Up to 41 golden eagles have disappeared under suspicious circumstances, according to a new wildlife crime report. The study by the RSPB also found 40 shooting, 22 poisoning, 15 trapping and four other incidents of illegal persecution against raptors.
Hen harriers, peregrine falcons, red kites and buzzards were among the victims.
Hen harriers have been particularly badly affected, with a 27% decline in their numbers over the past 12 years and only three successful breeding attempts in 2016 in England, despite sufficient habitat to support 300 pairs of hen harrier.
The incidents are recorded in Birdcrime 2016, the annual report compiled by the RSPB and which is the only centralised source of offences against birds of prey in the UK.
For the first time in 30 years no prosecution was brought for a wildlife crime in the UK. The RSPB says that Scottish prosecutors had refused to put video evidence of raptor persecution before the courts. "The incidents we know about are just the tip of the iceberg" and many raptor persecution crimes go undetected and unreported,' said a RSPB spokesperson.
Investigations show a strong regional concentration of incidents. Of the 81 reported cases, 53 took place in England, with particular concern for raptors in North Yorkshire where 19 incidents took place last year. Over the past five years the county has recorded the highest number of confirmed bird of prey persecution incidents in the UK, with 54 cases since 2012.
In Scotland there is growing concern over the repeated suspicious disappearance of satellite tagged birds of prey. This year, a study by Scottish Government examined the fate of 131 golden eagles fitted with satellite tags between 2004-16 concluding that "as many as 41 (one third) disappeared, presumably died, under suspicious circumstances connected with records of illegal persecution", according to Birdcrime.
Previous research has shown that illegal killing of birds of prey is associated with land managed for intensive driven grouse shooting, which has left vast areas of our uplands without raptors. A Natural England study revealed "compelling evidence" that persecution of hen harriers – associated with driven grouse moors – was the main factor limiting their recovery in England.
The RSPB says there has been "no real improvement" in the problem of raptor persecution over the last 17 years and that the government must do more to tackle this issue. RSPB believes a licensing system for driven grouse shooting would help tackle illegal persecution but has also called for a change in the law to make managers and employers accountable for the action of staff such as gamekeepers.
Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, which represent the owers and managers of moors, said that the grouse shooting sector was equally opposed to wildlife crime. "Any incident of bird of prey persecution is unacceptable and the full force of the law should be felt by those breaking it," she said. "The statistics in this latest report show that the number of such incidents continues to decline significantly and there has been a very substantial drop in incidents over the last five years. This is what we all want to see.
"Of course more can be done, particularly in the restoration of hen harrier population, and the best way to achieve progress is for people across the sector, including RSPB, to continue to work together constructively."
All wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Crimes against wildlife should be reported to the local police via the 101 number. Crimes against wild birds can also be reported to the RSPB online at www.rspb.org.uk or by calling the RSPB 0845 466 3636
Life and death of two harriers
In 2016 the RSPB EU LIFE+ project and Natural England fitted satellite tags to 17 hen harrier chicks, including birds named Rowan and Carroll. In October 2016, Cumbria Constabulary announced that Rowan had been found dead with injuries consistent with shooting.
In January 2017 Carroll, aged seven months, was found dead near Alnwick,. A post mortem found that Carroll was in poor condition and suffering an infectious disease. Her body also contained two shotgun pellets, showing that she had survived an earlier shooting incident.
Mark Rowe is a travel and environmental journalist and writes the Behind the Headlines news stories in BBC Countryfile Magazine every month.
Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.