The untouchables

Last month we blogged about getting our hands on the Leadhills Estate Game Book and our interest in the lists of killed ‘vermin’ dating over several decades (see here). These ‘vermin’ lists include the usual species that are typically referred to as ‘vermin’ by the game-shooting industry: species such as foxes, stoats, weasels and crows. However, also included on these ‘vermin’ lists are supposedly protected species such as birds of prey, ravens, otters and badgers. We said we’d blog about the lists in more detail when we had more time.

Leadhills game book vermin lists

Since then an independent academic has contacted us to ask whether we’d consider allowing access to the documents so the data could be analysed, in combination with other data sources, to provide a ~50 year dossier of alleged illegal raptor persecution incidents recorded at Leadhills Estate, stretching from the 1970s right up to the present day. These results would be written up as a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal. We think that such a paper would hold much more gravitas than a simple analysis of a sub-set of those data written up for this blog so we have agreed to pass the information to the academic. We look forward to seeing the results in due course.

So as not to steal the academic’s thunder we won’t be writing in detail about the contents, but we did want to share one startling statistic.

We looked at the number of killed ‘hawks’ listed in the Leadhills Estate Game Book, just between the years 1980-1987. The vermin lists in the Game Book stretch well beyond these years but we selected this particular period because we wanted to compare the figures with the RSPB’s published figures for all of Scotland during this period (the RSPB data were published in McMillan’s 2011 paper – here).

Here’s what we found:

RSPB: Number of illegally killed raptors recorded for the whole of Scotland between 1980 and 1987 = 91 birds.

Leadhills Estate Game Book: Number of illegally killed raptors recorded on Leadhills Estate between 1980 and 1987 = 383 birds.

The difference between these two figures gives a very clear illustration of a situation that conservationists have been arguing for decades: that is, the ‘official’ recorded figures of illegally-killed raptors that are published each year by the RSPB are just the tip of a bloody great big massive iceberg. Just on this one estate (Leadhills), more than four times as many raptors were recorded illegally killed during this seven-year period than those officially reported throughout the whole of Scotland. That’s just one estate. Think what these figures would look like if we had access to the vermin lists of other estates across Scotland!

Now, there’ll be some in the game-shooting industry who will argue that raking over historical persecution records dating back 30 years is irrelevant. They’ll claim that although persecution was common practice several decades ago, things have now changed for the better and it’s only the odd ‘rogue’ estate that are still at it. This, of course, is absolute nonsense. Anybody who bothers to read through the pages of this blog will know that that is simply not a true statement. Sure, some estates have since got their acts together and are now supporting healthy raptor populations on their land (e.g. see Atholl Estate in McMillan’s 2011 paper above) but these estates seem to be exceptional: there are many, many other estates that are still, even to this day, systematically and illegally persecuting raptors and many of them seem to have a curious immunity to prosecution.

leadhills estateLeadhills Estate has been at the centre of allegations of wildlife crime for a very long time. The list of confirmed reported incidents dating from 2003 to 2011 makes for shocking reading (see here). Of these 41 confirmed incidents, only a couple have resulted in a prosecution and a conviction.

Earlier this year we reported the discovery of a substantial illegal stash of poisoned baits that was reportedly found on the estate (see here). Unsurprisingly, six months later we’re still waiting for Police Scotland to issue a statement.

What was particularly interesting about this incident was the reaction of the Scottish landowners’ organisation, Scottish Land and Estates. They refused to discuss the incident, citing an ‘on-going police investigation’ (how very convenient – this excuse relieves them of having to comment on any alleged persecution incident that never gets resolved – i.e. most of them). They also wrote to the Environment Minister and posted an article on their website complaining about the alleged incident being reported on this blog (see here). They gave an impression of being more outraged by the reporting of the incident than they were of the alleged discovery of a big stash of deadly poisoned baits on a Scottish sporting estate.

Now, compare that reaction to their response to the conviction of gamekeeper Peter Bell earlier this year. Bell was convicted of four offences including the poisoning of a buzzard on the Glasserton and Physgill Estates. Immediately following his conviction, Scottish Land and Estates issued a statement to say that Glasserton had been booted out of their organisation (see here). So why didn’t SLE issue a similarly strong statement when the poisoned baits had allegedly been found at Leadhills? They could argue that nothing is proven until a conviction has been secured, as in the Glasserton case. But if that is their argument, then why didn’t they distance themselves from Leadhills Estate when a Leadhills Estate gamekeeper (Lewis Whitham) was convicted of laying a poisoned bait in 2010 (see here)? Why is Leadhills Estate, with its long, long, long history of alleged wildlife crime, treated so differently to an estate like Glasserton, which in relative terms barely registers on the persecution radar? Back in June we asked SLE to provide some transparency about their relationship with Leadhills Estate (see here). They still haven’t.

There may be some who will argue that things are about to change at Leadhills Estate with the shooting lease now up for sale; the sales document itself makes for an interesting read – note the reason given for the current tenants’ departure and the fate of the gamekeepers currently employed on Leadhills Estate: Leadhills brochure 2013

Yes, there may well be a change in the tenancy but will that make any difference? There have been numerous shooting tenants at Leadhills Estate over the years and yet, if the available data are to be believed, the background level of alleged persecution has remained constant.

The raptor killers, whoever they are, appear to be untouchable.

18 thoughts on “The untouchables”

  1. Even that number is small compared to the [alleged] Langholm killing in 1989. 300 in one winter [as written by Derek Radcliffe in his book Galloway and the Borders (Collins New Naturalist, 2007}] which brought about the first Langholm project. We know the capability of these estates to remove birds of prey so why don’t the politicians! The new Langholm project is now well above the law [allegedly]damaging the SSSI. New work at Geltsdale shows what happens when bracken especially is removed to birds like Whinchat ideal food for harriers. Last count of Whinchat at Langholm was 5 pairs in 2012 compared to 64 at Geltsdale in a much smaller area! [49 at Geltsdale in 2013 after that disastrous summer of 2012] Even the ‘white ground’ is being damaged to make way for new areas of heather. So Black Grouse have to make way for Red Grouse! The keepers want to remove trees so again small birds and Black Grouse will suffer. There is now a possibility that SNH may be dragged into this via the use of asulam on the waters of the Tarris. This chemical destroys the water life and many areas of sprayed Bracken are on water courses. So what chance of a project that actually works to create ‘bio diversity on these moors instead of bio – die – versity!!

    [Ed: Thanks John – a couple of edits have been added]

    1. John Miles I take my hat off to you. I have found the trouble is nobody seems to believe what goes on at Langholm. SEPA would have a field day if they looked in the right places. The first project was flawed, as a roost site which was not included in the initial research was regularly visited by the gamekeepering staff. This time round it is ran by halfwits, on a recent trail shoot day the “keepering” staff got lost on the moor, a fox ran through a drive, and a maximum of 30 red grouse were seen all day. All this despite a member of their team doing grouse counts and coming up with some random figure – somewhere in the hundreds, of red grouse per acre. Now really, if there were that many you wouldn’t need a project it would be a fully functioning grouse moor. What a waste of public money!

  2. The very first sentence of the Savills brochure links Leadhills Estate to Hopetoun House, host of the RSPB Scottish Bird Fair since its inception, and despite this decades-long catalogue of raptor persecution and wildlife crime, the RSPB’s preferred choice of venue for the Scottish Bird Fair in 2014. I’m still at a loss regarding this venue choice.

    1. Fraser McAlister (@frsrmc) posed the following question to RSPB Scotland Director Stuart Housden on Twitter on 22 Aug 2013:

      Fraser: At what point will RSPB stop using Hopetoun for Birdfair. Another dead raptor at Leadhills. Sadly reconsidering my membership.

      Stuart: The mgmt of the house and grounds is nothing to do with the shooting tenant at Leadhills – or their staff. Am 100pc opposed to such crime.

      We then pointed out to Stuart that the man heading up the charity that manages Hopetoun House and its grounds is in fact the owner of Leadhills Estate:

      We also pointed out that the Leadhills shooting lease states that Leadhills gamekeepers have to work 5 days on Hopetoun’s pheasant shoot each year:

      Then we asked Stuart a series of questions about his decision to hold the 2014 Scottish Birdfair at Hopetoun, including:

      1. What does your investigations team think about your decision?
      2. Do you (RSPB) incur a financial penalty if you pull out of Hopetoun? Is that what this is all about? ££££?

      Strangely, Stuart has not yet responded to these questions.

      1. Perhaps, in an attempt to combat the persecution that is so rife in this area, the RSPB is trying to obtain the shooting lease! It’s a bit of a madcap idea, but it could be an explanation. Either that, or someone at the RSPB is getting some gain from this on-going relationship. RSPB transparency is very much needed here.

        1. Quote:
          ” Either that, or someone at the RSPB is getting some gain from this on-going relationship. RSPB transparency is very much needed here.

          The penny drops at last !!!

          1. It’s not a case of “the penny drops at last”, it’s a simple fact that without a reasonable explanation from the RSPB, we will always be guessing on this one.

            1. I agree Marco, but how many times have the RSPB been asked to say why they are still endorsing Leadhills Estate when it’s so well known about the Raptor persecution problems there. If they do have a reason it must be an extremely good one, either that or they are completely naïve.

              1. Exactly, which is why we need RSPB to be transparent about this and give its members, volunteers and supporters a truthful answer. Until they do so, they will alienate these same people. Already, they have lost valuable support, many have and will continue to boycott this event in its current form, with many more to follow. If there is no satisfactory response as to why there is a need for this unholy alliance, then alongside the lost support, the RSPB will stand to lose all credibility.

  3. I also hope the said academic points out to you that from the 1970’s to the present day doesn’t quite cover a 50 year time span.

    [Ed: That would be why we’ve used the ~ symbol. Interesting that you’re worried about a potential numerical discrepancy and not about the long-term illegal persecution of raptors on a driven grouse moor]

    1. It’s a good job the log book data from some of the UK’s so-called top grouse moors over the last 50 years isn’t available for public view, that would certainly blow the whistle on many of the estate owners claims of not persecuting Raptors ! Having seen with my own eyes some of the entries for “VERMIN KILLS”, (for vermin read anything with a talon, hooked beak or claw) in the logs of one of the top grouse moors in Yorkshire, I would say the 383 from Leadhills Estate is just the tip of a very large UK wide iceberg.

    2. Potential numerical discrepancies are probably quite important in an academic paper as is an understanding of history and the implementation of legislation.

      [Ed: True, which is why the academic is writing the paper!]

  4. Remind me……..which legislation gave protection to raptors etc. pre-1981?

    It will be interesting to read the academics analysis of historical records as and when its published. We are all aware that life has moved in the past 25 years and many of the moors supporting wildlife then have now been planted with trees or developed as wind farms.

    1. The legislation slipped your mind, has it? Seems to be a common problem for those involved in the game-shooting industry.

      All diurnal raptors, with the exception of the sparrowhawk, were given full legal protection under the Protection of Birds Act 1954. The sparrowhawk was added a few years later (1961). So for the avoidance of doubt, during the period covered by the Leadhills Estate Game Book, all raptors were legally protected. You wouldn’t think so, looking at those ‘vermin’ lists.

      Agree, some moors have changed – some for the better, some for the worse, and some not at all.

  5. Perhaps the threat of vicarious liability is now starting to worry the owners, you can only brush so much under the carpet. with surveillance equipment getting better year on year its only a matter of time before one of these criminal land owners get brought to justice, by the way wouldn,t you have thought SLA would have at least suspended Leadhills membership while they,re under investigation

  6. Saying that, if they had anything about them they would resign their membership after bringing the sport into disrepute once again. the other members must really be p****d with them

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