Conservationists have condemned the decision to allow falconers to take wild peregrine falcon chicks from nests as “selfish” and “sending the wrong message”.
For the first time ever this year, Natural England, the government’s wildlife watchdog, will allow the taking of six chicks from peregrine nests to help falconers establish a lucrative new “studbook” of British falcons.
Peregrine falcons – the fastest species on the planet, reaching more than 200mph during dives for prey – were threatened with extinction as a breeding bird in the 1970s. Numbers have recovered to 826 breeding pairs in England, with many nesting on cathedrals and tall buildings in cities, where they are free from persecution.
The RSPB said it was “urgently” seeking answers from Natural England about how it made its decision and feared the licence could “open the door” to more applications.
Mark Thomas, the RSPB’s head of investigations, said: “The cultural value of these birds is that they are free, wild and available to all. The application will therefore be regarded by many as selfish – it should be reconsidered in light of alternative solutions, and in the context that peregrines suffer from illegal persecution, trade and loss of breeding range.”
While all nesting birds are legally protected, licensing the removal of chicks for falconry is permitted under wildlife laws. Falconers argue that their current captive birds are not verifiably British birds and EU regulations permit the sustainable use of species for cultural purposes.
Unesco recognises falconry as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” and the ancient practice is increasingly lucrative, with birds changing hands for as much as £6,000 to supply the sport of falcon-racing in the Middle East. Three falconers will remove chicks from nests in England, although they will not be allowed to do so in parts of northern England where the peregrine is still threatened.
Natural England said its licence would only allow a chick to be taken from a nest where there were three or more chicks present. The falconers must only take the smallest, weakest chick, which would not ordinarily survive in the wild. It said it would be “closely monitoring the operation” and could revoke the two-year licence at any time.
One falconer behind the attempt to establish a captive population of indisputably British birds, Gary Wing, told Mark Avery’s blog that there was “no commercial interest” in the scheme, which would be costly for falconers to establish.
Until the introduction of DNA testing of captive birds in the 1990s, peregrines were regularly and illegally taken from the wild.
David Lindo, a conservationist known as “the urban birder”, said he was dismayed at the decision.
“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “We’ve got enough birds in captivity. If you’re going to be doing falconry, use the birds in captivity. What is wrong with them? Someone is making money from this somewhere along the line – what sort of message does this send around Europe and the Middle East? It validates the idea that the peregrine is not a species in decline and we can take some more from the wild.”
Jade Emery, wildlife campaigner for Animal Aid, said it was “a huge step backwards” for wild bird protection.
She said: “While Natural England attempt to dignify falconry by describing it as ‘an ancient tradition’, it is in fact just outdated. Taking animals from the wild and subjugating them for entertainment or sport is fundamentally wrong, should be consigned to history, and is certainly not something that should be supported by Natural England. The wellbeing of these majestic birds should be prioritised over this outdated and cruel hobby, and this decision should be quickly reversed.”
Dr Gordon Mellor, chairman of falconry organisation the Hawk Board, said: “Falconers across the world have controlled access to wild populations of raptors following the principles of sustainable use. In this respect UK authorities are following established conservation practice.
“UK wildlife legislation is predicated upon the need to conserve and protect wild populations. Given that the peregrine population is currently buoyant, the taking of limited numbers will have no impact upon the wellbeing of that species in the wild.”