Gas guns on grouse moors: urgent guidance required

You may remember back in May this year we blogged about the deployment of propane gas gun bird scarers on the Leadhills (Hopetoun) Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here).

Bird scarer 1 - Copy

A month later, Mark Avery blogged about the deployment of propane gas guns on an unnamed grouse moor in the Scottish Borders and on another unnamed site in the Peak District National Park (see here).

It seemed they were being used with regularity across the uplands.

For those who don’t know, propane gas guns are routinely used for scaring birds (e.g. pigeons, geese) from agricultural crops – they are set up to deliver an intermittent booming noise and the audible bangs can apparently reach volumes in excess of 150 decibels. According to the Purdue University website, 150 decibels is the equivalent noise produced by a jet taking off from 25 metres away and can result in eardrum rupture. That’s quite loud!

We were interested in the deployment of these bird scarers in relation to (a) their proximity to Schedule 1 and 1A bird species [and thus any potential disturbance to these specially protected species] and (b) their use in designated Special Protection Areas [and thus any potential disturbance caused].

We assumed that the deployment of these gas guns would be subject to guidance and rigorous licensing controls by SNH (as they are the licensing authority for the Wildlife & Countryside Act (as amended)), particularly in relation to the hen harrier, which, as a Schedule 1A species, is “protected from harassment [including disturbance] at any time“, not just when it’s trying to breed (see here).

So an FoI was sent to SNH in June to ask for copies of all correspondence (during the last two years) between SNH and Scottish Land & Estates, and/or GWCT, and/or BASC, and/or Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association regarding the deployment of propane gas guns on grouse moors. As gas guns were clearly being deployed this year, we expected to receive a considerable amount of paperwork relating to SNH guidance on gas gun use.

How wrong were we!

In July, SNH responded by saying there had been “no direct correspondence” with any of the listed organisations in relation to the deployment of propane gas guns on grouse moors.


So it seems that SNH hasn’t issued any guidance on the deployment of these gas guns in sensitive areas where they may directly disturb breeding birds. Isn’t that a bit odd? Isn’t it obvious that the deployment of a gas gun bird scarer in proximity to specially protected birds is likely to, er, scare those specially protected birds? Surely this should be subject to a strict licensing regime?

To be fair to SNH, perhaps they had been unaware that these gas guns were being routinely deployed on grouse moors, and so they wouldn’t have thought that there was a necessity to provide guidance? However, that excuse can’t be used any longer because SNH are now well aware that these gas guns are being deployed. As part of their response to the FoI, they sent a copy of an email chain from members of the PAW Scotland Raptor Group (of which SNH is a member) discussing the deployment of these gas guns in Scotland. It really is worth a read – according to SLE CEO Doug McAdam, these guns ‘have been used for a number of years’ and are used to scare away juvenile ravens. Apparently (according to McAdam) this ‘isn’t a raptor issue’ and gas guns are ‘targeted and proportional’ and they ‘seem to have relatively little impact on other species’, although he fails to provide any shred of evidence to support these claims. He then goes on to say there should be an experimental removal of ravens – a suggestion ably slammed by Ian Thomson, Head of RSPB Scotland Investigations.

Read the correspondence here: FoI July 2015 SNH correspondence gas guns on grouse moors last two years

We would argue that SNH, as a matter of urgency, needs to provide official guidance on the deployment of propane gas guns in proximity to Schedule 1 and Schedule 1A birds, as well as their use in SPAs. Without official guidance, it would probably be difficult to secure a successful prosecution [for gas gun related disturbance offences]. This guidance should be relatively easy for SNH to produce – they recently published similar guidance on the use of helicopters and aircraft in relation to disturbance risks to Schedule 1 and Schedule 1A raptors and wider Schedule 1 species (see here). This guidance (which is very informative – well worth a read) indicates that a licence is required for any aerial work in the vicinity of a protected species. When you look at the noise comparison table produced by Purdue University (here), a Bell J-2A helicopter at 100ft is said to emit 100dB of noise; this is considerably less than the 150dB noise of a propane gas gun and so it follows that a licence would also be required for the deployment of a gas gun in the vicinity of a protected species and/or in a protected area.

We’d also argue that Natural England should also produce guidance on the deployment of gas guns, again as a matter of urgency. As evidenced in Mark Avery’s blog, these devices are also being used on the uplands of northern England.

Here are the contact details for SNH and NE, if anyone feels like writing to them to ask when we might expect the publication of such guidance:

Andrew Bachell, Director of Policy & Advice, SNH:

Alan Law, Chief Strategy & Reform Officer, Natural England:

UPDATE 13th September 2015: SNH commits to investigating the deployment of gas guns on grouse moors (see here)

UPDATE 23rd September 2015: Natural England to issue guidance on deployment of gas guns on grouse moors (see here).

13 thoughts on “Gas guns on grouse moors: urgent guidance required”

  1. The only problem about demanding guidance is set out, is that once it’s in place it’s very difficult to change. Having some insight into the type of people now in higher management positions within SNH, I’d suggest this is a dangerous line to go down. I tend to assume that people who work as conservation professionals are well aware of the political pressures being placed upon SNH just now, but having spoken to a few recently I realise that for some that is not the case. We need to become more aware that there is an element within the higher echelons of SNH who are attempting to steer the organisation in a different direction from what we might expect, and this effect is slowly working its way down through the ranks.

    Please believe me, there are too many people in influential positions within SNH who are trying to promote shooting in a positive light, and their sympathies might not necessarily be fully on the side of persecuted raptors. There is considerable disgruntlement amongst front line troops in the organisation, but few are able to speak out, even internally, due to fear of discrimination. In my opinion they are under a degree of intimidation to appease landowners, although I realise some might just say that is the reality of working for a governmental organisation these days.

    The point I’m trying to make is that guidelines, if cleverly worded by skilled lawyers, can be constructed in such a way as to actually help the landowners and gamekeepers to flout the law by using contrived loopholes. It might involve harder work by the professional conservationists working for NGOs and charities, but surely it should be possible to use existing legislation to get this practice stopped on the basis that it is disturbing harriers (its obvious deliberate intention), and is a danger to public health and safety on land that is open to the public with freedom to roam. The excellent case presented in the above article I believe would stand up in court, with backup from material evidence by expert witnesses. Raptor Study Group members who specialise in harriers could provide this in the case of the positioning of the gas guns in relation to known nesting territories. The argument about scaring flocks of juvenile Ravens is ridiculous, and could be easily countered by anyone with sufficient knowledge of that species’ ecology.

    1. You’re right, it should be possible using existing legislation to get this practice stopped, but it’s highly unlikely to happen. Can’t imagine the police, nor SNH for that matter, putting in serious effort on this score. McAdam says that these gas guns have been in use for several years and yet…..

      We’d disagree that requesting guidance is a dangerous line to take. In our opinion, it’s the most sensible option at this stage. We’ve been advised that without ‘official’ guidance from the licensing authority (SNH), securing a prosecution would be virtually impossible, even though it’s blindingly obvious that these gas guns are going to cause disturbance in some locations. Yes, there may be loopholes in such guidance, but currently, the biggest loophole is that there isn’t any guidance.

      As mentioned in the blog, it wouldn’t take much for SNH to produce disturbance guidelines in a similar vein to those they produced for helicopter /aircraft flights in the vicinity of Sched 1 & 1A raptors.

      The use of gas guns is clearly a licensable activity if they are to be deployed in SPAs and/or close to Sched 1 & 1A raptors. All SNH has to do is make this clear, so that the next time someone sees an operational gas gun in such circumstances, if a licence hasn’t been approved, a prosecution should follow. If it doesn’t, we have a much better chance of reporting the failure to the EU because it will be a clear breach of the statutory guidelines (to which the guidance document will refer).

        1. Obviously I disagree, perhaps I’m too worn out and cynical. I’d be interested to know who gave you that advice, but I imagine it was confidential. If gas guns aren’t simply illegal in circumstances where harriers are being deliberately disturbed, licensing the activity is likely to lead to licenses being issued under falsified applications. These people can afford the most expensive legal advice and circumvent the law more or less as they please, just as they avoid paying tax. Their tactic is often to ignore the law and rely upon the timidity of SNH and others to allow them to get away with it. My experience is that once SNH has issued a licence they don’t want to know about any alleged breach of conditions, especially where landowners are concerned. They tend to use the excuse of limited resources, of which there is an element of truth of course. I spoke to a senior RSPB officer about the gas gun issue, and was advised that the RSPB did not report the offence or submit a complaint because they would have had difficulty proving deliberate disturbance. I’m fully aware of the usual arguments against taking actions that are liable to fail, but that to me is a defeatist aproach. I couldn’t get a proper explanation of what the RSPB had to lose by simply reporting a suspected crime. The fact that they didn’t report it could even work against them in future cases. I wish you all the best, but wish I had your confidence in being able to make a difference by reporting to the EU. I too am sceptical about the seriousness with which Police Scotland might deal with a complaint, but again feel it’s defeatist not to apply Occam’s razor and adopt the simplest approach in the first instance.

      1. Within an SSSI or SPA (they are not all SSSI’s) a land owner would need to apply to SNH for a “consent\” to carry out “an operation requiring consent”. If there is no formal letter of consent then this would make it an offence.
        SNH can only issue disturbance licences for defined purposes… they cant issue a licence to permit the disturbance of sched 1 A species as an incidental consequence of scaring other birds that might be within, say a harriers, normal range.

        Who manufactures these disturbance machines and what guidance to they issue on their use?

  2. I would like to stand corrected but in my experience SNH are absolutely useless at conservation.
    There is a machair SSSI near me which is owned by the council but it has hundreds of rabbits and continuous sheep grazing. I have never seen one orchid on what looks like a golf course.
    I am convinced that if a member of the general public disturbed eagles at the nest and disrupted breeding they would be prosecuted but i know of an incident where a a tree planting company disturbed a Golden Eagle pair forcing the pair to try to nest at a new and substandard site. The new nest collapsed and yet the tree planters were not prosecuted. The planters had already been given guidance as to when they could plant and just ignored it. As far as i know they just got a telling off. OK, this may have been a police or fiscal matter but i doubt very much if the SNH were strict enough at giving guidelines.
    I know of another case which involved a new pair of White-tailed Eagles and a logging company. I don’t know any of what went on between NHS and the loggers but i do know that the pair were both 7 years old when they finally got around to nesting but the trees left around the nest were so few that the nest/tree blew down. This year the pair have moved to an new area and i just hope that as the logging continues the whole cycle doesn’t happen again.
    It could be that they SNH are just under-manned and under-funded but whatever the case i get the feeling that the ‘lights are on but nobody is home’ at the SNH.
    I will write an e-mail to them and wait for the usual lame reply. They have a spin doctor at least.

  3. SNH are no longer a conservation organisation, their function is to aid the exploitation of the natural heritage. My exchanges with numerous disgruntled SNH staff confirm the situation reported by Mr Snipe above.

    Disturbance is disturbance no matter how it is caused and who causes it, in the end the only people that can take real action on this are the police.

    Lets be clear about this, these disturbance machine are manufactured to help farmers protect ripe arable crops (and grass from migratory geese). They are not intended to be used in the breeding season. They are definitely not selective in their impact, there is no feasible argument that these things can be targeted to disturb ravens alone. So if these machines were active when nesting started and they were responsible for disturbing so much as an active meadow pipit nest, a crime would have been committed.

    The fact that these machines are being deliberately deployed to disturb sched 1A species, should drawn attention to the police and the national wildlife crime “intelligence” unit. If they are seen in a known harrier range then they should be reported to the police straight away ( RSPB and SSPCA too).

    If these gadgets are being used in.. or adjacent to, SPA’s/SSSI’s then they will require a formal consent from SNH. So it should be possible to find out how many consents for scaring devices have been issued?

  4. ‘and they were responsible for disturbing so much as an active meadow pipit nest, a crime would have been committed’
    Excellent point.

  5. If they’re used on a SPA and they prevent any of the species that are qualifying features nesting, then they will ‘adversely affect the integrity of the site’. If allowed to stand, then the Scottish Government then leave themselves open to legal challenge in Europe. And even if they’re not in use on a protected area, if gamins intentionally or recklessly harass at any time, a species on Sch 1A (WCA) – hen harrier, then an offence is committed.

    I agree with circusmaximus. Find one operating anywhere on a moor, and report it to the police.

  6. These bangers have an extremely short effective time span in disturbing corvids. They rapidly learn the is no subsequent event after the bang and ignore them or at best will stay 100m away. Hardly effective unless you place one device per hectare.

    Surely the RSPB could do a simple experiment to prove this and make that an unviable defence in court.

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