No evidence of animal rights activists ‘setting up’ estates

RACCEOn Wednesday, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse gave evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) at Holyrood about the government’s 2012 Wildlife Crime Report. We said we’d be watching the proceedings with interest, given Scottish Land & Estate’s claim that raptor persecution receives too much media attention (see here).

We did watch the live session and on the whole we thought that Wheelhouse did quite well, although we did think that some of the questions put to him by some of the RACCE Committee Members revealed a certain level of influence from those with a vested interest in game-estate management.

Quite a few questions related to the ‘setting up’ of estates and ‘interference’ of legal traps by supposed animal rights activists – in fact one of the panel tried to push him into admitting that it was a ‘legitimate concern’ (for estate owners/gamekeepers). Wheelhouse, though, was pretty firm in his response. He argued that it was legitimate to discuss how big a problem trap-tampering is because currently there isn’t any evidence to support the assertion that it is even a problem, although he did acknowledge that of course, trap-tampering was possible.

Trap interference/damage was one of the issues raised by SLE in their evidence to the RACCE Committee (see here) – they claimed it was ‘another group of increasing wildlife crimes’ that should be included in the Government’s annual Wildlife Crime Report. Trap interference and/or damage is a pretty interesting definition of what constitutes a wildlife crime, don’t you think?

And apparently, trap interference is not necessarily a criminal offence anyway, let alone a ‘wildlife crime’! Here’s what lawyer David McKie wrote on the subject in the last edition of the SGA’s member newsletter (McKie often acts as a defence agent for gamekeepers accused of wildlife crime) –

As a matter of law, there is a significant difference between interference and vandalism.

Vandalism would involve the breaking of a crow cage trap by someone punching or kicking a hole in it, for example, or the deliberate smashing up of a Fenn trap. It would also include the cutting of snares.

Interference does not necessarily involve a criminal offence….That can involve the removal of traps from their set location, the release of decoy birds or the pulling of snares.

The police can probably not charge the individual with interference“.

Fascinating! And before anyone tries to accuse us of encouraging trap interference and/or damage, this information is published here purely for the purpose of intellectual discussion.

It emerged during the RACCE session that BASC is currently conducting some research to evaluate the scale of trap interference/damage so we’ll look forward to seeing those results – we’ll also be looking closely at the methods they used to make their evaluation – especially if the research is based solely on the word of gamekeepers.

Anyway, for those of you who missed seeing Paul Wheelhouse at the RACCE Committee on Wednesday you could always watch the Holyrood TV video archive (here – only available for 28 days). There is also an official text report of the meeting available to download: RACCE wildlife crime 27_11_2013

See if you can spot the bit when Angus MSP Graeme Dey claims that wildlife crime policing in Tayside is the ‘gold standard’!!!

Case against gamekeeper George Mutch: part 4

scales of justiceCriminal proceedings against Scottish gamekeeper George Mutch continued today at Aberdeen Sheriff Court. His case was continued without plea for the 4th time.

His 5th court hearing will be on 16th December.

Mutch, of Kildrummy Estate in Aberdeenshire is understood to be facing six charges of alleged wildlife crime under Sections 1 & 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act. These sections relate to the protection of wild birds and prohibited methods of killing and taking wild birds.

For previous posts about this case see here, here and here.

Landowners unhappy with raptor persecution publicity

GaggedTomorrow (Weds 27th Nov), Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse will give evidence on the government’s Wildlife Crime Report (2012) to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment  (RACCE) Committee at Holyrood.

The session will begin at 10am in Committee Room 3 and can be watched live on Holyrood TV (see here).

An interesting piece of written evidence has been submitted for the RACCE Committee to consider (see here, scroll down to page 11). It comes from Scottish Land and Estates and they are basically saying that raptor persecution receives too much media attention whereas poaching should be the focus of enforcement and publicity. They justify this by saying that poaching is the most commonly recorded wildlife crime (as shown in the government’s 2012 Wildlife Crime Report).

What they don’t say is that raptor persecution is clearly happening on a scale far greater than the police-recorded figures – so much so that its effect is having population-level impacts on species such as golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and goshawks. Population-level impacts are not caused by ‘a few incidents’ – they are caused by widespread, systematic incidents. They also forget to mention the cack-handed way Police Scotland continue to deal with reported raptor persecution incidents, leading to poor recording and what we would call less than reliable figures.

It’s not the first time that SLE has tried to stifle media attention on raptor persecution incidents. Earlier this summer, CEO Doug McAdam wrote to the Environment Minister to complain about news coverage of certain crimes against raptors. So too did an ‘Industry Co-ordination Group’ – believed to include the following organisations: BASC, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Association of Country Sports and Scottish Land and Estates. A Freedom of Information request revealed the Minister’s responses, and all credit to him as he told them to piss off and focus on the real issue, that is, trying to stop the continuing illegal persecution of raptors in Scotland (although obviously he didn’t phrase it like that).

Here are copies of his letters: FOI Scot Gov 2013 media coverage raptor persecution

It’s no surprise that SLE want to put a stop to damaging media reports about raptor persecution incidents, especially if such incidents take place on estates owned by SLE members. It’s also no great surprise that they should be so interested in poaching; some of us think that poaching isn’t actually a wildlife crime at all – it’s more about ‘theft’ from super-rich landowners that just happens to involve wildlife. It doesn’t make any difference to the deer or the fish whether their death is caused by someone operating with or without the landowner’s permission, but it matters a great deal to the landowner, either because they’re losing money (from people who will pay to kill deer and fish)  or because they just don’t like the idea of someone else taking what the landowners perceive to be their property.

But is there another reason why landowners want to reduce the amount of media coverage that raptor persecution incidents receive? Look closely at the penultimate paragraph in the Minister’s letter to the Industry Co-ordination Group –

You mention the decision by Natural England to issue licences to control buzzards and your view that there should be open debate on how or whether, we manage common raptors. As far as Scotland is concerned I have been careful to remind anyone who asks about our position, that the provision allowing control of avian predators remains on the statute book and that SNH as the licensing authority will give careful consideration to any application. As far as debate is concerned, I am happy to discuss issues that are raised with me, but as you will be aware, the continuing levels of illegal persecution will inevitably and understandably produce an emotional response to this question from many members of the public“.

Surely the game-shooting industry’s intention isn’t to keep raptor persecution incidents out of the media to fool the general public into thinking that illegal persecution has stopped, in order to smooth the way for buzzard-killing licences to be issued?

We’ll be watching the Minister’s speech with great interest tomorrow.

Animal rights activists killing thousands of hen harriers

HH by Gordon LangsburyThe long-awaited publication showing the results of the UK 2010 Hen Harrier Survey is finally here. Published in the scientific journal Bird Study, the paper (see here) documents significant declines across many parts of the UK.

No surprises there then.

England had a heady 12 pairs in 2010 (a country with sufficient habitat to support an estimated 323-340 pairs, according to the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework).

Scotland had 505 pairs in 2010 (a country with sufficient habitat to support an estimated 1467-1790 pairs).

Wales bucked the trend with at least a 33% increase to 57 pairs (none of which were found on habitat classified as grouse moor).

It should be remembered that these results are from 2010; there have been further documented declines since then, including just two (failed) breeding attempts in England this year and a consistent downward trend of breeding success in Scotland, according to the latest report from the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme (see here).

The paper also documents a severe decline on the Isle of Man (49%) and bizarrely suggests that ‘there are no obvious drivers for this’. Eh? Could it possibly be anything to do with the systematic elimination of harriers on the mainland, reducing the number of birds available to travel to the Isle of Man? Just a thought.

So, where are the missing 962-1285 breeding pairs of hen harriers in Scotland?

And where are the missing 322-339 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England?

Widespread declines are indisputable. The relationship in England and Scotland between areas of reported declines and land managed for intensive driven grouse shooting is also indisputable. But what happened to all those birds? Those with a vested interest in the grouse-shooting industry will tell you it’s all down to climate change/habitat change/lack of prey/cold spring/wet spring/late spring/early spring/being eaten by golden eagles/too many foxes/too many buzzards/too many ravens/too many sparrowhawks/the work of animal activist extremists hell-bent on killing hen harriers to make the gamekeepers look bad…in fact they’ll blame anything except the blindingly fucking obvious.

Hen Harrier photo by Gordon Langsbury

MSP wants answers about mountain hare culling

MH1Last week we blogged about the claims made by a leading upland ecologist that mountain hares were suffering “massive declines” in parts of Aberdeenshire due to uncontrolled culling on grouse moors (see here).

We followed it up with some grim photographs showing piles of dead mountain hares that had been left to rot on an Angus grouse moor (see here). We also encouraged readers to contact SNH to ask them about what we saw as their long-term failure to implement an effective monitoring scheme to protect this species. Many of you did contact SNH (thank you) and here is their generic reply:

Good afternoon

Thank you for your email which was sent to one of our members of staff. We have received a quite a few similar responses. We can’t answer them all individually but we would like to clarify a few points to explain what we have been doing and propose to do.

Firstly, a close season on hare control was introduced in 2011 to protect the species during the main part of the breeding season (March – July inclusive). Without conclusive evidence that hare populations are declining generally across Scotland as a result of over-exploitation, full all year round protection could not be justified at the time.

Because hare populations are naturally cyclical, monitoring overall trends over time is complex and problematic. SNH has been working closely with the leading UK experts on this species since 2005, to increase our understanding of their current status and to develop a reliable and cost-effective method of assessing their numbers.

We would like to reiterate the following points:

SNH does not support indiscriminate, large scale culls of mountain hares and, while moorland managers are advised to consult SNH if they propose such measures, the only cases that we are currently able to regulate directly, are in relation to licensable activities where the number of hares allowed to be taken is restricted.

We have heard of allegations that some estates systematically remove mountain hares as a prey base for golden eagles, but it is very difficult to prove this to be case, given the range of other legitimate reasons for controlling hare numbers (but not eradicating them.) SNH condemns any systematic attempt to reduce hare numbers for this reason and we would emphasise that, not only is it extremely bad practice, it demonstrates no understanding of the ecology of predators such as eagles, namely that if mountain hares become scarce or absent, the predator will switch increasingly to other more available prey such as red grouse.

We are currently working with both the James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to develop a further programme of research, building on previous work, to address the fundamental question of how best to count hares, with the intention of commencing further fieldwork later in 2014.

These are complex issues which we will continue to tackle. We hope this information has been helpful.

Customer Relations Team, Scottish Natural Heritage

AlisonJohnstoneMSPSince then, Alison Johnstone MSP (Lothian, Scottish Green Party) has lodged the following parliamentary questions:

Question S4W-18470: To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds (a) on the health of mountain hare populations and (b) that is relevant to assessing whether mountain hare are in a favourable conservation status.

Question S4W-18471: To ask the Scottish Government what conservation action is planned to protect mountain hare populations.

Question S4W-18472: To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds on the number of mountain hare that are culled annually and the impact of this on golden eagles (a) dispersing from, (b) likely to be recruited to or (c) nesting in Natura sites for which golden eagles are a designated interest.

Question S4W-18473: To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds on a link between the culling of mountain hare and the incidence of (a) louping ill or (b) other diseases transmitted by sheep ticks or other hare parasites to red grouse.

Question S4W-18474: To ask the Scottish Government how it controls the culling of mountain hare.

Question S4W-18475: To ask the Scottish Government how many applications it has (a) received and (b) granted for the culling of mountain hare since 2011, broken down by (i) year, (ii) purpose and (iii) area.

Expected answer date is 4th December 2013.

This is the second time this year that parliamentary questions have been asked about mountain hares, although last time the focus was more on the use of snares to trap/kill the hares (see here).

There’ll be a great deal of interest in the answers to this latest batch.

Petition to name golden eagle as Scotland’s national bird

3NRIF00ZRSPB Scotland has launched an on-line petition to have the golden eagle named as Scotland’s national bird.

Capitalising on the golden eagle being recently voted as the nation’s favourite animal (in SNH’s ‘Big Five’ Campaign), the RSPB is hoping that Scottish Ministers will formally designate the species as a national symbol and thus show their commitment to protecting this bird from the appalling persecution it continues to suffer.

An RSPB spokeswoman said:

The petition urges ministers to formally designate the species as a national symbol, placing it alongside the lion rampant, Saltire and Scottish thistle as emblems of the country. There are currently just 431 pairs of golden eagles in the whole of Scotland. Owing to centuries of persecution, this most charismatic of birds has been almost entirely confined to the more remote areas of the country, such as the mountains and glens of the west coast and on the western isles, with numbers held at artificially low levels and many territories vacant. Its restricted range and tendency to favour the more remote and dramatic areas has made it become a coveted sight for any visitor who appreciates Scotland’s magnificent wildlife spectacles. But now RSPB Scotland is pressing for the adoption of the golden eagle as Scotland’s national bird, helping to raise its profile, turn around its fortunes and see it return once again to its former range thus increasing the chances of a sighting for visitors and local people.”

Stuart Housden, Head of RSPB Scotland said:

It is a stirring symbol of strength and pride, qualities well befitting to a modern Scotland and its people. 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland – a period where the Scottish Government is celebrating our most impressive natural heritage. What better legacy can we provide for this initiative than to officially designate the eagle as Scotland’s national bird and join together for its future conservation? It would formally recognise the place this species has unofficially occupied in our culture for many centuries, and show our commitment and desire to protect and conserve it, and our wider national heritage, for generations to come.”

Please consider signing the petition – if nothing else, it will put further pressure on those who continue to shoot, poison and trap this species. Signing is easy – it takes seconds – the closing date is 6th December 2013. Please sign here.

Two marsh harriers and a red kite poisoned: late appeal for info

The RSPB and two county police forces have put out an appeal for information following the discovery of a poisoned pair of Marsh Harriers and a Red Kite.

According to the press release (see here), the two breeding Marsh Harriers were discovered in April on land adjacent to the RSPB’s Nene Washes Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. The Red Kite was discovered in Old Leake, Boston, Lincolnshire in May. Toxicology analyses showed that all three birds had been poisoned with the banned pesticide Aldicarb.

So here we are again, a ridiculously late appeal for information, seven and six months respectively after the birds had been found. Further more, according to the press release, the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) who funds the toxicology testing programme has already declared the two cases closed!

It seems there is more to these cases than meets the eye. Rumour has it that these cases have not been thoroughly investigated due to a lack of police resources. If that’s true, then why weren’t other agencies drafted in to help? Where’s all the much-heralded ‘partnership working’?

And why the bloody hell are appeals for information still coming so late? Every single bloody time it’s the same old story. What’s the point? Why is it so difficult to get these investigations right? That will be a question we’ll be posing in due course (and you can, too) to the newly-appointed ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) lead on Wildlife and Rural Crime, Chief Constable Simon Prince (from Wales). Watch this space.

In the meantime, we had a look at the quarterly poisoning results published by the CRD’s Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (see here). Have a look and see how many confirmed poisoning cases you can spot in England and Wales between Jan – June 2013 that have not been publicised in the media.

It seems the influence of The Untouchables spreads far and wide throughout these isles.

Here are the two poisoned Marsh Harriers

Marsh Harriers poisoned Nene 2013

And here is the poisoned Red Kite

RK poisoned Lincoln 2013

The gruesome fate of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors

Following yesterday’s article on the reported ‘massive declines’ of mountain hares on Deeside grouse moors, and the game-shooting industry’s response that mountain hares are ‘thriving’ on Scottish grouse moors (see here), one of our contributors has sent in the following photos, taken on a well-known Angus grouse moor between 2011-2012.

The awful, bloody truth.

If you are disgusted by these images and are concerned about SNH’s long-term failure to implement an effective monitoring scheme to protect this species, you might want to email SNH’s mammal expert, Rob Raynor and ask him what measures he intends to introduce, and when. Email:





Poison awareness posters appear in Leadhills village

Leadhills village in South Lanarkshire has been saturated with a series of ‘poison awareness’ leaflets and posters, alerting the local community to the discovery of highly toxic (and illegal) poison on the surrounding hills earlier this year (see here). The poster warns the public of the dangers of coming in to contact with this poison (Carbofuran) and also provides contact telephone numbers (police, SSPCA and RSPB) if anyone finds any more or has information about who might be putting out the poison.

Is this community initiative the work of a local estate? Or the local police? Or the local council? Or PAW Scotland? Nope, none of the above. It’s the handiwork of Project Raptor.

It’ll be interesting to see how long the posters and leaflets remain on display. Last year we blogged about the mysterious disappearance of another sign at Leadhills (see here).

PR Leadhills flyer


“Massive declines” of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors

mountain hares deeside 2010Here we go again.

A leading ecologist has accused Scottish landowners of causing “massive declines” of mountain hares on grouse moors around Deeside, Aberdeenshire.

In an excellent article published in The Herald today (and on journalist Rob Edwards’ website, see here), Dr Adam Watson claims that what is going on is a ‘national scandal’ and accuses SNH of failing in their duty to protect this important keystone species.

To counter this argument, Tim Baynes of Scottish Land and Estates claims that even though thousands of hares are destroyed each year, this was ‘less than 10% of the population’.

That’s an interesting argument, especially given the uncertainty of the actual population size of this species. The most up-to-date UK population estimate appears to have been made in a 1995 publication (Harris et al 1995). The estimate given then was in the region of 350,000 individuals, with 99% of these living in Scotland. However, the authors recognised that this figure may be either overestimated or underestimated by a whopping 50%!

It would appear that Baynes is basing his (flawed) ‘no-impact’ argument on an SNH-commissioned study that showed at least 25,000 mountain hares were culled on Scottish estates during 2006/2007. That study demonstrated no impact on the hare’s distribution (at that time) but was not able to determine whether there was an impact on the hare’s abundance (which is the key point when estimating population size!) because no reliable measures of estimating abundance for this species were available.

What Baynes also failed to mention was that the 25,000 culled only related to information provided by 90 estates; a further 102 estates (68 driven grouse estates and 34 walked-up grouse estates) did not provide any information to the survey, so the actual figure culled was likely to be considerably higher.

It’s also ludicrous for Baynes to be referring to a (fairly dodgy) population estimate from 1995 – that was 18 years ago! The latest information, just published by the BTO, suggests a 43% decline in mountain hares between 1995-2012 (see here).

Talking of ludicrous, Alex Hogg of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association is also quoted in The Herald article, claiming that gamekeepers have ‘no alternative but to suppress the numbers of mountain hares on grouse moors because of the dangers of Louping Ill Virus, which can infect humans’. However, here is an article that suggests humans are “rarely” affected by the Louping Ill Virus! And here is an article about a scientific publication that suggests there is “no compelling evidence base” that culling mountain hares can stop the spread of Louping Ill Virus!

A tick-borne disease that seems to be of more concern to humans is Lyme Disease. And what spreads Lyme Disease? Pheasants, amongst other species (see here). Given Mr Hogg’s concern for human health, can we expect to see him advocating a moratorium on the release of 43 million pheasants, per year, into our countryside?

The crux of The Herald article is that SNH is failing in its statutory duty to protect the mountain hare. This is a European-protected species and thus SNH has a duty to ensure the species’ conservation status is maintained and that their populations are managed sustainably. Given previous concerns about the species’ conservation status, the Scottish Government recently introduced a closed season for mountain hares as part of the WANE Act (see here), although it’s hard to judge just how effective that will be given the lack of monitoring and enforcement.

To be fair to SNH, they have previously tried to establish an effective monitoring programme for the mountain hare. They commissioned several reports on the subject between 2005-2010 but these reports all recommended a clear need to develop ‘reliable, robust and easily implemented survey methods’. As far as we can tell, nearly four years later they still haven’t done so and according to Dr Watson’s findings of “massive declines” of mountain hares in Deeside, in addition to the BTO’s findings of a 43% decline between 1995-2012, it would appear that SNH need to prioritise their monitoring scheme with some urgency. Asking moorland managers to ‘talk to us if they are thinking of culling hares in large numbers’ (see SNH quote in The Herald) is not going to stand up as evidence when SNH are finally taken to court for breaching European conservation laws.

The photograph shows a pile of mountain hare carcasses on Deeside in 2010 (from Rob Edward’s website).