THE RSPB has issued a plea for the shooting community to ‘clean up its act’ as figures reveal Cumbria is one of the worst counties in England for ‘bird crime’.

A report released by the charity showed that in 2013 there were 164 reports in the UK of illegal killings of birds of prey – including shootings, poisonings and pesticide-related offences.

Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire were among the top hotspots for the incidents in England.

The RSPB believes that reported incidents are just ‘the tip of the iceberg’, as the crimes tend to take place in remote areas and go undetected and unreported.

Alan Firth, RSPB Investigations Officer for north of England, said grouse moors and pheasant shooting were the two main factors making Cumbria a ‘problematic area’.

“The keepers of these estates are trying to breed the maximum numbers of these birds for shooting, so complaining about birds of prey targeting them is like opening a jar of jam and complaining when you get wasps.

“Nature is nature and if there is a plentiful food supply it will become a target for predators.”

In 2013 Penrith game keeper Colin Burne was given a suspended prison sentence after being secretly filmed clubbing two buzzards to death in Whinfell Forest.

David Harpley, conservation manager for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, said: “We are very disappointed that Cumbria remains a hotspot for these appalling incidents.

“Numbers of hen harriers hunting on our nature reserves in the winter have declined over the past ten years and I find it very sad that this bird has been persecuted to near extinction in England.”

The RSPB is undertaking a large amount of conservation work with birds of prey, but said more action was needed on the uplands of England, where they say self-regulation by the shooting industry ‘has proved ineffective’.

A spokesperson said: “Tackling wildlife crime requires a joint approach but condemnation from organisations representing the shooting community is not resulting in a widespread reduction in illegal persecution.”

But the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) said the figures were ‘misleading’ as “reported incidents’ are not the same as confirmed incidents of crime.”

It also said that 164 reported incidents in 2013 was down on 2012’s total of 208, showing that “a partnership approach to tackling this crime is working.”

BASC chairman Alan Jarrett said: “BASC has always condemned illegal persecution of birds of prey and expels any member convicted of involvement.

“The problem of tackling this crime will not be solved by the politics of division and short-term PR goals.”

Adrian Blackmore, director of shooting at the Countryside Alliance, said: "The Alliance does not condone wildlife crime in any way. However, the number of reported incidents is significantly higher than those actually confirmed, making the headline figures extremely misleading.

"As it happens, populations of almost all our birds of prey are at their highest levels since record began, and only the hen harrier and the white-tailed eagle are red listed as species of conservation concern. Yet the Defra-led plan to help the hen harrier is being blocked by none other than the RSPB.

"The number of incidents reported to the RSPB, is down 24 per cent from 2013 and down 56 per cent on 2009. Of the 32 wild bird-related prosecutions given for 2013 in the report, only six involved gamekeepers, of which one was found not guilty and only two involved birds of prey. None involved hen harriers Therefore, only six per cent of those 32 cases involved keepers where birds (buzzards) had been killed. Only one of the keepers prosecuted in 2013 was connected to grouse shooting and the offence did not involve the death of any bird.

"Areas managed for grouse shooting account for just one fifth of the total uplands of England and Wales and the breeding success of hen harriers has been no better elsewhere, including on RSPB land.

"The evidence just does not support the RSPB’s attack on shooting. It is clear that the RSPB is promoting an anti-shooting agenda which has less to do with concern about birds and more about ideology and politics. The RSPB should be working with the shooting community and not alienating it."