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Hooked on raptors

Early last October, we were out for a bit of a stroll on the stubbles. Our aim was to catch up with one or two wily old cocks, and chip away at the wild redlegs before they get too flighty to approach. In the process we bumped into one or two of our precious coveys of greys, and I?m proud to say that no mistakes were made.

One particularly big covey got pushed out along a hedge towards the boundary, as did several redlegs. I was charged with waiting at the end of the hedge, while my shoot partner Charles and a friend took a wide circuit across the stubble before bringing the hedge back towards me. The first thing through was a big female sparrowhawk. The greys did not come back, and the odd redlegs went out wide, but I did fell a pigeon. Then came a black dog, and finally Charles and chum. ?Did you see a sparrowhawk?? they asked. Then Charles produced a freshly killed and part-eaten adult grey partridge hen. ?I flushed it off this,? he said.

Now, the sparrowhawk did not kill that bird just to upset us; it is all part of life?s rich tapestry. Indeed, a successful sparrowhawk kill from a covey of fully grown partridges is comparatively rare. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust?s radio tracking studies show that late-autumn and winter coveys are relatively safe, but that predation rates can go up significantly once the partridges pair up ? with fewer pairs of eyes on lookout, they are easier to catch.

We are still in the relatively early days of these studies, and it is clear that loss rates can vary widely between both sites and years, but spring losses to raptors of up to 22 per cent have been recorded. With more data we should be able to determine measures that might help protect our birds. In the meantime it is important to note that pair losses to mammalian predators, such as foxes, can be higher still, so we cannot blame it all on sparrowhawks.

Much as I love my sport, I am a keen birdwatcher, too. I?m always fascinated to watch birds of prey, and those moments of conflict or a successful kill are surely the most exciting things that a birdwatcher can see. I will always remember, for example, the time when a wandering golden eagle that I was watching in the highlands got biffed by a peregrine for coming too close to its eyrie. Another thriller was to see a pair of peregrines taking alternate pops at a lapwing over the tide. At the last minute, the falcons would pull up to avoid a wetting, and the lapwing would fall out of the sky and dive. The result was inevitable, and the lapwing was picked off just after it rose from the water.

Clearly there are a few that do not fit the picture, but in my experience most keepers are keen on wildlife. Indeed, it is probably one of the things that keeps them interested when doing mundane things such as filling feeders. Most will be able to regale you with tales of unusual wildlife dramas that the ordinary person does not get to see. For me, this is one reason why I find it so unfair that some people and organisations seem to single them out as the only cause of raptor deaths.

An even view on raptors
A few weeks ago my wife and I took our two sons and six of their friends to the Hawk Conservancy Trust. Like all boys, they are dead keen on the dramatic and mysterious side of wildlife, so there was considerable excitement on the way. I was preparing myself to be irritated by some biased captioning or glib commentary that singled out keepers as raptor persecutors. I know that gamekeeping has a lot to answer for in its history, but lots of other people have had a hand in raptor decline, too. More importantly, modern gamekeeping does a lot to provide the food and habitat where our much-restored raptor populations thrive. Indeed, some species such as the peregrine are believed to be at their highest level ever in the UK.

Well blow me down, not once did I hear the word ?gamekeeper?! Both captions and commentaries referred to human persecution when appropriate, but not one group was singled out. If I was being picky, I might prefer to hear a word other than ?persecution?, because of its connotation of both mindlessness and cruelty. People usually have a reason for killing things, even if it is a wrong one.

I was so pleased with what I heard and saw that I wrote to congratulate the people at the Hawk Conservancy Trust for getting the balance right. For many raptor species, killing by humans is a real issue and we should not shy away from that. Nor should we shy away from the truth that almost all of it is illegal.