Further declines of breeding peregrines on grouse moors in NE Scotland

Following on from yesterday’s blog about the preliminary National Peregrine Survey results (see here), an important new scientific paper has just been published on the status of breeding peregrines in NE Scotland:

North East Scotland Raptor Study Group (2015). Peregrines in North-East Scotland in 2014 – further decline in the uplands. Scottish Birds 35(3): 202-206.

We’re not permitted to publish the full paper here, but we are able to publish extracts from it. To read the full paper you’ll either need to subscribe to Scottish Birds (published by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) or you can email the authors and ask if they’d be willing to provide a copy for personal use: nesrsg@gmail.com

Here is the abstract:

Peregrines in North-east Scotland were surveyed in 2014. Compared with previous studies there was an increase in coastal breeding Peregrines, but a decline in the uplands, trends persistent since 1991. Overall fewer Peregrines were recorded in 2014, but their breeding performance was relatively high. Low occupancy of nesting ranges, with more singletons than pairs, was associated with intensive management for driven grouse shooting. The results document a further decline in the Peregrine breeding population in the eastern Cairngorms National Park.

Here is the table of data:

Peregrines NE Scotland 2014_NERSG - Copy

And here is the discussion section:

The breeding population of Peregrines in the north-east of Scotland has been monitored in detail since 1975 with changes in both numbers and distribution well documented (summarised in Hardey 2011). Together with the earlier studies, the 2014 survey results suggest Peregrines in North-east Scotland have increased further on the coast and continued to decline in the uplands, particularly on intensively managed grouse moor where in 2014 only two pairs and four singletons were found.

Occupancy could be underestimated if not all alternative nesting sites are visited or if breeding attempts fail early and birds abandon the site. In 2014 this was unlikely because nesting ranges were well known, visits were not tardy, and most observers were both experienced and skilled using observations of faeces and prey remains as well as of birds. The survey’s key result involved fieldwork in areas that were easiest to search. Most nesting ranges on moorland were on relatively small rocks which were easily checked for both birds and prey remains. By comparison, birds on the coast were less easy to locate because of the continuous potential breeding habitat, including nesting sites that could not be viewed from above. That said, birds were often obvious as they perched high on sea cliff buttresses, with both droppings and plucked prey remains evident. The change in numbers on the coast might thus be complicated by birds obscurely shifting nest site, but the numbers inland are difficult to dispute. The decline of breeding Peregrines recorded in earlier studies is endorsed; in 2014 there were simply even fewer Peregrines to be found at traditional breeding places in the uplands, particularly on moorland managed for driven grouse shooting.

Both Hardey et al. (2003) and Banks et al. (2010) suggest the decline of breeding Peregrines on grouse moorland is the result of killing by game keepers in a sustained effort to reduce the numbers of grouse predators. It is difficult to argue otherwise. Amongst alternative explanations, for example, a reduction in Peregrine food supply is unlikely because Red Grouse Lagopus l. scotica (the main prey by weight) are superabundant on these intensively managed moors. Indeed, 2014 saw record-breaking grouse bags on many estates (www.shootinguk.co.uk/news/moorsreport-record-grouse-bags-6860). It is possible that some other aspect of management for grouse might be reducing the numbers of Peregrines, such as protracted muirburn or the persistent long term use of anthelminthic drugs (medicated grit), but such speculation lacks rational foundation; the most parsimonious explanation is that, as has been established for other birds of prey (Scottish Raptor Study Groups 1997, Whitfield et al. 2003, Fielding et al. 2011), Peregrines are killed on a broad scale and persistently, as newcomers repeatedly attempt to colonise untenanted breeding sites. Such killing reduces the chance of re-colonisation, and moreover reduces recruitment in nearby less intensively managed upland.

The history of the killing of Peregrines on grouse moors is well documented (Ratcliffe 1993, Hardey 2007) and the decline in breeding pairs since 1991 is well reported, initially published by Scottish Natural Heritage (Hardey et al. 2003) and several times since. Despite previous publication the results from 2014 show further decline. The context and scale of the decline is alone of major concern, but has further significance because the north-east of Scotland forms around 40% of the Cairngorms National Park designated in 2003, and currently claimed to be “a stronghold for Britain’s wildlife” (cairngorms.co.uk, accessed 13 May 2015). The eastern portion of the National Park has 53 known Peregrine nesting ranges and in 2014, 51 of these were visited, but only 17 were occupied, 12 by pairs and five by singletons. In 2014, the North-east Scotland portion of the park held less than a quarter of the number of Peregrines that bred in 1991.


This paper, like many before it, presents compelling evidence about the scale of illegal raptor persecution on driven grouse moors, and in this case, notably in the eastern portion of the Cairngorms National Park. We’ve blogged about this notorious raptor-killing hotspot several times before:

In May 2013 we blogged about the launch of ‘Cairngorms Nature‘ – an ambitious five-year action plan to ‘safeguard and enhance the outstanding nature in the Cairngorms National Park’. The proposals for raptor protection were unbelievable – see here.

In May 2014 the Convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority complained to the Environment Minister that continued raptor persecution in the area “threatens to undermine the reputation of the National Park as a high quality wildlife tourism destination” (see here). This resulted in a high-level meeting between the Env Minister and various landowners and their representative bodies in January 2015 – lots of talking and ‘partnership working’, natch – see here – but bugger all else.

Almost 45% of the Cairngorms National Park is covered by ‘managed moorland’. And just look at the damage that ‘management’ is causing. Inside a National Park for christ’s sake!

As an aside, on yesterday’s blog somebody asked whether peregrines prey on red grouse. Yes, they do. Below is a photo of a red grouse that was killed by a peregrine on a Scottish grouse moor. We watched the whole spectacular event. It’s what peregrines do and it’s why many grouse moor managers are doing their utmost to eradicate this species, as well as the hen harrier, golden eagle, and anything else with talons, a hooked beak, or sharp teeth that might affect the number of red grouse available to be shot by high-paying customers.

It’s time to ban driven grouse shooting. Please join over 22,000 other voices by signing this e-petition HERE.

IMG_6467 (2) - Copy

14 thoughts on “Further declines of breeding peregrines on grouse moors in NE Scotland”

  1. Persecution of our protected birds of prey is disgraceful anywhere but for it to happen in our National Park is scandalous. But then the concept of the Cairngorms NP is a joke. Bull dozed hill roads scarring hillsides, housing estates for second homes, native woodlands cleared , land so impoverished that the deer have to be fed artificially, gigantic pylons through its glens & its boundary surrounded by besieging wind farms. Exterminated harriers, shot peregrines, poisoned eagles & not a chance of being recolonized by red kites. Over grazed by deer, some of them exotic & liable to interbreed with indigenous species and with the native ones not having any natural predators. National Park? Nothing but a sham.

    1. You are so right Green grass, UK national parks are, unfortunately a joke, and what with the SNP environment minister cosying up to the SGA and big building firms the CNP doesn’t have a chance.

  2. I can’t prove it but have no doubts that SNH (and probably Natural England too) has been infiltrated by game hunting interests. A good bit of investigative journalism could produce some very revealing facts. Unfortunately the SNH Board and the Scottish Government have been taken in by their agenda, based upon promoting Scotland as a safari destination for tourists who want to shoot game, especially in the romantic backdrop of the Highlands. Others find it attractive simply due to exaggerated claims of a positive effect on Scotland’s economy. Meanwhile our natural heritage continues its steady decline due to loss of habitat, changes in farming practices and persecution, as well as other factors which are fairly well documented. Yet spin is the name of the game for SNH and even RSPB, the latter being so intimidated by the establishment that they can’t even bring themselves to join the calls for an end to grouse shooting. Sadly I feel we’ve a long way to go if RSPB won’t come on board.

    1. Infiltration of the conservancies by the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity, well I doubt that. Having personal experience of NE, I would say that it is far more likely that the NP’S and conservancies are politically restrained by the Government of the day. Does anyone South of the border think for a moment that Liz Truss (Secretary of State for Environment (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) etc.,) gives a toss about Raptors and their illegal persecution! As a good Tory Minister she’s more likely to be concerned about weather she’ll be invited to the next shoot and what wine they’ll be having. Saying that, if Dave Cameron doesn’t care about it, nothing will happen. If on the other hand he was keen about nature and conservation there’s a chance he would at least try to do something constructive. You also have to bear in mind the influence of the aristocracy and land owning classes, who make a great deal of money out of dragging their supposed heritage (you know, Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey etc.,) of Hunting, Shooting and Fishing into the realms of “Big Money”. These same individuals have a disproportionate influence over government policy, nah, they determine government policy, and if you thought for a moment you live in a democracy think again. Finally, the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 desperately needs revision if the conservancies are to have any chance of redressing the imbalance, and with the way power is distributed in Parliament, it’s likely that a replacement bill will face the same challenges the 1981 Act underwent.

      1. Mike, although I said I can’t prove it, I do have direct experience in a professional capacity to back up my belief about infiltration. I’m not talking about a large number of people overwhelming the organisation (SNH), more like a web-like caucus of staff holding positions of significant influence. Some with “the gift of the gab”, who can spin grouse shooting to sound like an environmentally friendly, natural and sustainable way of producing food – viz “Scotland’s Natural Larder”. No sooner had the Deer Commission Scotland been merged with SNH than they set up an ominously titled section called something like “Species Management Unit”. I don’t know if they’re still called that, but their influence caused something of a sea change from SNH being more or less neutral on the issue of ‘recreational’ hunting of wildlife, to being far more supportive, even encouraging at times. I do agree with your overall analysis of the situation, and it is particularly noticeable that some parts of the conservation movement have moved to the right as the political spectrum has shifted steadily following the influence of Thatcher and Blair. I believe that the rising popularity of the culling culture has something to do with that.

  3. The majority of people who use this blog know only too well the true status of our raptors, particularly on grouse moors. Many of us who are deeply involved with long term breeding success and recording have known for years how serious the situation was and have been saying so for years. However, the last few years has seen a seriously large escalation of raptor persecution and environmental damage on the grouse shooting estates, it’s become so serious now that many of the previously well known and successful breeding sites of many of our raptor species are no longer occupied.

    Little or nothing is being done by the authorities to stop this wanton in your face criminal activity, SNH, Police Scotland and the Scottish government are well aware of this escalating illegal persecution and environmental damage but still choose to do nothing to put a stop to it. “WHY”, how much longer will they allow it to go on before something is done to end it. This blatant criminality by people in high places on the shooting estates who think they are above the law of this land has to stop one way or another.

    Time to ban driven grouse shooting now !!!

  4. Does anyone know what has happened to the RSPB report ‘The illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland’ for 2013?
    The 2012 report came out in Dec 2013 so using that time-line the 2013 report is, so far, 10 months late.
    Have they stopped it?

  5. They don’t “think they are above the law of this land”, they “are” above the law of this land. Laws are worse than merely ineffective if they cannot be enforced for what ever reasons. They are a barrier to the public’s awareness of reality.

  6. I’ve been lucky enough to see these magnificent birds (my favourite raptor) in several places including Cornwall, Shropshire, Applecross, Mull and whilst enjoying a lunch time pint in a beer garden in Coventry City Centre on my lunch break!
    It saddens and angers me that these wonderful birds are declining in, surprise surprise, grouse moors. Unfortunately it’s not just the gamekeepers who target peregrines, the pigeon fanciers also are well known persecutors. Another pointless “sport” resulting in the loss of an iconic bird of prey.

  7. A concise and brilliant summary of what is happening to peregrines in NE Scotland. There is no doubt that large areas of the NE uplands are being systematically cleared of peregrines and other raptors on the basis that once areas are cleared then it is then easier to prevent recolonisation.
    We have to stop this happening. Giving the SSPCA new investigatory powers would be a good place to start.

  8. I wonder if you have considered another possible reason for the decline in the number of peregrines on the eastern side of the Cairngorms? Until about ten years ago, there was a falconer who bred and raised Scottish peregrines and lived on the north eastern edge of the Cairngorms in a very isolated house where few people probably knew he was there. He was unusually successful at raising peregrines and other falcons in captivity, and his young peregrines were allowed and encouraged to free hack. I can remember seeing 20 to 25 young peregrines free hacking around his house, perched on the roof or on the tower close to the house. But the price of free hacking was that every year he would lose several young peregrines who would take off and not return. During the years the falconer lived there , possibly five or six of his young peregrines would thus rejoin the local wild peregrine population, helping to keep the numbers up.
    But about ten years ago , the falconer learned that a large wind farm was to be built close to his house, and he decided to sell the house and leave. He bought a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada and took his falcons with him. So for the last ten years there have been no more of his peregrines escaping to the wild. Which could be another reason for the fall in numbers on the eastern Cairngorms. I rarely see a peregrine in this area now

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: