Bleasdale Estate gamekeeper denies killing two peregrines in Bowland

A 34-year old gamekeeper, James Hartley, appeared at Preston Magistrates Court today to face a series of charges relating to the alleged killing of two peregrines on the Bleasdale Estate, Bowland, in April 2016.

The charges read out in court were as follows:

  1. Killing a Schedule 1 wild bird. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, intentionally killed a wild bird included in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, namely a peregrine falcon, contrary to sections 1(1)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  2. Disturb the nesting site of a Schedule 1 wild bird. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, intentionally or recklessly disturbed a wild bird included in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, namely a peregrine falcon, while it was in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young, contrary to sections 1(5)(a) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  3. Killing a Schedule 1 wild bird. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, intentionally killed a wild bird included in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, namely a peregrine falcon, contrary to sections 1(1)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  4. Set trap / gin / snare etc to cause injury to wild bird. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, set in position a trap which was of such a nature and so placed as to be calculated to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming in to contact with it, contrary to sections 5(1)(a) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act.
  5. Take a Schedule 1 wild bird. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, intentionally took a wild bird included in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, namely a peregrine falcon, contrary to sections 1(1)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  6. Possess live / dead Schedule 1 wild bird or its parts. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, had in your possession or control a dead wild bird included in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, namely a peregrine falcon, contrary to sections 1(2)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act.
  7. Possess an article capable of being used to commit a summary offence under section 1 to 13 or 15-17. On 13 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, for the purpose of committing an offence, namely killing a Schedule 1 wild bird, namely a peregrine falcon, under section 1(1)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, had in your possession a firearm which was capable of being used for committing the offence, contrary to section 18(2) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  8. Possess an article capable of being used to commit a summary offence under section 1 to 13 or 15-17. On 12 April 2016 and 27 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, for the purpose of committing an offence, namely killing a Schedule 1 wild bird, namely a peregrine falcon, under section 1(1)(a), 1(4) and 21(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, had in your possession hammer, trap and knife which were capable of being used for committing the offence, contrary to section 18(2) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
  9. Cause unnecessary suffering to a protected animal – Animal Welfare Act 2006. On 12 April 2016 and 15 April 2016 at Bleasdale in the county of Lancashire, caused unnecessary suffering to a protected animal, namely a peregrine falcon, by an act, namely trapping and leaving for a number of hours, and you knew or ought reasonably to have known that the act would have that effect or be likely to do so.

Mr Hartley denied all charges.

The following commentary has been compiled from notes we took during the hearing:

The lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service then summarised the prosecution case. She said the Crown’s case is that the defendant is responsible for the destruction of two birds at their nest site. She said the matter came to light when the RSPB sited a camera within the boundary of Bleasdale Estate to monitor nesting peregrines. The Crown alleges that camera footage captures an individual in a camouflage suit attending the nest site. The individual remained there for a number of minutes setting what is believed to be a trap. The female peregrine is seen to leave the nest and four shotgun discharges are heard and the female does not return. The male peregrine remained at the site all day, believed to be trapped in the device set earlier. Later in the evening a person is seen to attend the nest site and remove something.

She went on to explain that the defendant is the gamekeeper for this particular ‘beat’ on the Bleasdale Estate and during a police search of his property a bag was seized containing a number of tools. A forensic analysis showed that a wooden-handled hammer and an orange-handled knife both contained peregrine DNA. The defendant gave a ‘no comment’ interview.

The defence lawyer, Tim Ryan, told the court that his client did not carry out the offences and is not the person shown in the video footage. He said part of his defence case would be to question the admissibility of video evidence under section 78 of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act.

The next hearing will take place on 11 January 2018 which is expected to deal with legal arguments about the admissibility of video evidence. Depending on the outcome of that hearing, a preliminary trial date was set to begin on 12 February 2018 and is expected to last for five days.

PLEASE NOTE: Comments are welcome but contributors are reminded that the offences are only alleged at this stage and it is up to the court to determine innocence or guilt. Please consider your words carefully as libellous commentary could interfere with the progression of this case! Thanks.

UPDATE 10 January 2018: Case against Bleasdale Estate gamekeeper James Hartley: part 2 (here)

More on the mystery gamekeeper with the General Licence restriction

Further to this morning’s blog about the mystery gamekeeper from north east Scotland who was filmed allegedly setting an illegal trap near a goshawk nest and who has subsequently been slapped with a General Licence restriction order by SNH, but whose name and employment details have been withheld.

Who could he possibly be and where, exactly, did this take place? There are some clues….

Have another look again at the short video clip of this gamekeeper in action, released by RSPB Scotland:

The video is date stamped: 21 March 2014.

Now have a look at RSPB Scotland’s 2014 persecution report, and note the confirmed incident of raptor persecution recorded in March 2014 relating to the setting of spring traps (with pigeon bait) on a plucking post close to a goshawk nest:

The location is given as ‘nr Tarland, Aberdeenshire’.

Where’s Tarland? Here it is, just to the east of the Cairngorms National Park boundary:

If we accept that the gamekeeper caught on video was allegedly trying to target a goshawk with an illegal trap, the motive for doing so would most likely be to protect game birds from predation. This is illegal, of course – goshawks have been legally protected since 1954, but as we know only too well, this doesn’t stop some gamekeepers from trying to kill them.

So we thought we’d look at how many game shooting estates are located ‘nr Tarland’. It’s a pretty vague location but consulting Andy Wightman’s brilliant Who Owns Scotland website, it turns out there are three big game-shooting estates in the area that could, reasonably, be defined as being ‘nr Tarland’: the MacRobert Trust Estate, the Tillypronie, Deskrie and Towie Estate, and the Dinnet Estate. There is also an area of ‘dead ground’ whose ownership is not included on Andy’s website, although we do know that GWCT’s new demonstration farm, Auchnerran, sits in this ‘dead ground’.

This map is useful, but it doesn’t really help draw many conclusions. What we can say is that all three estate owners would be both horrified, and embarrassingly compromised, if it turns out that this gamekeeper was employed by, or associated with, any of the estates.

The MacRobert Trust Estate is, as the name suggests, administered by a well-respected charity and the estate website suggests ‘an exemplary approach to estate management‘. There is a pheasant shoot here, which was advertised as a three-year ‘prestigious sporting lease’ in 2010.

The Tillypronie Estate was owned, at the time of the video recording, by Philip Astor. The estate, described as ‘One of Scotland’s most famous sporting estates’, went on the market last year valued at a cool £10.5 million and is now believed to have been sold to a ‘mystery buyer’. Gosh, there’s a lot of mystery in this part of the world, isn’t there? There is pheasant and grouse shooting here. Phil is a Vice Chairman of the GWCT.

The Dinnet Estate has long been owned by the Humphrey family and there is a designated National Nature Reserve on the estate, managed by SNH. A Dinnet Estate gamekeeper was convicted in 2006 of trespassing on a neighbouring estate with a firearm back in 2002 but that was a long time ago. A Dinnet Estate grouse moor was mentioned on this blog last month as being a potential location of satellite-tagged hen harrier Calluna’s last tag transmission but there’s been no further news on that. Dinnet Estate is a direct neighbour of the GWCT’s demonstration farm, Auchnerran, and the Dinnet Estate grouse moor is summer-grazed by some of GWCT’s sheep.

Given the GWCT’s indirect links and direct interests in the area ‘nr Tarland’, they must be concerned about the General Licence restriction being applied to a local, unnamed gamekeeper. If we ran an upland farm in the area, and were setting out to demonstrate good conservation benefits for both agriculture and wildlife, we too would be concerned. What if we employed him without knowing any of his history?

Shall we ask the GWCT for a comment? Perhaps, given their local contacts, they know something we don’t? Emails to:

May be all will become clear when we submit an FoI to SNH asking for further details about this particular General Licence restriction, although we’re not holding our breath!

Another avenue for information-seeking might be Police Scotland. We know from the RSPB’s press release that the police were investigating this alleged crime, so presumably the police know the name of the gamekeeper and where, exactly, this allegedly illegal trap had been filmed. Given that the case is now time-barred, meaning that the Crown Office couldn’t prosecute even if they wanted to (highly doubtful), there is no reason why Police Scotland can’t release relevant details as there’s no chance of it interfering with a live case. Let’s ask them. Emails to National Wildlife Crime Coordinator for Police Scotland, Andy Mavin:

SNH imposes General Licence restriction on ‘mystery’ gamekeeper

So, SNH has today announced it has imposed two General Licence restriction orders, based on evidence provided by Police Scotland of alleged raptor persecution crimes.

We know that one of those restriction orders has been placed on Edradynate Estate, Perthshire, because SNH has been quite upfront about it and has named the estate (see here).

But what about the other General Licence restriction? Well, according to the SNH press release, this has been imposed on “an individual” rather than on an estate.

This in itself is interesting. We know from the SNH framework for imposing these restrictions that this action can be taken against an individual, as well as on certain areas of land, but the framework document suggests that imposing it on land would be preferable to imposing it on an individual:

While the wording provides for the exclusion of individuals, it is the intention that where SNH has robust evidence that wild birds have been killed or taken or where there is intention to do so other than in accordance with a licence, SNH will exclude the area of land on which such evidence is found from General Licences 1, 2 and/or 3“.

Hmm. So who is this individual and why did SNH impose the restriction on him/her, rather than on an estate?

The SNH press release points the reader to the SNH webpage on General Licences for “full licence restriction details“. However, when you look at the SNH webpage, all you find is this:

Is SNH having a laugh? The “full licence restriction details” of this particular GL restriction order amounts to one sentence:

In addition [to the restriction imposed on Edradynate Estate] SNH has imposed a restriction prohibiting the use of General Licences by an individual for 3 years from 15th September 2017“.

That’s it? No name? No information on the area, let alone the name of the land where the evidence of raptor persecution took place? Not even the region?

What’s with the secrecy? Who is SNH shielding, and why?

This could be absolutely anyone! Is it Nicola Sturgeon? Is it Alex Salmond? Is it JK Rowling? Highly unlikely, it has to be said, but you get the point we’re trying to make.

And what happened to the transparency that was promised when former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse first announced this new measure to tackle ongoing raptor persecution? He said he expected details of General Licence restrictions to be published on the SNH website to act as “a reputational driver“. That’s not going to happen if SNH withholds the details, is it?

This is a very dangerous precedent to set. SNH has previously withheld details of estates that were being considered for a GL restriction but in that case, the justificiation for being all secret squirrel was reasonable: the GL restrictions hadn’t yet been imposed, but rather the estates had been notified of an intent to impose, and SNH argued that the estates needed time to respond/appeal (see here). That was fair enough.

But in this case, SNH has already imposed the GL restriction, and we’re struggling to understand the justification SNH might have for keeping the details secret.

What is it with statutory agencies and their reluctance to release information that’s clearly in the public interest?

We’ll be submitting an FoI to SNH to ask for further details, and, based on the response, we’ll consider appealing the decision to the Scottish information Commissioner.

In the meantime, have a look at today’s press statement from RSPB Scotland about these latest GL restrictions. This gives us more of a clue about the recipient of the restriction order. The statement includes the following quote from Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson:

The other restriction was imposed after RSPB investigations staff passed video footage to police of a gamekeeper allegedly setting illegal traps, baited with a dead woodpigeon, very close to a goshawk nest in NE Scotland.”

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. The recipient of the GL restriction is a gamekeeper, working in NE Scotland, who was filmed allegedly setting illegal traps close to a goshawk nest. And the RSPB has even provided a video clip of the alleged offence, with the individual’s face pixellated (presumably done on legal advice).

Well, quelle surprise! Another gamekeeper trying, allegedly, to persecute a goshawk in north east Scotland. This is becoming quite a habit in this part of the country. First we had gamekeeper George Mutch, caught on video trapping and battering to death a goshawk on the Kildrummy Estate in 2012, crimes for which he went to prison (see here), then we had a gang of masked armed men caught on video shooting at a goshawk nest on Forestry Commission land at Glen Nochty in 2014 (see here), and now this latest case.

But who is this latest gamekeeper and on whose land was he working when he allegedly set this trap?

More on this in the next blog…..


More on the mystery gamekeeper with the general licence restriction (here).

Evidence of wildlife crime results in General Licence restriction on Edradynate Estate

As many of you will know, SNH has the ability to impose a three-year General Licence restriction order on land, or on an individual, where there is sufficient evidence, substantiated by Police Scotland, that raptor persecution has taken place (see SNH framework here).

This measure, based on a civil burden of proof, was introduced by then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in 2013 in response to the continuing difficulties of meeting a criminal burden of proof to facilitate a criminal prosecution. The measure became available for incidents that occured on or after 1 January 2014.

Photo of a poisoned buzzard (RPUK)

Since then, only two restriction orders have been imposed, both in November 2014: one for the Raeshaw/Corsehope Estates in the Scottish Borders, and one for the Burnfoot/Wester Cringate Estates in Stirlingshire (see here for details, and an explanation of what a General Licence restriction actually means).

As you’ll also probably be aware, Raeshaw Estate and Corsehope Estate made a legal challenge to SNH’s decision and this resulted in a judicial review. The judicial review dragged on for some time but eventually concluded in March this year, and the court found that SNH had acted fairly and that the General Licence restriction at Raeshaw Estate and Corsehope Estate should remain in place (see here).

While this legal challenge was underway, SNH, quite reasonably, did not impose any further General Licence restrictions, even though there were plenty of candidate estates to consider. Once the legal argument had been settled, we expected SNH to open the floodgates and impose many more restriction orders for offences that had taken place since January 2014. We asked SNH about this in June 2017 and we were told that two notifications were underway, relating to offences in Perthshire and Aberdeenshire, although no further details were given at that time, presumably as SNH was giving the affected parties time to respond/appeal. Fair enough.

Today, SNH has announced that two General Licence restriction orders have been imposed in two separate cases.

The first of those cases relates to Edradynate Estate in Perthshire: SNH_GL Restriction Notice_Edradynate Estate_15Sept2017

Here is the decision notice:

And here is the estate boundary map to which the General Licence restriction applies for the next three years:

For the next three years, Edradynate Estate will no longer be able to enjoy the privilege of using General Licences 1, 2 or 3, but the estate will be entitled to apply for the use of an Individual Licence that will allow them to kill certain bird species but under closer scrutiny than if the estate was using a General Licence. We’ll be monitoring the use of any Individual Licences that SNH approves for this estate, and, if there is any breach of the licence conditions, we fully expect SNH to revoke the Individual Licence just as they did for Raeshaw Estate earlier this year.

SNH has not provided any information about the Police Scotland evidence used as the basis for this General Licence restriction order on Edradynate Estate. However, it’s probably a fair assumption that it relates to the alleged poisoning of several buzzards in 2015. This is one of the five prosecution cases that the Crown Office dropped earlier this year, without explanation. The case did not involve video evidence, as some of the others did, and the case was dropped by the Crown despite a plea from Police Scotland to proceed (see here).

We’ve been blogging about Edradynate Estate for a very long time. It’s well worth reading an earlier summary we wrote (here) which includes some fascinating commentary about the estate by former RSPB Investigator Dave Dick, who claimed as far back as 2004 that the estate was “among the worst in Scotland for wildlife crime“, and commentary by former Police Wildlife Crime Officer Alan Stewart, who said in 2005, “Edraynate Estate has probably the worst record in Scotland for poisoning incidents, going back more than a decade“. The details involve a disturbingly high number of poisoned birds and poisoned baits that were found over the years, as well as a number of dropped prosecution cases (nobody has ever been convicted for any of the alleged offences). The summary also includes information about links between the estate and the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association.

Now, whether you think a General Licence restriction order is a sufficient sanction against this estate is open to debate. However, while we wait for the Scottish Government to get on with estate licensing, a General Licence restriction order is all that is currently available, so well done to SNH for imposing the General Licence restriction order on this particular estate and for being semi-transparent about the details.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the second General Licence restriction order that SNH has just imposed. We’ll be blogging about that one in the next blog…’s an absolute shocker.

Edradynate Estate (photo by RPUK)


RSPB press statement here

SNH imposes General Licence restriction on ‘mystery’ gamekeeper (here)

More on the mystery gamekeeper with the General Licence restriction (here)

Scottish parliamentary committee considers petition calling for mountain hare protection

Earlier this month Harry Huyton (on behalf of OneKind) presented evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee in support of a petition calling for greater protection for mountain hares.

This petition, signed by over 11,000 people, specifically calls for:

The Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce greater protection for mountain hares on both animal welfare and conservation grounds, which may include: introducing a three-year moratorium on all mountain hare killing, permitting culls and driven hunts only under licence, and ending all culling and driven hunting of mountain hares within Scotland’s National Parks using a Nature Conservation Order‘.

The full transcript of proceedings can be read here (starts at page 38):

Transcript Public Petitions Committee_14Sept2017

Photo of culled mountain hares being transported on a grouse moor on Farr Estate in February 2017 (photo by Pete Walkden)

It was an interesting discussion and Harry made many good suggestions about how the currently unregulated mass culling of mountain hares on grouse moors could be better regulated, including a fascinating analogy with seal culling. He said:

We have tried to put forward a number of approaches. The other possibility would be a simple extension of the licensing regime. Given that the current regime applies five months of the year, why not just extend it to apply the whole year round? If we ran it for a few years, it would not only result in fewer mountain hares being killed but provide quite essential data on the level to which the species is being controlled.

I point the committee to a similar arrangement that was introduced five years ago for seal killing in Scotland. In that example, the move from unregulated to licensed activity not only resulted in a big reduction in the number of seals killed but brought transparency to the sector. Every three months, SNH publishes the latest data on the number of licences that have been issued and the number of seals that have been killed under licence, and that is essential from a conservation and, indeed, a welfare perspective“.

The Petitions Committee agreed to seek written evidence from several named stakeholders: SNH, Scottish Land & Estates, Scottish Wildlife Trust, James Hutton Institute and GWCT.

As Harry noted in his blog about this evidence session, the responses from some of these organisations is quite predictable – they will not support any change to the status quo (e.g. see responses given back in 2015 when ten conservation organisations called on the Scottish Government to introduce an immediate three-year ban – see here – an action that the Scottish Government ignored).

With that in mind, Harry urges those ten conservation organisations (National Trust for Scotland, John Muir Trust, RSPB Scotland, RSZZ, Highland Foundation for Wildlife, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Raptor Study Group, The Cairngorms Campaign, the Mammal Society and the Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group) to update and republish their earlier joint statement so the Petitions Committee are provided with a more balanced view.

We strongly urge those ten groups to act. Given the comments made by some members of the Petitions Committee about mountain hares (as part of a discussion about Les Wallace’s petition calling for a study on the economic impact of driven grouse shooting), we think the Petitions Committee is quite confused about mountain hare culling.

For example, during the discussion on Les’s petition (starts on page six of this transcript), Petitions Committee Convenor Johann Lamont (Lab) said:

It was interesting to hear last week that the mountain hare is thriving because of grouse“.

Committee member Brian Whittle (Con) said:

Also, having subsequently had a wee look at it, I have found that other environmental issues are driving down the mountain hare population. The planting of spruce and conifers is driving the ferret, weasel and fox populations, which is decimating the hares. There is quite a tension“.

Hmm. Would love to see the scientific paper that demonstrates wild ferrets are decimating mountain hares!

Hopefully the ten conservation organisations can provide the Committee with a more scientifically accurate account of what is happening to mountain hares on driven grouse moors, such as this account by Dr Adam Watson, based on decades of scientific research.

Secret trial for Edradynate Estate gamekeeper

Back in June we blogged about the prosecution of former Edradynate Estate gamekeeper David Campbell for alleged offences including the malicious damage of crops (it is claimed he poisoned them by spraying with an unknown substance, causing them to rot and perish) and the alleged theft of a thermal imaging spotting scope (see here).

What fascinated us about this case was that the Crown Office deemed the charges sufficiently serious to begin proceedings ‘by petition’ – only serious cases are begun by petition and may be heard in the Sheriff Court or a higher court.

Contrast the Crown Office’s approach in this case with that of its approach in another case involving an unnamed Edradynate Estate gamekeeper, in relation to the alleged poisoning of several buzzards. Despite a plea from Police Scotland to proceed with a prosecution, the Crown Office decided to drop the case earlier this year with just a vague (and unsatisfactory) explanation (see here). We’re now waiting to see whether SNH will impose a General Licence restriction on the estate in relation to these and other alleged wildlife crimes.

But back to the alleged poisoning of crops and theft of estate equipment. We wanted to track this case so we called the Sheriff’s clerk to ask when the next hearing was due. The clerk was polite but firm; he couldn’t tell us because it was a secret. He didn’t actually use the word ‘secret’ but by telling us that he wasn’t allowed to provide any information, effectively he was saying it was a secret.

Eh? All we wanted to know was the date of the next hearing. We weren’t asking for any details about the case, the charges or whether the accused had entered a plea. Just the date of the next court hearing.

The clerk told us that all information relating to proceedings by petition were not for public release. We mentioned that this seemed a bit strange given that the details of the first court hearing back in June had been published in the local newspaper. He seemed a bit perplexed by this and went off to check with his manager. He came back and said he couldn’t tell us anything.


If there are any lawyers reading this blog who could explain why this case is shrouded in secrecy, given that it doesn’t appear to relate to a minor or to national security, we’d be very interested to hear those thoughts.

Scottish Parliament considers petition calling for study on economic impact of driven grouse shooting

Earlier this year, Les Wallace lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee calling for a comprehensive and independent study into the full economic impacts of driven grouse shooting (see here).

This petition was due to be heard by the Petitions Committee last week but they ran out of time so they deferred their consideration until the next meeting, which took place today.

Basically they agreed that a full independent study was needed but were unsure whether this topic would be covered as part of the Scottish Government’s earlier commitment in May to undertake a review of grouse moor management practices.

There was also confusion as to whether the Scottish Government had actually commissioned this research yet, and the panel agreed to contact the Scottish Government to ask for an update on progress and to ask for a timescale (e.g. start / finish date) of that proposed work.

Good. That’ll be very useful. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said last week that “good progress is being made” and that she’ll be announcing further details “shortly“. We look forward to hearing more about it.

The Petitions Committee also agreed to write to SNH to ask for their view.

It was noted by the Committee that there had been a number of recent petitions relating to the management of grouse moors and its impact on the environment (e.g. Logan Steele’s petition on behalf of the SRSG calling for the introduction of a game shoot licensing scheme, Harry Huyton’s petition on behalf of OneKind calling for greater protection of mountain hares (we’ll blog more about this soon), and this current petition from Les about the economic impact of driven grouse shooting). Yes, there has been a flurry of petitions – that’s because there is a lot of public concern about what this industry has been allowed to get away with for so very long!

And isn’t it great to see it all being laid bare for political and public scrutiny!

Today’s Petitions Committee meeting can be watched on Scottish Parliament TV here (the discussion about Les’s petition starts at 09.31.21 and ends at 09.36).

Raptor shot in North York Moors National Park

North Yorkshire Police have tweeted about the shooting of a raptor two days ago in the North York Moors National Park:

At the moment there is no further information about the circumstances of this reported incident, the species, the extent of its injuries, and whether it’s alive or dead.

Hopefully the police will issue a detailed appeal for information.

[UPDATE 18.20hrs: Further tweets from the police – the shooting was witnessed by a walker, the bird was thought to be a marsh harrier or a buzzard, the body was not found].

The North York Moors National Park is a well known raptor persecution hotspot, which is no surprise given the extent of driven grouse moors within the Park’s boundary. Earlier this year a buzzard was found in the Park with shotgun injuries (here) and last year another buzzard was found in the Park with horrific injuries caused from being shot and caught in a leg trap (see here).

Where have all the merlins gone? A lament for the Lammermuirs

Earlier this year a peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in the journal British Birds, documenting the long-term decline of merlins on four driven grouse moors in the Lammermuirs, south east Scotland (see here).

In that paper the authors, all members of the Lothian & Borders Raptor Study Group, detailed the results of their 30-year study of merlins, brought to an abrupt halt at the end of the 2014 breeding season after several estate owners refused vehicular access for nest site monitoring.

The authors concluded that illegal persecution was NOT a contributory factor in the decline of the merlin population in this area, but suggested that the intensification of grouse moor management, particuarly an increase in heather burning, had probably had a detrimental impact.

This month the authors have another paper published, this time in the journal Scottish Birds:

This paper discusses many of the scientific results from their earlier paper, but is written in more of a commentary style and includes more information about the changes they observed during this long-term study.

This poignant paper is well worth a read: Where have all the Merlins gone

The Natural England hen harrier satellite tag cover up

Last week we blogged about how Natural England has been withholding 15 years worth of hen harrier tagging data, most of it paid for with public funds, and we encouraged blog readers to email them and ask for the data to be released without further delay (see here).

Specifically, we wanted to find out how many satellite-tagged hen harriers have ‘disappeared’ on grouse moors in England and whether those disappearances occured in non-random clusters on specific grouse moors, much like the suspicious clustering of ‘missing’ satellite-tagged golden eagles in certain grouse moor areas of Scotland.

We know that many of you did email Natural England (thank you) and yesterday (Mon 18 Sept 2017) they caved in and released some more data. Unfortunately, they’ve only released part of the data they hold. And of the information they did release, their interpretation of it is, frankly, scandalous. Natural England are either grossly incompetent or are being deliberately obstructive in an attempt to shield the criminal grouse moor managers from the spotlight. Actually, looking at the evidence, we think they’re being both incompetent and deliberately obstructive. See what you think.

Here’s what they released yesterday:

A spreadsheet showing the number of hen harriers they tagged between 2002 and 2017. This is an updated version of the spreadsheet they published in 2014. It shows a total of 158 harriers were tagged: 99 with radio tags and 59 with satellite tags. Download the spreadsheet here: hen-harrier-tracking-data-2002-onwards

Accompanying this spreadsheet is some inaccurate explanatory text and three maps. We know that both the text and the maps are inaccurate because the explanatory text says that “Fig 2 shows the movement of birds obtained from the satellite tracking data covering 158 birds” when actually only 59 birds have been satellite-tagged. Figure 2 is also supposed to show the movement of satellite-tagged hen harriers but it doesn’t include any tag data from the continent, and we know from the spreadsheet that at least one sat tagged hen harrier was defintely recorded in Spain (McPedro) and two other birds were recorded in France. However, these international locations ARE shown in Fig 3, which is supposed to be a combination of the data from Figs 1 & 2. That’s just sheer incompetence.

We can largely ignore these maps because (a) we know they’re inaccurate but, more importantly, (b) they’ve been produced at such a low scale as to render them virtually useless. They do show that some tagged hen harriers wander widely across political boundaries but that’s not new information.

What we’re more interested in is the updated spreadsheet.

The updated spreadsheet shows how many of these tagged hen harriers are ‘missing, fate unknown’. 86 of the 99 radio tagged harriers are in this category (that’s 86.8%). Radio tags were used during the early years of the study, prior to the availability of satellite tags. Natural England quite rightly points out that, due to the limitation of this technology, not much can be surmised about the birds’ fates. If the bird moves out of range of the hand-held tracking receiver (which has a limited line-of-sight range of a few kms), then there’s no way of knowing whether the radio tagged bird is alive or dead. That’s fair comment, and it’s why many research studies switched over to using geographically unconstrained satellite tags in the late 2000s.

So let’s ignore the radio tagged hen harriers and instead concentrate on the ones that were satellite-tagged between 2007 and 2017. There were 59 satellite-tagged hen harriers during this period, and of these, 43 are listed as ‘missing, fate unknown’. That’s a very high 72.8%. Natural England provides some explanatory notes about what might have happened to these harriers:

Natural England, are you for real? This is the sort of half-arsed spin we’d expect from Dr Charlotte Tan, Professor of Grouse Moor Managementology at the GWCT. Are we seriously expected to believe that the 43 missing sat tagged hen harriers have all died of natural causes, lying on their backs, thus rendering their tags incapable of charging and transmitting further data? Sure, that might have happened in a handful of cases, but in 43 out of 43 cases? Come on!

It’s scandalous that Natural England excludes ANY explanation for these missing harriers that might just involve illegal persecution, especially when they’ve previously admitted that their own tagging research found “Compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and after the breeding season” and “Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England” (Natural England, 2008, A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?).

Now, had Natural England published a map showing the locations of where these 43 ‘missing, fate unknown’ hen harriers went off the radar, we might be able to detect some patterns to see whether they disappeared at random locations across the landscape (which you’d expect if the birds had died on their backs of natural causes) or, rather like satellite-tagged golden eagles, they disappeared in suspicious clusters in certain grouse moor areas.

That Natural England haven’t provided this level of detail is very telling indeed. They’ve got the information and it would only take a matter of minutes to upload those data on to a map that would have sufficient resolution to identify suspicious geographical clustering but that wouldn’t compromise sensitive site details.

It is quite clear to us that Natural England are involved in a cover-up job, designed to protect those hen harrier-killing grouse moor managers from any hint of suspicion. Sorry, Natural England, but we won’t allow you to continue to mislead like this.

We’d urge blog readers to write again to Natural England and ask for the release of this information. This time we recommend sending the email as a formal FoI request as opposed to a more informal general enquiry (which Natural England can easily swerve, as above). Emails please to:

In the words of Chris Packham:

Update 6 October 2017: The Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag cover up: part 2 (see here).