THE illegal killing of birds of prey on the North York Moors by people involved in the grouse shooting industry is the target of a new police campaign.

Launched at the weekend and running for the next year, Operation Owl is a joint initiative by North Yorkshire Police, the RSPB and the RSPCA, together with the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds.

Nevertheless, birds of prey (raptors) are still shot, poisoned and trapped – especially in areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting.

North Yorkshire has more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other county in England.

Andy Wilson, chief executive of the North York Moors Authority, said: “Raptors are beautiful. They are an essential part of our National Parks, but their numbers have been diminished over many years by persecution from shooting interests.”

The RSPB is involved in the operation, and has set up a confidential hotline to help whistle-blowers within the shooting industry come forward with information about bird of prey persecution.

Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer with the RSPB, said: “I’ve spoken with several gamekeepers about the raptor killing they are expected to do as part of their job.

“It is abundantly clear that without any meaningful accountability for managers and employers on intensively-managed driven grouse moors the situation will not change.

“If people want to speak in confidence about raptor persecution they can contact us on 0300 9990101.”

Sergeant Kevin Kelly, part of the police rural taskforce, said: “Our wonderful countryside is host to many specially-protected birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, red kites, buzzards and owls.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that people think they can ignore the law and subject these birds to poisonings, shootings, nest destruction and the illegal use of spring traps without consequence.

“We will be doing everything in our power to catch these offenders, supported by our colleagues in the RSPB and the volunteers in the national parks.

“But the area is huge, so the more eyes and ears we have on the ground the better. That’s why we’re asking the public to help.”

As part of the operation, police will carry out surveillance checks on known persecution hotspots at random times, and “work with local landowners” to make them aware of the legal position on raptor persecution.

National Park volunteers will be trained to spot poisoned bait and illegal traps and the police are also calling on the public to be vigilant when out in the countryside.

In particular, the police are asking the public to spot ‘pole traps’.

Sergeant Kelly said: “Trappers are using spring-loaded traps on top of posts to capture birds of prey. The bird can struggle for many hours before the trapper returns.

“We’re advising that anyone who sees a pole trap should ‘spring’ it if they can do so safely, note the location, take a photo, and call the police on 101 to report it.”