2012 wildlife crime conference: Des Thompson (SNH)

This is the fifth blog in the series focusing on presentations made at the recent police wildlife crime conference in Scotland, this time from Des Thompson, Policy and Advice Manager at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH is the government’s statutory advisory body on nature conservation, paid for by our taxes).

Des Thompson, SNH

Well, good, good morning and thank you, thank you Nevin [Hunter], er, I must say it’s been terrific to, to meet Nevin and to, to work with him already and Charlie [Everitt] as well, what a, what a remarkable difference, we’re seeing a real step change in the work we’re doing to tackle, er, wildlife crime. And I’d also publicly like to pay tribute to Brian [Stuart], who’s, as Head of National Wildlife Crime Unit has been a fantastic person to work with him, a great enthusiast and became a very good friend and I was delighted to see that he got a special award recently so well done Brian.

I’m slightly apprehensive, er, being in front of you all, especially with a, a sheriff sort of sitting in front of me and that civil servant glowering at me, erm, because I’m, I’m primarily going to talk about, about natural history and to explain to you the work we’re doing on birds of prey in Scotland, how we’re developing some, some area profiles but really how we’re trying to develop our understanding, er, of what makes, er, birds of prey tick and the factors affecting them, and you’ll see here I’ve acknowledged a huge number of people who have helped out. Oh they’re wonderful birds, I mean, I knew Charlie would show some nice, nice photos because he’s a superb photographer so I thought I had to show, lovely picture of an osprey here, er, they are wonderful birds and today what I want to do is to, to introduce the raptors to you, to tell you how we’re developing the evidence base on raptors, and giving some examples from work we’re doing on golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites, and finishing off with some thoughts on, on next steps and some, some wider issues that you might wish to, to discuss further.

Huge number of people have worked on birds of prey in Scotland, in fact in Europe our birds of prey are probably better studied in Scotland than anywhere else. We’ve a fantastic pedigree of research, P.K. Stirling-Aird down in the bottom right-hand corner there, people like Adam Watson, the late Jeff Watson, erm, Ian Newton the top left-hand corner, Roy Dennis, huge number of people have contributed to our knowledge on birds of prey.

We have 19 species nesting in Scotland, we have some great causes célèbres species like the osprey, now we have more than 250 pairs which is quite remarkable, white-tailed eagle more than 55 pairs, red kites more than 200 pairs compared with 2,000 in the UK. Of course some of these birds are icons of Scotland, real icons of Scotland such as the golden eagle, of course some still recovering from pesticide and persecution impacts and a few of course are not just recovering, they’re expanding, certainly there when you think about buzzards.

A lot of the information we’re pulling together comes from Scottish Raptor Study Groups under the umbrella of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, I think Charlie touched on this, it was formed by seven organisations back in 2002, building on the experience and expertise of around 300 volunteer fieldworkers in Scotland, and working with, er, Brian Etheridge the Raptor Monitoring Officer, wide range of parties here from the government agencies, SNH and JNCC, through to some of the prominent NGOs working with wildlife in Scotland such as the RSPB and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, and I’m delighted to say that the Forestry Commission will be joining us shortly.

It’s largely about cooperation, getting much better collaboration between parties, providing the robust information, evidence based on raptors, and maintaining high and uniform standards of data collection, analysis and reporting.

Sounds very simple but actually a huge amount of effort went in to forming the, this scheme in the first place, an example of a raptor worker checking on osprey nest here, and these, the are remarkable individuals these, these members, they collect data on numbers and distribution of raptors, breeding success, nesting success, clutch size chicks, reasons for failure, and often may cover the same area for ten years and therefore they have, er, really what I’d call a crucial knowledge, er, of their area and of the issues, the side range of issues affecting birds of prey.

And we have a phenomenal amount of data falling in to the scheme as a result of this, back in 2003 we had 3,500 records, these are individual records from raptor workers, through to not far off 5,000 records in 2010, and now we have more than 30,000 records on raptors in Scotland, which is a European record.

We produce annual reports, the data of course goes in august organisations such as the Rare Breeding Birds Panel, of course they’re used by SNH and government for a range of casework issues.

So let’s get in to some detail of what we’re doing. We’ve developed a number of, er, raptor conservation frameworks, er, notably for golden eagles and hen harriers, really trying to drill down to the factors affecting the viability of these birds at a regional scale. And yes, er, one of the issues we’ve identified is an association between some grouse moors, and, and poisoning of birds, of course the Minister today has touched on the newsflash, much better news, in 2011 reported today, great to see the lowest, er, recorded incidents of poisoning since 2006, think this does represent real progress but of course we need to be mindful that there are other forms of persecution.

Of the golden eagle conservation framework we identified problem areas for golden eagles. Some empty or abandoned territories, some struggling to be productive and really identifying the range of factors, er, identifying, er, affecting the birds.

We’ve been satellite-tagging the birds working closely with RSPB, er, Roy Dennis and Highland Wildlife Foundation and Natural Research, and these are the packs that are attached to the birds, these satellite tags are about the size of a pack of playing cards, and we get fantastic information on a monthly basis, here very sadly for Alma, er, young golden eagle tagged by Roy Dennis, where you can see the movements it made from October through to July, er, and, and very sadly, er, it ended up, ended up, er, dead, but hugely important information we can build on range use of these birds.

Er, I’ve shown this slide of, er, golden eagle flying in to a nest with, er, one sibling attacking another, er, this brilliant picture taken by Laurie Campbell, one of our very finest, er, wildlife photographers, he noticed, er, sitting in this hide every time a golden eagle, an adult here, it was a male here, flew in with prey item, the, er, older sibling, here, would attack, would attack the smaller young, younger sibling and eventually killed it. And I show this because what we are finding in the west of Scotland now is a very marked increase in rainfall, those of you who live in the west of Scotland won’t be er, surprised to hear this, but over the last 30, 35 years there’s been an, an almost doubling of rainfall in May, and the upshot of this for golden eagles is that these birds are finding it far harder, er, to find prey, in particular live prey and so we’re seeing, er, a greater incidence of these sorts of problems for golden eagles, we’re seeing significantly fewer twins being fledged from golden eagle nests.

So a variety of factors affecting golden eagles and we’re busy trying to develop the evidence base on these birds, this is a, a, very funny portrait painted by, er, Keith Brockie, developing our knowledge of the conservation status, range use and movements, survival rates and causes of death, we’re getting a lot of important information here from the satellite-tagged birds, and of course this is supporting the day to day casework that we’re doing on the effects of forest expansion on these birds, windfarms and persecution, because we’re building up a very accurate picture of the range use and habitat use by these birds.

Moving on to hen harriers, we published, er, last year a conservation framework for hen harriers, in Scotland only five out of 20 regions were at, er, had populations that were favourable, three of the regions good for hen harriers were also good for golden eagles, and we found persecution risk, er, and food shortage were two key constraints, er, acting on these birds and now we’re looking at these much more carefully.

I’m going so show some slides to indicate just how difficult it is to determine what’s happening to hen harriers, this is one of our largest, er, Special Protection Areas for hen harriers, south of Scotland the Muirkirk Uplands, and the North Lowther, erm, Uplands SSSI all make up this Special Protection Area, we monitor hen harriers and other birds, numbers and productivity, and if you look at the trend here, in red you’ve got, er, numbers of breeding birds and in blue you’ve got fledging success, and you can see there’s been sort of great variation in numbers of hen harriers and for fledging success, the number of fledged chicks produced, sort of two, er, declines, a decline down to 2000 and then up to 2003 and a decline down to 2010. But when you pull these areas apart, er, you look at the Muirkirk Uplands, SSSI one part, and you find that really there is variation in numbers but not the sort of decline we’re recording and there’s one major peak in the fledging success of the birds, and part of this may well be due to variation in vole numbers which go through a cycle. But then we look at, drill down to the North Lowther Uplands you see there has been a decline in numbers and there has been a decline in fledging success. And it shows really that you have to drill down to very specific areas to try and understand what’s happening, when we talk about downward trends we need to be careful in describing these downward trends, we need to be very specific. But we’re talking about the factors and here there’s a complexity of factors affecting hen harriers, actually predation by foxes and crows, prey availability, er, persecution and habitat deterioration, they’ve all been influencing these birds, and interestingly, with the decline in keepering on one estate down there, er, there appears to have been an increase in numbers of predators which is having an adverse effect on hen harriers.

On the line for us at SNH is the Special Protection Area is unfavourable, erm, that status is declining and that’s serious because that means we’re not making, meeting our conservation, er, targets.

So for hen harriers, there is of course a history of persecution because hen harriers prefer grouse moors over other habitat, but important to know, complex range of factors at play here, when in some areas actually effective control of foxes and crows may help the birds and it’s important for us to note that, and there’s a growing evidence base on the movements and population viability of these birds so again science is helping us.

The final example I want to give you is for red kites in the UK, and Charlie touched on this, and on the map here I’ve shown a number of release locations for red kites in the UK. And on the right-hand side a number of years since reintroduction from one to 17, and the population in the Chiltern Hills in the south and in north Scotland in the sort of north Highland area. Really the, the, the conditions in terms of prey base are very similar for these two areas but for some reason the Chiltern population has increased much better than in the north of Scotland. And we can look at a range of factors such as prey availability, productivity of birds in different areas, and when we look at north of Scotland we actually find that within Europe, north of Scotland is, is ranked 5th out of 25 areas that have been studied in detail, so really the north of Scotland population should be doing incredibly well because of the very rich prey base available to these birds.

Some quite excellent, er, science led by RSPB and Jen Smart in particular, has drilled down to look at the cause of mortality, er, in these birds, and there’s a whole range of factors, poisoning and other illegal practices, and of course collision, electrocution, a variety of natural causes, to build up a very clear understanding of what’s affecting these birds. And in a fairly recent paper in the scientific journal Biological Conservation they were able to quantify the relationship between persecution and the annual survival of birds, so for first-year birds they were able to say that the annual survival is 0.37, 37% of the birds survive, but in the absence of persecution it would be much higher, just over half of the birds would survive, they did this for second-year birds and for the other birds, building up a very precise understanding of what’s affecting these birds. And then by modelling the sort of persecution effects, er, on the red kites, they were able to show that the population at the moment is only bumping along at 50, but critically, if persecution was removed, if it was wiped out, then the population would be far higher, it would be up to about 350 pairs. And this is really a compelling example of how science is giving an insight into the effects of persecution here, and other factors affecting these birds. So 40% of the dead, just over 100 red kites were poisoned in north of Scotland, without poisoning we should have had 300 plus birds, poisoning of red kites in the north of Scotland is attracting a lot of criticism nationally, and we now know the location of the hotspots problem areas where red kites have been found, poisoned, and we’re working closely with the police to tackle this. And I want to put on record here how grateful we are to Northern Constabulary, er, senior staff at Northern Constabulary for meeting with us to discuss the scientific issues and for taking forward the very ambitious programme of work to tackle this problem.

So I’ve given you some examples of some work we’re doing on these birds of prey. We’re very keen to try and develop this further, really as a form of indicators, birds of prey are top of the food chain, they’re well surveyed in monitoring, we’ve got a mass of datasets, they may be good indicators of change, where birds of prey are missing, birds of prey such as peregrines say are missing, that, that, that can tell you something very important about the prey base and other conditions, the public of course, most of the public love to see and enjoy birds of prey, a lot of political interest in birds of prey, we saw that this morning from the Minister, and there is growing collaboration, notably through the PAW raptor group which Charlie took us through.

Well we’re trying to produce raptor trends for different regions of Scotland, we call them Natural Heritage Zones, just common regions of Scotland, for peregrine here now for these different regions in the Eastern Lowlands, the Border Hills, building up a very clear picture of how numbers are changing, for birds such as white-tailed eagle, huge amount of information for the different areas, we can build up a picture of trends in clutch size, brood size, numbers fledged, and therefore developing our understanding of what’s happening to these birds, and we’re trying to do this now for a whole range of species.

Charlie’s mentioned sort of persecution statistics, we have, er, pulled together a lot of information on persecution, that’s now sitting with the National Wildlife Crime Unit, er, and I want to say here it’s, it’s not our job, it’s not SNH’s job or the raptor workers’ job to pronounce on these data, that’s a matter for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and for the police and that’s why these data now sit with that unit.

So all of this is helping us with the area profile, and in particular we’re working very closely with the raptor priority group but of course we’re building up this picture of where there are problems. Since, er, Charlie showed a nice slide I wanted to show this as well without the writing, erm, you, you know, a golden eagle in a sort of north Highland landscape, what a fantastic picture.

So I want to finish with some concluding thoughts and I thought this would come across very clearly so I repeated the slide in black and white. I’ve got six thoughts here:

1. The evidence base is crucial, erm, it’s clear we need to be objective on issues and the area priority depends on that. I think actually from what we heard from, from Sheriff Drummond earlier on it is critical at all stages that we are objective, er, and we play strongly to the evidence base.

2. A lot of talk about grouse moors. Grouse moors, really there’s huge variation in operations and practices on grouse moors. Let’s just remember, when people talk pejoratively about grouse moors, just remember there’s a huge amount of variation and the great majority of these are very well managed.

3. Predator management is important and there are some real benefits to be derived from predator management. If any of you were present at the ten year celebration of the Moorland Forum a couple of weeks ago, Stuart Housden gave a very important presentation and in that presentation he quite deliberately pointed to the work that the RSPB is pulling together to show the benefits of predator management. I think it’s important that we, we move on with predator management and we recognise that predator management can be important for a whole range of bird species.

4. The traditions of grouse moor management will persist. Let’s focus on the positives. I am fed up of colleagues and others saying to me, ‘Why are you worrying about grouse moor issues and the persecution issue, grouse moors won’t exist in five or ten years time’. Nonsense. Grouse moors, grouse moors will be with us for as long as we have Scotland. They will persist for centuries, not just decades and we need to remember that and focus on the positives associated with good management of grouse moors.

5. Scrutiny of management practices, er, Nevin and Charlie touched on this, the need for self-regulation and vicarious liability.

6. My final plea really is that we need to think out of the box and I like to think this is what we are doing in the PAW raptor group. I mean we’ve got, Charlie listed the individuals, some of the early meetings were quite difficult, they were quite fraught and as we’ve developed trust in one another and in the data that we’re dealing with, we are mindful that we have common objectives here, and frankly, and I say this deliberately, I think we’ve never had a better chance to eradicate, er, raptor persecution in Scotland, so thank you very much.”

[What a very revealing presentation. Last July we blogged about SNH’s stated intent to work more closely with GWCT and we asked whether this collaboration should be a cause for concern (see here). Listening to Des’s characteristic simpering flattery during this presentation it now seems very clear that those concerns were justified.

Yes he did acknowledge that persecution was an issue for golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites (how could he not, seeing as SNH commissioned two studies on golden eagle and hen harrier and both studies concluded persecution was the main issue?!) but what was interesting was how he then tried to shift the focus away from persecution when he was discussing the problems faced by golden eagles and hen harriers. The uninformed members of the audience might well now think that rainfall is the main constraint on overall golden eagle survival and that fox and crow predation is responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of over 2,000 harriers. Yes it’s accurate to suggest that rainfall may be impacting on golden eagle productivity in the western regions, but it has not been shown to be responsible for the ~ 273 empty known or potential golden eagle territories in the northern, central, eastern and southern regions; persecution has! In fact, the golden eagle conservation framework identified that only 3 of 16 regions in Scotland were of favourable conservation status for the golden eagle, and all of those regions were in the west! The framework identified the highest national priority for the conservation and management of golden eagles in Scotland is to tackle persecution. The promotion of a greater availability of live prey in western regions (through changed land management practices relating to deer and sheep) was only a secondary priority, so why focus on it in this presentation, unless Des was keen to deflect attention away from the continuing persecution issue on northern, central, eastern and southern grouse moors?

It was also a concern to hear Des suggest that the buzzard population was not recovering (from previous persecution) but rather it was now expanding (based on what data?). Given that SNH are now in charge of issuing licences for the ‘control’ (killing) of ‘pest’ species, and the mounting pressure from the game shooting lobby for licences to kill ‘problem’ buzzards, are we now looking at the strong possibility that these buzzard licences will be issued? It will be interesting to see how SNH can justify the killing of a relatively uncommon, and protected, native species in favour of a relatively abundant, non-native, unprotected species (e.g. pheasant).

We’re incredulous to hear Des trying to convince us that the vast majority of grouse moors are ‘very well managed’ when we know, after decades of what he calls an ‘evidence base’ (i.e. scientific publications) that these areas are directly linked to the mass destruction of native wildlife, and not just illegal raptor persecution, we’re also talking about the legal killing of hundreds of thousands of other animals, all to produce artificially high numbers of game birds which are then shot for sport by a ‘privileged’ few. If that’s the marker that SNH uses as the standard for nature conservation in Scotland then there isn’t much of a future to look forward to, is there?]

“Red kite tried to snatch my dog”, says fashion model

Berkshire fashion model (’32 and married’, says the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph) claims a red kite ‘stalked’ her and her handbag-sized dog…it’s really not worth giving this column space. If you want to read more see:

Daily Telegraph here

Daily Mail here

Maidenhead Advertiser here

Egg-thief Matthew Gonshaw: warrant out for his arrest

We have been told that a warrant is out for the arrest of convicted egg-thief, Matthew Simon Gonshaw, who failed to turn up for his latest court hearing today at Inverness Sheriff Court.

This is an interesting situation. In December 2011, Gonshaw was jailed (for the fourth time) after his conviction at Thames Magistrates court for ten offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (relating to the theft of wild bird eggs). He was given a six month jail sentence (see here), with a likely release date of 15 March 2012 (see here).

In addition, in February 2012 Gonshaw was given a landmark ten-year ASBO (anti social behaviour order) at Stratford Magistrates court, banning him from Scotland, amongst other places, during the bird breeding season between 1 Feb – 31 Aug (see here).

Given that he had already been given a date to attend Inverness Sheriff court on other charges (again related to theft of wild bird eggs) on 8 March 2012, it is very likely that his ASBO contained an exemption allowing him to attend court in Scotland on 8 March. When the March court date came, his case was continued without plea until 5 April (see here) and was then further continued to today (see here).

Perhaps his ASBO did not contain an exemption, and that is why Gonshaw failed to appear today? But if that was the case, he should have made contact with the court to explain the situation.

His latest case at Inverness will now continue at a later date, once Gonshaw has been arrested and a new date fixed.

Anyone with information on his whereabouts is advised to call the police immediately on 999.

£400 fine for shooting buzzard

The case against John Winn Roberts, 43, of Woodend Meadow, Ballymagorry, Strabane, Northern Ireland, who was accused of intentionally injuring a wild bird (shooting a buzzard) on the Isle of Wight last November, was finally heard yesterday after several adjournments at the Isle of Wight magistrates court (see here and here).

He pled guilty to shooting a buzzard and was fined £400 plus costs (maximum penalty available for this type of offence is £5,000 and/or a 6 month prison sentence).

Putting aside the pathetic sentence, well done to Hampshire Constabulary, RSPCA and the quarry company Barton Vectis for getting this case to court.

We haven’t yet seen any media reports about this conviction.

21 eagles, 6 years, 0 prosecutions

Ever since that poisoned golden eagle was found in Glen Orchy in June 2009, we’ve been assured by the authorities (including in an email from a spokeswoman of the former Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham) that, despite our concerns to the contrary, the alleged wildlife crime uncovered that day was being ‘dealt with’.

We’ve had to wait for almost three years to find out that, according to a statement in The Herald attributed to RSPB investigator Ian Thomson, nobody has been charged with poisoning that golden eagle (see Herald article here).

It’s just the latest in a long line (21 eagles in six years!) of both confirmed and suspected eagle deaths for which nobody has ever been prosecuted.

In fairness, some of the 21 examples shown below may not be a result of criminal behaviour (i.e. the bodies of seven of the eagles listed have never been recovered so foul play, whilst suspected, cannot be verified, but neither can it be ruled out). However, there have been 14 confirmed eagle deaths (13 poisoned and one shot), that we know about, for which nobody has been charged. There are probably more confirmed deaths that we don’t know about because for some reason, some confirmed deaths are not being publicly reported. And without a shadow of a doubt, there are other deaths that are attributable to criminal behaviour that never see the light of day.

Here’s the list of the ones we do know about:

MAY 2006: A dead adult golden eagle was found on the Dinnet & Kinord Estate, near Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Grampian Police launched an investigation. Five years and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


JUNE 2006: A dead golden eagle was found on Glen Feshie Estate in the Cairngorms. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Northern Constabulary launched an investigation. Five years and ten months later, nobody has been prosecuted.




AUGUST 2007: A dead adult female golden eagle was found on an estate near Peebles in the Borders. She was half of the last known breeding pair of golden eagles in the region. Tests revealed she had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Lothian & Borders Police launched an investigation. Four years and eight months later, nobody has been prosecuted.




AUTUMN 2007: Tayside Police received a detailed tip-off that a young male white-tailed eagle (known as ‘Bird N’) had allegedly been shot on an estate in Angus. The timing and location included in the tip-off coincided with the timing and location of the last-known radio signal of this bird. Four and a half years later, the bird has not been seen again. With no body, an investigation isn’t possible.


MAY 2008: A one year old male white-tailed eagle hatched on Mull in 2007 and known as ‘White G’ was found dead on the Glenquoich Estate, Angus. Tests revealed he had been poisoned by an unusual concoction of pesticides that included Carbofuran, Bendiocarb and Isofenphos. A police search in the area also revealed a poisoned buzzard, a baited mountain hare and 32 pieces of poisoned venison baits placed on top of fenceposts on the neighbouring Glenogil Estate. Laboratory tests revealed the baited mountain hare and the 32 poisoned venison baits contained the same unusual concoction of highly toxic chemicals that had killed the white-tailed eagle, ‘White G’. Three years and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


JUNE 2009: An adult golden eagle was found dead at Glen Orchy, Argyll, close to the West Highland Way. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Strathclyde Police launched a multi-agency investigation. Two years and ten months later (April 2012), Tom McKellar pled guilty to possession of Carbofuran stored in premises at Auch Estate, Bridge of Orchy. Nobody has been prosecuted for poisoning the golden eagle.


JULY 2009: A two year old female golden eagle known as ‘Alma’ was found dead on the Millden Estate, Angus. Tests revealed she had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Alma was a well-known eagle  – born on the Glen Feshie Estate in 2007, she was being satellite-tracked and her movements followed by the general public on the internet. Tayside Police launched an investigation. Two years and nine months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


AUGUST 2009: A young white-tailed eagle was found dead on Glenogil Estate, Angus. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Tayside Police were criticized in the national press for not releasing a press statement about this incident until January 2010. Two years and 8 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


MAY 2010: Three dead golden eagles were found on or close to Skibo Estate, Sutherland. Tests revealed they had been poisoned; two with Carbofuran and one with Aldicarb. Northern Constabulary launched a multi-agency investigation. One year later (May 2011), Sporting Manager Dean Barr pled guilty to possession of 10.5 kg of Carbofuran stored in premises at Skibo Estate. One year and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted for poisoning the three golden eagles.


JUNE 2010: Leg rings with unique identification numbers that had previously been fitted to the legs of four young golden eagles in nests across Scotland were found in the possession of gamekeeper James Rolfe, during a multi-agency investigation into alleged raptor persecution at Moy Estate, near Inverness. It is not clear how he came to be in possession of the rings. The bodies of the eagles from which the rings had been removed were not found. No further action was taken in relation to the discovery.

JUNE 2010: A golden eagle and a white-tailed eagle were found dead on an estate near Farr, Inverness-shire. Tests revealed they had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Northern Constabulary apparently did not search the property until July 2011. One year and ten months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


DECEMBER 2010: A decomposing carcass of a white-tailed eagle was found and photographed on Logie (Lochindorb) Estate, Morayshire. It was reported to Northern Constabulary. By the time the police arrived to collect it, the carcass had disappeared. The police said they couldn’t investigate further without the body.


MARCH 2011: The body of a young golden eagle was discovered on North Glenbuchat Estate, Aberdeenshire. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Grampian Police launched an investigation and raided the property in May 2011. One year and one month later, we are not aware of any pending prosecutions.


APRIL 2011: The body of a white-tailed eagle was found at the base of cliffs on Skye. The person who discovered it (a professional medic) considered it to have been freshly shot with a rifle, decapitated with a sharp implement and thrown from the cliff top. He took photographs and alerted Northern Constabulary and RSPB. There was a delay of two weeks before the now probably decomposed carcass was collected. A post-mortem was inconclusive. This incident was not made public until one year later after a tip off to this blog. We are not aware of any pending prosecutions.


NOVEMBER 2011: The signal from a satellite-tracked young golden eagle (hatched in 2010) stopped functioning when she was at a location in the Monadhliaths, a well-known raptor persecution black spot in the Highlands. Her last known location was checked by researchers but there was no sign of the bird. Another ‘disappearance’ in suspicious circumstances or a technical malfunction of the satellite transmitter?

Glen Orchy poisoner has “brilliant” character references, says Sheriff

More and more news reports are emerging following the conviction yesterday of Tom McKellar of Auch Estate for possession of Carbofuran.

Some of these reports have mentioned the poisoned golden eagle that led to the discovery of the illegal stash of banned poison at McKellar’s house, and some of them haven’t. One recent report, published today in the Daily Record (here) does mention the golden eagle. It also includes a comment from McKellar’s defence lawyer, David McKie (sound familiar??) who is reported to have said that McKellar was pleading guilty to possessing the poison but not to killing an eagle.

It is looking more and more likely that McKellar was not charged with poisoning this eagle, which perhaps explains why the COPFS press release yesterday (here) didn’t even hint at the presence of a Carbofuran-poisoned eagle found in the locality. Does anyone else find this omission strange, especially when the press release contained quotes said to be from specialist wildlife crime prosecutor, Kate Fleming:

The possession of Carbofuran is illegal. It’s use as a poison can lead to the indiscriminate poisoning of wildlife…”

Er, poisoned golden eagle found nearby, poisoned by Carbofuran. Illegal stash of Carbofuran found at McKellar’s place, some of it reportedly found inside a gamebag in his home porch (RSPB news here), and an admission (according to the BBC – here) that he’d laid out poisoned baits. No connection and not worth commenting on then, Kate? We’ll be writing more on the role of COPFS in this case a bit later on.

Also included in the Daily Record article was the following sentence:

‘Mr McKie handed a sheaf of glowing testimonials on his client’s character to Sheriff Douglas Small, who conceded they were “brilliant”‘.

However, he also said the offence [of possession] was “a serious matter” and he had to consider all options before sentencing.

Big, big day in court (part 5): Glen Orchy golden eagle

Here we go….

Tom McKellar, previously reported as being a gamekeeper (see link below for his earlier conviction for possession of illegal guns) but currently reported as being a farmer, has today pleaded guilty at Oban Sheriff Court to being in possession of the illegal pesticide Carbofuran.

This poison stash was discovered during a multi-agency raid on McKellar’s house in June 2009, where investigators found three separate containers of Carbofuran as well as traces of it in a syringe.

McKellar reportedly admitted during a police interview that he had, “in the past”, placed the poison out on laced meat to kill foxes.

Sentencing was deferred until 29 May 2012 for background reports.

McKellar had previously been charged for the illegal possession of two handguns, kept in his attic, that came to the attention of the police during the raid. On conviction, instead of receiving the mandatory five year jail sentence, he was given just 300 hours of community service (see here).

What has not been mentioned in the press (so far), is that McKellar’s house was raided after the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle, reportedly found with the body of a fox and a sheep carcass at Glen Orchy in June 2009 (see here and here). Toxicology tests reportedly detected Carbofuran on all three animals, although interestingly, only the golden eagle results appear in the official SASA results table; the sheep and the fox results are only mentioned in the RSPB’s 2009 report.

Does today’s reporting mean that McKellar, or anyone else, has not been charged with poisoning the golden eagle?

Rest assured, this is not the last we will be writing about this case…

COPFS press release here

STV article here

2012 wildlife crime conference: Stewart Stevenson (Scottish Government)

This is the fourth blog in the series focusing on presentations made at the recent police wildlife crime conference in Scotland, this time from Stewart Stevenson MSP, the Scottish Environment Minister. The following comprises the first two thirds of his presentation; the final third isn’t really relevant here.

Stewart Stevenson, Scottish Environment Minister

[Some jovial preamble that isn’t relevant here]…”This conference doesn’t, er, stand in a vacuum, it’s, er, carrying on from terrific effort over many years to create what is in effect, er, the biggest and most successful, er, wildlife, er, crime event in the UK and I’m sure that under the new management we’ll see, er, us building on past successes in that regard.

And of course, wildlife crime is something which in resource terms is comparatively small, er, in, in the, in the big picture so many people in this room and beyond who are engaged in fighting wildlife crime are doing so as an addition to, er, broader responsibilities, er, that, that constitute regular, er, day jobs and indeed many, er, make huge contribution in unpaid work outside hours, er, to get the job done, get the results and get the convictions, er, that are very important in sending out the right kind of messages, er, to people involved in, er, wildlife crime, but of course again as the Assistant Chief Constable made reference to, it’s often the case, er, that the Mr Bigs of our crime networks, erm, are engaged in wildlife crime, there’s correlation when you look at the maps often between where the Mr Bigs live and clear demonstration of wildlife crime, er, taking place in an area and unlike their activities as Mr Bigs, protected behind lawyers and accountants, really Boards of Management, their engagement perhaps in wildlife crime is, is less protected and may often be a very good way of getting into criminal, criminal networks and more broadly disrupting them so I hope that, er, when the police make operational decisions, because it’s only for me to seek to persuade but not to direct, er, that that is, er, part of the, the, the thinking.

I’ve been the Minister for Environment and Climate Change for coming up for a year now and I’m absolutely gobsmacked as I go across Scotland by the, the work that’s going on in the environment generally, whether it’s conservation work on red squirrels, whether it’s protecting our small number of capercaillies, whether it’s innovative technologies out to produce cleaner sources of fuel, it’s all based on the commitment of dedicated individuals and we in government are immensely, er, proud that people make that commitment and very grateful indeed.

Now this is the first, er, Tulliallan conference since the passage of the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill in 2011, the Act does contain, er, a number of new provisions that are very relevant to this conference and I know that, er, the Sheriff for example will be explaining the WANE Act, er, a bit later, I’m not over-egging the pudding, Sheriff, I hope, erm, I, er, won’t be able to, to listen to it myself but then I’m not part of the enforcement agency. There was a passionate debate in Parliament about many aspects of it and I think at the end of the day we achieved, er, a good and equitable balance, there was a huge cross-party support, er, for the final form that it took. But the passage of that Bill is a very clear indication, er, that Parliament, er, takes an important view of this and, er, the, the, the importance that, er, the BBC Radio Scotland this morning gave to this conference and the publication, er, of, erm, the poisoning figures for, er, raptors shows that the media see this as an important agenda as well.

The new legislation, er, a number of things are relevant to this conference, comprehensive revision of the law relating to game and the poaching of game, new closed seasons for hares, new regulations for snares, a major revision of the Deer Act backed up by a new code of practice, a new approach to invasive non-native species, I’ll just say a little something, one of the things I tripped over, just to illustrate, er, the issue of invasive non-native species…[goes into anecdote about American Signal Crayfish]…There’s new offences, a new code of practice to come on, on this regard, and there’s a new requirement that we provide an annual report to Parliament on wildlife crime.

Now, I’m not going to talk through the legislation, others are better equipped to do that. There are officials here from the Scottish Government who’ll be happy to interact with you, er, on the subject. But let me just pick up a couple of issues from it – during the course of the Bill it was apparent that there was a prevailing feeling among MSPs that we needed to take some tougher legal powers to combat the problem of illegal raptor persecution in Scotland. Er, it’s been a high priority since we took office, it is of course an issue that not only threatens some of our rarest wildlife such as the hen harrier, but it casts a disproportionately unpleasant shadow on our reputation as a country known for its high quality natural environment. The environment is a key part of our identity, it’s part of our brand and it’s vital to our export success, er, in many ways and of course wildlife tourism is a very important economic contributor.

So, the concept of an attractive, well-managed, er, natural environment can be badly damaged by any idea that it’s a place where some people can still put out dangerously toxic materials to poison some of our more spectacular wildlife. And of course, when you put poisons out in the environment, you never know what the effect will be; a dog walker can be exposed to them, domestic animals can be poisoned and indeed human beings without knowing, er, what’s going on. It is a tiny minority but it disproportionately, er, scars, er, our landscape so we’re continuing to work with our partners in PAW to change attitudes, make that minority even smaller in future, and eventually see it disappear.

So part of our response has been to introduce vicarious liability, er, provisions. There are two aspects to that. That small minority in the past of land managers who may have given a nod and a wink to their employees in relation to persecution of birds of prey, that addresses that issue, those who turn their back on doing the right thing. But now there is no doubt that their behaviour will not escape the reach of the law, they risk finding themselves in the dock as well as the unfortunate employee, the gamekeeper, whoever.

The second aspect is probably more important in the long run. We want to send a message to all land managers that inaction, benign or otherwise, is simply not good enough. Land managers need to be proactive in ensuring all employees and contractors understand legal obligations and responsibilities, they have to take all reasonable steps and exercise due diligence. And I want to pay a tribute to Scottish Land and Estates, because they have been very supportive in getting that message out, working with government, er, to develop guidance for land managers. So this is not about the industry as a whole being a problem, quite the opposite, they are a huge contributor, er, to determining best practice, to getting the message out, achieving a proportionate and proper legal balance between the many interests that there are in, in, in the country and they’ve been enormously helpful. It is just a tiny minority, and they want to see them eliminated as much as everyone else, er, does.

We’re certainly not looking for a string of prosecutions, indeed, I will measure success if there are none, because that would be absolutely ideal in a context of, of good behaviours in, in our countryside. Sustained improvement, proactive management, especially in areas that we’ve identified as being at high risk where previous history show there’s been bird or prey prosecution, we know that this is one of a range of measures in itself it doesn’t, er, solve the problems.

Now I don’t want to just speak about, er, raptor persecution, a couple of, er, other aspects of, of the work that I want to speak about, the first is the annual poisoning hotspots maps which are published today which show a significant reduction, er, in the number of birds, er, poisoned in the last year, and that’s very, very welcome but there’s still too many, er, it’s not necessarily an inescapably a long-term trend although the suggestions are that it probably is. We want to get to a position where it’s zero, ah, we’re not quite there yet. Partnership working is an important part of making sure that we get the outcomes, the input of the RSPB and Scottish Land and Estates working together give this annual exercise and reporting credibility, demonstrates that shared commitment that’s going to make a real difference, and I particularly like when I see the pack that you have as delegates to have material from RSPB and Scottish Land and Estates, showing that shared commitment, er, to this agenda.

Second, er, raptor related point, just to say something about the success of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, it’s been working extremely well and I thank Alan Smailes, formerly of Grampian Police, my local police force, for his tireless commitment and role, he brought energy and frankness to the group and made, er, a real difference. Since, er, Alan’s recent retirement, Superintendent Ewen West from Tayside has taken over the reigns and continues where Alan left off. Real progress is being made, er, as meetings are held usually every six weeks, er, with excellent attendance. There are some developments in the pipeline in the group that have the potential to have a real impact on, on unlawful raptor pred persecution and again it’s partnership working that will make the real difference.”

[On the whole Stewart did quite well, and when you compare his attitude to that of his counterparts in England, he is streets ahead in that he at least acknowledges that raptor persecution is a problem. However, this oft-repeated insistence that raptor persecution is only being carried out by a ‘tiny minority’ is simply not supported by the facts.

There was also concern about his apparent brown-nosing of SLE that didn’t quite fit in with the fact that his government introduced vicarious liability specifically because they recognised that many land owners and land managers are often the instigators of illegal raptor persecution (if it was just a tiny minority then surely the government wouldn’t have bothered with all the hassle of introducing new legislation to combat it). In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland on the morning of the conference, Stewart took every opportunity to promote SLE and in doing so, carefully side-stepped some rather well-informed questions from the interviewer. See here for the full transcript recently posted on the SLE website. He also seems to have conveniently forgotten the communication he had last autumn with SLE Director Lord Hopetoun, who seemed to have a different view to Stewart about the benefit of vicarious liability legislation – see here].

The next instalment in this series will focus on the presentation given by Des Thompson (SNH), who also has an apparent aversion to criticising land owners.

Case against alleged buzzard shooter adjourned again

In January 2012 we blogged about John Winn Roberts, a man accused of shooting a buzzard at a quarry site on the Isle of Wight in November 2011 (see here). He was up in court on 20th January where he pleaded not guilty to shooting the buzzard and his case was adjourned until 22 March 2012.

In court on 22 March 2012, this case was further adjourned and is now expected to result in a one-day trial at the end of April.

This case is not connected to the recent buzzard shooting on the Isle of Wight reported yesterday (here).