A CAMPAIGN has been launched to stamp out the illegal killing of birds of prey, which a charity claims is rife on the North York Moors.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is challenging landowners and land managers to support its campaign after research shows that raptors are being slaughtered in large numbers.

The North York Moors is one of the notable national landmarks highlighted, along with the Yorkshire Dales, Pennines and Peak District.

Golden eagles, hen harriers, goshawks, buzzards, red kites, and peregrine falcons are among the birds being targeted.

The RSPB wants help to boost the number of English nesting hen harriers to 40 by 2010, with half of these on grouse moors - it is believed England has suitable habitat for more than five times that number.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said: "It is outrageous that birds of prey are still being killed illegally and that these fantastic birds are destroyed before they can cast their shadows on some of our most beautiful wild places.

"The skies are owned by no one, but a callous few want to deprive the nation of some of our most charismatic wildlife."

Last year, only 15 pairs of hen harriers nested successfully in England, well short of the RSPB's conservative target of 40 nests in England by 2010.

Two pairs of hen harriers nested in the Peak District in 2006, but the males disappeared in mysterious circumstances, meaning the chicks had to be fed artificially to keep them alive.

These attempts, and one in 1997, were the only successful attempts in the last 140 years for the Peak District.

This year, thanks to the creation of a hen harrier hotline, there are early reports of birds establishing territories in North York Moors, Northumberland and Peak District.

Dr Avery said visitors to areas such as the North York Moors would "rightly expect to see a diversity of birds of prey", but evidence showed the birds were being targeted before they could establish themselves.

Perhaps most at risk are birds, such as eagles, peregrine falcons and hen harriers, which nest in upland areas that are dominated by grouse shooting.

Dr Avery said: "We can only improve the fortunes of hen harriers and other birds of prey with the help and commitment of moorland owners and managers.

"For decades, we have worked to improve the situation but, in large areas of upland Britain, progress has stalled and, in some, is worsening. The intransigence of some estates has led to a stalemate, with birds of prey paying the ultimate price. Birds of prey are amazing, let's keep them that way and stop the killing."