Criminal cash used to protect birds of prey

By Conor Macauley
BBC NI Agriculture & Environment Correspondent

Media caption,
"Let's track these birds."

Cash seized from criminals is being diverted to protect birds of prey threatened with persecution.

The money is being used to monitor nest sites and put GPS trackers on birds in poisoning and shooting hotspots.

The equipment was bought with money taken from gangs under proceeds of crime laws.

The tracking technology means police can quickly get to a bird that has stopped moving to see whether it has been targeted.

Statistics show birds like buzzards, red kites, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks continue to be killed.

A 10-year report published today records that since 2009, 66 birds have been killed, though officials believe the incidence could be higher.

Image caption,
The tracking equipment is lightweight and does not impede flight

Buzzards and kites are the most common victims, normally with poisoned bait.

As scavengers they may not be the intended target.

The poison is more likely to have been laid for foxes, which is itself illegal.

But birds like sparrowhawks and peregrines, which only take live prey, are being deliberately targeted.

Image caption,
Wildlife officers scan the sky for birds

In one case in 2018, police believe a live racing pigeon smothered with poison was tethered to a rock as bait in County Tyrone for peregrine falcons nesting nearby.

It is an offence under wildlife legislation to kill birds of prey.

Sanctions include imprisonment and hefty fines.

But in reality cases can be difficult to investigate.

The birds can cover large remote areas and may not be found for some time after they have eaten the poison or been shot, making testing difficult.

The police hope the GPS trackers will mean that if the birds are targeted, they can be reached quickly, improving the investigative opportunities.

The equipment is lightweight and does not impede flight.

Image caption,
If a bird stops moving, police hope the trackers will help them get to it quickly

PSNI Wildlife Officer Emma Meredith said wildlife crimes were taken seriously by police who were all trained to investigate them.

And she called on the public to report anything suspicious they find.

Dr Eimear Rooney of the Raptor Study Group said it was the first time GPS trackers had been used in this way.

It means that if the bird stops moving, they can get to it quickly to see whether it has been poisoned or shot.

"What may have happened in the past is that that bird might not have been found for two or three weeks, if at all," Ms Rooney said.

"Now we'll have those eyes in the skies and we'll know exactly where the birds are at all times."

Carbofuran is one of the most commonly used poisons.

It is a highly toxic insecticide and has been banned in the EU for years, but residual stocks remain.