A record number of birds of prey were shot and poisoned in Ireland this year, with 35 recorded incidents. It is clear that some farmers still have a strong distrust of raptors. This is a pity as they are a truly wondrous animal whose impact on farming is much smaller than the reaction they tend to generate among farmers. In fact their control of vermin including rabbits, rats and mice should be seen as a help, but widespread use of poisons has unbalanced the natural order. Like the pine marten, they could easily be unjustifiably demonised out of existence.
The image of a raptor sailing high in the sky surveying the landscape with its telescopic vision, is one of the wonders of nature. Engineers have modelled aeroplanes on the wings of these magnificent creatures, whose nobility has inspired the reverence of people all over the world for countless generations. Pergrines, who eat pigeons, gulls and other birds, are among the fastest creatures on earth. They fly high above their prey and then, tucking in their wings, dive at speeds estimated to reach 240km/hour, before extending their claws to strike the fatal blow.
Numerous tribes around the world marked out their chiefs by allowing them to wear eagle feathers. In Scotland, the Highland clan chiefs still wear three eagle feathers as a mark of their importance. The Eagle of Gernabwy appeared in Welsh Celtic mythology as a symbol of ancient wisdom, sitting on a rock which it had worn down through its many years. Native Americans saw the eagle as a symbol of power, freedom and wisdom. In the story of Sapana a buzzard and an eagle help a young girl to escape captivity by carrying her home on their backs, so that ever after, the tribes made sure to leave out extra meat from a hunt to thank them.
Raptors were almost wiped out when farming made its great leap of modernisation. Their hunting grounds were ploughed up as field margins were erased and marshy areas drained. Deadly, long-acting poisons including DDT and cyanide, like that which was handed in by an elderly farmer last week, were often used in bait. While foxes were usually the intended targets, the powerful poisons carried on through the food chain either killing birds of prey outright, or affecting their ability to reproduce. The deliberate infection of rabbits with myxomatosis wiped out rabbits in parts of the country, depriving raptors like buzzards, of their prey. As raptors will eat carrion, they have been affected by the widespread use of rat poison. Barn owls, once the welcome guests of most farms, have become critically endangered through loss of hunting grounds and the widespread use of rat poison.
Hen harriers are known for their spectacular courtship dance and for their beautiful plumage. They eat small birds and mammals including rabbits. The hen harrier has been declining at an alarming rate in recent years due to the loss of its upland marshes and increased plantation forestry. A survey conducted in 2015 found between108-157 breeding pairs in the country. This was down 8.7% from a 2010 count and part of a long trend of decline stretching back many years. A recently announced €35 million assistance scheme aims to pay farmers to maintain harrier-friendly landscapes through sensitive farming methods.
Birds of prey have long been known as indicator species, reflecting the status of their environment. Where they are present you can be fairly sure that a balance exists in the natural world, with the apex predator doing well. As they feed on so many other species of birds, mammals and insects, needing healthy populations to thrive, their absence indicates a problem with the ecosystem. For example, barn owls in Ireland are particularly reliant a healthy population of greater white-toothed shrews, so it is not enough to present them with suitable nesting sites, commendable as this is. To successfully reintroduce them, a more integrated, considered approach is necessary.
One of the challenges is in getting farmers to believe in the benefits of having resident raptors. There is an instinctive natural prejudice among farmers, particularly those with sheep and poultry, against hunting birds. But while limited attacks on poultry, sheep and salmon farms are a reality justifying compensation, there is little evidence to suggest that they pose enough risk to farmers' livelihoods to justify their continued persecution. In his 1999 study 'Raptor Predation Problems and Solutions', Robert Kenward wrote:
“Large raptors have probably been seen as a nuisance since the dawn of stock farming. Accusations are sometimes unjustified, in that most large raptors are opportunistic scavengers. For example, more than one careful analysis has shown that lambs at nests of eagles (Aquila) were almost all scavenged. Nevertheless, other studies have documented predation by eagles on live lambs (Murphy 1977), by Peregrine Falcons (Fatco peregrinus) on trained pigeons near lofts and during races (Tre- leaven 1977), by hawks (Acdpiter) on poultry, and by eagles (Haliaeetus) or Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at fish farms (Draulans 1987).”
In Scotland a scheme to reintroduce raptors like golden eagles was initially frustrated by high incidences of poisonings. In addition, a publicity campaign tried to spread the message that eagles were not a threat to lambs. The Scottish Government was subsequently embarrassed by a 2011 photograph of a golden eagle taking a lamb. Ross Lilley of Scottish National Heritage explains:
"Most lambs are taken as carrion with occasional live lambs taken, which can have a significant impact on individual farmers and crofters. This is why we operate a management scheme on behalf of NFUS and the wider stakeholder group: to reduce the impact of sea eagles for farmers with practical, on-the-ground measures." Since then a system by which all poisonings are located on a map is also helping to bring down poisoning incidents, by highlighting hotspots, thus raising the awareness of local residents who increase their levels of scrutiny. There is no point denying the risk that birds of prey pose, but quantifying it is another matter.
Again in Scotland, a compensation scheme was introduced to accompany the spread of white-tailed eagles. It comes with advice for farmers on how to scare away birds of prey and has been implemented through cooperation between farming groups and conservationists. The Irish name for the white-tailed sea eagle is Iolaire suile na grein, the eagle with the sunlit eye. This is large bird, with a wingspan of up to six feet. A pair bred successfully in Glengarriff this year, much to the excitement of locals, who benefited from increased tourism surrounding the publicity generated.
Perhaps just as the Scottish Farmers' Union has accepted that eagles are “here to stay”, a new era of understanding will be possible so that future generations can enjoy the magnificent sight of birds of prey. Ireland has been trying to follow in Scotland's footsteps but without the integrated approach of providing compensation, coupled with education and appreciation. This year's hen harrier scheme raises the hope we will see more cooperation between wildlife conservationists and farmers. With understanding we can all to live in a richer more diverse world.