High risk plan to boost golden eagle population in southern Scotland

Peebles August 2007There’s an article on the BBC News website today about a proposal to take golden eagle chicks from the Highlands and release them in southern Scotland in an attempt to boost the tiny, depleted population currently clinging on by its talons (BBC report here).

The timing of this news is suspicious, especially when you learn that the project hasn’t yet been formally approved and thus may or may not happen. The cynical amongst us might view it as yet another piece of spin aimed at portraying the grouse-shooting industry in a favourable light so close to the start of the Inglorious 12th, especially when you see who is involved with the project – more on that later.

There’s no doubt that the southern Scotland golden eagle population is in serious trouble, and has been for many years. We’ve blogged about this previously (here, here). On the face of it then, any attempt to increase the population to its former status should be welcome news. But…..

A basic tenet of any restocking / translocation / restoration / reinforcement / reintroduction (whatever they choose to call this project) is that there should be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous decline has been identified and removed or sufficiently reduced. This is a standard guideline issued by the IUCN and is part of the criteria used to assess whether such projects can proceed.

One of the biggest constraints on golden eagle population recovery in southern Scotland is persecution. Raptor persecution in southern Scotland has definitely not been removed, nor sufficiently reduced. In the last ten years alone there have been more than 150 confirmed persecution incidents (that figure doesn’t include the ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ cases, nor those that went undiscovered). Just three days ago we were given a sharp reminder of just how current this problem still is when it was announced that a young hen harrier had been found shot dead on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire (see here). The 2014 SNH-commissioned report on the status of golden eagles in southern Scotland also identified several areas where persecution is an ongoing concern, including the Lowther Hills, the Lammermuirs and the Moorfoots (all driven grouse moor areas – what a surprise), and stated that persecution needed to be brought under control in those regions if golden eagles were to thrive in southern Scotland once again (see SNH report here).

Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod acknowledges the persecution issue and in an earlier version of the BBC article this morning she said she will “work hard” to ensure the project is a success. In the latest version of the article, this has been updated with her saying that the persecution of raptors would “not be tolerated under any circumstances“. We’re sure she has good intentions but to be frank, this is just more rhetoric. She (and her predecessors) has been unable to bring persecution under control in other parts of the golden eagle’s range (notably the driven grouse moor regions of central and eastern Scotland – see report here from 2011 and report here from 2014) so why should we think she’ll be able to bring it under control in southern Scotland without bringing in new sanctions?

Having said all that, other high risk projects of a similar nature have been very successful on the whole (think reintroduction of red kites and white-tailed eagles). It’s also abundantly clear that if we wait for the southern Scotland golden eagle population to rebound of its own accord (by natural recruitment of individuals from the more northerly populations) then we’re likely to see the demise of the southern Scotland golden eagle population within a few years. It’s a definite trade off situation.

The one big thing in the project’s favour is that, if it does go ahead, it is likely to be a high profile project. There will be plenty of public interest and, assuming the released birds will be satellite-tracked (and their movements made publicly available and not kept secret), the unlawful killing or ‘mysterious disappearance’ of any of those birds will cause public uproar. This will put a lot of pressure on landowners and their gamekeepers to behave themselves and leave those eagles alone. If they don’t, it may well be the final nail in the coffin for their industry. There have been two very high profile killings of golden eagles in southern Scotland in recent years: an adult female was poisoned in 2007 (see here) and an adult male was shot in 2012 (see here). Ironically, that shot golden eagle was found on Buccleuch Estate, one of the listed project supporters. This is also where hen harrier Annie’s corpse was found.

As well as Buccleuch Estates, another project supporter is Scottish Land and Estates. Their CEO Doug McAdam is quoted as follows in the BBC article:

Landowners value golden eagles, they are one of our most iconic birds and I think people will work hard with us to make this project a success. Often landowners are portrayed as the villain here and against golden eagles and nothing could be further from the truth“.

It’s actually very close to the truth. Yes, there are a handful of landowners who cherish having breeding golden eagles on their land (not least the landowner who provides a home for the one remaining pair in the Borders) but that handful is greatly outnumbered by the vast majority of driven grouse moor owners who employ a zero tolerance policy for golden eagles (and many other raptor species) on their ground. Why else does McAdam think there is a need for conservation intervention to rescue the southern Scotland golden eagle population? How else does McAdam explain the large number of vacant golden eagle territories on grouse moors in central and eastern Scotland? How else can McAdam explain the disproportionate number of satellite-tagged eagles that ‘vanish’ on driven grouse moors? How else does McAdam explain the disproportionate number of poisoned, shot and trapped golden eagles that are found on driven grouse moors?

Let’s hope this restoration project does go ahead and we see an increasingly viable golden eagle population in southern Scotland. We’ll be watching with interest and McAdam and his industry mates can rest assured that if any of those young eagles are illegally killed, we and others will go to town on exposing it to the public.

The image above is of the poisoned golden eagle found underneath her nest tree in the Borders in 2007. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for this.

The image below is of the shot golden eagle found on Buccleuch Estate in 2012. He didn’t survive. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for this.

 Wanlock Head GE Oct 2012

26 thoughts on “High risk plan to boost golden eagle population in southern Scotland”

  1. Just heard this on the news. The Gamekeepers down there are most likely right now getting there poisons, guns and traps ready. After all they have already decimated them once.

  2. How can an estate that has a xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx like the Buccleuch estate , be allowed to have any involvement in this project ?

  3. With regards to “Annie” the Hen Harrier, I commented at the time, and I think it is worth repeating, that once she made the move from the Solway coast to the grouse moors of Lanarkshire, she didn’t even last a month before she was killed.

    Despite being quite a high profile species, the Hen Harrier is still being widely targeted by the sociopaths of the shooting industry, and I honestly cannot see how it would be any different for Golden Eagles. Indeed, in the BBC report, Adam Smith of the GWCT has suggested that one of the major contributing factor to the decline of the Golden Eagle in southern Scotland, is trees! So, I would be totally opposed to this scheme, and I think the RSPB (and all other true conservation organisations) should distance themselves from such a project until the shooting estates can prove that they are willing to change. And dare I mention that this scheme could also be used as a catalyst for “brood management” of other raptor species.

    The shooting industry has simply refused to change its ways, and there are many organisations, landowners and employees that are perfectly happy with the status quo, which through the lacklustre efforts of the current Environment Minister, is allowing them to kill protected species with impunity.

    So on that issue, may I take the opportunity to state that Aileen McLeod, in her tenure as Environment Minister to date, has been a complete waste of space. To use that well used phrase, actions speak louder than words, and so far all we have been offered is meaningless waffle. Get your act together.

    Finally, and I fully agree that this is slightly off-topic, and it does relate to incidents in England, but it does give people an idea of how people from different walks of life are treated by the establishment. You don’t have to contribute, just read the text, and I’m sure most people on here will be utterly disgusted.
    (I do find the severity of the fine interesting, especially when it is compared with recent incidents such as the Stody Estate case, the Neil Wainwright case, and a host of others throughout the years.)

    1. Re the cases you highlight Marco…the only thing that seems to have improved since the time of the bloody assizes in the 17th century is that we no longer hang and transport poor people for minor offences…we just make their lives even more miserable…

      1. Aye, and I strongly believe that one of the reasons for the establishment’s overly keen attacks on the poor, the vulnerable, the infirm and the defenceless, is all down to the fact that they can no longer get their kicks by killing these people through a variety of barbaric methods, so they are targeted by the only means available to the establishment – deprive them of money and food, deprive them of self-esteem, and get your friends in the right-wing media to continually harass and hound these poor people with falsified accounts, blatant lies and propaganda, denying them any right of reply.

        In the past, slaughtering these people, in many cases for what we would consider to be very trivial reasons, was commonplace, with many of these offences being introduced at the behest of the wealthy classes. It has been suggested that more than 200 offences were punishable by death.

        Of course, by the 1830s much of this slaughter became less acceptable, and it is at that this very same time that game shooting laws are relaxed and grouse shooting starts to become popular, so one would have to ask if there is a link between the two. Did the ruling classes realise that they could satisfy their bloodlust in other ways, far from the gazing eyes of the general public? Did the bloodletting of defenceless humans eventually give way to the bloodletting of defenceless animals?

        So, yes Dave, things haven’t changed much in all of those years, and they show no sign of ever doing so.

  4. I’m surprised that the project is thought to meet IUCN guidelines regarding the absence of the cause of local extinction in the first place.

    1. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Pretty certain the IUCN guidelines cannot be met just on that one issue alone. However, a way around that will probably be to couch the project as a ‘research trial’. Sound familiar? (Think brood management).

  5. Sadly I have to agree that this project is doomed and should not go ahead..which is a win for the criminals who, at present run our grouse moors. Having been involved in the planning of a couple of the red kite reintroductions, which although successful up to a point, have seen significant numbers of birds deliberately shot and poisoned – I wonder if we would have gone ahead if we had had all the information/recorded incidents that are now well documented [see the archives on this site]?…For those of you who think in terms of financial value [controversial in itself!]..I remember when the first red kite was poisoned on the Black Isle back in 1989 – from only 6 released, it was reckoned to have cost the taxpayer £10,000 – these people are not just removing our natural heritage, they are defrauding the country.

  6. Whose proposal is this, what is its purpose and objectives? Reinforce and extend the range of a thin population or highlight the continued killing of protected species. Seems to me that the latter is more likely.

  7. I very much welcome the idea to expand the range of golden eagles.
    Duncan Orr-Ewing of the RSPB is right to quote ” the significance of persecution should not be underestimated”.
    You bet it shouldn’t!
    Just such a pity (actually a planning catastrophe) that the RSPB allow so much prime golden eagle habitat in the Southern Uplands to be turned in to wind farms!. There would have been room for many more pairs & therefore much more viable.
    Regarding another partner, SNH, if they are really serious about conserving Scotland’s golden eagles the first very simple thing they should do is rightfully award it Scotland’s National Bird.
    And if our dear doctor at Holyrood isn’t spouting spin the very first thing she should do if allow the SSPCA to investigate wildlife crime. Its quite clear Police Scotland aren’t up to the job.
    The second thing she should do is ensure the courts hand out sentences which are a meaningful deterrent.
    She should realise that wildlife crime is a violent crime, often barbaric & sadistic.
    Is Alma the poisoned eagle any different than Cecil the serially shot lion, both dying lingering deaths. Is Scotland any different Zambia!

    1. Quite correct. Alma the eagle, or Annie the harrier are no different from Cecil the lion. They all met grisly deaths, suffering extreme pain in the process, and yet the perpetrators (and the shooting industry) would have us, and the public, believe that all of this was carried out in the name of “conservation”.

    2. Your right PB – any eagles that survive direct persecution by the usual suspects will be shredded by wind turbines that now sprawl over most of the remaining habitat

  8. As always, excellent analysis RPS.
    So few people realise that Southern Scotland should be home to eagles, and why it isn’t.
    They’re so rare here, as to be almost mythical; the events of 2007, 2012 tell it all.
    My family experienced the joy and awe of seeing the bird, pictured above, in the months before she was killed.
    And the shock and sorrow of seeing her poisoned body.
    The Borders people have a right to see eagles in their skies.
    But I suspect the first we’ll see of these released birds will be images on RPS of corpses retrieved from a hill.
    Meanwhile the press will focus hard on Africa’s failure to protects lions from illegal hunting.

    1. Yes, the biased and corrupt UK media will happily mention the plight of African wildlife, mainly because the parasites and hypocrites of Buck Hoose now claim that they find the slaughter of African wildlife deplorable (whilst proudly displaying such trophies in their stately homes!), yet the widespread criminal activity being carried out to “benefit” one of the parasitical family’s favoured pastimes, barely merits a mention on TV or in the press.

  9. I think I’ve said on here before that the spectacular success of the red kite reintroduction on the urban fringe of Newcastle/Gateshead should be the model for future projects where the birds can be appreciated by many more people and the tweed set don’t have to be involved. If a point has to be made, then it can be that releases in the countryside are compromised by the continued killing of protected species by game managers (and in some cases farmers).

    So a bit of imagination for GE reinforcement please and not just release them into the killing fields of the Scottish Borders. A look at Richard Evans’ work about historic range and today’s environment might bear examination.

    If it does just show high risk areas then forget it!

  10. No, it should not go ahead and it should be made clear to the media why it is not going ahead and that is the very real likelyhood of the birds being destroyed should they stray on to ‘sporting’ estates. Also, I would be very reluctant to offer Buccleuch, or any other, any PR opportunity to ‘prove’ to the general public that they are doing their bit towards the conservation of raptor species whereas the reality is so very different.

  11. My interpretation is that some of the shooters are becoming aware of their bad publicity re raptor killing and they will try to show this as an example of their good intentions.Assuming it does get approved, I am not sure how they will get all their colleagues on board as young eagles travel widely and it is hard to believe they have all suddenly turned over a new leaf.If the birds are tagged and go missing in the usual areas, then that would be an own-goal,so maybe the plan is to dump the tagged birds on RSPB land.Just speculating of course!

    Anyway, on behalf of England’s one and only male golden eagle,he would be happy for any female to get to the Lake District! Meaning any female golden eagle!

  12. As mentioned by one or two commenters above..golden eagles do travel widely when young..often taking 5 or 6 years before settling down in one place. Scottish immature birds have been known to move hundreds of miles sometimes as far as England. A retired keeper from a grouse moor in the Lammermuir Hills told us that every year they would kill one or two golden eagles which had turned up – deliberately targeting them – they called them “turkeys”.That was within the last 20 years. Nice people out there.The last thing the south Scotland grouse estates will want are reintroduced satellite tagged eagles being followed round by conservationists and finding out all their little grubby secrets….but that information is certainly not worth wasting the lives of eagles….The red kite reintroductions have done a lot of good for conservation but they certainly have done little to stop the persecution of harriers, peregrines and eagles.

  13. Yes I believe that it’s inevitable that some released eagles with be illegally killed because there are criminals operating on grouse moors, but there is an opportunity to expand & increase the population. If young birds were NOT collected from eyries to the north what do you think would happen to them? Some would die naturally, some would collided with the minefield of wind farms that are taking over Scotland’s iconic mountains, some may survive & of course some will be illegally killed. The risks to young eagles from criminals & wind farms is no greater in the south than they are in the Eastern Highlands. And it will be mainly from the eastern half of the Country where donor birds would have to come from because twins are very scarce in the West. Some birds released in the Southern Uplands could easily make their way to norther England, but at least there, there is not the obsessive folly of wall to wall wind farms the Scottish Government imposes on us. The stark reality is whether young eagles fledged naturally in the north or are released in the south their chances of survival are much the same. At least the released ones could all be tracked by satellite.

  14. I’ve just got back from camping in The Borders. Three days outside birdwatching up hills and in woods etc. I didn’t see a single raptor. Not one. Not even a Buzzard. Plenty of pheasant pens though.

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