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
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
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
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.