Meeting report – Birds of prey in a changing environment
A joint BOU/SNH conference
by Simon Thirgood Centre for Conservation Science, University of Stirling) and Beatriz Arroyo (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Banchory)
In the UK, birds of prey evoke strong emotions, ranging from those of a moorland gamekeeper in the north Pennines who described Hen Harriers as “rats with wings” to the purists who could not contemplate any form of management intervention with raptors. The majority of participants at this conference, organised by the BOU and SNH, fell somewhere in between these two extremes; scientists and amateur enthusiasts who see abundant raptors as the sign of healthy ecosystems, but who recognise that conflicts exist between raptors and people. The origins of the conference lay in the debate about the role of birds of prey in the changing environment of the UK, and aimed to present the 'state of the art' of raptor conservation and give pointers to how human-raptor conflicts might be resolved in the future.
The conference included keynote presentations from Ian Newton, on the factors determining the abundance of birds of prey, and from Derek Ratcliffe, on the well documented decline and recovery of the peregrine. These doyens of raptor research have had a tremendous influence on the development of the field and continue to inspire and encourage young workers both in the UK and abroad, including these reviewers.
One session looked at long-term raptor studies, with talks covering Gyr Falcon (Olafur Nielson), Barn Owl (Iain Taylor), Tawny Owl (Steve Petty), Golden Eagle (Jeff Watson) and Merlin (Graham Rebecca). These studies (each with >20 years data) have helped identify factors regulating raptor populations, and it was notable that they were only possible because of the dedication and initiative shown by individual researchers (rather than coming from institutionally supported research). Here, as well as elsewhere in the conference, the immense voluntary contribution of the raptor study groups to long term studies was noted.
Conservation issues were addressed throughout the conference and included scene-setting talks summarising the status of birds of prey in the UK (Jeremy Greenwood), legislation relating to raptors (David Stroud) and the implications of land-use change for raptors (Des Thompson). Surprisingly, however, the potential use of Special Protection Areas for conservation of raptors in the UK was not mentioned. A session was dedicated to re-introduction and translocation as tools for raptor conservation, reviewing the successful programmes for Ospreys (Roy Dennis), Red Kites (Ian Carter) and White-tailed Eagles (Ian Bainbridge). Another session was dedicated to conservation and management issues and highlighted the use of different research tools for identifying management solutions, from descriptive (David Allen), to experimental (Arjun Amar) or modelling approaches (Beatriz Arroyo, Alan Fielding). The problem of illegal persecution for raptor conservation was also emphasised. Hen Harriers are probably the most persecuted raptors in the UK because of their conflicts with grouse management and a presentation by Ron Summers on the effects of this persecution on harrier population dynamics made depressing listening. In a similar vein, Jon Hardey summarised ten years data from Raptor Study Groups in Scotland on Peregrine breeding success which demonstrate that falcons on grouse moors breed less successfully than elsewhere.
The problems of raptor persecution lead directly to the most heated topic of the conference, the conflict between humans and wildlife conservation. The first presentation of the conference where these conflicts were openly addressed was a visually and mentally stimulating slide show given by Roy Dennis on the role of avian and mammalian predators in natural ecosystems. This provoking presentation served as an introduction to a potentially explosive session on raptors as predators. Talks in that session covered White-tailed Eagles and lambs (Mick Marquiss), Hen Harriers and grouse (Steve Redpath), Common Buzzards, rabbits and land use (Innes Sim), predators and rabbits (Javier Vinuela), habitat use by Hen Harriers (Mike Madders) and Sparrowhawks and winter waders (Phil Whitfield) included good examples of where objective science has helped to clarify human-raptor conflicts, although it has yet to provide sustainable solutions. It is noteworthy that it was a Spanish ornithologist (Javier Vinuela) who stressed the need for conservationists to work with hunters and other stakeholders, demonstrating a pragmatism at times lacking in the UK. Overall, this session was particularly stimulating and thought provoking. Debates after the talks and in the animated evening bar sessions demonstrated, however, that that there is still a long way to go to achieve consensus on these issues.
The final presentation of the conference, given by Colin Galbraith, Head of SNH Advisory Services, reviewed progress in resolving conflicts between raptors and humans in the UK. Great advances have been made in the last decade in terms of quantifying the impact of raptors on the interests of stakeholders and conversely quantifying the impact of human persecution on raptor populations. SNH should take particular credit for being the most proactive of the statutory conservation agencies in addressing this issue. Although much remains to be done, discussions in the audience at this excellent conference demonstrated a genuine interest and concern in how to resolve human-raptor conflicts, and that the time is ripe for confronting these issues.
The BOU, SNH and the conference organisers are to be congratulated on a successful conference which brought together a wide and varied programme which will help to progress raptor research and conservation in the UK for years to come.