There’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.