Peregrines still under threat

Peregrine falcon. Taken at Yorkshire Lavender, Terrington. Regards Graham Piercy of Malton
The Countess of Wessex meets Rufus the Harris Hawk at Wimbledon


(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on July 7th 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on July 5th 2017)

As I mentioned last time, for these columns, I’m looking back into my dad Peter Walker’s archives from the early days of his writings in the Malton Gazette and Herald and its sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times. On 2nd July 1977, Dad recalled how he and his childhood friends use to go ‘nesting’ where they would search out birds’ nests with eggs in them, then pinch one to take home. Of course, now, we would never encourage our children to do such a thing, but then it was considered acceptable as long as you only took one egg and left the rest and the nest undamaged (not sure sure how Mr & Mrs Blackbird felt about that!). I do remember, as a child, the thrill of coming across a nest with eggs in it, but by then, it was drilled into us that we should never touch them or stay there for long for fear of scaring Mummy and Daddy Bird into abandoning their chicks-to-be.

Dad explained that the trade in rare eggs was big business, with people going to extraordinary lengths and putting themselves in some danger to steal them from hard-to reach nests so they could them sell them for huge sums to eager buyers. Unfortunately, that trade still goes on, despite the RSPB putting measures in place to protect eggs in particular demand. One of the most notorious cases is of serial international egg thief Jeffrey Lendrum, who went on the run in South America in January 2017 after being convicted of smuggling extremely rare albino peregrine falcon eggs from Chile to export to the United Arab Emirates. Once hatched, the chicks from these eggs would have fetched around 80,000 US dollars.

Falcon racing in the Middle East has a history stretching back many centuries, and is a sport patronised by royalty and those with substantial riches who are prepared to pay huge sums of money for the best birds hatched from the most sought-after eggs. Due to its large size and its reputation for speed, the British peregrine falcon is one of those most in demand. In 2010, Lendrum, who has spent a lifetime scaling cliffs, mountain tops and was even filmed dangling from a helicopter in pursuit of eggs, was convicted of trying to smuggle 14 peregrine eggs through Birmingham airport strapped to his body in thick socks to keep them incubated. In that case, thankfully, 11 of the seized eggs were successfully hatched and released back into the wild.

Peregrines faced near extinction in the 1950s, but thanks to the work done by bodies such as the RSPB, they are back up to ‘green’ status, with around 1400 breeding pairs in the UK at the moment. Despite this, because of their desirability and the practice of stealing eggs to order, they have the highest level of legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Because they don’t migrate, have only have a very short breeding cycle of one month in April or May, and because they usually only stay within 60 miles of their birthplace, they are still vulnerable to decline if their eggs are not able to hatch, and now that Lendrum (at the time of writing) is back on the loose, the RSPB consider him a significant threat to the peregrine population.

Our precious birds of prey are renowned not only for their speed, but also for their hunting prowess. Possibly one of the most famous is Rufus the Harris Hawk, who is very busy during two weeks in July as he patrols the 42-acre grounds of the Wimbledon Championships. Rufus has been employed for his pigeon-clearing skills by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the past 15 years. Apparently, he has his own Wimbledon employee photo pass, which states his job as ‘Bird Scarer’.

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