Raptors at risk

The recent peregrine falcon poisonings could have far-reaching consequences for Guernsey’s environment, as biodiversity officer Julia Henney explains

BIRDS of prey, or raptors, are some of our most majestic and awe-inspiring wildlife. They often hunt ‘on the wing’ and can be seen soaring through the skies in search of prey.

While many raptors occasionally visit our shores, we have just five species of raptor breeding in Guernsey. They vary hugely. Buzzards and marsh harriers, our largest, can be seen circling overhead with impressive wingspans of up to 130cm, while that of our smallest raptors, sparrowhawks, measure just 55cm.

What they have in common is that they’re all at risk from persecution – and none more so at the moment than our peregrine falcons.

Peregrine. (Picture by Andy Marquis) (28666038)

Guernsey’s peregrine falcons

Peregrines are relatively rare birds that have long faced persecution wherever they have been found – and Guernsey is no exception. They were wiped out locally in 1959, when the last pair was shot on the south coast cliffs.

Over the last 50 years, peregrines have steadily recolonised their former range as illegal persecution diminished. They began to reappear here in the 1980s, and by the mid-1990s they had once again taken up residence.

This was a huge success story for Guernsey: without resorting to very costly and resource-heavy reintroduction schemes (as the Isle of Wight did for white-tailed sea eagles), peregrines moved back to the island. The fact that our natural environment can still support a number of breeding pairs is a great indicator for the health of our wildlife more generally.

Peregrines have a wide range of prey, but they specialise in taking other birds – which is the main reason they have been persecuted, as they are seen as a threat to birds kept by humans, such as game birds and pigeons. A healthy raptor population is a sign that there is a similarly healthy number of other native bird species living in the island.

Sparrowhawk. (Picture by Andy Marquis) (28666042)

Under threat

Guernsey can only ever support a very small population of this apex predator: they need space to hunt widely and will routinely make trips between our Bailiwick islands. That is what makes it all the more devastating that the bodies of four peregrine falcons (and one buzzard) have been found in Guernsey and Herm, in circumstances that leave no room for doubt that they had been deliberately targeted and poisoned.

While four peregrines have been confirmed as having been killed, many more may have been poisoned undetected, their bodies just not found. The deadly substances used to kill the peregrines also killed at least one buzzard. It is likely there were other casualties too, but we will never know the full extent of the harm inflicted. We can at least count ourselves fortunate that, unlike the UK recently, no dogs or even children came into contact with these dangerous poisons.

Peregrines, like other birds of prey, are fairly short-lived, so a healthy population is dependent on young birds replacing the older generation with sufficient frequency. The recent poisonings have killed parent birds: as a result, their chicks will have also died on the nest. This means that not only is the peregrine population diminished but it is also less sustainable. Once population numbers fall, they can take a long time to fully recover – as we know from the decades it took after the local crash in the 1950s.

Impacts on our wider environment

This isn’t just about birds: the loss of top predators such as raptors can have huge consequences further down the food chain, and the knock-on effects can be felt by whole ecosystems. We might see, for example, a boom in rodent populations, which are normally kept in balance through predation, or an increase in animal carcasses across our commons and natural spaces, which are most often cleaned up by our scavenging birds of prey.

Buzzard. (Picture by Andy Marquis) (28666032)

How you can help

We need to put a stop to this devastating sequence of events, for the sake of our wildlife, our pets and our people. Whoever has been poisoning our peregrine falcons is a member of our community, so it’s unlikely their actions will be completely unknown to anyone else. There is a very significant financial reward for anyone who provides information that leads to a successful prosecution. That reward currently stands at £17,000 thanks to the generous donations of local charities and individuals; further pledges can be made through La Societe Guernesiaise’s Bird Section – http://www.guernseybirds.org.gg/.

Julia Henney. (28665554)

Our environment is facing so many challenges at the moment: habitat loss and degradation, invasive non-native species, climate change, pollution… the list goes on. Many of these challenges are complicated and will take a concerted, joined-up effort from everyone in the community – government, business and individuals. Deliberate persecution on top of this is a cruel affront. Knowingly inflicting illegal and utterly avoidable damage to our wildlife will have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. However, it can be easily stopped. If you have any information, or perhaps know someone who does, please speak out against this crime.

Let’s all work together to protect our wildlife: it needs us now more than ever.

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