Gamekeeper accusing ‘bird activists’ of killing raptors was on TV last night

Following yesterday’s blog about that Scottish gamekeeper who was interviewed on BBC Scotland radio, accusing “bird activists” of killing satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers (see here), he was also on the telly last night.

The TV piece was a shortened version of the radio interview. Here’s the transcript they left out:

I now have very strong reason to believe that we’ve got some bird activists in the area. I now have strong suspicions it’s a bird activist. They’re so close to winning this case against the grouse moors. I don’t know if any of the gamekeeper lads over this side of the hill would like to be responsible for going down in history for getting the grouse shooting banned but I certainly would imagine there’d be a few activists who’d take a chance of doing something and I wouldn’t put it past them“.

The TV version focuses on him denying any gamekeeper involvement because there’s ‘no evidence’. Unfortunately, the presenter didn’t do a very good job as he failed to challenge Mr McBeath’s views. He could have discussed the 30+ years worth of overwhelming evidence that all points to the grouse shooting industry, but he didn’t. Or if he did it was edited out.

Ah well, the video is still very funny. Here’s the clip from BBC Reporting Scotland (evening news, 30 Aug 2016).


Caring gamekeepers warn public not to tamper with poisoned baits

poison2Gamekeepers in Scotland have asked the public not to hamper ‘legitimate moorland activities’ after a number of poisoned baits were disturbed next to a popular walking area.

The baits, which are approved by the Modern Poisoners’ Society to be deployed by trained gamekeepers to control predators such as golden eagles and red kites, were interfered with on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park.

The local chapter of the Modern Poisoners’ Society said that those using the moors for access should not handle baits, especially as tampering by non-trained individuals can lead to accidents.

Grampian coordinator Ben D. O’Carb said: “Interference with poisoned baits is illegal and we would appeal to anyone who sees them whilst out walking not to move or handle them, even if they are curious as to why they are there.

These baits are set by trained professionals for a legitimate purpose. Thankfully, the majority of walkers enjoy the moors and are mindful they are places of work as well as recreation. In this particular instance, the disturbed baits were left out in the open, where they were originally placed, and could have posed a danger in an area where there are lots of dog walkers.

We want people to be safe so we would ask members of the public to leave the poisoned baits alone. If they want to find out more about them, they should engage with the gamekeepers who will be able to tell them how and why they are used. The gamekeepers will be easy to spot – they’ll be inside the 4×4 vehicle that’s been following you across the moor for the last hour, just to ensure your safety, obvs.”

Ps. God bless little angels in heaven“.

Actually, none of the above happened. We just made it up. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.

In other news, the Grampian Moorland Group is urging the public not to tamper with legally-set traps (see here). Those caring, thoughtful, considerate and public-spirited guardians of the countryside are worried that members of the public may be injured if traps are damaged.

Strangely, the article doesn’t mention the risks to the public (adults, children, pets) of touching or standing on an illegally-set spring trap that’s been staked out on open ground, or the potentially fatal consequences of touching an illegally poisoned bait.

“Bird activists” killing satellite-tagged raptors, says gamekeeper

It’s ok everybody, the mystery of the vanishing satellite-tagged raptors has finally been solved. It wasn’t the (non-existent) wind farms (see here). And it wasn’t the unreliable satellite tags with a dodgy salt water switch attached to Olive Ridley Turtles off the coast of India (see here).

No, the real reason, according to a Scottish gamekeeper, is that “bird activists” have been killing off the raptors as part of a smear campaign against those who manage grouse moors.

Phew. Glad that’s all been cleared up.

Have a listen to gamekeeper Donald McBeath, interviewed on Good Morning Scotland earlier today (here – starts at 02:51:37, available for 29 days).

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UPDATE 31 Aug 2016: The name of this gamekeeper is Donald McBeath, not Donald Macbeth.

UPDATE 31 Aug 2016: Mr McBeath was on the telly last night. Watch the video here

UPDATE 1 September 2016: PAW Scotland dismisses gamekeeper’s claims as ridiculous here

Review of Scottish raptor satellite-tag data widened to three species

A couple of weeks ago we blogged about the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment’s call for a review of golden eagle satellite tag data (see here). This was in response to the news that eight young satellite-tagged golden eagles had ‘disappeared’ on grouse moors in the Monadhliaths over a five year period, with three of them vanishing this year alone (see here). Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham called for the review “to discover if there is a pattern of suspicious activity“.

Shortly afterwards, the news broke that a young satellite-tagged hen harrier (‘Elwood’) had also ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in the Monadhliaths (see here). We wondered how Roseanna Cunningham would react to this news and hoped her response would be more substantial than the usual Ministerial expression of “disappointment“.

It seems she has taken note. Here is her response:

The news that a juvenile hen harrier has disappeared in the Monadhliaths, complete with its satellite tag, only weeks after it fledged, strengthens my determination to get to the truth about how, where and why raptors with functioning satellite tags seem to be regularly disappearing. I have asked for a review of all the evidence and I intend to ensure that data from hen harriers and red kites, as well as data from golden eagles will be considered as part of this. We are continuing to collect evidence in relation to raptors in Scotland, which will be a significant factor in deciding the next steps for tackling wildlife crime.”

So, the review has been widened from just looking at golden eagle satellite tag data to now including hen harrier and red kite satellite tag data. We are pleased about this (with certain caveats, see below), although we still maintain that the review is superfluous to understanding and acknowledging what’s happening to these species on driven grouse moors. The scientific evidence is already clear, and has been available to the decision makers for many, many years. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what’s going on. Looking for, and finding, ‘patterns of suspicious activity‘ has been done to death and the findings have been conclusive, over and over again.

Elwood 2 - Adam Fraser

The reason we welcome the widening of this review is because we can already predict the results for each of the three species, and we predict they will all point to the same problem: the majority of young, satellite-tagged golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites that ‘disappear’ do so on driven grouse moors. Seeing the evidence from one species (golden eagles) would be pretty powerful, but having virtually identical results from two further species should be devastatingly compelling.

The caveat to welcoming this widened review is that the Scottish Government MUST push on with this review without delay and then MUST respond to the findings in a timely manner. This Government (and notably its statutory conservation advisory agency, SNH) has a long track record of prevarication when it comes to publishing results and then acting on the evidence provided. Here are some examples:

The Golden Eagle Conservation Framework (an holistic approach to assessing raptor conservation, trying to find out what’s going on regionally and nationally and trying to look at what’s limiting numbers and influencing productivity). This impressive and substantial review was submitted in 2003. It wasn’t published until 2008. The report identified illegal persecution as a significant constraint on the population.

The Hen Harrier Conservation Framework. Another impressive and substantial review that was submitted in 2008. It wasn’t published until 2011. The report identified illegal persecution as a significant constraint on the population.

The Hen Harrier Conservation Framework Update. This update was required after land managers criticised the 2011 report because it excluded results from the 2010 National Hen Harrier Survey. The update report was submitted in 2013. It has still not been published (and is likely to be further criticised because it won’t include results from the 2016 National Hen Harrier Survey!). We know (because we’ve attended several presentations given by one of the authors) that this report identifies illegal persecution as a significant on-going constraint on the population.

The Peregrine Conservation Framework. This review began in 2003 (or thereabouts – we’re not certain of the exact start date). An interm progress report was published in 2007 but nothing further since then.

The consultation on increased investigatory powers for the SSPCA. This consultation was first suggested in 2011. The consultation was finally launched in March 2014. The consultation closed on 1 September 2014. In May 2016, Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said a decision “would be announced in due course“. This coming Thursday will mark two years since the consultation period ended.

Population modelling of red kites in northern Scotland. This review aimed to update the findings of a paper published in 2010 which showed illegal persecution was responsible for the slow population growth in this region. The review was submitted in 2015. It has yet to be published. We know (through informal discussions with colleagues) that this report identifies illegal persecution as a significant on-going constraint on this population.

Wildlife Crime Penalties Review. This review was commissioned in July 2013 and it finally reported in November 2015. In February 2016 the then Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod accepted the report’s recommendations. We have yet to hear how the Scottish Government intends to progress those recommendations.

Review of gamebird licensing and legislation in other countries. This report was commissioned in January 2016 and the final report was submitted in late spring 2016. The report has yet to be published. Claudia Beamish MSP has lodged a parliamentary question (dated 18 August 2016) to find out when the Government intends to publish.

Decision on the fate of the Tay beavers. In March 2012 the then Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson delayed a decision on the fate of the Tay beavers for three years, until the end of 2015. In May 2016, the current Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced a further delay ‘until later in 2016’. That decision is still pending.

These examples do not inspire great confidence in the Scottish Government’s willingness to act quickly on issues of wildlife conservation, and particularly those issues relating to the illegal persecution of raptors. These long delays only inspire frustration and increasing anger. Let’s hope that with this latest review of raptor satellite tag data, Roseanna Cunningham encourages a fast review process, doesn’t delay the publication of the findings, and acts quickly and robustly to implement measures against those who continue to flout the law.

Photograph shows young hen harrier ‘Elwood’ with his satellite tag, just a few weeks before he ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in the Monadhliaths. Photo by Adam Fraser.

Death in a National Park

Many people think that a National Park provides a safe haven for wildlife. It’d be a reasonable expectation. The reality is somewhat different.

The following photographs were taken last week inside the Peak District National Park. To be more precise, they were taken on the northern side of the Bole Edge Plantation (Strines Wood), close to Bradfield grouse moor.

These Fenn (spring) traps appear to be legal, in as much as they have been set inside an artificial tunnel. However, the tunnel entrances do not appear to have been effectively restricted to minimise the risk to non-target species. The legal requirement for tunnel restriction is a bit of a grey area and apparently is at the discretion of the trap operator.

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Flawed Natural England policies assume gamekeepers don’t illegally kill raptors

We’ve been blogging for over a year about the use of propane gas guns on grouse moors and about our concerns that these booming bird scaring devices are being used to discourage raptors (and particularly hen harriers) from settling to breed (e.g. see here, here, here, here).

In June this year, Natural England finally produced what they called ‘guidance’ for those wishing to deploy gas guns and published a decision flow chart. It looked like this:

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A spokesperson for Natural England said he hoped the guidance was helpful (it wasn’t, see here) and welcomed further questions if clarification was needed.

One of our blog readers did want further clarification and he asked Natural England to explain how ‘ensuring that gas guns are located so that they do not disturb breeding Schedule 1 birds’ would work in practice?

Here’s Natural England’s response:

In response to your query the onus is on the land manager or their representative not to cause disturbance as that would be unlawful. The use of gas guns aims to dissuade species such as corvids from causing damage to ground nesting birds or livestock. On large expanses of open moorland they should be able to be deployed away from Schedule 1 species. Most managers should know where these species are present but it would be best practice for Natural England and other interested groups, for example raptor study group members, to pass on information over the location of Schedule 1 species to the land manager so they are in a more informed position and then able to ensure that gas guns are deployed appropriately“.

Ah, of course. Because telling the grouse moor manager/gamekeeper where you’ve seen hen harriers will undoubtedly lead to those birds being protected and left undisturbed, right? Have you got that, raptor study group workers?

And here’s another ingenious policy strategy from Natural England. In response to the news that Natural England had issued a licence to a gamekeeper allowing him to kill up to ten buzzards in order to ‘protect his pheasants’ (see here), another blog reader (@exPWCO) asked Natural England how they would check that just ten buzzards had been killed? Here’s Natural England’s response:


Ah, of course. Because asking a gamekeeper to fill in a form stating how many buzzards he’d killed under licence is bound to result in a truthful response, right?

Both of these policy statements just beggar belief. They are both based on the assumption that gamekeepers don’t illegally kill raptors, which, as we all know (and so should Natural England), is a flawed assumption.

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Northern England Raptor Forum: 2016 annual conference

nerf-logo3This year’s Northern England Raptor Forum conference will be held on Saturday 19 November at the Xcel Centre in Durham, co-hosted by the Durham Upland Bird Study Group and the Durham Bird Club.

The conference programme has just been announced (see here) and includes the following presentations:

Birds of the Durham uplands: current population trends & studies (John Strowger & David Raw)

Intensification of grouse moor management in Scotland: consequences for upland raptors (Ruth Tingay)

The breeding ecology of Little Owl in England: factors affecting breeding performance in two study areas (Emily Joachim)

Bod Tinwen, Hen harriers in Wales: are Hen harriers increasing in the Welsh uplands? (Stephen Bladwell)

The 2014 UK breeding Peregrine survey: the mixed fortunes of Peregrines with a focus on results in England (Mark Wilson)

Merlins in SE Scotland, 1984-2014: a 30 year study in the Lammermuir Hills ended abruptly in 2015 (Ian Poxton)

Driven grouse shooting, born in 19th Century, fit for the 21st? The impact of management practices and the need for change (Pat Thompson)

The downloadable booking form is available here or book online here

Buzzard shot dead in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire

shot bz nyorksAug16North Yorkshire Police are appealing for information after the discovery of a buzzard that had been shot dead.

On 4th August 2016 a member of the public reported that a buzzard had been found dead near Manfield, North Yorkshire. The buzzard was recovered by the RSPB and taken to a vet in Leeds. An x-ray showed ten fragments inside the bird, consistent with being shot. It is not known how long the buzzard had been dead before it was found.

PC Rob Davies, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, said: “Buzzards are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it a criminal offence to kill or injure them. The extent to which raptors are persecuted is completely unacceptable, so I am urging anyone with any information about this incident to get in touch with me without delay.”

Anyone who is aware of suspicious activity in the area, or has any information that could assist the investigation, is asked to contact PC Rob Davies at North Yorkshire Police by dialing 101 and selecting option 2, or via email Alternatively, contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. Please quote reference number 12160140036.

North Yorkshire maintains its status as one of the worst places in the UK for the illegal killing of birds of prey. It’s a county where much of the landscape is dominated by grouse moors, particularly in the two National Parks: the North York Moors NP and the Yorkshire Dales NP, as well as a large number of pheasant and partridge shoots.

This year, other raptor persecution crimes uncovered in North Yorkshire have included several illegally spring-trapped buzzards, several shot buzzards, at least ten shot red kites, and a gamekeeper filmed setting three illegal pole traps in the vicinity of a hen harrier.

There’s still time to sign the e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. Over 116,000 people have had enough – have you? Please sign here.

Obscure sea turtle tracking data from India used to explain ‘disappearing’ eagles in Monadhliaths

SCAlogoA couple of weeks ago we blogged about the ‘disappearance’ of eight young satellite-tagged golden eagles on grouse moors in the Monadhliath Mountains of Highland Scotland (see here).

Keen to deflect attention away from the most likely suspects, the grouse-shooting industry claimed that windfarms were probably to blame – a claim that was easily debunked when it became apparent those windfarms didn’t actually exist (see here). Still, it made a change from them suggesting that trees are the biggest threat to golden eagles in Scotland (see here).

Now they’ve come up with another excuse but once again, it’s poorly researched and relies upon their assumption that nobody will bother checking their claimed ‘facts’.

Have a read of this press statement from the Scottish Countryside Alliance (SCA). Hilariously, the SCA suggests that ‘finger pointing at the shooting community, based on no evidence, must be resisted‘.

UPDATE: Here’s a screen grab of the SCA’s statement as it seems to have ‘disappeared’ from the SCA website:

scottish countryside alliance morons

No evidence? Good grief. Try this, thisthis, this, and, particularly pertinent to the Monadhliaths, try this (where a young gamekeeper on Moy Estate was found to have a jar containing four eagle leg rings that had previously been attached to young golden eagles)!

However, that’s not what this blog is about. What particularly interested us about this SCA statement was the following:

Contrary to claims that transmitters are reliable, research papers published in 2013 studied three decades of wildlife radio telemetry and concluded that failure rates could be as high as 49%“.

Gosh! A failure rate of 49% does seem high! That MUST be the most plausible explanation for the ‘disappearance’ of these eight golden eagles (and all the other satellite-tagged raptors that have ‘disappeared’ over grouse moors during the last ten years), right? These tags are failing left, right and centre and it’s nothing more sinister than that, right?

Naturally, we wanted to read these recently published research papers but tellingly, the SCA hadn’t provided any references. After a bit of digging, it becomes apparent why they were so reluctant to reveal their source. Fortunately (for us), those scientific heavyweights at Countryman’s Weekly helped us out and pointed us to this:

Three decades of wildlife radio telemetry in India A Review_2014

As the paper’s title suggests, this is a review of wildlife radio telemetry studies that have been undertaken in India between 1983-2013.

It’s an interesting paper (if you’re planning to use telemetry to study animal taxa in India) but what relevance it has to satellite-tag reliability on golden eagles in Highland Scotland is a bit of a mystery to us, especially when you realise that many of the studies refer to radio-tagging (as opposed to satellite-tagging) of mammals (including Asiatic elephants, Asiatic lions, tigers) and reptiles (gharials, turtles). Of 82 studies reviewed, only 14 involve birds.

If you look at Table 8 (showing the known cause of tag failures), of 72 (radio & satellite) tags (across all taxa) where ‘contact was lost’ or there was an ‘unknown failure’, the vast majority (68) appear to relate to tags that had been attached to Olive Ridley Turtles. If you then have a look at this paper (‘Why do Argos satellite tags deployed on marine animals stop transmitting?‘), you’ll see that the failure of the salt-water switch is an on-going issue. Quite how this issue can be the cause of ‘failing’ satellite tags on golden eagles in the Monadhliaths is beyond our comprehension. Perhaps the Scottish Government’s planned review of golden eagle satellite data will shed some light. But perhaps not.

Richard Evans: obituary

It was with enormous shock and great sadness that we learned of the recent passing of Richard Evans.

He was a friend of ours and a strong supporter of this blog.

We’ll miss you, mate.

richard evans

His obituary, reproduced below, was published in the Herald a couple of days ago:

Obituary – Richard Evans, naturalist and expert on eagles

Born: March 6, 1964;

Died: August 8, 2016

RICHARD Evans, who has died after a sudden cardiac arrest aged 52, was a senior conservation policy officer at RSPB Scotland, and played a pivotal role in the defence and conservation of some of Scotland’s rarest and most highly valued protected areas.

In a 26 year career at the bird and wildlife charity, he became a skilled all-round naturalist, but uniquely honed and combined three specific complementary skills – becoming an adept computer analyst of large and complex data sets, an expert adviser on EU and UK environmental case law, and a toponymist, now popularly known as “an expert on the names of landmarks” owing to the writings of Robert Macfarlane.

Born in the Welsh border town of Abergavenny in south Wales, he read English at University College, Durham. He enjoyed being part of the university’s oldest college, and contributed vigorously to the students’ revelries in the Castle Keep. Nicknamed “Hamlet”, in part due to his demeanour but mainly his scepticism and ability to quote Shakespeare, he delighted in reciting pithy one-liners.

At Durham he met Duncan Orr-Ewing, now Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, who remembers an adept rock climber spending most of his time birding with enthusiastic members of the university’s Wildlife Society.

On graduating in 1986 Mr Evans joined an expedition to North West Ecuador to survey rainforest birds as part of a work programme to designate an Important Bird Area, now one of 12,000 key global conservation areas. It was the making of him as a conservationist, and imbued in him the vital importance of protected areas for saving wildlife.

In 1988 he joined the RSPB as a research assistant, working with Roy Dennis based at Munlochy, north of Inverness. He surveyed Moray Firth seaduck in the winter and Caithness seabirds in the summer as part of North Sea oil industry related monitoring.

In 1994 he moved to Mull as the RSPB conservation officer, and over the ensuing eight years worked with Roger Broad in leading the endeavours to secure the white-tailed eagle population there. This experience of working on eagles was to prove vital later.

It was on Mull in 1996 that he met his wife to be, Solveigh, an isotope geochemist researching the geology and tectonics of the Loch Don area of Mull. He saw Solveigh with a friend in a field close to a sea eagle nest and, compelled by his duties to protect nesting birds from disturbance, promptly approached to tell them they were not permitted to be so close to the birds. To his chagrin he learnt that Solveigh’s parents were involved in sea eagle protection in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and that she knew a good deal about sea eagles herself. They married in October 2002.

In the same year the couple moved to Edinburgh, where he worked first as RSPB Scotland’s sites policy officer and, from 2009, as senior conservation policy officer, playing a central role in the conservation of protected areas in Scotland.

As a co-opted member of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) teams at public inquiries objecting to inappropriate large wind farms and industrial developments, his gift for spotting flaws in data and scientific and legal arguments became legendary. Hours of cross-examination of the opposing side would be punctuated by the provision of helpful slips to SNH’s counsel pointing to critical legal judgements or inconsistencies which holed the developer’s case.

Observing ill-informed and arrogant witnesses, his favourite intonation was: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool”. He was a master breech-loader of the salient brief, and ten minutes spent in his company preparing for a crucial meeting could be decisively or disastrously effective, depending on your standpoint.

A scholar of eagle place names, our understanding of the history of Britain and Ireland’s eagles owes much to his ingenious desk and field research. During a sabbatical foray to the National Library of Scotland, he made what proved to be an inspired discovery. He realised it should be possible to adduce the former British and Irish ranges and population sizes of white-tailed eagles and golden eagles through pouring over historical maps giving often obscure Germanic and Celtic references to locations bearing their names.

In 2012 he published a scholarly paper with Phil Whitfield and Lorcan O’Toole which traced the changing distribution of these raptors over three millennia. They were able to show that around 1500 years ago both eagles were widespread, occupying many lowland parts, with possibly up to 1400 pairs of sea eagles and 1500 pairs of golden eagles in the British Isles. The paper was commended as outstanding by the Watson Raptor Science Panel, which awards an annual prize for the best paper on raptors published in Europe.

Earlier this year, he led work on a major report on the current status and prospects for white-tailed eagles in Scotland. He represented RSPB Scotland on a stakeholder group formed to resolve conflicts around these birds, and commanded great respect for his expert knowledge and ability to see many sides of an argument.

Increasingly, given his combined legal and scientific expertise, he advised on the more contentious and complex development issues. He was a founder member of the Scottish Windfarm Bird Steering Group, working with the renewables industry to develop the evidence base on bird populations and wind farms.

Tragically, he died suddenly whilst cycling to work. Just days before he was immersed in supporting the beginnings of the Heritage Lottery funded project to boost South Scotland’s golden eagle population. A proponent of this ambitious work, he was guiding the project team to sites where eagles held dominion centuries ago. The sight of these great birds soaring under the gaze of excited eyes would be a wonderful legacy.

Softly spoken and understated, jovial, perceptive, tactically clever, and determinedly non-institutional, Richard Evans was admired and loved by colleagues and friends – as much for his humanity as for his deep intelligence.

He is survived by Solveigh, son Aneirin, and his parents John L. Evans and E. Mary Evans.