It’s often said that the number of reported raptor persecution incidents in Scotland represents just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, which means that many more incidents probably remain undetected and thus unreported (see here for an earlier blog post about this). This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of our regular readers, who understand that the combination of remote locations, increasingly-aware gamekeepers and some less-than-interested police forces can often result in an inaccurate (under)-estimation of the number of persecution incidents taking place each year.
With the imminent publication of the Scottish government’s 2011 Raptor Poisoning Map, due out any day now if they follow the pattern of previous years, we’ll soon hear claims from the game-shooting lobby that poisoning figures have dropped. We’ll also hear from the conservationists that the officially reported figures may have dropped but that the real extent of persecution remains unreported. The poisoning maps are a good example of this, because apparently they only show the areas where poisoned birds have been detected. What they don’t show, we’re told, is the areas where poisoned baits have been discovered. If that’s true, why do you think poisoned baits are not mapped and reported?
The Raptor Poisoning Maps also don’t show the extent of other types of illegal raptor persecution, such as shooting, trapping, nest disturbance, egg-smashing, chick killing etc. Nor do they show the last known locations of satellite-tracked raptors that have mysteriously ‘disappeared’ into thin air. Perhaps it’s time that the Scottish Government started to publish other maps to depict the extent of these various other incidents. Why don’t they do this already?
Inevitably, many potentially illegal incidents will slip through the net. We’ve been told of one such incident that happened very recently on a shooting estate in Scotland. We’ve been asked not to identify the estate or the gamekeeper for operational reasons.
So, a member of the public (let’s call him John) goes for a walk on this estate and sees what he thinks is a buzzard, in some distress, flapping around with a Fenn (spring) trap dangling from one of its legs. John is fairly clued up and immediately calls the police to report it. It’s a Sunday afternoon, so the Police Wildlife Crime Officer isn’t available (?!). Instead, an ‘ordinary’ police officer is sent to investigate. Mr Police Officer heads onto the estate to look for the distressed buzzard. He is met en-route by a certain gamekeeper, who asks him what he’s looking for. Mr Police Officer explains, and Mr Gamekeeper tells him that, by pure coincidence, he is also looking for a missing Fenn trap that has disappeared from a site where he had set it (legally), inside a tunnel to prevent non-target species from getting caught. His explanation for what had probably happened went something like, ‘Oh, the buzzard must have got inside the tunnel and then got caught in the jaws of the trap and flew off with the trap still attached’. Mr Police Officer apparently believed this explanation and off they went together to find the buzzard. They located it, and Mr Police Officer apparently asked Mr Gamekeeper what to do, and Mr Gamekeeper said the buzzard wouldn’t survive and it would be best if he killed it and disposed of the body, which he duly did. No body, no trap, no evidence, end of story.
The following day, two people visited the area where the buzzard had been found. Mr Gamekeeper appeared, challenged them, apparently told them to ‘get ‘arf my land’ (although his language was reportedly more colourful than that) and then told them ‘come back and collect your car tomorrow’, before dashing off down the road to block the exit with a tractor and trailer, preventing the visitors from leaving. The police were called, and eventually Mr Gamekeeper was instructed to remove his tractor.
The incident in question may or may not have been a case of persecution. Mr Police Officer clearly thought is was just an accident, which of course it could have been. Had he been aware of this estate’s history though, he might have viewed the incident differently. The estate in question has a well-documented track record of alleged raptor persecution (although none of the incidents have ever resulted in a prosecution). The incidents include the reported discovery of at least three poisoned raptors, and multiple nesting failures of breeding hen harriers in suspicious circumstances. In addition, at least two gamekeepers on the estate have a reputation for what might be generously called ‘obnoxious behaviour’ towards members of the public, dating back over a number of years, including claims of alleged assault (prosecution failed) and the deliberate blocking-in of vehicles to inconvenience visitors (presumably to discourage them from further visits). The police would be well aware of this history. Whether Mr Police Officer knew is not known, but hopefully he has now passed on the details of this latest incident to the Police Wildlife Crime Officer. If nothing else, the WCO could pay Mr Gamekeeper a visit to make sure his Fenn traps are being set legally (ie. covered).
We’re told that this estate is one of the 250+ that have signed up for the new Wildlife Estates Initiative. Unfortunately this cannot be verifed yet as the Initiative doesn’t seem to be interested in transparency at this stage of its development, even though one of its stated aims is ‘to introduce an objective and transparent system that demonstrates how wildlife management undertaken by Scottish landowners, in line with the principles of biodiversity conservation, can deliver multiple benefits for society and rural communities’. We’re all looking forward to the time when the Initiative is opened up to public scrutiny.