A project to boost birds of prey numbers in the Peak District has returned disappointing results, officials have said.
The five-year Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative aimed to increase the breeding populations and breeding success of raptors in the Dark Peak and surrounding areas.
But the targets agreed by the five organisations involved have not been achieved.
Officials from the Peak District National Park Authority said the reasons for the declines are not fully understood and probably vary for the different species, but important factors are likely to include illegal persecution, disturbance and availability of key prey.
The organisations involved – the Peak District National Park, Moorland Association, National Trust, Natural England and RSPB – set targets to restore breeding populations of merlin, peregrine falcon and short-eared owl in the Dark Peak to previous levels known within the last 25 years.
The initiative funded an independent field worker to help establish accurate breeding data through bird surveys and nest monitoring, and to facilitate co-operation between raptor (birds of prey) conservationists and moorland owners and managers. This has resulted in much greater co-operation between the raptor workers and grouse moor managers.
Despite this the target of 15 pairs of breeding peregrine in the Dark Peak has not been achieved and in fact has declined from six pairs to four pairs since 2012. For short-eared owl the numbers are more positive: 16 breeding pairs have been recorded but many more birds were recorded hunting, so local experts consider this figure to be very conservative. It is therefore unclear if the target of 25 breeding pairs has been met.
For merlin the results show that the population is stable with around 18 breeding pairs in the Dark Peak. Whilst not meeting the Initiative’s target of 32 breeding pairs, it is bucking the national trend of a reported slow decline in merlin numbers. Encouragingly, the breeding success has nearly doubled in the Dark Peak since 2012, from 32 to 58 chicks, from known nests and all were ringed and tagged with the help of local gamekeepers.
The Initiative is focusing on working more closely with landowners and gamekeepers to stop illegal persecution, and is now looking to the future with renewed commitment from the director of the Moorlands Association and the new chief executive of the Peak District National Park. Derbyshire Constabulary are also now part of the Initiative.
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorlands Association, said: “We are renewing our action plan and redoubling our efforts to ensure that this brings improved results. The partnership has also agreed that this work needs to be extended to cover other species, notably goshawk and hen harrier, and to include the South West Peak.”
Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park, said: “Birds like peregrine and goshawk are charismatic species. It is thrilling to see them swoop at speed over moorland, it makes your heart glad to see them soaring high over the Edges – seeing these birds creates fantastic memories for people.
“We will be using the new rigour and energy recently brought to the project to seek to restore breeding success of our iconic bird of prey species in the National Park. We will be seeking a greater level of commitment from partners in the Initiative to reverse the fortunes of birds of prey.”