costly, actions should it be found to fail on further counts. There are also fears that the ongoing use of toxins by a small number of people in the Irish agri-food industry will begin to tarnish the valuable image of natural, clean Irish food products, especially in foreign markets.

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