In this month’s chat with conservationists, we meet James, the founder of Raptor Persecution Watch. Who shares his experience of raptor conservation through falconry…
My first encounter with birds of prey
I remember clearly when my love of birds of prey began. A lot of people have quite an idyllic and almost spiritual epiphany from watching or reading David Attenborough as a child, or from visiting somewhere and seeing wildlife which captivated them in a trance.
I didn’t have such an idyllic story, in fact, it’s more laughable and undignified than profound. To put it briefly, I was 3 years old, playing with the rabbit in the garden, when (to me at the time) a mysterious bird with a rust-red breast swooped down and landed on the rabbit’s hutch.
It was like lightning but was scared off by my dad as he ran out of the house, swinging and shouting like some sort of tribal shaman at a ritual. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it went something like “Dad, why did you scare away that parrot?” (I was so excited, the colours and the curved beak to me looked like a parrot from a movie). “That wasn’t a parrot,” My dad said, “It was a hawk, and it just tried to eat the rabbit”.
I was transfixed, the word hawk itself summoned up that excitement. This fascination has developed a deep love and passion for the conservation of birds of prey and their protection. Of course, I know now that the bird wasn’t a parrot, it was a male Sparrowhawk, and I’ve assured my dad that the rabbit was perfectly safe.
The small and delicate “musket”, as a male Sparrowhawk is commonly known as, was probably after the Blue Tits on our neighbour’s bird table. But the damage was done, this incident put me on a trajectory to what I love doing today.
From falconry to raptor conservation
I’ve been a falconer for 10 years now. I started when I was 11, when, by relentlessly pestering a family friend who had birds of prey. I began by helping them look after them at his place, where he ran his pest control business from using birds of prey. These were birds ranging from tiny little American Kestrels to Tawny Eagles. Heaven for someone like me!
Then, when I was 12, Skye came into life, a male Harris Hawk, who’s been with me ever since. Being a falconer isn’t about keeping these birds as pets, as some interpret it to be. These birds are companions, in the truest sense of the word.
Like many human to animal working relationships, they work with you and use their instincts. They are essentially wild birds who decide on the keeper as much as the keeper decides on the bird.
Transforming a community into bird lovers
In this capacity, opportunities have arisen for me to be involved with conservation locally. People noticed, and invariably would often ask me questions about birds of prey. At first, there was a great deal of distrust towards wild raptors, people were actively hostile.
Although I didn’t choose to, I fell into this new educational role. I was to convince and teach the people in my community, a working-class community in North Liverpool, to love and look after the local birds. People began to put owl boxes up, wouldn’t leave rodenticide out (which is deadly to wild raptors) and would keep an eye out for any potential threats to birds of prey in the area.
Though I was barely 16, and by no design of my own, I had inspired a community to become raptor watchers using falconry! A community that took ownership and responsibility for its wildlife.
I think my favourite local project was when I helped a local farmer. We developed a diversionary feeding plan, (essentially, leaving out food away from that area to divert the birds from foraging there) to stop a pair of Buzzards from hunting and catching their pheasants. I have no doubt that, if it hadn’t been for the work and awareness I had created locally, he would probably have shot those birds! I like to think that this was my first case of preventing raptor persecution.
By day, Falconer, by night a raptor triage nurse
Soon, I was also helping injured birds of prey and owls, once I was qualified and attended the appropriate courses (which is essential for any sort of work like that). I became a sort of triage nurse for raptors!
People often bring me injured birds. If it’s anything more than a minor ailment or injury, I arrange for that bird to be taken to somewhere with the appropriate facilities for their rehabilitation. I help where I can. For example, if the bird hasn’t eaten and is worn out, if it’s a little injured and just needs some aid to get it back into condition or otherwise.
Why we need raptor conservation
I wish more people would know about the atrocities our raptors face. It’s the elephant in the room and it explains why the only place, up until the past 18 months, you could see White Tailed Eagles was up in the windswept Hebrides. Across the channel, in the Netherlands they have them nesting on the wetlands outside of port cities.
My first encounter of raptor persecution
Having said that, my first personal experience of raptor persecution came in 2019. Although I had come across birds that had been injured or killed before, I had never bore witness to one. This bird was a falconry bird, a Saker Falcon. (Though non-native, they are still protected under the same law as native species- the 1981 Wildlife Act.) He was a bird I had been training for a few months.
One day, whilst out of the usual flying grounds, he had his telemetry on and the bell was chiming away. He soared behind a treeline and onto another plot of land, as he had done before. I could still hear his bell from this distance, and the telemetry signal was still strong. Falconers use radio telemetry receivers to track the small transmitters which hook onto the anklets of the bird, the same technology that is used in conservation work. It’s a very flat area, so little obstructs the signal, not even these trees.
Suddenly, a loud crack came from behind this area of land, he disappeared, his bell stopped. The telemetry produced only silence when a minute before it was producing a strong signal. I was barely 100m away, yet, he vanished.
To add some context, this land was owned by an individual who’d made threats against me several times. For promoting raptors, particularly with the nest boxes in the surrounding areas, away from his land and with the support of the surrounding landowners. He had specifically threatened to shoot the birds before.
My heart sank, no way this bird could just disappear. Vanishing from the telemetry range in a second, the bell falling quiet immediately. My suspicions were confirmed when I found fresh shotgun shells. They couldn’t have been there longer than a few hours, since they were bone dry and it hadn’t rained that long ago.
Taking a stand for raptor conservation
I was outraged. I was angry. Yet I had no proof, not solid proof anyway as a body had not been found. Others I approached advised me to not pursue the matter, preferably not to talk about it. The pressure fell on me to keep quiet, yet the crime had been committed!
It showed to me that raptor persecution percolates into our countryside far more than the authorities admit. I realised that far more is needed than a compromise, more people needed to be made aware to end this.
And so, I started the Raptor Persecution Watch page. A page that will go on to show what is really happening, and how frequently birds of prey are being maimed and killed. Currently, it’s a completely independent venture, I’m not part of a university or institution. It allows me to speak my mind and speak from my experiences and, hopefully, help people protect their local raptors and look after them.
If you love birds of prey, and raptor conservation, be sure to follow @raptorpersecutionwatch on Instagram.