Illegal poisoning continues to devastate Ireland’s wildlife: Buzzard chicks found dead near Roscrea

BirdWatch Ireland volunteers working near Roscrea were horrified to discover last month that a pair of Buzzard chicks, one of Ireland’s most majestic birds of prey, had been poisoned at a nest site close to the Offaly and Tipperary border.  The illegal poisoning of birds of prey has become an all-too-frequent feature of the Irish countryside, and this was a particularly abhorrent incident, as live pigeons were tethered to the ground as bait, their bodies coated with poison and their wings clipped to prevent any chance of escape.  This crime was also especially irresponsible, as had a local child discovered the stricken pigeons and tried to help them, he or she too could very easily have been killed.

One of the dead Buzzards lying next to a poison-laced pigeon
One of the dead Buzzards lying next to a poison-laced pigeon

The illegal poisoning of wildlife is a sinister element of our rural culture which unfortunately shows no sign of disappearing.  Despite recent attempts to tackle this cruel and pointless practise, it still remains disturbingly common throughout the Irish countryside.  Birds of prey are particularly susceptible, and the efforts being made by BirdWatch Ireland and other groups to protect them are being compromised by those who continue to use illegal poison baits.  These incidents have also attracted much international media attention, and are not only damaging our environment but also our reputation as a “green and wildlife-friendly nation”.

In recent years, poison baits have been responsible for the excruciating deaths of numerous Buzzards, Peregrines, Red Kites, Golden and White-tailed Eagles, as well as a range of other wild bird and mammal species.  In October 2010, after much campaigning by BirdWatch Ireland and the Golden Eagle Trust, new laws were introduced making it illegal to use any poison to kill birds or animals, with the exception of rats and mice.  More recently, a poisoning surveillance scheme was launched through the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to monitor the threat of poisons to birds of prey and also to increase efforts to bring the offenders to justice.

In early spring this year, two young local volunteers with BirdWatch Ireland’s Raptor Conservation Project located the Buzzard nest near Roscrea.  They visited frequently to check on the birds’ progress throughout the summer, and by July were delighted to note that the chicks were well developed and had started taking their first flights from the nest.  The farmer who owns the land had been aware of Buzzards in the area for the past three years and was very much looking forward to seeing the chicks take flight.  However, early on the morning of Sunday, 17th July he noticed the adults calling repeatedly in distress and rang the local volunteers.  When they arrived, to their utter dismay they found three live pigeons beside the nest which were tethered to the ground and had their wings clipped so they couldn’t escape; the pigeons were also completely covered with a black substance.  Beside the partially consumed carcass of a third pigeon lay two of the juvenile Buzzards, which had died instantly after feeding on it.  One of the volunteers, recalling the tragic encounter, noted that “we couldn’t believe someone had poisoned the chicks.  We had been watching them all summer and it was sickening to see them killed like that for no reason.

One of the pigeons, its feathers covered with black Carbofuran poison, that was cruely tethered alive to the ground with wire as bait
One of the pigeons, its feathers covered with black Carbofuran poison,
that was cruely tethered alive to the ground with wire as bait

The farmer was equally enraged: “I had absolutely no problem with these birds.  They have been around for at least the last three years and have done nobody any harm, and they have not caused me or any of the other farmers in the area any problems whatsoever. I gave nobody permission to come on my land and lay down poison, and whoever did so was trespassing.

The volunteers informed BirdWatch Ireland staff, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Gardaí were then notified and visited the site to record evidence.  All carcasses and potential poisonous substances were collected by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and sent for testing under the new poisoning surveillance scheme.  The tests subsequently revealed the substance to be carbofuran, a lethal and fast acting poison which is illegal under Irish law.

John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, commented, “This is incredibly frustrating and disheartening.  We have witnessed many poisonings of birds of prey, but this incident is particularly gruesome and was obviously meticulously planned to do as much damage to the nesting Buzzards as possible.  Carbofuran is a lethal substance, and in addition to the intended targets, the Buzzards, it would have also killed anything else that came into contact with it, including pets and even children.

John continued, “For whatever reason, a small number of people seem instinctively to view Buzzards with disdain, and we need to change this mind-set through better awareness and education.  The truly ironic thing is that Buzzards in Ireland mostly feed on rabbits and rats, thereby benefitting farmers by controlling what are often pests.  Killing them is an idiotic thing to do.

Alan Lauder, BirdWatch Ireland's Chief Executive, noted, “This was a very deliberate targeting of a locally well-known Buzzard nest and a particularly cruel way of using hand-reared pigeons as live bait in order to poison the birds.  Apart from being illegal, the laying of poison in the countryside to target any type of wildlife should no longer be tolerated in Ireland today.

Shamefully, the slaughter didn’t stop there.  The following morning, both volunteers went back to the site to check on the sole surviving Buzzard chick and were horrified to discover that another bird of prey had been poisoned.  This time the casualty was a Sparrowhawk, a bird of prey which feeds predominantly on small birds.  One of the volunteers commented, “We were delighted to see that the last Buzzard chick was still alive, but couldn’t believe it when we noticed that more baited pigeons had been left out in the same place once again, even after the Conservation Ranger and Gardaí had come out to investigate, and that yet another bird of prey had fallen victim.

The Sparrowhawk that was discovered the following day, lying dead next to another poison-laced pigeon that had been tethered with wire
The Sparrowhawk that was discovered the following day, lying dead
next to another poison-laced pigeon that had been tethered with wire

BirdWatch Ireland has repeatedly called for action to stamp out poisoning and other wildlife crime which is affecting our countryside.  John Lusby commented, “The changes to the poisoning legislation and the new surveillance scheme are steps in the right direction, but until we also address the underlining issues of education and awareness and start taking wildlife crime in this country seriously we can’t expect these problems to just go away.

This case is currently being investigated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in conjunction with the Gardaí, and BirdWatch Ireland would urge anyone with information on this incident to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service on 05791 37811 or Birr Garda station on 05791 69710.

If you encounter a dead bird of prey, or another species which you suspect has been poisoned, do not disturb the scene and please report the incident immediately to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (see the State Directory section in the phonebook) or BirdWatch Ireland on 01 2819878.

The carcasses of the two young Buzzards, which were taken to a laboratory for testing
The carcasses of the two young Buzzards, which were taken to a laboratory for testing

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