Ross-shire Massacre: frustration grows at lack of information

RK4The investigation into the mass poisoning of 22 birds of prey near Conon Bridge, Ross-shire in March is apparently continuing, although the police have been reluctant to provide much information since the well-publicised raids they carried out at various properties almost a month ago. The only news to emerge has been the ever-increasing death toll, currently standing at 16 red kites and 6 buzzards.

They’ve said that 12 of the dead birds have been confirmed as poisoned, but that information was given weeks ago – they still haven’t confirmed whether the other 10 birds were poisoned.

And nor have they released information about the poison(s) used to kill these birds. The purpose of withholding this information is not known – the police will probably say it’s a tactical approach, but the poisoner will know what was used and the poison itself will have been hidden away weeks ago. Even if a stash is now found, the chances of linking it directly to the Conon Bridge poisonings are zero because of the level of evidence required to secure a conviction. For example, unless the poisoner was seen placing the poisoned baits, and the birds were seen eating those poisoned baits, a strong evidential link cannot be established. The only possible conviction would be for a ‘possession’ offence, unless the poisoner actually admits to placing the poisoned baits, and that is hardly likely.

What’s frustrating is that here, yet again, we have an incident where deadly toxic poison(s) has been set out in the countryside, putting at risk any animal and human that comes in to contact with it, and yet the police don’t think the general public should be told what the poison is.

This lack of public information has even been picked up by a global listserv used by the health community. The following appeared on the listserv the day after the BBC announced that the current death toll had reached 22 birds:

The issue of this many birds of prey or carrion being found dead indeed smacks of a toxin. However, multiple articles all say the birds were poisoned and they are investigating. Their investigation has included DNA testing of meat to determine what type of meat was used. These investigators say they need to get insecticide tests performed, yet not a single article mentioned if that has been done or what the outcome was, or if the test was pending.

While this number of birds being found dead is of concern, and the number of avian deaths seems to be climbing, the lack of testing, and/or the lack of accurate reporting remains of equal or greater concern“.

Meanwhile, dog walkers in the area are now avoiding their usual routes for fear of being exposed to poison, according to an STV report (see here).

Also in this article is another interview with farmer Ewan MacDonald, whose farm properties were searched by police last month. Mr MacDonald continues to call for a ‘working group’ comprising police and local farmers “to find out what has caused this devastation“.

Ironically, at the end of the article is an interview with Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse on the launch of a revised guide to the use of forensics in tackling wildlife crime. This latest edition is a very welcome tool, especially if it helps investigators to preserve crucial forensic evidence from the crime scene. But the irony comes from the statement made by the reporter at the end of the video:

“The message they’re [wildlife groups] getting today is that Scotland is a world leader in using science to bring those responsible [for wildlife crime] to justice“.

Er, no, Scotland is most definitely not a world leader in bringing wildlife criminals to justice, as evidenced by an embarrassing 7.3 conviction rate for raptor crime (see here) and 32 dead or ‘missing’ eagles over an 8-year period with zero prosecutions (see here). Scotland could be a world leader, if policing and enforcement measures matched the skills and expertise of the forensic scientists, but we’re still a long way from being able to claim anything of the sort.

Previous blogs on the Ross-shire Massacre here

Download the new Wildlife Crime Forensics Guide: Wildlife Crime Forensic Guide v2 2014

Buzzard shot dead in North Yorkshire

North Yorks Police logoNo surprise to learn that another buzzard has been shot dead in North Yorkshire, a county with one of the worst records for raptor persecution in the UK (e.g. see here).

The latest victim was found near Soar Spring Wood, between Wathgill Road and Reeth Road, Leyburn, on Easter Sunday. It was killed after being blasted with a shotgun.

North Yorks Police are appealing for info – see here.

The RSPB is suggesting that a clandestine campaign against buzzards is being carried out in the county and they’re calling for custodial sentences for anyone convicted of this offence (see here).

NFUS publishes its proposed sea eagle action plan

Back in January this year we blogged about how the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) was calling on the government to introduce [unspecified] ‘control measures’ against white-tailed eagles (see here).

Several meetings later, the NFUS has now published its proposed ‘Sea Eagle Action Plan’. Some may consider this an ill-timed report given the public outrage at the recent mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards on farmland in Ross-shire, swiftly followed by the news that the first white-tailed eagle to fledge in East Scotland for ~200 years has mysteriously vanished in a well-known persecution hot-spot in Aberdeenshire. Still, it’s not the first time farmers have ignored public opinion – in January they dismissed the results of a poll (that they had organised) which showed that 92% of respondents were against control measures for sea eagles (see here), and then there was the badger cull…

Their latest proposed action plan has been published on the NFUS website. The first noticeable flaw is the photograph they’ve used to announce the publication: it most definitely isn’t a sea eagle! An inability to identify the species you’re accusing of killing thousands of lambs isn’t a good start.

NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan

The action plan itself suggests several recommendations, and these are apparently based on the results of another NFUS survey recently completed by a small selection (103) of NFUS members. The survey results are fascinating.

66% of them claimed their farm business had been negatively affected by sea eagles although the report doesn’t provide any quantitative evidence to support those claims.

Respondents were asked whether it was adult or juvenile eagles that were having an impact – the results varied, although the report doesn’t provide any quantitative evidence to support the claims (and judging by the NFUS’ inability to distinguish between a golden and a white-tailed eagle, you have to question the credibility of these answers).

Bizarrely, the respondents were asked for their perceptions of the RSPB, SNH and FCS. Unsurprisingly, the RSPB and SNH weren’t looked upon favourably. It’s not clear why this question was included, other than to stir up some tension between the stakeholders.

The respondents were asked to document the scale of the impacts (i.e. how many lambs were lost per year to sea eagles) and here we have the first sign of some data, with a reported average of 40 lambs per year per negatively affected respondent. However, look a bit closer and you’ll see that these purported losses have been attributed to sea eagles without explaining how losses to other factors (such as weather, disease) were eliminated as the cause of death.

WTE Mike WatsonRespondents were then asked about the impact of sea eagles on other biodiversity. This is the point when you realise, if you hadn’t already, that this survey is nothing more than an outlet for some seriously ingrained prejudices dressed up to look like a scientific report. (It’s got graphs, it must be scientific, right?!).

According to the respondents, the negative effect of sea eagles on other biodiversity ranges from ‘very negative’, ‘negative’ [anyone care to elaborate on the criteria to distinguish between ‘very negative’ and ‘negative’?!], and ‘very positive’, while others ‘did not know’. One person said there was no impact. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t provide any quantitative data to support these claims although it does say that qualitative data (i.e. anecdotal remarks) were given at a couple of meetings and included reported impacts on golden eagles, mountain hares, lapwings, curlews, black grouse, otters and rabbits). Hmm. Recent scientific studies have shown that sea eagles in western Scotland are not impacting on golden eagles at nest sites (here) nor for food (see here). We’re not aware of any studies that have examined a perceived impact of sea eagles on mountain hares, lapwings, curlews, black grouse, otters or rabbits.

There’s another section on the impact of sea eagles on the farmers’ ’emotional well-being’ (see Annex 2 for responses) and a section on the ‘positive opportunities’ that the sea eagles provide (80% of the negatively impacted respondents didn’t think there were any).

And finally, the farmers were asked for other comments on sea eagles and the management scheme (see Annex 3). These included:

“I think S.N.H. and R.S.P.S. [sic] should be prosecuted for cruelty”;

“Have nothing positive to say about sea eagles whatsoever”;

“This is against my human rights to be subjected to such fear on a daily basis”;

“It is vital for individual businesses to be able to apply for a licence to shoot rogue birds”;

“Sea eagles numbers need to be reduced to a manageable level quickly or culled completely”;

“The situation is out of control in many places, far too many raptors and pine martens and heading for 100 ravens”;

“They should not be hear [sic]”;

“I have no problem with sea eagles”.

The report’s recommendations seem to boil down to the NFUS wanting SNH to publicly admit that sea eagles take live lambs (they’ve actually already done this in several of their reports, see below), wanting to get NFUS reps on the Sea Eagle Management Team (this is a group of senior scientists and sea eagle experts who have overseen the Reintroduction Projects), wanting SNH to make more money available for sheep management measures, and wanting the establishment of a long-term management plan for sea eagles to be put in place (they don’t actually specify what they mean by ‘management plan’ but you can probably guess).

SNH has already said ‘no’ to a sea eagle control scheme (see here). There have also been a number of government-funded studies looking at the impact of sea eagles on lambs (see here and here for the now infamous Gairloch study, and here for a study from Mull).

The government’s Sea Eagle Management Scheme (which provided payments to help sheep farmers reduce conflict with sea eagles) ended in summer 2013. According to the Environment Minister, a new scheme is expected to be launched in Spring 2014 following discussions with all stakeholders (see here).

Download the NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan: NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan March 2014

Sea Eagle photo by Mike Watson