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Facing the reality of raptor deaths

Last week, research was published which showed that painting one blade of a wind turbine black, rather than white, could seriously decrease the likelihood of birds – in particularly large raptors such as eagles – from colliding with the blades. A trial on an island off the Norwegian coast showed that the numbers of birds found dead near the turbines fell by 72 per cent around turbines which had one black blade, compared with neighbouring turbines with all white blades. What is perhaps most interesting is that the birds that were most affected by the change to black were white-tailed eagles – with kestrel, snipe and golden plover also seeing the benefits. 

Just a few days before the news of this trial was published, a white-tailed eagle (which are also known as sea eagles) was found with a serious head injury on the Hebridean island of Lewis, with the RSPB suspecting the injuries had been caused by a wind turbine. 

Sea eagles have been widely lauded as a successful re-introduction story, having been re-introduced to Scotland from the 1970s onwards, and more recently on the Isle of Wight. But they don’t come without controversy. They have been accused of taking sheep and livestock from farmers on the west coast, as well as feeding on grouse and, as is often the case in our current anti-shooting climate, whenever one is found dead, people like to look for someone to blame.

It’s just not sea eagles, of course. Every time a bird of prey is found dead, almost without fail it is assumed that gamekeepers must be to blame for shooting or poisoning the bird – no matter if there’s not a single jot of evidence. We all know that wind turbines have the ability to kill birds, with larger species – which do tend to be raptors – some of the most vulnerable. The London School of Economics estimated in 2014 that by 2020, there could be between 9,600 and 106,000 bird deaths a year as a result of wind energy generation in the UK. There over 10,000 wind turbines – both onshore and offshore – in the UK, and with the environment on people’s minds and  climate-change targets to meet, there are thousands more planned. 

Wind turbines are far from raptors’ only concern. Earlier this week we spoke to a former field-officer for the Peak District bird of prey office, who reminisced on a hen harrier nest back in 2014. From the moment he was aware of their presence, he monitored the birds every waking moment of the day. And his dedication paid off – the nest of five chicks fledged around the same time as Hen Harrier Day in August.  

However not everything was rosy. Although the chicks had fledged, ‘flying from one post to the next’, they were still vulnerable to predators and other outside influences. One male chick, who was “a little bit behind the others” was on the nest when two buzzards appeared in the area. “I witnessed it”, he says. “One nailed it, and started plucking it; it was eating the hen harrier. The female hen harrier came and mobbed it off, and it did come back to the nest, but the chick was found dead in the nest when we inspected it. You could see the puncture wounds from the buzzard.” But this was never mentioned; the predation of these hen harrier chicks by other birds of prey was swept under the carpet. 

Another chick from the same brood was luckier in her early life. A satellite-tagged female named NaTalie (“with a capital N and a capital T to stand for National Trust”) was later found dead about 400 metres from the nest site. She was sent for a post-mortem, but the results were never released. The field-officer was, however, told by a senior National Trust officer than NaTalie had died of an extremely high worm burden. “That was two of the chicks that we knew were dead; one we knew was a buzzard, and the second was NaTalie. I heard that another chick was found under a goshawk nest; that was found by someone I know who rings goshawk nests.” 

Of the nest, all five chicks “technically fledged”, in that they were all moving about and flying back to the nest. “Literally overnight they vanished, and everyone was saying the satellite-tagged female had been shot. Then when the results came through, because it wasn’t a game-keeper to blame, it all gets forgotten about.”   

The question, then, is how to present stories such as these to the public. As the Peak District officer said himself, the deaths that make the news are the ones where gamekeepers are to blame. With nests like these, people like to insinuate that the birds might have been shot, or targeted by shooting estates – but as soon as the truth emerges, they aren’t interested in the facts. Thousands of birds of prey will die from natural causes or predation each year, and it’s up to all land and estate managers to protect them as best we can. But not all of them can be saved, and jumping to place the blame on gamekeepers doesn’t help anyone.   


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