The Untouchables strike again: yet another illegally-killed hen harrier

HH Laurie CampbellHere we go again….a female hen harrier has been found dead on moorland near Muirkirk in south west Scotland.

The body was found on Tuesday evening close to a nest containing two live chicks. The cause of death? Police Scotland aren’t saying, surprise surprise.

Det Inspector Graham Duncan of Kilmarnock CID said: “Whilst at this time we cannot divulge how the bird was killed, we do believe it was the result of a criminal act and we need to establish why this has happened“.

For god’s sake, why can’t they say how it was killed? It was probably shot – what’s the point of hiding it, other than to appease an influential landowner? They’ll probably tell us it’s for ‘tactical’ purposes, but they know fine well, as we all do, that the chance of anyone being brought to justice for this crime is zero.

It’s just another example of what appears to be one massive cover-up job.

And what’s that about needing to establish why it’s happened? Is he for real? Perhaps he’d like to read the following article, published in the Herald in 2008(!!) about the illegal killing of hen harriers in the Muirkirk area:

Saturday 22 November 2008

‘Pathetic’ response to disappearing hen harriers: Government failing to stop landowners’ illegal killings.

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor, Herald Scotland

One of Scotland’s premier birds of prey is facing almost terminal decline because government measures meant to protect it from persecution are failing.

The hen harrier, which used to be a familiar feature of the moorlands, is disappearing so fast that experts fear for its future, and have castigated the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), for its “pathetic” response.

Scottish environment minister Michael Russell has said he is “horrified” by the decline. SNH has defended itself by promising renewed action to crack down on wildlife crime and encourage better behaviour by landowners.

The plight of the hen harrier is nowhere better illustrated than across a vast swathe of southwest Scotland between Kilmarnock, New Cumnock and the M74. The area, known as Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands, was declared a Special Protection Area in 2003 because of the richness of its hen harrier population.

In the 1990s the area supported 29 breeding females as part of one of the largest populations in Britain. By 2004, however, the number of breeding pairs had dropped to 21. The latest counts have found no more than 14 pairs.

Worse are the statistics for the number of young that the birds have successfully managed to fledge. The figure has plummeted from 44 in 2004 to just five in 2008.

Across Scotland, the number of home ranges occupied by hen harriers has fallen from 417 in 2004 to 264 in 2007, and the number of successfully fledged young from 630 to 383.

The figures were provided to the Sunday Herald by Scottish Raptor Study Groups, a network of dedicated experts who regularly monitors birds of prey across the country. They have few doubts over who is to blame.

Kenneth Sludden, secretary of the South Strathclyde Raptor Study Group, ascribes the “alarming” and “almost terminal” decline in Muirkirk and North Lowther mainly to “a concerted cull of raptors by gamekeepers, condoned by factors and landowners”.

He pointed out that SNH had a statutory duty to protect the birds in the area, and accused it of abjectly failing to do so. “The response from SNH management is cosmetic, condescending and pathetically inadequate,” he said.

According to Sludden, landowners were paid £100,000 or more of taxpayers’ money to help conserve hen harrier habitat. But he said the payments were having little effect, and that the monitoring of the work they were meant to fund was “haphazard, and at worse non-existent”.

Meetings with landowners had “descended into farce” after one apologised for arriving late because he had been “shooting a couple of hen harriers”, Sludden said. A gamekeeper also allegedly expressed hatred for the birds, describing them as “rats with wings”.

SNH’s local area manager, Ross Johnston, said he shared Sludden’s concern about the drop in the number of hen harriers. He promised to work with all those involved to develop a “local action plan” for Muirkirk and North Lowther.

“This will focus on raising awareness of the issues, funding positive action to help the hen harriers, carrying out surveillance, and conducting crime-analysis work and enforcement,” he said.

Environment minister Michael Russell said: “I was horrified to hear about the apparent decline in hen harrier numbers at Muirkirk and would be interested to hear more details about potential reasons as to why this has happened.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) pointed out that across Scotland the hen harrier population was significantly lower than habitat and food supply suggested it ought be. “Human interference, especially illegal killing, is known to be the main factor causing this,” said RSPB Scotland’s Duncan Orr-Ewing.

“The Scottish government, SNH, the police and other agencies must redouble their efforts to identify and prosecute the culprits – while encouraging good land management practice.”

So there we have it. Six years on, it’s the same old story, in the same old area, and absolutely NOTHING has changed. The current Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, is just as appalled as Mike Russell was, and yet…..and yet…and yet…it’s the same old platitudes, same old promises, and the killing goes on and The Untouchables are still evading justice.

Great, isn’t it?

Article about the latest killing can be read on the BBC here.

If you want to make a stand against the illegal killing of hen harriers, please consider signing this e-petition to get driven grouse shooting banned (sign here) and make plans to attend one of the public protests against hen harrier persecution taking place on 10th August (see here).

Photo of the hen harrier by Laurie Campbell.

26 thoughts on “The Untouchables strike again: yet another illegally-killed hen harrier”

  1. Good that chicks were saved, would it be possible for the chicks to be put into another Harriers nest. It has been done with Peregrine chicks before.

  2. Don’t assume it was shot, they have been clubbed to death at Muirkirk. SNH’ are not there to protect hen harriers they are there to shovel cash into the wheel barrows of the landowners (who laugh and accept the no strings donations). Can you imagine what a graph of breeding success against money paid looks like……the two lines will go in opposite directions. The Muirkirk area is awash with gamekeepers, retired gamekeepers and gamekeepers “hangers-on”. Old habits die hard and a lot can be done for the sake of a free pint.

  3. As you say RPS nothing will be done. The police bosses, judiciary, Paul Wheelhouse and the whole government couldn’t give a damn! It is only us who are daring to take on the untouchables, unfortunately they, at present, are most definatly the winners, and are being given the green light to just go on slaughtering our – so called – protected wildlife.

  4. Is it not the time to call a forum of all animal welfare and conservation of wildlife groups, to set up the Front that will continually and determinedly challenge the regime that has been complicit in keeping our birds of prey and other creatures, under deadly threat for so long.

    Those who have appeared the villains, certain unscrupulous landowners and their agents of death, the gamekeepers, have to be finally brought to justice and punished for what they have been doing to Scottish wildlife. The problem is the obstacles of the attitude of the Police, the Fiscal Service and the Judiciary, being reluctant to really make examples of those implicated in the poisoning, shooting and snaring of our birds of prey. The SNH, as we suspect, seems to be in thrall to the powerful influence of those who own the Scottish landscape. The response from those in a political position to solve these crimes, is contemptible.

    We do have among our ranks of those concerned, some people who still live in a twilight world of thinking that one should have faith in the regime that has condoned this slaughter of our birds of prey. They have held back progress in taking the whole system to bits and getting the right people installed who will not be cowed by the power of the landowners and others. In a progressive country, professing all sorts of concern on a multitude of humane issues, we seem to be unable to excise the causes of this dilemma. We are in a divisive political situation this year in Scotland, and no matter the result, the same old mob will make sure it keeps its long-established grip on what lives and dies on our landscape.

    I also want a complete inventory of how much in grants has been given to the owners of shooting estates and other landowners, who practice the shooting of game birds. How much of what we read about these people doing great work to conserve species and safeguard native woodland, is really genuine, or just a gesture or palliative, to fool the good and gullible. We have the potential muscle to take on a eventually remove such threats to our wildlife from our country, by diminishing their role in the governance of our country. If we do not arm wrestle the meek among us, and get to grips with this cynical killing, we may as well pack up and just let them finish off those parts of Nature they want rid of. It is fast approaching that level of species numbers among our birds of prey, that there will be no genetically viable numbers to sustain a healthy population of each species.

    Why has no one started an international petition via Avaaz or 38 Degree, to shame this country’s “elite”, as has been done with many wildlife issues world wide, and has saved many creatures from further persecution. Scotland should not escape the Searchlight exposing what is wrong with the management of our countryside. Let us get the determined team together and set the wheels in motion of making this a grand campaign to root out the useless and corrupt in positions of power, and I think we will be helping a lot of other causes in the process!

    1. Please start a petition – just cut and paste Mark Avery’s wording. Either on 38 degrees or using the Scottish parliaments petitions committee system.

  5. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the systematic destruction of this particular species even in these ‘modern’ times. This is a targeted hate campaign being carried out by a small number of very powerful people, and has the potential to drive this species to extinction in the UK. We all know they’d love nothing more than to see an end to hen harriers in this country. These are the small number that are found, but the statistics overwhelmingly speak for themselves. Yet all the gamekeeping industry has to do is deny these numbers have anything to do with illegal persecution by gamekeepers, and people just accept that.The above statement from the police in their need to ‘establish why this has happened’ just highlights the extent to which they don’t give a damn. At the moment those carrying out these crimes are truly untouchable.

    I have signed Mark Avery’s petition and shared it as widely as I can. The majority of people are still blissfully unaware of this problem though (or they just don’t care about it). Mr Hart above is right – a petition on Avaaz or 38 Degrees would be a good place to start. And I’m going to follow up on Andrew Blake’s suggestion (in the comments in the previous article) of suggesting this story to Ch4’s Despatches (I think the BBC are too deep in the government’s pockets to be interested in exposing the truth behind the game shooting industry, so I won’t bother emailing them). We need greater awareness and numbers behind this campaign. We need to heap pressure on the Scottish government, who claim to care so much about our natural heritage, and let them know that people won’t tolerate this abuse of our wildlife. They need to see that this issue is damaging to Scotland’s reputation, and that the game shooting industry as it is at the moment is a blight and an embarrassment in a modern country.

  6. The law on killing these birds is mostly a message as prosecution is difficult. You complain about money spent to conserve the habitat but taking that away is counter-productive. Solution is not easy but complaining is! Please give us something which can achieve a decent result.

    1. Sorry Ian, but you have swallowed the keepers nonsense. Hen harriers do not need managed grouse moor to do well. They do best on “neglected” moorland where there is a better diversity of habitat and prey. Banning driven grouse will be very good because the habitat will improve and keepers will stop killing them.

      1. Ian is right. The way the current agricultural economy operates means that most upland farmers cannot afford to “neglect” their land. To reduce grazing levels, in order to see any improvement in the habitat for harriers, requires special subsidy, eg grants from SNH. It is very easy to complain, year after year after year …. I do it too …. but until the legal system allows the sort of things that Dave Dick points out below then the situation is unlikely to improve. Harriers are still being killed in the Muirkirk area even though there has been hardly any (possibly zero) driven grouse shooting in East Ayrshire for probably a decade.

        1. I can’t speak for Scotland but I can for England where small tenant upland farmers are desperate for the grants you mention to keep them in the hills and a lot of them love to see the wildlife on the hills – hen harriers are no threat to them. They have to fight the landlords who don’t see the grants as ‘profit for gone’ for reducing sheep which they are supposed to be but a means by which they can up the rents. As far as I am aware there are no breeding hen harriers in England this year but I am not involved with their protection.

  7. The gamekeeping mafia behind this situation continue to act with impunity. The Scottish governments response is grossly inadequate to the extent that it may be time to get the EU involved in this situation in terms of cutting state supports for shooting estates etc.

  8. It would go a long way if the RSPB would ask there million plus members to sign Mark Averys petition,instead they post pictures of themselves at the Hen Harrier watch in the Forest of Bowland and hold classes with student gamekeepers to try and change attitudes towards the Hen Harrier, when will they realise that landowners of grouse shoots will never accept the Hen Harrier.

    1. I once knew a chap who was invited to give a lecture to trainee gamekeepers at Thurso college. He put up a picture of a harrier and turned towards it to point out some detail. When he turned back half the class were targeting the bird with pretend guns . They are beyond redemption.

  9. The usual outrage shown by this blog and everyone’s comments is understandable and commendable….but if any of you out there think that this systematic killing started as late as 2008, then you are very wide of the mark. even just considering the Muirkirk area on its own, there have been regular harrier killings since the 1980s….yes, thats 30 years ago..and of course these killings were reported to the “authorities”, including the police, at that time and ever since. ..The problems of inaction and inability to do something here are way beyond some tinkering with the crime follow up…or God help us, payments to landowners..

    We need…1.allowance of surveillance footage in wildlife crimes as evidence in scottish courts..2.Powers to follow up wildlife crime for the SSPCA..3.a ban on all driven grouse shooting….Anything less is not just ineffective, its tantamount to standing back and doing nothing.

    1. Dave, I’m interested in the legal aspects – can you point me to the case(s) where surveillance evidence was not allowed, and on what basis? I used to work in a job where we regularly used surveillance evidence to secure convictions, and I’m wondering what makes wildlife crime different.

      1. There is a case mentioned on this website some time ago. I recall commenting on it, but not when (it was a while ago). The Sheriff dismissed evidence because it was obtained covertly, if I recall correctly.
        A number of us have asked the Sc. Gov. to do something about this.
        It is a long haul going through all the posts to find the case.
        You could email and ask.

        1. I’ve seen mention of that before as well (and asked). Unless it was an appeal case, a previous Sherriff’s decision is usually not binding on subsequent cases. So I’m curious as to whether this was a Regulation of Investigatory Powers matter or a Human Rights issue, or just a common law of evidence one.

  10. We’re also forgetting that the male bird from this pair has most probably suffered a similar fate, and been blasted from the sky, but we also have a case here where someone (probably a gamekeeper), has killed the adult birds and deliberately left two defenceless chicks to starve to death, or be predated.

    It wasn’t that long ago that we were being told by various people with a vested interest in the shooting industry, that grouse moors were fantastic places for Hen Harriers. Judging from recent reports, that doesn’t appear to be the case. More misinformation from the liars and deceivers of the pro-shooting lobby.

  11. I’ve been told that there is now only one employed keeper in the whole of the Muirkirk area, plus one ex-keeper, plus a village idiot type who has been known to go to harrier nests in the past and who still hunts for lapwing eggs to eat. It can’t be that difficult for the Muirkirk locals to work out who did this. That’s assuming it has indeed been criminal activity. Proving it is a totally different matter and that’s how the professional killers get away with it.

  12. “And Wheelhouse fiddled as Rome burned” how much more of our “PROTECTED?” wildlife has to be persecuted before this man acts! there’s something completely rotten in a society were the rich get huge grants to subsidise a minority sport that is corrupt to the core when lowland farmers are going out of business because they cant afford the rising cost of feed for their animals, these grants need to go where they are most needed. shooting on these estates needs to be stopped until the natural balance of raptor numbers are restored, fishermen have to do this, were stocks are depleted they cant fish there until numbers have increased, same rules should apply to these estates.

    1. I totally agree, the problem is the people dishing out the money are the same people shooting grouse.

  13. I agree and echo the sentiments of all above. I am a recent discoverer of how bad this is after years of thinking Scotland was a haven for wildlife – yes really. I also feel as Mr Hart does that I can’t stand by and do nothing. Last week I wrote my nth email to my MSP and Mr Wheelhouse listing the latest series of outrages and asking him to respond on when he would use all the legal powers available. I do not expect a reply. This approach won’t work.
    I remember the case where there was video evidence of a gamekeeper clubbing crows to death in a trap designed for a few birds but holding over 14. It was horrific but the judge in the case ruled the evidence inadmissible as the person filming worked for a wildlife charity. Dave – this got quite a lot of publicity and air time on the BBC.

    Actually I think the BBC do more reporting than any other media source. Not saying its enough, but they do it. But they won’t rock the legal boat I don’t expect.
    I think we need a ban on driven shooting here, but that’s not going to solve cases like this.
    There is institutional ignorance and hatred out there is seems – the 24 year old gamekeeper in Dumfries [allegedly] killing a buzzard by stamping on it – beggars belief really.
    We have lots of blogs, lots of sites but no action. I’m not sure what to do but I know something has to be done – maybe we start a petition, but is it land, is it raptors, is it the police and the judiciary? Is it use of CAP payments and subsidies to underpin wildlife crime on an institutional scale?
    Would it would be better coming from a group with an established following?
    Maybe we should suggest the petition content and get it started. And maybe we start with raptor crime and demand some answers. We could start with Conon Bridge as it is so well known, then start to peel back the layers.


  14. Magpies ‘rats with wings’ but not Hen Harriers as they don’t compare this is a bit extremist and not a comment from a real sportsman and environmentalist

    1. Magpies “rats with wings “? I suppose we are meant to think of harriers as good predators and corvids as bad predators? why do we need to value one above the other, when they both have their place in the scheme of things? No real environmentalist would entertain such a statement, it shows an ignorance of basic ecology.- “sportsman and environmentalist” being a contradiction in terms of course.

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