Great to see more MSPs raising questions about golden eagles in the Scottish Parliament….
Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to protect golden eagles. (S4O-02010).
The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Paul Wheelhouse): All wild birds are protected in Scotland under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Golden eagles are listed in schedule 1 to the 1981 act, which provides further protection measures to prevent disturbance to nesting birds. Last month, we added golden eagles to schedules A1 and 1A to the 1981 act, to provide year-round protection for nest sites and protect birds from harassment.
Since 2008, we have broadened and developed the partnership for action against wildlife crime in Scotland—PAW Scotland; strengthened the legal framework by introducing vicarious liability; provided funding for the national wildlife crime unit; and supported initiatives to tag and satellite track golden eagles. Recent police reform has increased the number of specialist wildlife crime officers.
We have been active in the fight against raptor persecution, and poisoning has reduced significantly. However, we are in no way complacent and we are actively considering whether other methods of persecution are being deployed. Some of the new wildlife crime measures that we have put in place are yet to be tested, but we know that there is still a problem in some parts of Scotland, and I reiterate to people outside the Parliament that we stand ready to introduce further measures, should that be necessary.
Joan McAlpine: As the minister acknowledged, there have been a number of shocking incidents across Scotland during the past year. Earlier this month, a golden eagle was shot on the southern upland way. In light of that, will the minister reassure the Parliament that investigations into the illegal killing of eagles are carried out quickly and effectively? Is he willing to update the Parliament on the investigation into the killing of the golden eagle that was found on Deeside in May 2012?
Paul Wheelhouse: As I said, police reform has resulted in a revised structure for wildlife crime, which will improve co-ordination and support for wildlife crime officers. I have every confidence in Assistant Chief Constable Graham, who has been appointed to lead the work. We also have a specialist unit in the Crown Office, which ensures that there is greater understanding of the complexities of this area of the law, in and out of the courtroom. That is a major development, which should not be underestimated and which will increase the focus on wildlife crime.
I assure the member and the Parliament that such measures, along with robust working in the partnership for action against wildlife crime in Scotland, will ensure that investigations are carried out as quickly and effectively as possible. PAW Scotland is looking at making the evidential trail on issues such as raptor persecution more robust, if it is possible to do so, which involves working closely with the Scottish raptor persecution priority delivery group.
I am not in a position to update the Parliament on the 2012 Deeside eagle case. There is an on-going police investigation and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment at this point.
[Ed: this issue about when is a case still ‘live’ is of great interest to us. How do you define when a case is still live/on-going? We would expect the definition to mean that active leads are still being followed up and/or a court case is pending. However, we are suspicious that the regularly-heard phrase ‘it’s an on-going police investigation and therefore can’t be discussed’ is a convenient excuse for the police/government to avoid answering serious questions about the effectiveness of these investigations. Take the Deeside eagle case as an example. That golden eagle was found dead almost one year ago. Are we expected to believe that the police are still following up active leads? Come on, let’s be realistic here. How about some of the other 26 cases of either dead or ‘missing’ eagles in the past seven years (see here), for which no-one has been prosecuted? Are they still ‘on-going’ investigations as well? Are the police still investigating the death of Alma, the golden eagle found poisoned on Millden Estate in 2009? How about the poisoning of the last remaining breeding golden eagle in the Borders in 2007? We would like to see much more transparency about these cases – obviously not while they’re genuinely on-going – but when a case is clearly going nowhere shouldn’t there be a point when questions can be asked, and answered, no? We would be very interested to hear from anyone who can tell us the official definition of how an ‘active case’ is defined and at what point, if any, can the police/government be questioned about an incident?]
Graeme Pearson (South Scotland) (Lab): I am sure that members welcome the drop in reported poisonings of birds of prey, but I am concerned that there has been no decline in other forms of raptor persecution. The Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 introduced vicarious liability, to combat raptor persecution. Will the minister indicate what the next steps will be? Now that Police Scotland has been established, what new approaches will be introduced?
Paul Wheelhouse: Graeme Pearson is right to say that vicarious liability is a significant development in the law on wildlife crime. The provisions came into force on 1 January 2012 and the legislation has not yet been tested in court, as he is aware. I believe, however, that the legislation has had the welcome effect of encouraging responsible land managers to examine the training of and procedures for their staff. I have no doubt that, if a land manager or owner is prosecuted under the provisions, it will have a salutary effect on others who have been content to turn a blind eye to unlawful practices that are carried out on their land.
More generally, the Government is doing everything that it can to encourage good practice. Recently, Scottish Land & Estates launched the wildlife estates Scotland initiative, which I hope will gather arms and legs and cover an ever-greater share of landowners. In theory, that will enable the promotion of the most proactive and progressive conservation measures by land managers. However, I reassure the member that, if the measures under vicarious liability prove to be ineffective, I will take further action.
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): The RSPB states that one of the key problems for the survival of golden eagles is the lack of live prey that is available to the species. Does the minister agree that a healthy supply of food species in golden eagle areas, such as rabbits and mountain hares, is a factor in the maintenance of healthy numbers of golden eagles? Is he, through the appropriate agencies, doing something about the decline of those species in some areas?
Paul Wheelhouse: The member raises an important point about the need for golden eagles to have adequate food supplies. It is not as simple as saying that it is all about raptor persecution; we know that there are multiple influences on the sad decline in the populations of a number of our key, iconic species of birds. Clearly, mountain hares are a species that we want to protect. If there was any persecution of those animals by land managers, we would be concerned about it. If the member has constructive proposals that he would like me to consider, I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issues.