New sea eagle ‘management plan’ on the cards

wte-mike-watsonIn January this year, the National Farmers’ Union (Scotland) called for ‘action’ against Scottish sea eagles, and although they weren’t explicit about what that ‘action’ might be, they did mention [unspecified] ‘control measures’ (see here).

SNH responded quite strongly by saying ‘no’ to control measures (see here).

In February, a former Crofting Commission rep said that “Nothing short of complete eradication will do” and that sea eagles “should be absolutely destroyed” (see here).

In May, NFUS launched its ‘Sea Eagle Action Plan’, which laid out the usual unsubstantiated accusations that sea eagles are responsible for a loss of biodiversity and have detrimental effects on golden eagles, mountain hares, lapwings, curlews, black grouse, otters and rabbits, and of course, sheep farming. For a species that they claimed to know so much about, it was quite surprising to see the front cover of their report – it was apparent they couldn’t even tell the difference between a golden and a white-tailed eagle (see here).

A couple of days ago, it was reported (sensibly here and here but with a hysteria-mongering headline here) that NFUS and SNH had signed a joint accord to work towards a new ‘Sea Eagle Management Scheme’. This will include a new scheme to start in Spring 2015 to compensate farmers and crofters for loss of stock to eagles (a continuation of a previous scheme) subject to funding approval, and the development of a new sea eagle ‘action plan’ to be published by September 2016 and implemented by March 2017.

Whilst it’s encouraging that NFUS and SNH have agreed to work cooperatively, we can’t help but be suspicious of the term ‘management scheme’. What does that mean, exactly? We often hear the term ‘well-managed grouse moor’ used to describe practices that include the systematic eradication of all predators, just so there are more grouse for the guns to kill. That’s not our definition of ‘well-managed’. The term ‘management’ was also used by DEFRA when it tried to implement its controversial ‘Buzzard Management Scheme’ a couple of years ago – in that case, ‘management’ meant removing buzzards so that there were more pheasants for the guns to kill.

Hmm. Hopefully the NFUS and SNH are not planning on ‘removing’ sea eagles as a ‘management’ strategy (the NFUS has previously suggested this could be an option). At least for now, the NFUS has stated that ‘management’ in this case does not mean shooting the eagles (see the BBC report).

The BBC’s report on the new accord does reveal some of the proposed management strategies. One of them is this:

‘Contractors will also be available, free of charge, to record incidents of eagle predation and to offer advice on how to scare away the birds’.

That doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well. The sea eagle  has extra special protection as it’s listed on Schedule 1A of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) – that means it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly harass this species at any time of year, not just when it’s close to or on its nest (see here). The NFUS and SNH will need to be very careful indeed if they’re planning on ‘scaring away’ sea eagles.

Thankfully, not everyone shares the NFUS’ view of sea eagles. The Mull Eagle Watch Project (based around the island’s thriving sea eagle population) has just been awarded VisitScotland’s prestigious 5 star Wildlife Experience rating for the third year running (see here). Congratulations to all involved.

White-tailed eagle photo by Mike Watson

Mountain hares massacred on Lammermuir grouse moors

Environmental journalist Rob Edwards has published a disturbing article today about the mass slaughter of between 1,500-1,700 mountain hares by landowners in the Lammermuir Hills (see here).

This industrial-scale killing of mountain hares is not restricted to grouse moors in the Lammermuirs. Last year we blogged about the scale of the killing on grouse moors in Aberdeenshire (see here) and also the Angus Glens (see here).


We encouraged blog readers to write to SNH to question them about their long-term failure to implement an effective monitoring scheme to help protect what is known to be a species under threat. They responded by saying they did not support “indiscriminate, large scale culls” of mountain hares but it was hard for them to regulate the practice because they hadn’t yet worked out how to count mountain hares and thus couldn’t say if these indiscriminate, large-scale culls were affecting the population as a whole (see here).

MSP Alison Johnstone (Lothian, Scottish Green Party) lodged a number of parliamentary questions asking the Government to state how it controls mountain hare culling and what conservation action was planned to protect the species. Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse responded by saying that SNH is still issuing licences to allow the killing of mountain hares outside of the closed season, and that SNH was still trying to figure out how to count mountain hares so the effect of the culls could be measured (see here).

One year on and the unregulated massacre continues.

In Rob Edwards’ latest article, a Scottish Government official said: “We do have concerns about the intensification of management on some driven grouse moors, especially if it is associated with unlawful activity“.

The article also says that SNH has the issue under review and a report is expected in December. We’ll be watching with great interest.

Case against gamekeeper George Mutch: part 9

scales of justiceCriminal proceedings continued on Wednesday with hearing #10 in the case against Scottish gamekeeper George Mutch, of Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire.

Mutch is pleading not guilty to a suite a charges relating to offences that are alleged to have taken place over two years ago, in August 2012. The charges relate to the illegal use of a trap for the purpose of taking or killing wild birds (goshawk and buzzard) and to the killing, injuring or taking of wild birds.

This case has dragged on and on and on (see here for background) and looks set to drag on even further. Yet another intermediate diet has now been set for 15th October…

Famous Derry peregrine found dead: poisoning suspected

peregrineA well-known peregrine has been found dead in the grounds of St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry and is suspected to have been poisoned.

The bird was found on Saturday and the carcass has been sent for toxicology tests.

BBC news story here


tagged_hen_harrier_bowland_2014_Jude LaneTwo of this year’s hen harrier chicks from Lancashire have ‘disappeared’.

Both were sat-tagged and both suffered ‘catastrophic tag failure’, according to the RSPB’s press release (here).

Dress it up all you like, as technological breakdown, possible predation or even starvation. We’ve heard it all before – every possible explanation except for the bleedin’ obvious – these birds have probably been illegally killed by those with a vested interest in driven grouse shooting, just like the hundreds, no thousands, of other ‘missing’ harriers in our uplands.

There will be some who’ll still say we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, we need to try and work with them, let’s all sit around the table and talk this through and find a way.

That’s laughable. The only way to deal with these bastards is to ban driven grouse shooting. Here’s the petition – please sign it.

Photo of one of the young Bowland hen harriers by Jude Lane.

Enough is enough

SOCThe latest edition of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club journal, Scottish Birds, dropped through the letterbox the other day. It contains an interesting article from Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland:

Raptor Persecution in Scotland: July 2014 update

The last article on the illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland written for Scottish Birds (33:1) appeared at the beginning of 2013, a year designated “The Year of Natural Scotland” by the Scottish Government.

The year had dawned with some optimism. For the fourth consecutive year, we had seen detected cases of illegal poisoning decline, and although, again it is important to reiterate that these only represent what was actually found, the apparent reduction in these indiscriminate crimes was welcomed universally. In saying that, yet again, a Golden Eagle was one of the victims, with a satellite-tagged bird found dead in Lochaber in March. But, the year ended with the news that a young pair of White-tailed Eagles from the east Scotland re-introduction scheme had built a nest in an Angus glen, the first breeding attempt in the east of the country for a hundred years.

Within days of the New Year beginning, however, it was discovered that the tree had been deliberately felled, and the nest destroyed. Realism returned quickly. A police investigation was launched. The site was five miles from the nearest public vehicle access. The tree felled was the only one in the whole plantation. Full cooperation from the estate where the nest was felled was assured. Surely it would be easy to identify the culprit?

No. The police requests for information were met with “no comment” responses across the board, from all those employed in the area concerned. While the right to decline to answer questions is enshrined in Scots Law, few would agree that this amounts to “full cooperation”. But, with no suspect identified, that would ostensibly mean the end of the investigation.

Of course, this sad example was not the first time this has happened. Indeed, when it comes to the persecution of raptors, no-one ever seems prepared to say a word that may assist in the identification of the perpetrator.

In late May 2013, two members of the public witnessed the organised “hunt” of a pair of hen harriers that had just started nest-building on an Aberdeenshire estate. For almost three hours, two armed men stalked the protected raptors, guided to where they were perched or flying by a third man, communicating with those on the hill by radio. As darkness fell, four shots rang out, and the men were seen and heard celebrating the killing of the male harrier.

Of course, the killer did not leave the body lying around to be found, but at least there were the two other individuals he was with, fully aware that he had committed the crime. Again the police investigated; again, nobody was prepared to identify the criminal. Again, a raptor killer escaped justice.

This latest case was one of several, including the killing of another harrier, the poisoning of a red kite and shooting of another; and the shooting of four buzzards in other incidents, which led to the Scottish Government Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, to announce further measures to combat these crimes. This included a review of sentences given for convicted wildlife criminals, and instructing Scottish Natural Heritage to implement a means of restricting the use of General Licences (a legislative tool that allows an “authorised person” to kill certain species under specific circumstances eg. allows a gamekeeper to shoot a carrion crow, that would otherwise be protected).

It is perhaps ironic, that just a few weeks earlier, the SOC had been part of a delegation that met with the Minister to handover a petition, officially endorsed by the Club, that contained almost 23,000 names, collected in just over two weeks, calling on him to ensure that Buzzards continued to have full legal protection, and to resist calls made by some in the game-shooting sector to allow licences to control them.

Sadly, despite the Minister’s robust comments, this did not seem to deter those who seem intent on continuing to kill some of our rarest protected birds with further shootings of a red kite and several buzzards. But, on a positive note, a second pair of white-tailed eagles did manage to breed in the east of Scotland, successfully fledging a male chick.

Unfortunately, The Year of Natural Scotland ended, as inauspiciously as it had began, with the poisoning of yet another golden eagle in the Angus glens, just the latest incident of a litany of recent raptor persecution cases in this area.

2014 has been no better, with the massacre of birds of prey on the Black Isle grabbing a great deal of media attention. Twenty-two dead raptors – six buzzards and sixteen red kites – were found dead in a small area of farmland near Conon Bridge. Thus far, fifteen of these have been confirmed to have been the victims of poisoning as a result of consuming bait laced with a banned pesticide.

This incident, quite rightly, attracted universal condemnation, lead to the establishment of a reward fund and resulted in an unprecedented public demonstration in Inverness town centre. But, it is important to put this case into context. It was highly unusual in that it was on lowland farmland, close to a town and in an area frequently and easily accessed by members of the public.

The vast majority of raptor persecution incidents still happen away from the public gaze, in upland areas where visitors are few and where the chances of evidence of the crimes being found is very slim. These incidents may not be seen, the bodies may not be found, but the evidence is clear time and time again – large swathes of Scotland’s uplands managed intensively for driven grouse shooting continue to see virtually no raptors breeding successfully.

It is for this reason that RSPB Scotland is now calling for a robust system of licencing for grouse moors. The grouse-shooting industry has had decades to put its house in order, but has singularly failed to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with protected birds of prey. Licenses should have sanctions for wrongdoers, with repeat offenders losing their license and thus the right to shoot all gamebirds for set periods. Estates that do practise sustainable management, and obey the law should have nothing to fear.

The one light that had shone from the gloom of 2013 was that first white-tailed eagle chick to fly from a nest in east Scotland for 200 years. It thrived and survived the challenges of its first winter. But that light too was extinguished, when the satellite-tagged bird “disappeared” on a grouse moor in upper Donside. At the same location, four tagged golden eagles have similarly vanished. The only eagle body recovered confirmed it had died due to illegal poisoning.

Enough is enough.

Full reference: Thomson, I. (2014). Raptor persecution in Scotland: July 2014 update. Scottish Birds 34(3): 232-233.

Ross-shire Massacre: six months on

rk5It’s been (just over) six months since 22 raptors were poisoned in a single incident at Conon Bridge in Ross-shire.

So far, we know that 16 of those birds (12 red kites + 4 buzzards) were killed by ingesting “an illegally-held poisonous substance”. We know that the name of the poison has been redacted from official government documents in the public domain. We know that nobody has been arrested.

That, in a nutshell, is about the sum total of the ‘official’ information that is available about one of the most high-profile wildlife crimes in recent years.

Isn’t that amazing? Six months on and that’s all there is?

However, if you’d been sitting in Lecture Marquee #3 at the Rutland Birdfair on Saturday 16th August, you’d have heard that the poison used to kill all those birds was Carbofuran, and that the perpetrator is known. Indeed, the (alleged) perpetrator was virtually named and anyone sitting in that marquee who had any local knowledge of Conon Bridge would know exactly who was being implicated.

It was an astonishing talk delivered by Sir John Lister-Kaye, who introduced himself as a Vice-president of RSPB. It was astonishing both in the level of detail about the case that was delivered, but also in the level of inaccuracy about raptor persecution in general. For someone with Lister-Kaye’s credentials, the content of that talk left our jaws hanging open.

Given the wholly inaccurate statements he made about raptor persecution in general (including a claim that Carbofuran could be used under licence to treat seed crops (!!) and that raptor killing in Scotland has never really been widespread until very recently and then only as the landowners’ angry backlash following the introduction of vicarious liability), his statements about the Ross-shire Massacre need to be treated with caution.

Nevertheless, whilst he deserves to be pulled up on his shoddy research skills, he deserves credit for standing up in that marquee and giving more information in 20 minutes than Police Scotland has managed in six months.

Previous blogs about the Ross-shire Massacre here

Benyon meets the raptors on his Scottish grouse moor

Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller (the guy who last year produced the image of a giant hen harrier carrying off a Range Rover – see here) has produced a new piece entitled: Monarchs of the Glen (Richard Benyon MP has an unexpected meeting on his grouse moor with some raptors).

Benyon by Deller

Some of you may remember we recently blogged about the discovery of a Carbofuran-poisoned raven on Benyon’s Scottish grouse moor back in 2009 (see here). We remarked on the lack of publicity about this discovery, especially as Benyon went on to serve as the DEFRA Minister who refused to criminalise the possession of Carbofuran in England, who decided there was no need to introduce vicarious liability in England, who applauded the ‘wonderful work of gamekeepers’, who was in charge when the controversial ‘buzzard management’ trial was proposed (and then quickly withdrawn), and who was in charge when a licence was issued to a gamekeeper with a previous conviction for poisoning offences to allow him to remove buzzard nests and eggs in order to protect his pheasants.

We’ve asked Benyon several times on Twitter whether he was informed about the discovery of the poisoned raven on his estate and if so, when he was told. He hasn’t responded. Perhaps Deller knows something we don’t!

Sat-tagged Montagu’s harrier ‘disappears’ in Norfolk

Montys Willam J S WhiteA three-year-old satellite-tagged Montagu’s harrier called ‘Mo’ has ‘disappeared’ in Norfolk.

The bird was one of three sat-tagged adults being monitored as part of an RSPB study on migration routes. The project featured on The One Show last night. The two other tagged harriers have already left the UK and are in Africa.

Mo was known to have left a roost site close to Great Bircham in Norfolk on 8th August. There have been no further signals and it is suspected she has been killed and her sat tag destroyed.

Tellingly, one of the Dutch researchers who had fitted the three tags said: “Since 2005 we have tagged 58 Montagu’s harriers [in mainland Europe], and a sudden loss of signal is exceedingly rare“.

Unfortunately, a sudden loss of signal from a sat-tagged raptor in the UK is anything but rare.

Norfolk Constabulary has launched an investigation and a £5,000 reward has been put up by the project sponsor, Mark Constantine (the man behind Lush, the cosmetic company that has helped promote the plight of another harrier species in the UK, the hen harrier).

News article here.

Norfolk Constabulary press release here

RSPB project on tracking Montagu’s harriers here.

Photo of a Montagu’s harrier by William J S White

3 of the 5 Peak District hen harrier chicks already dead

Older female hen harrier credit T Birch Derbyshire Wildlife TrustFollowing on from the news story nine days ago of a successful hen harrier breeding attempt in the Derbyshire Peak District (see here), it has been announced that three of the five chicks are already dead.

The following press statement has been released by The National Trust:

Newsflash 12 September 2014: We are very saddened by the deaths of three of the hen harrier chicks. All indications are that two of the birds were killed by a natural predator. The body of the third has been recovered and, along with the remains of the other two, has been sent for post-mortem (as is usual practice), but there is no evidence of suspicious activity at this stage. Two chicks are still doing well. This news reinforces the need to have a strong and healthy population of hen harriers in the Peak District and England: one nest is not enough as there will always be natural losses. We will continue to work with our partners to protect the remaining chicks and create an environment where hen harriers can thrive in the future.

Predation, if that’s what this is, is a natural phenomenon; most species are particularly vulnerable during their first year. Raptor populations in general are especially sensitive to high mortality as many bird of prey species take several years to reach breeding maturity and then only produce a few offspring in any given year. This is why the additional illegal killing of raptors can have such a devastating impact at the population level – once the population level has dropped it can take a long time for it to recover.

This year’s Peak District hen harrier chicks were also at a disadvantage having fledged relatively late in the breeding season. It’s a well established ecological concept that the offspring of early breeders generally have a much better survival rate than those of late breeders.

Having said that, there are many examples of fake ‘natural’ deaths, set up in an attempt to hide a crime. The most prominent one that springs to mind is the case of the Deeside eagle, believed to have been caught in an illegal trap on an Angus grouse moor and then taken by vehicle, overnight, to be dumped at a roadside location 15 km away from the moor to make it look like the bird had had an ‘accident’ (see here and here).

Given the notoriety of the Peak District as a hotspot for crimes against raptors, we hope that the post mortem results of the three dead birds will be published, along with their locations, to allay any suspicions that they were the victims of illegal persecution.

Photo of one of this year’s hen harrier chicks by Tim Birch (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust).

UPDATE: The Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group (PDRMG) has put out a statement that includes this:

“Early post-mortem results indicate that disease is most likely cause of death for all three birds”.

PDRMG statement here