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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 12:32 GMT


Fighting real-life wildlife crime

Supporters are being mobilised to help protect endangered birds of prey

Scores of wild-bird enthusiasts crowded into a Yorkshire conference room recently in support of a dramatic advance in the war against nest raiders.

The radical new methods of protecting breeding birds of prey have produced exhilarating results - so far.

Raptor groups - defenders of species such as the peregrine and the goshawk - will travel from North Wales, Cheshire, the Peak district and Yorkshire to assess a new strategy in the fight to save threatened birds of prey.

Crime-fighter in the country

[ image: Steve Downing: West Yorkshire's full-time wildlife officer]
Steve Downing: West Yorkshire's full-time wildlife officer
The leader in this campaign is a 50-year-old policeman based in Todmorden on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. Steve Downing is the embodiment of wildlife crime-fighting recently dramatised in the BBC TV series, Badger.

Once an ordinary CID officer, he became West Yorkshire's first full-time wildlife officer four years ago. His job has become his passion.

He helped launch a DNA data bank three years ago which now has more than 460 samples from birds of prey. It means stolen birds, if logged, can be checked scientifically when they come on the market.

Its deterrent value has been gradual.

Local community gets involved

[ image: Jerome Flynn: TV's version of the wildlife crime-fighter from the TV series Badger]
Jerome Flynn: TV's version of the wildlife crime-fighter from the TV series Badger
Above the Pennine village of Mytholmroyd, where season after season, valuable peregrine nests had been devastated, this summer he tried a new tactic.

Abandoning the usual hush-hush measures, he leafleted the whole community - schools, church and a housing estate. He appealed to the community to become involved in protecting their peregrines, nesting in a quarry. It worked.

So well that on one occasion, while he was abseiling down to inspect the nest, he heard the sound of three police car sirens wailing! Villages had spotted a figure approaching the cherished site.

But the Downing strategy goes further. He has devised different measures for different sites. At one location, electronic surveillance is maintained. At another, constant watch is kept from a hide. At a fourth, walkers and police patrols on a nearby motorway regularly check the nesting site.

The result was that this season seven peregrine falcons successfully bred and survived compared with one last year.

"It's a holistic approach to bird protection," says Steve Downing. "We need to employ a whole battery of protective measures, sometimes several of them at one site."

One measure he's developing could test the bravest of bird thieves. He's building a nest box on top of a couple of police radio towers!

Secret network of enthusiasts

[ image: Raptor groups help protect peregrines]
Raptor groups help protect peregrines
But perhaps his most powerful weapon is the network of raptor groups - many of whom are traditionally secretive themselves - who now work together closely across a huge tract of northern England. PC Downing persuaded them to co-operate more actively.

Now, one voice-mail message from Steve Downing can set dozens of volunteers heading for a threatened site.

PC Downing - last year named by the World Wildlife Fund as Wildlife Enforcer of the Year - believes the northern raptor groups' annual conference this week will be the launching pad for a nation-wide adoption of the multi-tactic approach.

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