Red kite poisoned in Central Scotland – police decide not to publicise

rk by David TomlinsonPolice Scotland has failed to publicise the illegal poisoning of a red kite which was found dead in central Scotland last July. That’s July 2014 – six months ago!

The only reason this crime has come to our attention is because it is included in the recently-updated quarterly reports by SASA – the Government agency whose job is to analyse carcasses for poisons.

This kite was killed by ingesting the banned pesticide Carbofuran. There are no other details, other than the carcass was recovered in central Scotland and the case is subject to an on-going police investigation.

Why didn’t Police Scotland issue a press statement? Sure, they might have chosen to delay it for a few weeks for operational purposes, e.g. if they were planning a raid on the premises then they wouldn’t want to alert the potential suspects in advance. But six months on and still silent? That’s pathetic.

It’s this kind of cover-up that plays directly into the hands of those who seek to diminish the extent of raptor persecution. If the public is unaware that these crimes are continuing, they’ll be more likely to believe the lies of certain organisations who keep saying that raptor persecution crimes are occurring with less frequency, and that landowners and gamekeepers have cleaned up their acts. If the public believes that, they are less likely to join in calls for greater enforcement/tougher penalties etc. If MSPs don’t hear about this issue from their constituents, they’ll be less likely to push forward any legislative changes. The end result? The raptor-killing will continue with impunity and the raptor-killing criminals will continue to escape justice.

Police Scotland’s silence does absolutely nothing to inspire public confidence in their ability and willingness to tackle wildlife crime. Perhaps they did investigate and perhaps they’ve charged someone who is now awaiting prosecution. Perhaps they did investigate but didn’t find any evidence to link the crime to an individual. Perhaps they did nothing and the file is gathering dust on someone’s desk. Whatever response they did or didn’t make, given the high level of public interest in these crimes and, in this case especially, the dangerously-high toxicity of the poison (fatal to humans), they should have publicised this incident months ago.

We are also interested in whether any General Licence restrictions have been imposed on the land where the kite was found poisoned. We don’t know whether this land is used for game-shooting but we’d make an educated guess that it is, especially given the type of poison involved – Carbofuran is still the gamekeepers’ ‘poison of choice’.

If you remember, SNH now has the power to restrict the use of General Licences, based on a civil burden of proof (i.e. so not reliant on a criminal conviction) ‘where there is evidence to suggest that a wild bird or birds have been either killed, injured or taken or where there has been an attempt to do so other than in accordance with a licence, or where General Licences are being misused‘ [this is a direct quote from the SNH 2015 General Licences].

This new measure was rolled out in October 2014 (see here) and can be back-dated to any offences that have occurred since 1st January 2014.

During the Scottish Parliament’s RACCE committee hearing on 29th October 2014 (see here), Detective Chief Superintendent Robbie Allan of Police Scotland talked about the implementation of this new measure:

We have set up a structure whereby we will meet SNH on a monthly basis. At that meeting, Police Scotland will inform and notify SNH of any crimes that fit the proposed criteria. SNH will take that information and make an assessment based on it. The first meeting will take place in the first week of November [2014], and it will apply retrospectively to all offences since 1st January [2014].”

So, the first monthly meeting between Police Scotland & SNH was due to take place in early Nov 2014. That’s almost three months ago. This red kite was poisoned in July 2014. It is reasonable to expect, then, that this case has been assessed by SNH and they’ve made a decision whether or not to impose a General Licence restriction.

We just had a look on the SNH website, where it says: ‘Any decision to implement a restriction will be posted on this webpage‘ (see here). Surprise surprise, there isn’t any information about any General Licence restrictions that have been imposed. Does that mean they are not going to impose a restriction for the poisoning of this red kite? Or does it mean they haven’t yet got around to looking at it? Or something else?

Trying to get information from these enforcement bodies is like pulling teeth. Why is it so bloody difficult? Where’s all the ‘accountability’ that they’re so keen on telling us they have but the SSPCA doesn’t have?

Let’s go directly to the Director of Operations at SNH (who makes the ultimate decision on whether a restriction is imposed) and ask him what’s going on with this case and specifically, whether a General Licence restriction has been imposed and if not, why not? Emails to Andrew Bachell:

Red kite photograph by David Tomlinson

Jailing raptor-killing gamekeepers ‘not the answer’, says Robertson

Alastair Robertson Scotsman 24 Jan 2015The fall-out from the shock custodial sentence for raptor-killing gamekeeper George Mutch continues….

The following appeared in yesterday’s Scotsman weekend magazine (24th January 2015). It’s the regular country sports column written by Alastair Robertson, the pro-game shooting journalist who also contributes to Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Telegraph, The Sun, Country Life & The Field.

“I only met George Mutch a few times. We were both in the beating line on a local shoot early in the season. Later, when I was shooting myself as a guest of a friend on Donside, I spotted him with his dogs picking up behind the guns. “Changed days from beating”, we laughed. Like most keepers he was helping out on the next door shoot for a few quid and a dram. At the time Mutch’s name didn’t mean anything until I spotted his face on Raptor Persecution Scotland, a website dedicated to the iniquities of gamekeepers and the game shooting world and a site which I highly recommend to anyone who likes shooting.

Which is why Mutch’s photo had appeared. He was captured on a hidden RSPB “research” camera killing goshawks caught in a vermin trap on Kildrummy where he ran the pheasant shoot.

His jailing for four months is being hailed as a breakthrough by the anti-shooting lobby which for years has complained that the government, police and courts have underrated the seriousness of wildlife crime. Perhaps, in their unofficial minds, police put the discomfort of birds rather further down their list of priorities than domestic violence, paedophilia, rape and drink-driving. But now the worm has turned. Mutch is the first keeper to be jailed for killing a raptor. The sad thing is that there is little understanding really on either side of the raptor argument.

The comments on Raptor Persecution following Mutch’s jailing were largely of the “Yippee, serves him right” sort. On the other side there are clipped official statements deploring wildlife crime, while among keepers and shooters a sullen silent resentment pervades that the RSPB, generally loathed for its interfering ways, has somehow “won”.

The only sensible comment I have seen, on the Raptor Persecution site as it happens, is that instead of jailing Mutch at great expense he should have been sent, possibly as a community service order, to work on an RSPB reserve. This may have been a joke and I missed it. But at least the reserve wouldn’t have any vermin problems.

The Mutch affair will inevitably increase demand to ban all legitimate live traps which keepers use to keep down vermin. It might, however, be better to turn the whole bird of prey argument on its head. Instead of trying to catch keepers at it, pay them a bounty for all raptors caught, logged and/or released. Poachers turned gamekeepers as it were. If, as the anti-shooting/raptor lobby insist, raptor persecution is widespread, then what is the point of conducting a war of low level attrition in the countryside which no-one is winning? Banging up Mutch pour encourager les autres isn’t the answer”.


So, no real surprises. Gamekeepers and shooters apparently ‘loathe’ the RSPB for ‘interfering’ (= catching raptor-killing gamekeepers and reporting them to the police). Oh, and killing raptors doesn’t really merit a custodial sentence because it doesn’t rank as a priority crime, even though the Government and Police Scotland have both stated that tackling wildlife crime IS a priority, and even though the penalty available for EACH offence could be a £5,000 fine and/or a six month custodial sentence. Some would say Mutch got off lightly with just a four-month jail sentence.

Instead of trying to catch gamekeepers at it, Robertson’s theory is that gamekeepers should be paid a bounty for each raptor they manage not to kill. A bit like giving a bank robber a bounty for each bank he manages to walk past without robbing it. ‘Ah, well done lad, you’ve managed to go a whole day without committing a crime – here, have some tax-payer’s money in recognition of your self-control’.

Mutch Edinglassie sept 2014Talking of Mutch, we were interested to receive this photo taken on a grouse moor in September 2014.  This was on Edinglassie Estate in Aberdeenshire. Edinglassie is an award-winning estate, receiving the GWCT’s Golden Plover Award in 2013 for their progressive & sustainable moorland management, and becoming WES-accredited (SLE’s Wildlife Estates Scotland thing). Is that George Mutch, clearing the butts after a drive? Who would employ Mutch to help out on a game shoot? (There’s no more helping out for a few quid and a dram – new rules mean that, unless in exceptional circumstances, HMRC views beaters etc as ’employees’ for tax purposes). Interesting. Although to be fair, in September he was still denying his guilt and hadn’t yet been convicted (that came in Dec). Can’t imagine an esteemed estate like Edinglassie would employ him now he’s been convicted of raptor persecution…..

Subsidy penalty for Stody Estate?

stody buzzardsOn 1st October 2014, gamekeeper Allen Lambert from the Stody Estate in Norfolk was found guilty of poisoning 10 buzzards and one sparrowhawk, which had been found dead on the estate in April 2013. He was also convicted of storing banned pesticides & other items capable of preparing poisoned baits (a ‘poisoner’s kit’), and a firearms offence (see here and here).

On 6th November 2014, Lambert was sentenced. Even though the magistrate acknowledged that Lambert’s crimes passed the custody threshold, he only received a 10 week suspended sentence for poisoning 11 raptors (suspended for one year), a six week suspended sentence for possession of firearms and nine poisoned buzzards (suspended for one year), and was ordered to pay £930 prosecution costs and an £80 victim surcharge.

On 5th October 2014, we blogged about the millions of pounds worth of subsidies that had been awarded to Stody Estate in recent years (see here) and we encouraged blog readers to contact the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to ask whether Stody Estate would receive a financial penalty in the form of subsidy withdrawal for being in breach of the terms & conditions of their subsidy-fest.

On 10th October 2014, the RPA responded by saying they would consider what action could be taken against Stody Estate (see here).

Then it all went quiet.

One of our blog readers decided to submit an FoI to the RPA in December 2014, to see what was going on. Here is his letter:

12 DECEMBER 2014

To whom it may concern

I am making this request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The information I request relates to the conviction in October 2014 of Mr Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper employed by the Stody Estate, Melton Constable, Norfolk, NR24 2ER for illegally poisoning ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk.

I would be grateful if you could provide me with all the information you hold relating to the following questions:

  1. Whether the RPA consider the illegal poisoning carried out by an employee of the Stody Estate as being in breach of Cross Compliance Statutory Management Requirement 1 – Wild Birds.
  2. Did the RPA investigate any breach of cross compliance at the Stody Estate relating to the illegal poisoning offence and what was the outcome of the investigation.
  3. Whether the RPA has imposed a fine on the Stody Estate’s Single Farm Payment, Environmental Stewardship Payment or any other public subsidy the estate receives and if so, how much.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely


On 14th January 2015, the RPA responded with this:

14 JANUARY 2015


Re: Freedom of Information – Information Request

Thank you for your request for information dated 12 December 2014 which has been dealt with under Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoIA).

You have asked:

‘1. Whether the RPA consider the illegal poisoning carried out by an employee of the Stody Estate as being in breach of Cross Compliance Statutory Management Requirement 1 – Wild Birds.’

‘2. Did the RPA investigate any breach of cross compliance at the Stody Estate relating to the illegal poisoning offence and what was the outcome of the investigation.’

‘3. Whether the RPA has imposed a fine on the Stody Estate’s Single Farm Payment, Environmental Stewardship Payment or any other public subsidy the estate receives and if so, how much.’

Having considered your request we regret that we are unable to provide you with any meaningful response as we do not hold any information that answers your questions. However, RPA would like to make clear that it is required to assess cross compliance reductions to CAP subsidy claims based on intent, extent, severity, permanence and repetition of the non-compliance. We can assure you that RPA will take action, including cross compliance reductions to CAP subsidy payments applicable, if this is found to be appropriate.

In order to qualify for most CAP subsidy payments, claimants are required to keep their land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition and comply with a set of Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs). This is known as cross compliance. One of the SMRs covers wild birds (SMR 1) and this includes a rule about killing, injuring or taking wild birds.

Further information is published on the GOV.UK website (Page 43 – deals with wild birds).

If you are not happy with the way we have handled your request, you can ask for an internal review. These requests should be submitted within two months of the date of receipt of the response to your original letter and should be addressed to: Access to Information, Rural Payments Agency, North Gate House, 21-23 Valpy Street, Reading, RG1 1AF.

Yours sincerely

Rural Payments Agency

Not very helpful, is it?

Thanks to the blog reader who followed up with the FoI and shared the response with us. We understand the RPA can expect further FoIs until a satisfactory response is received. Watch this space….

Meanwhile, you might be interested to compare Lambert’s pathetic sentence with that of an anti-badger cull protester. Lambert was given a 10 week suspended sentence and ordered to pay £930 costs for the mass poisoning of protected birds, the illegal storage of banned poisons and a firearms offence. The badger cull protester, who breached the terms of an injunction designed to stop him disrupting badger culls (he filmed someone involved with the cull and stood outside the NFU office wearing a t-shirt that said: ‘FCK NFU’), was given a six month suspended sentence and ordered to pay costs that could amount to £55,000 (see here). The first installment of £25,000 is due on 1st May. A crowd-funding page has been set up for those who want to help – see here.

Environment Minister visits Cairngorms National Park to discuss raptor persecution

You may remember last May, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) wrote to the then Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, to tell him that the continuing incidents of raptor persecution and ‘disappearing’ birds in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park “threatens to undermine the reputation of the National Park as a high quality wildlife tourism destination“. The Minister was invited to a meeting of ‘stakeholders’ to discuss ways to address the on-going problem (see here).

Eight months on, the current Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod attended that meeting earlier this week. Here’s what the CNPA press release said about it:

The Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Dr Aileen McLeod, visited the Cairngorms National Park yesterday (19th January) to chair a meeting with landowners.

Meeting in Ballater, landowners, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) discussed how best to collaborate to deliver landscape scale benefits for objectives including moorland management, raptor conservation, woodland expansion and peatland restoration.

Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Dr Aileen McLeod said “I was pleased to meet with land owners in the Cairngorms National Park yesterday. The Cairngorms National Park, one of Scotland’s best places for nature, should be at the forefront of demonstrating an integrated approach to management that tackles some of our longstanding challenges, including raptor persecution, habitat diversity and carbon management. I very much welcome the positive collaboration shown yesterday between the National Park Authority and land owners and look forward to seeing a real difference on the ground”.

Among the topics discussed was raptor persecution and conservation, with a recognition of the progress made in recent years and a shared determination to ensure no return of incidents connected to sporting management.

Grant Moir, Chief Executive of the CNPA said: “The Cairngorms is an outstanding place for nature and an internationally renowned tourism destination. We must all work to prevent the recurrence of raptor persecution, and focus on what we can do to enhance raptor conservation. This discussion helps take forward practical action on the ground, bringing together sporting management with wider priorities such as woodland expansion, peatland restoration and raptor conservation.”

Tim Baynes of Scottish Land and Estates said: “Moorland managed for sporting is the largest scale land use in the Park and we are pleased to be working with the Cairngorms National Park Authority to bring a number of estates together in a moorland management initiative. We see real opportunities through this very practical approach to show how management for sporting objectives is integrated with delivering diverse habitat and species benefits, and ways in which that can be taken further as science and national policies develop.  This builds on the Wildlife Estates Scotland accreditation scheme developed by Scottish Land & Estates which now covers 20% of the entire Park area”.

Moorland Management was one of the subjects at a recent CNPA board meeting, more information can be found at


The press release doesn’t really tell us a great deal, other than these people met and talked. Unfortunately there’s scant detail about what they actually intend to do.

We did note the sentence: ‘Among the topics discussed was raptor persecution and conservation, with a recognition of the progress made in recent years and a shared determination to ensure no return of incidents connected to sporting management‘. What progress is that, then? Had there been any, presumably the CNPA wouldn’t have felt the need to ask the Minister for ‘action’ against raptor persecution within the Park.

The CNPA and its landowner ‘stakeholders’ are quite big on ‘action’. Who remembers the launch of ‘Cairngorms Nature’ in 2013? We blogged about it here. It’s an ambitious five-year ‘action plan’ which included the following ‘actions’:

ACTION: Restore the full community of raptor species.

KEY PARTNERS: SGA and SLE to trial innovative techniques to increase raptor populations.

Wonder how that’s going? What are the ‘innovative techniques’? Stop poisoning, shooting & trapping?


KEY ACTIONS: SLE, SGA and SNH to work with moorland managers to manage mountain hare populations for the benefit of golden eagles.

Wonder how that’s going? Not terribly well by the looks of these photographs, taken in February 2014 near Glenshee, in the southern part of the National Park. Is this what Tim (Kim) Baynes means when he says “management for sporting objectives is integrated with species benefits“? We counted at least 150 dead hares, presumably killed during one session….Aren’t our National Parks great?

Guest blog: hen harriers in Ireland

hh LAURIE CAMPBELLOver the last year or so (and especially over the last few months) there has been an increasing amount of media coverage regarding the political and ecological status of hen harriers in the Republic of Ireland. Much of the media coverage has come from one particular Irish newspaper, heavily influenced by political spin doctors (the equivalent of the Telegraph/Daily Mail in the UK). When these newspaper articles are shared with a UK audience on social media, without an accompanying critique or even a vague understanding of the politics behind each story, a one-sided view of the situation can be accepted as being ‘factual’.

To counter this, we’ve invited a guest blog from somebody who understands both the conservation needs of hen harriers in the RoI and the political landscape in which the story is set. The author wishes to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.

Hen Harriers in the Republic of Ireland: a crash course

Over the past decade, hen harriers have become a bird of controversy in Ireland as the uplands that were once of little interest or use for humans, apart from commonage or small-scale turf (peat) cutting but form the bulk of its breeding grounds, have come into sharp focus as the next property boom. Despite the economic crash brought on in part by widespread land and property speculation it is apparent that Irish hen harriers are sitting on some valuable real estate. See here:

But first a little historical background. Hen harriers were clearly widespread and quite commonly found across much of the Irish uplands and foothills where classic harrier habitat existed into the 19th century but apparently disappeared from some of its former haunts (Down, Fermanagh, Derry and Wicklow) by the early 20th century (Ussher & Warren 1900). At least some of these declines have been attributed to human persecution of birds of prey on the large landed estates which also resulted in the extinction of golden and white-tailed eagles as well as marsh harriers around this time. Further declines apparently followed in the first half of the 20th century when it was erroneously reported that harriers had become extinct as a breeder in Ireland (Kennedy et al 1954), although birds had continued to breed in the midlands and south-east (Watson 1977). Undoubtedly harriers were under-recorded and likely continued to breed elsewhere at least in small numbers. However, the first Breeding Atlas estimated some 75 pairs breeding in 1964 rising to 200-300 pairs by the early 70’s (Sharrock 1976, Watson 1977). However numbers apparently decline again in the late 70’s in parts of its range (O’Flynn 1983).

The apparent increase in harrier numbers and range beginning in the 1950’s and its subsequent decline in some areas is largely attributed to its adoption of a novel habitat, commercially planted non-native conifers, in the uplands and their subsequent maturation leading to this habitat becoming unattractive to harriers once the forest canopy closes. However much former habitat that remained unplanted was also lost to agricultural reclamation of marginal lands including drainage and reseeding for livestock grazing.

Today hen harriers are Amber listed (medium concern) in the most recent assessment of Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland (Colhoun & Cummins 2013). Six Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have to date been designated for the species protection in RoI: Stack’s to Mullaghareirk Mountains (Kerry-Cork & Limerick), Mullaghanish to Musheramore (N Cork), Slievefelim to Silvermines Mountains (Tipperary), Slieve Bloom Mountains (Offaly), Slieve Aughty Mountains (Clare-Galway) and Slieve Beagh (Monaghan-N Ireland). Recent semi-decadal national surveys in the RoI have shown the Irish hen harrier population to be apparently stable: 102-129 pairs in 1998-2000; 132-153 pairs in 2005; 128-172 pairs in 2010 (confirmed + possible pairs). However, this apparent overall stability masks a seriously worrying decline (-18%) within the six SPAs. As a whole the hen harrier population is now largely confined to the uplands in the south-west (Munster) with other small populations in the midlands (Slieve Blooms) and the north-north west (Monaghan-Cavan- Leitrim-Donegal). Since 2010 populations in most of the former strongholds in the south-west have declined still further.

Hen Harriers in Ireland: can we see the harriers for the trees?

As alluded to above, hen harriers and hen harrier real estate are under serious pressure from a number of quarters. High on this list is further habitat loss/change resulting from further afforestation in the uplands, increasing numbers of windfarms even within harrier SPAs, further losses in areas outside SPAs within little or no formal protection, and a potentially seriously flawed agri-environment scheme which only covers environmental measures on grassland, a little-known and non-existent habitat for breeding harriers…..heather moorland and other important habitats such as Calluna-Eriophorum bog, scrub etc seem to have not made it onto the radar of the Dept? See P28 here: . This despite detailed submissions to the Rural Development Programme by the Irish Raptor Study Group (IRSG). Even the advice of its own National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) appears to have been ignored in designing the scheme.

Firstly, most hen harriers in Ireland have now been nesting in young conifer plantation for several decades. Although this habitat was quickly adopted by nesting harriers it has functioned as somewhat of an ecological trap. Harriers like it for nesting, not because they like young trees to nest in, rather the nice thick luxurious growth of scrub vegetation that provides good cover for ground nests. However pairs, especially those now using second-rotation forestry (forest on its second planting) don’t do so well, having reduced breeding success. Of course, forestry is managed to maximise timber production and not harrier numbers and/or nest success, even within SPAs. Despite their designation, in 2007 some 1,188 Ha of new forestry has been planted in the SPAs. The average forest cover in the SPAs is some 53% as opposed to 11% nationally. Predictions are that with further forest maturation the hen harrier population will continue to decline over the next 20 years.

Limerick Leaderlow resBut if that isn’t enough the private forest lobby has been busy winning over the farming organisations with offers of lucrative tax-free grants for private forestry, leading to calls by the Irish Farmers Association for an end to a moratorium on new forestry in the SPAs (see here Private forestry has also been courting national and local politicians (councillors) and upping the ante against hen harriers. This manifested itself embarrassingly in a call for an “Open season on Hen Harriers” in July 2013 by the then Chairman of Limerick County Council. See here: .

The unedifying sight of what should be a representative of ‘all the people’ of the county rattling the cage for his forestry chums was a new low and brought an apology of sorts. But the damage was, of course, done. We all knew what you really meant Cllr. Sheahan! See:

More recently in a debate in the Dáil (Irish parliament) TDs (MPs) in hen harrier SPAs have supported the lobby for further afforestation in SPAs. The Minister of State at the Dept. of Agriculture, Food & the Marine, Tom Hayes, publicly stated that they can “come up with an arrangement by next September that we can bring to Europe….where we can explain to the officials there that the overall blanket ban (on forestry) should be lifted, that this should apply only to the designated areas in which the hen harrier actually is in place and one should be able to plant in areas other than that specific area” (Dail debate 19/6/14).

The previous Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht (yes, different Dept. I know, you still with me?) instigated a Threat Response Plan (TRP) to identify actions required by public authorities to cease, avoid, reverse, reduce, eliminate or prevent threats to the hen harrier. This report is due in June 2015. Worries are that the actions will be watered down due to pressure from vested interests (see ). No conservation objectives have been set for the harrier SPAs as yet despite a requirement to do so within six years (due 2013). A draft of the TRP is due to be open to consultation with various stakeholders. Word is that the two environmental reps on the consultation are from Birdwatch Ireland and An Taisce (Ireland’s National Trust), the latter with no expertise on harriers or indeed birds, while the Irish Raptor Study Group are not as yet represented.

In yet another but significant development in the harrier SPA tale, a new lobby group, Farmers with Designated Land (IFDL) has been rallying support both regionally, nationally and more recently at EU level for a better deal for farmers within harrier SPAs. See here: . The previous hen harrier farm scheme expired in the last RDP cycle and was opted into by less than 10% of farmers. Although initially pushing for a lifting of the moratorium on private forestry in SPAs, the IFDL have now apparently dropped this from their agenda in favour of increasing the level of supports through the RDP. See here: . One thing that became clear following some digging for answers is that during the last RDP, the Dept. of Agriculture had an allocation of €528 million available for NATURA sites but only €93 million was delivered to support farmers and much needed conservation measures for threatened bird species on designated land. So where did the mullah go?

It remains to be seen how this will all play out and what if anything the political machinations mean for hen harriers. Meanwhile one thing is for sure; hen harrier numbers in many of the SPAs are dropping as fast as a sky-dancing male. Since 2010, all the available evidence suggests that populations in the Mullaghareirks and West Limerick hells, a former stronghold, have continued to fall and that raises the prospect of NO breeding hen harriers in some areas while more and more of its former moorland habitat becomes closed canopy conifer forest, yet more windfarms get planning permission in SPAs to add to the hundreds of turbines already there and millions may be spent on an agri-environment scheme that threatens to deliver little or nothing for harrier conservation.

wind turbines eireWindfarms, harrier persecution and those ghost SPAs

Of course, no harriers, or a severely depleted harrier population, is a problem for conservation and NPWS-reporting to the EU on the state of the SPAs. But on the flipside, planning permission and the inconvenient occurrence of breeding harriers in areas targeted for wind development become a hell of a lot less contentious. So this begs the question, are harriers declining in some areas with the help of humans who figure, ‘no harriers, no problem’? Over the past 5-10 years there has been some unequivocal evidence of harrier persecution, coincidentally in areas where planning permission has been, or is subsequently submitted, for windfarm development. Also with that there has been rumour and hints that something untoward is going on. Typically this is harriers displaying in a traditional site but subsequently ‘disappearing’. These reports have emanated mostly from one breeding area with the Stacks & Mullaghareirks SPA in the south-west. In 2010 three dead harriers were handed in by an unknown individual to the local NPWS ranger. To our knowledge, no investigation was ever instigated and these deaths did not appear in the first Irish BOP Poisoning and Persecution Report. See here: . Our guess is that human persecution has been overlooked as a contributory cause for decline in some areas and is grossly underestimated, largely because little data exists. While hen harriers in Ireland haven’t suffered the high levels of persecution well documented in Scotland (there are no driven grouse shoots in Ireland and no privately owned moors given over to maximising grouse numbers) we cannot be complacent and assume Irish hen harriers aren’t also becoming targets where their presence is thought to conflict with land use.

Meanwhile some important areas for breeding harriers have not been designated although on the original list of none candidate SPAs (cSPAs), most notably the Ballyhouras in North Cork/South Limerick, which held 12-13% of the national population in 2005 and 8-9% in 2010. Why was this site not designated in 2007 along with the other six SPAs, some of which the Ballyhouras have consistently held greater numbers and higher densities? Unlike most of the other sites the Ballyhouras are almost wholly owned by Coillte, the state forestry company. Despite claims that the site wasn’t designated because the population was considered “not to be viable” because of the extent of forestry (so where does that leave all the other heavily afforested SPAs, where’s the viability analyses?) it appears that Coillte didn’t want to be hindered in their forestry activity, and more recently by their involvement in windfarm developments (two windfarms now permitted), by designations and the decision was a political one. Two other cSPAs, the Nagles and the Kilworth & Knockmeldown Hills, have also been ‘delisted’ although all more than meet the criteria for designation.

2015 is going to be an interesting and perhaps defining year. The hen harrier TRP could and should be a watershed for hen harrier conservation but will it deliver for harrier conservation? A national hen harrier survey (different from the proposed 2016 national survey due to take place in the UK) has recently got the go-ahead for 2015. The results of the survey will be timely given the pressures on hen harriers and their habitat.

Police search premises in another poisoning blackspot in Northern Ireland

Peregrine Steve WaterhouseA few days ago we blogged about a multi-agency raid on premises in the Drumbanagher area of Co Armagh, a notorious buzzard-poisoning blackspot (see here).

It looks like the PSNI is taking raptor persecution very seriously, because on the same day, another search in another poisoning blackspot was also carried out, this time in Co Derry.

The team went to targeted locations in the Magherafelt area where a number of raptor persecution incidents are reported to have taken place, including the Carbofuran-poisoning of a peregrine last July (see here).

Great to see a coordinated, proactive response from the police and partner agencies, and how refreshing to see this response publicised.

Details on the Co Derry search here.

Peregrine photo by Steve Waterhouse

SSPCA consultation: Scot Gov ‘ignores’ 7,014 signatures

sspca logoToday, the Scottish Government has published its analysis of the public responses to the SSPCA consultation. It is quite extraordinary.

As you’ll recall, the public consultation was established to seek views on whether the SSPCA should be given increased powers to enable them to tackle a wider suite of wildlife crimes than they currently undertake (for background see here).

The consultation closed on 1st Sept 2014. In October 2014, Scot Gov published copies of the responses (or at least those where the respondent had agreed to publication). A few days later, we blogged about our rudimentary analysis of those responses and exposed some pretty deep-seated hypocrisy amongst some of the respondents (see here).

Today’s publication from Scot Gov provides a far more comprehensive analysis of the responses, but doesn’t provide a decision one way or the other – that will come “in due course“.

The Government’s analysis is detailed and informative. It’s clear that they are taking this consultation seriously and are doing their best to be transparent about the process. That’s very welcome.

However, after scrutinising their analysis, we are concerned about the way some of the responses have been assessed.

According to the report, 242 responses were given to Question 1 of the consultation. That question was as follows:

Q1. Do you agree that the law in Scotland should be changed to give the SSPCA the powers as set out in section 4.1 [of the consultation document]?

Apparently, only 32% of respondents said ‘Yes’; 67% said ‘No’.

Those figures indicate that over two-thirds of respondents did not support the proposed extension of powers for the SSPCA.

But wait a minute….. when you actually look at the detail of their analysis, that’s not the case at all, and in fact, those supporting the extension of powers for the SSPCA amount to 97% of respondents, not 32%. That’s quite a discrepancy! How can that be? Here’s how…

You may remember that during the consultation period, a petition was launched by a campaigner, asking the public to support an extension of powers for the SSPCA. We blogged about it here. The petition explicitly stated that by signing it, petitioners would be supporting an increase of powers for the SSPCA. Here are the actual words:

By signing, you agree that the laws in Scotland should be changed to give the SSPCA the powers set out in section 4.1 of the consultation document“.

In effect, this statement is asking petitioners to respond to Q1 of the consultation.

7,015 people signed this petition. In other words, 7,015 people supported giving the SSPCA increased powers.

What the Scottish Government has done, in its analysis, is to treat those 7,015 supportive signatures as ONE SINGLE RESPONSE. Effectively, 7,014 individual responses have been ignored.

Why have they done that? We don’t know. Their report acknowledges the petition, and the 7,015 signatures, and states that the petition has been treated as a single response, but gives no explanation why.

The report also reveals that at least 17 responses were believed to be part of, or prompted by, a ‘campaign’ by this blog. Those 17 responses do not appear to have been amalgamated into one.

Also, the report reveals that at least 70 responses were believed to be part of, or prompted by, a ‘campaign’ by the SGA. Those 70 responses do not appear to have been amalgamated into one.

So why were 7,015 petition responses, obviously part of a ‘campaign’, reduced to one single response, when responses from two other ‘campaigns’ were not?

Let’s assume those 7,015 responses had been treated as individual responses. That would put the number of respondents who answered Q1 at 7,256 respondents (not 242 as the Govt claims).

Of those 7,256 respondents, 7,093 of them said they supported increased powers for the SSPCA. That’s 97% of the total respondents, not 32%.

Of the 7,256 respondents, only 163 of them said they did not support increased powers for the SSPCA. That’s only 2% of all respondents, not 67%.

We’re pretty sure that those 7,014 individuals who signed the petition to support an increase of powers for the SSPCA will not be best pleased at being ignored.

Having said all that, we don’t think this consultation is a numbers game. And even if it was, the Govt has a bit of a track record of ignoring public opinion gleaned from consultations (e.g. see here).

We’re going to have to wait and see what Environment Minister Aileen McLeod decides “in due course” but hopefully she will pay attention to the significant public support for increased SSPCA powers, as demonstrated by those 7,015 people who signed a petition thinking that their opinion would count for something.

The Govt’s analysis of the consultation responses can be downloaded here:

Scot Gov analysis of SSPCA consultation responses Jan 2015


Hawk and Owl Trust getting it badly wrong

Hen harrierUp until yesterday, we had a lot of respect and admiration for the Hawk & Owl Trust. They’ve got some fantastic staff and volunteers, their conservation work has been exemplary, as has their educational work, and they’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us to make a stand against the illegal persecution of raptors. Such was their unity, in 2013 they even walked away from the ridiculous Hen Harrier Dialogue shortly after the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum had walked. They were one of us, with shared ideals and whose patience with the grouse moor owners had been sucked dry. Read their exit statement here.

So it was with an overwhelming sense of shock and disbelief yesterday that we found out the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Board of Trustees had, late last year, “agreed unanimously that a hen harrier brood management scheme trial (NB trial) is the way forward for the recovery of hen harrier populations“.

That is a direct quote from the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Chair, Philip Merricks.

To read more about this staggering statement, read this and this (including the comments) on Mark Avery’s blog.


What has changed within the grouse-shooting industry since the Hawk & Owl Trust penned their exit letter from the Hen Harrier Dialogue in 2013? Absolutely nothing. The industry is still deeply in denial that it is involved in any way with the illegal persecution of hen harriers, the English hen harrier population is still on its knees as a direct result of illegal persecution, and the grouse-shooting industry is still firmly based on widespread criminality. The only thing that has changed is that the Hawk & Owl Trust has a new Chair – Mr Merricks.

Later in the day, and in response to the outcry on social media, the Hawk & Owl Trust tried to clarify their position with a further statement from Mr Merricks – see here. It hasn’t inspired much confidence. Apparently, the Trustees have come up with two “immoveable conditions” that would need to be agreed by all parties before the Trust will engage in more detailed talks with DEFRA. Those two conditions are as follows:

1. “All hen harriers fledged within a brood management scheme trial would be satellite tagged so that their movements could be tracked. And the knowledge that they were tagged (and the fear that other HHs might be) would prevent any gamekeepers from shooting them in the sky“.

This is so extraordinarily naive it beggars belief. Surely the Hawk & Owl Trust are aware that 37 of the 47 hen harriers sat tagged between 2007-2014 are listed as ‘missing’? That’s a staggering 78.7%. Only four tagged birds were known to still be alive in Oct 2014 (see here). Fitting a sat tag to a hen harrier does not “prevent gamekeepers shooting them in the sky” (nor catching them in spring traps and clubbing them to death, or stalking them at their night roosts and filling them with lead shot as they huddle on the ground).

2. “Should any Moorland Association, Game & Wildlife Trust, or National Gamekeepers Organisation member be proved to have illegally interfered with a hen harrier nest or to have persecuted a hen harrier on their grouse moors, the Hawk & Owl Trust would pull out its expertise from the brood management scheme trial“.

Again, complete naivety. The key word here is ‘proved’. By ‘proved’, do they mean a conviction? It’s hard to ‘prove’ criminal behaviour when birds, and their sat tags, suddenly ‘disappear’, and the grouse-shooting industry denies any knowledge of, and/or involvement in, any criminal activity. Even if one of them did slip up and leave enough evidence for a subsequent prosecution, the court case would likely take a few years to conclude and in the meantime, the Hawk & Owl Trust would have to continue to remove hen harriers from grouse moors because they wouldn’t yet have the ‘proof’ that one of their partners had been involved with the crime.

There is a tiny glimmer of hope. A further statement on the Hawk & Owl Trust website says this:

Addressing raptor persecution is a pre-requisite of our talking to DEFRA and landowners. Until this issue is addressed in a satisfactory manner, any form of management of hen harrier is impossible“.

The questions is, how will the Hawk & Owl Trust define “addressed in a satisfactory manner“? That could mean anything. And will it apply just to hen harrier persecution or will it include all the other persecuted raptor species that are either found on (or more often ‘disappear’ on) these moors?

Depending on how the Hawk & Owl Trust defines this condition, there’s every chance that the brood management scheme will never see the light of day because, as we all know only too well, the grouse-shooting industry has been reliant on criminal behaviour for more than a century and it shows no sign of changing.

But let’s just suppose for a second that the Hawk & Owl Trust IS satisfied that illegal persecution has been “addressed in a satisfactory manner” and they do decide to go ahead and partner with the grouse-shooting industry to remove hen harriers from grouse moors…

In our view, (and it’s shared by many others if you read the comments on Mark’s blog and on social media), the Hawk & Owl Trust would be heading for hell in a handbasket with this move. The issue is not just about illegal persecution – there are many wider associated issues about the questionable management of intensively managed grouse moors, and there’s also the fundamental ethical issue: why should one of our most treasured and relatively rare (even if it wasn’t being persecuted) species be removed from grouse moors, just so a minority group can farm an artificially-high population of red grouse so they can brag to their mates about how many they’ve shot? By partnering with the grouse-shooting industry on a brood management scheme, the Hawk & Owl Trust would be tacitly supporting these practices.

We think the Hawk & Owl Trust has under-estimated the impact this move may have on their organisation. There is a high risk that (a) they’ll lose their President, Chris Packham (we’ve yet to hear his views but we look forward to them in due course); (b) they’ll lose a lot of members (although they may gain a lot of members from within the grouse-shooting industry) and (c) they’ll lose their hard-earned credibility within the conservation community. That would be a great shame.

Hen harrier photo by Mark Hamblin

UPDATE 7th February 2015: Chris Packham resigns from Hawk & Owl Trust (here).

Balaclava sales set to rise

Daily Mail Bloody battle of the glens (2)The angst generated by the successful use of video evidence to convict gamekeeper George Mutch continues, as does the game-shooting lobby’s pathetic attempts to discredit the RSPB….

The following excerpts are from a recent article in the Mail, written by Jonathan Brocklebank:

The camera was hidden in a pile of twigs deep inside a sporting estate whose owner had no idea that it had been infiltrated by Europe’s wildlife charity.

But then, RSPB Scotland needs no invitation or permission to launch covert surveillance ops on private land. These days, it gives its own go-aheads.

So it was that gamekeeper George Mutch, 48, came to be filmed with a juvenile goshawk he beat to death with a stick on the Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire. He began a four month jail sentence this week after damning footage showed him using two traps to catch birds of prey.

His apparent motive was to protect pheasants from the raptors, thus ensuring a plentiful supply of game birds for the shooting parties whose business helps keep such estates alive. Mutch, thought to be the first person ever to be jailed in Scotland for killing a bird of prey, will win no sympathy from animal lovers.

But the court case did not simply highlight the inhumane behaviour of a lone gamekeeper who brought disgrace upon his profession. It also served as a demonstration of the now immense power of the charity whose evidence convicted him.

That power, say ever-growing numbers of critics, leaves few areas of outdoor and rural life untouched.

[There follows some predictably tedious claims made by Botham’s You Forgot The Birds campaign, whose failed complaints about the RSPB to the Charity Commission Mr Brocklebank failed to mention (see here), and how some landowners are erecting signs saying RSPB Not Welcome (see here). It then continues….]

During Mutch’s trial, Aberdeen Sheriff Court was told the RSPB routinely enters estates without asking the landowners and, once inside, staff are free to use hidden cameras to gather ‘data’.

When questioned in court, Ian Thomson, the charity’s head of investigations, explained why they needed no permission. “Because we are entering an area for scientific study, we feel we are using our access rights under the Land Reform Act”.

Is it, then, acceptable for RSPB officials to march onto a private estate and set up equipment to secretly video employees?

It seems so. A spokesman for the charity told the Mail: “In Scotland, the Land Reform Act (2003) enshrined a legal “right to roam” and this includes access for survey and research purposes, provided this is carried out responsibly”.

He said the shocking images captured on the video spoke for themselves.

Notwithstanding Mutch’s appalling actions, there is a distinct air of discomfort in the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) over the means by which the RSPB’s evidence was obtained.

A spokesman for the organisation said it seemed wrong for individuals “from one particular profession” to be under surveillance in their workplace without their knowledge.

He added: “Is it the case now that charities can do this rather than the police – and is this the correct thing?

They have said they used their rights of access to go on to the land to do this. Really, they should have asked the landowner out of courtesy, if anything. Although it is not sacrosanct in law to do so, I think it would rile people a lot less if there were a little bit more cooperation from organisations such as the RSPB.

These are the things that lead to the breakdown of trust. If they did things a little bit more with due respect, they would find themselves in a lot less problems”.

His words hint at both a clash of cultures and at competing interests in the schism between senior figures in the charity and the ‘tweedies’ who own and manage vast swathes of the Scottish countryside.

While Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) routinely issues licences to farmers to control wildlife which threatens their livestock, it has never issued a licence to a gamekeeper or landowner to control any species threatening birds kept for game, which also count as livestock under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. The reasons for this, gamekeepers believe, is obvious: politics.

[The rest of the article covers complaints from a gamekeeper on the Lochnell Estate in Argyll about people turning up unannounced to monitor raptor nests; how many members the RSPB has; how much income the RSPB generates; the RSPB’s involvement in the renewal energy debate; how the RSPB is seen as the ‘go to’ organisation for advice on developments; how arrogant the RSPB is; and ends with the question: Is there a time, perhaps, when a charity just becomes too big?]


So, the SGA thinks that wildlife crime investigators should let landowners know, in advance, of their arrival on a privately-owned estate. They seem to be missing the point. The landowner can now be held criminally vicariously liable for some crimes against raptors that are carried out by their gamekeepers; what do you think is the first thing the landowner would do, if he/she was notified that wildlife crime investigators were on their way? Advanced warning would hardly be in the interest of an investigation, (or justice), would it? Besides, as was pointed out in the article, nobody has to give advanced warning to a landowner of an impending visit and as long as they act responsibly once on the land, they’re well within their rights – that’s kind of the point of the Land Reform Act.

And what’s all this guff about gamekeepers have never been issued an SNH licence to ‘control’ (kill) “any species” that is perceived as a threat to their game birds? What utter nonsense! Gamekeepers routinely use the SNH General Licences to ‘control’ (kill) corvids. Ironically, this is what Mutch was supposed to be doing when he was filmed killing a trapped goshawk and shoving two other raptors in sacks and walking off with them. Sounds to us like the SGA are trying to play the victim card, again, albeit unsuccessfully.

McAdam 1The SGA aren’t the only ones up in arms about the admissibility of the RSPB’s video footage which was used to devastatingly good effect in the Mutch trial.

Here’s what the CEO of Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), Doug McAdam, wrote in last week’s SLE e-newsletter:

There can be no doubt that the custodial sentence handed down this week to a gamekeeper convicted of wildlife crime will send a very strong message out to those who continue to break the law. The illegal killing of any bird of prey is unacceptable and anyone who engages in such activity can, rightly, expect to feel the full weight of the law.

However, this case has raised some fundamental issues regarding access rights and the law as it becomes clear that a central party to this investigation [he means the RSPB] has chosen to totally disregard Scottish Government approved guidance contained in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code regarding undertaking survey work on someone else’s land. This is a serious matter in its own right, but it also reaches well beyond matters of wildlife crime, crossing in to areas such as new development and planning work where it could have some serious implications”.

Why is this “a serious matter”? It’s no such thing (unless you happen to be CEO of an organisation that just wants to have another go at discrediting the RSPB or is concerned about what future video footage may reveal). The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is just that – it’s a code, not a statutory instrument. It has as much legal influence as the Green Cross Code. It is trumped, magnificently, by the 2003 Land Reform Act. The totally independent Sheriff in the Mutch trial (who, don’t forget, was brought in because the defence thought that the original Sheriff, as an RSPB member, might be biased – see here) deemed that, in this instance, the RSPB video footage was admissible.

That’s not to say that other video footage will be deemed admissible in other trials – it will depend entirely on the circumstances of the case. In the Mutch trial, the RSPB argued successfully that their cameras were not in place to ‘catch someone at it’ – they had been placed as part of a long-term study in to crow cage trap use. That their footage captured Mutch engaging in his disgusting crimes was just a very happy coincidence.

You have to wonder, with all this consternation from the game-shooting crowd, just what it is they’re so frightened that covert cameras might record….

Now might be a good time to buy some shares in balaclava-making companies.

Police search notorious raptor poisoning blackspot

Drumbanagher NI police search Jan 2015Police in Northern Ireland last week joined forces with officers from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Health & Safety Executive (NI) to conduct a search of premises in one of the region’s most notorious raptor- poisoning blackspots.

The search focused on premises in the Drumbanagher area of Co. Armagh following the discovery of a Carbofuran-poisoned buzzard last October. The Drumbanagher/Poyntzpass area is known for its commercial game-shooting interests.

A dead cat was found during the search and has been sent for analysis.

We’ve blogged about this location before. Here’s the list of known (to us) victims:

2006: 1 x poisoned buzzard (type of poison unknown).

2008: 4 x poisoned buzzards (Alphachloralose).

2009: 2 x poisoned red kites (Alphachloralose). One bird survived, the other one didn’t.

2011: 1 x dead buzzard found under a hedge. Too decomposed for analysis.

2011: 3 x dead buzzards, suspected poisoning, but carcasses removed before police attendance. 1 x poisoned magpie (Alphachloralose).

2012: Another poisoned buzzard (Alphachloralose), reportedly the ’36th dead buzzard’ found in this area.

2014: 1 x poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran).

Our previous blogs on this area here and here.

Article on last week’s police search from Farming Life here