THE National Parks and Wildlife Service has released its annual report on threats to birds of prey. It’s the fifth one since the format was standardised in 2011. More raptor deaths were logged during 2015 than in any year so far. Thirty-five poisoning and persecution incidents came to light and nine birds of prey were shot, the highest number ever.
‘Anecdotal’ reports were not included in the data, although ‘suspected and unconfirmed incidents’ are ‘informative and important ... in providing data on threats to our raptors’, the authors note. ‘The number recorded is likely to be only a fraction of incidents that occurred in total.’ For example, several cases came to light only because the victims had been fitted with radio-tracking devices.
Twenty-six poisoning incidents involved 23 birds of prey. Most of the victims had died from ‘secondary poisoning’, having ingested lethal substances accidentally, or they had eaten the bodies of targeted species. According to raptor expert John Lusby, 85% of Irish barn owls have detectable rodenticide residues in their tissues. Of three recorded ‘poison bait’ incidents, two led to multiple deaths of birds, including starlings and crows, as well as dogs.
Five types of poison were used. One of them, Carbofuran, is so lethal to birds and mammals that it has been banned in Europe since 2008. Seven cases involved Alphachloralose, approved only for the control of rats and mice. Both of these substances ‘are regularly found used together in Ireland by those targeting peregrine falcons’. The anticoagulant Flocoumafen caused one bird death in 2014. There were 13 victims last year. Two prosecutions, for illegal use of poisoned meat, were successful in 2015.
Buzzards and red kites suffered most. Fifteen buzzard deaths were recorded. Long regarded as vermin, the species was persecuted to the brink of extinction in Ireland. Attitudes began to change in the 20th century but the destruction of the rabbit population by myxomatosis deprived buzzards of a key food resource. The widespread use of pesticides, such as DDT, also threatened the species’ recovery but a few pairs managed to hang on in the extreme north of the country. With the banning of organo-chlorine pesticides, buzzard numbers began to rise. By 1990, there were about 125 pairs here, most of them in Ulster. The species has now re-colonised the east and south of Ireland but is still absent from much of the west.
There were five red kite victims. Beginning in 2007, a hundred young kites were brought in from Wales. The population is still tiny so, proportionally, recorded mortality was far higher among kites than any other raptor. Centuries of persecution rendered the species extinct in Ireland and almost did so in Britain. Yet, some people still want to destroy these magnificent creatures.
Our commonest raptors, the kestrel and the sparrowhawk, seem better able to take care of themselves; only one sparrowhawk and two kestrel intentional deaths came to light in 2015. According to the recently published Bird Atlas, sparrowhawks are holding their own here while kestrel numbers have fallen by about a third since 1998.
To bring home to readers the reality of bird persecution, the report describes one bird’s ordeal. A young female hen harrier was fitted with a satellite tracking device in south Kerry. Nicknamed Heather, her progress was followed worldwide on the Web. Heather flew to the Wicklow Mountains. She visited Meath, Louth, Monaghan and Armagh before heading to the cliffs of south County Cork where she spent her first winter. In late 2014, she returned to Kerry. She might have mated and bred in her second year but she was shot.
- Please report poisoning or persecution incidents to the Wildlife Service, www.npws.ie/contactus.
- Dr Barry O’Donoghue et al. Recording and addressing persecution and threats to our raptors. National Parks & Wildlife Service, Regional Veterinary Laboratories, the State Laboratory.