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.

22 thoughts on “Review of Scottish raptor satellite-tag data widened to three species”

  1. Hopefully this should help firm up theories and put some points to bed.
    If the transmitter are proven reliable, it will lead to some interesting converasations.
    Hopefully windfarm locations are also included in the review so that there can less dispute on the findings.
    Personally, I would like to include a review of the studied nests as well with diaries made public, minus locations obviously, on number of visits, eggs, age of chicks and successful fledge rate.

  2. I know for fact that young grouse beaters here in moray raised concern of what the gamekeeper were shooting ages owl and raptors I reported to police but they responded by saying nothing they can do unless young men come forward ridiculious there’s a crime going on and the police seem to think their hands are tied the estate I was told was called XXXXX estate

    1. Thanks J. It needs more local folks like yourself to come forward with details when they see a few people who certainly know better engaged in destroying raptors whom we all get enjoyment from. Regardless of bow rich or well connected their employers are this is still a crime against the interests of the Scottish people.

    2. Why are so many of the estates called xxxxxx! We can name the good ones on one hand so stop being a prune and pull your finger out. If there is a court case they can not win as the evidence is clear for everyone to see. All you have to do is show the map of the missing breeding birds especially as there is never a lack of food! Ps Saw a flock/covey of Red Grouse around 50 birds yesterday on an RSPB reserve. Not supposed to flock until winter! Well I am sure this was a case of flocking due to too many raptors present!!!

  3. Is there a possibility in the UK to publish the ´prelimenary version´ of such a review open access for as long as the publication of the full report is delayed by the government? Would this compromise the legality of the report? I would certainly like to see a transparant review process, inviting all stake-holders to provide comments there. This may help to expose the weakness of the arguments provided by Natural England and other ´raptor persecution deniers´. I realize that the case for enforcing protection of raptors on Grouse Moors is rationally undebatable based on the evidence that has been provided, as you´ve argued very well in this piece. However, as long as the debate is held through position statements and in the media through columns and opinion articles the authors of those pieces can keep fulminating lies and talking besides the arguments made by the conservation sector. A transparant and direct conversation between all stake-holders on an online platform would force all parties to engage with the arguments made by their opponents.

    At some point we, conservationists, also really have to deal with the fact that democratic momentum for policy is gained through emotional more than through rational arguments (think of arguments in favour of driven grouse shoots such as ´tradition´, ´cultural heritage´, …). The fact you know the life-histories of the birds involved should help convey this to the public. The raptors that are shot are not just anonymous birds. They are individuals with their own characters, habits, homes and families, and should also be presented as individual beings to the public, even if we are hesitant to engage in anthropomorphisms. ´Game keeper X shoots one-year old Billy´ is a more compelling title than ´Another hen harrier dissapears on a grouse moor´. Same goes for other problems related to grouse shooting. ´Landowner X earns X amount of pounds by flooding town Y´ will provoke a bit more attention than ´Burning of moors increases risk of flooding´.

    Wishing you all the best in the long fight ahead. Best wishes from the Netherlands.

  4. I may be naïve in my opinion and understanding but, it seems to me that we may be approaching this from the wrong way. Our lords and masters seem to be obsessed with targets these days and only too ready to attach salaries to outcomes measured in terms of these targets. I understand that landowners are given substantial grants that enable them to ‘maintain’ the grouse moors and shooting estates. I also understand that licences are required to run these estates. At the moment it seems the estates have no reason to comply with any legislation, evidence is difficult to obtain and they can shrug off any wrongdoing as being down to rogue gamekeepers. Would it not make sense to make the award of grants and licences dependent on establishing and maintaining, even exceeding, targets for raptor numbers? The trick would be to make withholding of grants and licences enforceable across groups of estates so that they all had a collective and vested interest in policing it themselves, failure to achieve targets would affect all in the group. The incentive would be if they don’t acieve their targets they don’t get the grants or licences. It would remove the need for getting the evidence that proves conclusively that a certain individual or estate was responsible for a raptor death. I’m sure there will be many reasons why this wouldn’t work and it may well have been discussed before. Apologies if it has, I’m new to this group.

  5. Do you only report in Scotland? there have been reports of raptor disappearances on grouse moors in Yorkshire also.

  6. I can’t help but wonder how a Scottish Government minister would have responded had this been children who were regularly disappearing. Would we be reading a comment such as the following?

    “The news that a young woman has disappeared in the Monadhliaths, complete with her mobile ‘phone, only weeks after she left school, strengthens my determination to get to the truth about how, where and why children with ‘phones seem to be regularly disappearing. I have asked for a review of all the evidence and I intend to ensure that data from both boys and girls will be considered as part of this. We are continuing to collect evidence in relation to child disappearances in Scotland, which will be a significant factor in deciding the next steps for tackling the murder of our young people.”

  7. As I see it the Scottish Government are slowly closing the noose around their own neck as our Environment Minister has now given way to the large amounts of good evidence being produced by RPUK and others who are ‘active’ in the field.
    The blog recently from down south showing fenn traps on the boundary walls of an estate is evidence that people are out enjoying the countryside and at the same time making sure they check out what is actually happening on their patch.
    With the lack of monitoring by our enforcement agencies it is now up to us all to gather the evidence correctly and within the law and report same to Police and RSPB Investigation teams.
    The days of licensing estates is coming closer, and we will all have played our part in that ‘happening’.

  8. Jill, if you are new welcome to the site. You only need to look at the previous blog to find the answer to your question. Then scroll back further to reveal where most raptors are taken out.

  9. Scottish government are proving to be a major let down in this area.

    I voted SNP but am increasingly feeling the things are being taken for granted.

    Roseanne Cunningham has said lots of positive words but has delivered precious little.
    Estates and the shooting industry should not be allowed to self regulate.

    The public are increasingly placing great value on the environment and flora and fauna the government must ensure we protect it and take fair but robust action against offenders

    The evidence is overwhelming and we wait to see what the government will do about it………..words are cheap

  10. The evidence is already there, we don’t require further reviews. The purpose of a Government is to make decisions. How would they cope if there were difficult decisions to make?

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