Gamekeepers and golden eagles: the facts

The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association issued a press release this morning about how great gamekeepers are for golden eagle conservation.

They produced the following map in an attempt to suggest that golden eagles are doing well on grouse moors in central and eastern Scotland:

SGA eagle bollocks

They claim that there are at least 55 active golden eagle nests in the keepered grouse areas of East and Central Scotland, based on the results of a ‘survey’ they did, presumably of gamekeepers.

To the uninformed, this map suggests that golden eagles are breeding at a relatively high density on grouse moors in this region. But don’t be fooled! What this map doesn’t show, because of the ridiculous scale at which it has been produced, is the number of vacant golden eagle territories on grouse moors in East and Central Scotland. (It also ignores the grouse moors of Southern Scotland, probably because breeding golden eagles in that area are virtually non-existent, with just a couple of exceptions, but let’s just brush over that shall we?).

There is no disputing that golden eagles do breed successfully on some Scottish grouse moors. That is a fact. There are a number of enlightened land owners who welcome golden eagles on their grouse moors and do an excellent job in providing them with a home and a good supply of food. We’ve blogged about a few of them before and we applaud their efforts. The problem is, there aren’t enough of them. That is also a fact. The best way to demonstrate this is to look at the level of occupancy of golden eagle territories in different parts of Scotland. The following data are from the 2008 Golden Eagle Conservation Framework – a government-funded comprehensive scientific review of golden eagle ecology and conservation in Scotland:

Golden Eagle Territory Occupancy:

Western Isles = 91%

Western Highlands = 89.5%

Argyll West & Islands = 81.5%

Central Highlands = 48%

Cairngorms Massif = 42.4%

North East Glens = 17.6%

That’s pretty stark. Golden eagles in areas of western Scotland (with little if any grouse shooting interests) occupied over 80% of the available territories; golden eagles in the central and eastern Highlands (grouse moor hell) had an occupancy rate of below 50%, and in one region (North East Glens) it was a shocking 17.6%. Why is it that all those available golden eagle territories in the East and Central uplands are vacant? What’s stopping them from breeding there? Hmmm, whatever could it be?

The SGA press release also talks about the ‘stability’ of the golden eagle population over the last 20 years, presumably to make you think that golden eagles are doing ok so what’s all the fuss about? What they fail to say is that that ‘stability’ of approx 430 pairs masks some very big differences in regional abundance. For example, there has been a substantial increase of golden eagles in the Western Isles over the last ~20 years, largely thanks to a reduction in illegal persecution in that region. In contrast, there has been a significant decrease in the number of golden eagles in the central, eastern and southern uplands (hence all those vacant territories), thanks largely to illegal persecution on driven grouse moors. That is a fact, backed up by a suite of scientific peer-reviewed studies. That’s why the population appears to be ‘stable’ – because all the losses in the east are being counterbalanced by the gains in the west.

What the SGA also fail to mention is that the ‘stable’ population of ~430 pairs is nowhere near what the population could be. It’s been estimated that there is enough habitat for at least 700 golden eagle territories in Scotland – the population of ~430 pairs is being suppressed at an unnaturally low level and failing to expand into some areas of its former range. Why? Illegal persecution. Read the Conservation Framework (below) if you want to examine the details. The facts are all there.

Here is a map from the Framework report, showing the conservation status of golden eagles in 2003. Green areas = region in favourable conservation status; Amber areas = region in unfavourable conservation status but failed in only 1 test (i.e. a marginal failure); Red areas = region in unfavourable conservation status, with failure in more than one test. It’s pretty bloody obvious in which areas golden eagles are in trouble – yep, that’s right, areas managed for driven grouse shooting. Another fact.

GE conservation status 2003

There was another element to the SGA’s press statement this morning. They claimed they had recently expelled four (unidentified) members from the SGA club for wildlife offences. If they have done this then it is very welcome news and we applaud them for booting out those criminals. It has been something we’ve been asking them to do for a very long time and hopefully this will be the start of a growing trend.

BBC News article here

Scotsman article here

RSPB response here

Golden Eagle Conservation Framework here

UPDATE 24 January 2014: See here for details of the VACANT golden eagle sites on upland grouse moors.

19 thoughts on “Gamekeepers and golden eagles: the facts”

  1. Hi If I can do anything about this I would be delighted to help. Alan Sloman we have been in touch before: just to let you know that my Grandfather was indeed John William MacGillivray 13th Laird of Dunmaglass Glengarry Canada 1864 who is recorded as dying without issue in London UK 1914. After some research the blood line has been proved. Clan MacGillivray territory is “The Monaldeith Mountains” just this side of Loch Ness. I would love to assist with your campaign about the protection of Golden Eagles. However I have no funds. I am dedicated, determined and enthusiastic about your cause and I would love to help via whatever means possible. I am an ardent environmental campaigner so please do contact me if I can help at all?

    Kind regards

    Ann MacGillivray

  2. give them credit, they managed to release that statement and still keep a straight face. The next logical step would be that if the SGA are so good for Golden Eagles, then lets tell them where the rest of the nests are.

  3. Fantastic example of misuse of statistics. The map only shows territories on grouse moors so gives the impression that there are no breeding eagles outside those territories.
    The new forthcoming BTO atlas will to show the real situation regarding distribution and density on grouse moors.
    I just looked at the previous atlas and there are three areas within the areas marked red above which have high densities and a few patches with fairly high density (but mostly very low or absent). It would be interesting to know who manages those three areas and if they have managed to preserve their status. The new atlas will certainly be interesting. Could it have improved? Since there was a loss in the east and central Cairngorms in the previous atlas i very much doubt it.
    Perhaps this SGA map is a pre-emptive attack on the new atlas. But it is a joke. I count 55 eagle territories in the whole of the central highlands! I imagine they could hold four times that many.

  4. I wonder if the SGA will be producing a similar map about the numbers of hen harrier nests on these grouse moors?

  5. It’s also worth mentioning that the habitat in the western isles/highlands has greater density of GE and yet the habitat offers less food that habitat to the east. It will also prove interesting as WTE numbers increase in the west whether this will impact the population density of GE.

    1. There have been two studies looking at the presumed competitive effect of white-tailed eagles on neighbouring golden eagles. Both concluded no evidence of effect.

      Evans et al. (2010). Comparative nest habitat characteristics of sympatric White-tailed and Golden Eagles in western Scotland. Bird Study 57 (4): 473-482.

      Whitfield et al. (2013). Breeding season diets of sympatric white-tailed eagles and golden eagles in Scotland: no evidence for competitive effects. Bird Study 60 (1): 67-76.

      We can’t publish these papers here but it’s worth googling the titles to find a summary overview of the findings. You can also ask the authors for a PDF for personal use.

    2. Who verified the lower food levels on the western side of scotland? the Western isles are alive with sheep, sea birds Deer & rabbits How is it that everything the shooting lobby does or says is presented as fiction but on the basis of imagination,, malice& sheer bad blood everything said by Peta and like minded is
      presented as a relevation from on high

    1. Keep up the good work. you don’t need me to tell you how to apply pressure. Name and shame, when did you last see a landowners picture in the press, if ever? Have a look at my blog ,its more than the decimation of raptors. There is a bigger picture . Land ownership, MP’s. Councillors , Scotland, the Referendum etc.

      [Ed: thanks for your support]

      1. There is no doubt that politics is the name of the game. At the moment the governments attention is barely focusing on wildlife, the raptor issue is is probably the only thing that they have noticed. For the most part the Nationalists dont care about the environment at all. If the attention can be maintained there is just the chance that something might change…..but I doubt it will be a wider change.

    2. It would be interesting to know if the person/s who did the independent verifying were the holders of Schedule One licences allowing them to officially visit the nesting sites of these birds, if they were, for what reason were the licences issued to these persons and by who ? If they were not then the independent verification was probably done illegally.

  6. I think the situation now exists where there is a perception that all landowners are a problem. Can I suggest that those landowners who belong to the enlightened group, to which you refer, who work to protect eagles (and other raptors/wildlife) be given another mention by name & estate. It would be wrong not to see those people given just recognition to ensure that they don’t get tarred with the same brush as the usual suspects that we all abhor.

    1. I’ve always said we should be singing the praises of the good guys. On the other hand, and since the SGA appear to be hardening their stance, if we ‘out’ the good guys, would we not be bringing a whole load of trouble and harrassment down on them?

  7. I see on the SGA facebook page a post today showing a certain Mr Hogg having an indepth conversation with the Minister in Charge of SNH. The latter looked rather dazed!!

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