Video of THAT Chris Packham talk at Birdfair 2017

The three-day-long British Birdfair takes place annually at Rutland Water in August and attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. Every year, Chris Packham is given a prime time Saturday morning slot in the huge Events marquee, to talk about whatever he likes.

This year, Chris used his slot to highlight the ongoing work to tackle the illegal killing of birds in Malta, Cyprus and the UK – work he personally has been involved with for a number of years – and he generously invited a number of us (film maker Ruth Peacey from LUSH, Mark Sultana from BirdLife Malta, Andrea Rutigliano from the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), and Ruth Tingay from Raptor Persecution UK), to help explain the situation to his audience. Mark Avery made a cameo appearance at the end.

The marquee was rammed, with an estimated 1,000 people inside and a hoard of people outside who couldn’t get in but apparently sat with their ears pressed up against the canvas trying to hear. We’re told this was unprecedented at any previous Birdfair and is undoubtedly testament to Chris’s popularity but perhaps also reflects a growing public awareness and interest in illegal bird persecution.

The standing ovation at the end of this presentation was incredibly moving for those of us on the stage. It seemed to go on forever and will stay with us all for a very long time. On behalf of all the presenters, thank you, we appreciated it. Here’s what it looked like to us (photo by Mark Avery).

For those of you who couldn’t make it to Birdfair, or for those who did make it to Birdfair but couldn’t get in to the marquee, or for those who did get in and want to re-live it, the presentation was filmed and is now available to watch on YouTube (thanks to Anneka Svenska from Green World TV).

Incidentally, Ruth Peacey has a well-deserved nomination for Conservation Hero of the Year in this year’s Birders’ Choice Awards, hosted by Birdwatch magazine. Please vote for her here.

SNH says ‘no General Licence restrictions currently under consideration’ but what about these 9 cases?

The ability for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to impose a General Licence (GL) restriction order on land where there is evidence of raptor persecution taking place came in to force on 1 January 2014. This measure, based on a civil burden of proof, was introduced by then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in response to the continuing difficulties of meeting a criminal burden of proof to facilitate a criminal prosecution.

Whilst these GL restrictions are not without their limitations (because estates can simply apply for an individual licence instead –  see here, but also see here where SNH recently revoked an individual licence for alleged non compliance), Wheelhouse argued that as the restriction notices will be made public, they should act as a ‘reputational driver‘.

Since 1 January 2014, SNH has only imposed four GL restrictions. The first two were imposed in November 2015 (one for Raeshaw & Corsehope Estates in the Borders and one for Burnfoot & Wester Cringate Estates in Stirlingshire). Then there was a temporary halt for almost two years as Raeshaw & Corsehope Estates made a legal challenge which ended up with a judicial review in January 2017. The court’s decision was announced in March 2017 and SNH was found to have acted properly and lawfully. Since that decision was announced in March 2017, SNH has imposed two more GL restrictions: one for Edradynate Estate in Perthshire in September 2017 and one for an unnamed mystery gamekeeper in Aberdeenshire in September 2017.

Whilst we were pleased to see SNH impose these latest GL restrictions last month, we were also aware of a number of other raptor persecution incidents that have been recorded since 1 Jan 2014 that would potentially meet the criteria required for a GL restriction so we wanted to find out whether SNH was getting on with these.

Photo: an illegal pole trap filmed by RSPB Scotland on the Brewlands Estate in the Angus Glens, July 2015. These traps have been outlawed for over 100 years.

In early October we submitted an FoI to ask SNH how many cases were currently under consideration for a GL restriction. We are pretty shocked by the response received last week:

At the time of your request, no General Licence restrictions were under consideration“.

Really? Why the hell not? We know of at least nine cases that should be being considered, and these are just off the top of our heads – there will be others, as we know Police Scotland is still withholding information about a number of other raptor persecution incidents.

Here are the nine incidents we know about that have all occured since 1 January 2014 when SNH was given the power to impose a GL restriction:

Newlands Estate, Dumfriesshire. Gamekeeper William (Billy) Dick was convicted in 2015 for killing a buzzard on the estate in April 2014. He threw rocks at it and then stamped on it. The estate owner was prosecuted for alleged vicarious liability but then the Crown Office dropped the prosecution in April 2017, saying it wasn’t in the public interest to proceed (see here).

Brewlands Estate, Angus Glens. A gamekeeper was prosecuted for the alleged repeated setting of a pole trap on this estate between 9-17 July 2015. The Crown Office dropped the prosecution case in April 2017 because the video evidence was deemed inadmissible (see here). Another gamekeeper on this estate thought this result was hilarious.

Unnamed pheasant-shooting estate, Lanarkshire. In September 2015 a set pole trap was discovered on a bench directly outside a pheasant-rearing pen on an unnamed estate. Police Scotland apparently dropped the case, for unknown reasons.

Gamekeeper in Ayrshire. In May 2016 a named gamekeeper was charged after allegedly being caught using gin traps on a neighbouring farm of the estate on which he was employed. The Crown Office dropped the prosecution in March 2017 after reportedly ‘getting the dates wrong on its paperwork’ (see here).

Invercauld Estate, Aberdeenshire. In June 2016, walkers discovered a number of illegally-set spring traps staked out on a grouse moor. Two of the traps had caught a Common Gull by the legs. The bird had to be euthanised. There was no prosecution. ‘Some action’ was taken by the estate but whatever this action was it has remained a closely-guarded secret between the estate, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Scottish Government (see here).

Glendye Estate, Aberdeenshire. In January 2017 a number of illegally-set spring traps were discovered on a grouse moors on this estate. The Estate Factor and gamekeeper reportedly removed the traps and denied all knowledge of who had set them (see here). There was no prosecution.

Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire. On 4th May 2017, witnesses observed the shooting and killing of a hen harrier on this estate. Police Scotland appealed for information (see here & here). As far as we’re aware, there are no impending prosecutions.

Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire. On 31 May 2017, witnesses observed the shooting and killing of a short-eared owl on this estate. The corpse was retrieved and sent for a post-mortem. Police Scotland appealed for information. As far as we’re aware, there are no impending prosecutions.

Unnamed grouse shooting estate, Monadhliaths. On 7 June 2017, a member of the public found a buzzard caught in an illegally-set spring trap that had been staked out on an unnamed grouse moor in the Monadliaths. The buzzard was released. Police Scotland appealed for information. Inspector Mike Middlehurst of Police Scotland commented, “Unfortunately, there are some who continue to deliberately target birds of prey; there is nothing accidental in the setup of these traps“. As far as we’re aware, there are no impending prosecutions.

So why haven’t any of these cases been considered for a GL restriction? Is it because SNH is still waiting for Police Scotland to provide ‘formal information packages’ on these cases? (Remember, SNH can only consider potential GL restrictions based on evidence provided to them by Police Scotland). We know that Police Scotland has been slow in delivering this info to SNH in the past (e.g. see here) – are they still dragging their feet?

Or, is it the case that Police Scotland has already provided information to SNH about each of these nine cases and SNH has, for whatever reason, decided not to impose a GL restriction?

Isn’t it in the public interest to know, and importantly to understand, what is happening with these cases? We think so. And that’s why we’ve submitted an FoI to find out.

Scottish gamekeepers complain about alleged escalation of trap vandalism

The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association is today complaining about an alleged escalation in the vandalism of animal traps on shooting estates.

This supposed increase has been attributed to ‘activists’ and the SGA wants the law tightened up so that the alleged perpertrators can be prosecuted.

There’s widespread media coverage about it today e.g. in The National (here), The Times (here) and on the SGA website (here).

Photo of an allegedly vandalised trap (from The National)

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such claims. Back in 2013 it was discussed during a Rural Affairs Parliamentary Committee meeting, when then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse acknowledged that trap tampering might be taking place but that there was no hard evidence to show how widespread the problem might be so at that time it was considered all conjecture.

In 2015 the issue was raised again by a Fife landowner and an article in the local press suggested that “Police Scotland is reporting a rise in the number of traps being tampered with“.

We challenged that claim by looking at the results of a year-long trap tampering study carried out across Scotland by BASC between April 2014 and March 2015. The results showed that the issue was not widespread at all, but seemed to centre on a handful of local areas.

Whether the problem has increased since then is hard to tell without independently collected data. The problem might have increased. It’s not hard to understand the motivation that might lead to someone damaging a trap. It might be on animal welfare grounds (someone might see a non-target species dead in a trap). It might be because someone can’t tell whether a trap is legally or illegally-set – it’s not always easy to judge. It might be because someone objects to predator control just to maximise a landowner’s profits. Or the motivation might simply be because so many cases of illegally-set traps rarely result in a prosecution, even when a known gamekeeper has been filmed setting an illegal trap. That doesn’t make trap vandalism ‘right’, we’re just saying it’s easy to understand why it might be happening.

Photo of a young red grouse killed by a lawfully-set trap (photo by RPUK)

It’s equally plausible to suggest that some gamekeepers may be deliberately vandalising one or two of their own traps and then reporting it to the police as the work of ‘activists’ in an attempt to smear those whose campaign to put game-shooting under political scrutiny is gaining such traction.

Whatever might be happening, it’s ironic that the SGA doesn’t make this much noise when cases of illegally-set traps on game-shooting estates are reported in the media.

It’s very hard (virtually impossible) for us to sympathise with the SGA when it remains silent (or concocts outlandish alternative explanations) about the on-going abuse and use of illegal traps, by gamekeepers, to target birds of prey on game-shooting estates.

Speaking of which, we’re still waiting for the findings of the SGA’s inquiries in to who set the illegal traps that were discovered on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate last year.

Hen harrier brood meddling: Natural England delays release of information

Two days ago we blogged about how Natural England has delayed the release of information about the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England (see here).

Today, we’re blogging about how Natural England has delayed the release of information about the proposed hen harrier brood meddling scheme.

Anyone seeing a pattern emerging here?

So, hen harrier brood meddling. As with the proposed southern reintroduction, brood meddling is one of six ‘action’ points of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan, launched in January 2016.

As with everything-hen-harrier, Natural England has been reluctant to provide any information about the brood meddling scheme unless it’s been forced to do so under a series of FoI requests. Here’s what we’ve managed to drag out of them so far:

14 November 2016: Hen harrier brood management working group: what they’ve got planned (here)

15 November 2016: More brood meddling revelations (here)

16 November 2016: Brood meddling: the role of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (here)

22 November 2016: Brood meddling: the proposed social science study (here)

That information was released almost a year ago. Since then, despite repeated requests for information, Natural England has gone all secret squirrel and refused to tell us anything more about this highly controversial project.

In February 2017 we submitted another FoI asking for an update on brood meddling. NE responded in March 2017 telling us that the  information was being withheld “as it would prejudice the process of determining the licence application and potentially the quality of that licence”. They also told us, “The discussions are confidential up until the point the licence application has been determined. Once this has happened then details of the licence are available to the public”. 

We knew, from reading the minutes of an NE Board Meeting, that the brood meddling licence application (from Natural England to, er, Natural England!) had been submitted by March 2017. We didn’t understand how releasing more updates about the brood meddling scheme would “prejudice” the internal licensing process but nevertheless we gave NE the benefit of the doubt and didn’t submit another FoI for a few months.

At the end of May 2017 we submitted another FoI asking for an update on the brood meddling scheme. NE refused to provide any information because the brood meddling licence application was still being considered. NE said:

“‘The application you refer to is still being determined. I’m afraid that we do not have an estimate of when it will be”.

In early July 2017 we submitted another FoI asking for an update on the brood meddling scheme. NE refused to provide any information because the brood meddling licence application was still being considered. NE said:

I can confirm that the licence application is still being determined and we do not have an estimate of when it will be“.

In early October 2017 we submitted another FoI asking for an update on the brood meddling scheme. NE has just responded with this:

Ah, right. Natural England is now saying it needs extra time to prepare its response “because of the complexity/voluminous nature of the request“. Are they taking the piss?! It’s only “voluminous” because NE has refused to release any information for almost a year!!

Mind you, NE’s interpretation of “voluminous” is probably very different to ours. Remember, this is the organisation that told us it couldn’t release information about the number of successful hen harrier breeding attempts in England in 2017 (n = 3) because apparently it needed a super computer to “quality assure and analyse” the data!

It’s fine. We’ve waited all year so what’s another month between friends? We can wait until the end of November and who knows, by then NE might have also responded to our requested Internal Review of its refusal to release hen harrier satellite tag data, and it might also have managed to tell us something (anything) about the latest ‘missing’ sat-tagged hen harrier that recently vanished on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Police appeal for info after sparrowhawk found shot dead in East Yorkshire

Humberside Police are appealing for information after the discovery of a dead sparrowhawk ‘with injuries consistent with being shot with a shotgun’.

It is suspected to have been killed on or around 16th October 2017 near to the quarry and Boyes Lane in Keyingham, East Yorkshire.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Humberside Police on 101, quoting ref # 175 17/10/17.

“We have more Spoonbills breeding in Yorkshire than we do Hen Harriers”

Two months ago we learned that Natural England could no longer use the long-held excuse of an impending PhD submission as reason to withhold hen harrier satellite tag data (see here) so we started to ask for the release of these 15-year-old data.

Many blog readers also took the time to contact Natural England about this (well done) and the following correspondence has been sent to us by blog reader Mike Whitehouse, detailing his exchange of views with Natural England. It’s well worth a read as an example of Natural England’s obstructive tactics and the subsequent exasperation felt by many of us.

The start point of this correspondence is shortly after Natural England released some (very) limited information, which told us how many sat tagged hen harriers were ‘missing, fate unknown’ (43 of 59 hen harriers sat tagged between 2007-2017) but, crucially, no details about the habitat types in which they’d disappeared or whether there was any suspicious geographical clustering of final tag signals.

Photo: a dead satellite-tagged hen harrier. A post-mortem revealed it had been shot.

Mike’s email to Natural England, dated 21 Sept 2017:

Good evening Natural England,

At last a smidgeon of data – limited but nonetheless welcome. Amazing what a bit of pressure can achieve isn’t it?

In your notes you say that “Hen Harriers currently breed on heather moorland in the uplands across the UK. Your patch is England and as you know full well there are no breeding Hen Harriers at all on the heather moorland in England that is reserved for grouse shooting.

There are hardly any breeding pairs anywhere in the rest of England. It is time for you to get a move on if you do not want to be reporting on exactly the same number of Hen Harriers in England as there are Dodos. Not a good advertisement for NE and all of its efforts and funding. This issue is becoming high profile and fence sitting is not going to be comfortable for you.

As you are aware there is pressure on you to give details showing the locations of the missing Hen Harriers so it is clear whether or not they disappeared in suspicious clusters in or around shooting moorland.

Just for the record, I have just spent the last 3 days in the northern Yorkshire Dales (Swaledale, Wensleydale and Arkengarthdale), I have traversed exactly the upper Heather Moorland that you refer to and I failed to see any raptors whatsoever in 3 days but several hundred Red Grouse mainly waiting on or around the roads and tracks.

How is the Hen Harrier Action Plan going and do you have any targets to see high numbers of Hen Harriers that you can report on?

I would apreciate a reply.


Natural England’s reply to Mike, dated 29 Sept 2017:

Mike’s reply to Natural England, dated 30 Sept 2017:

Thank you for your timely but disappointing response.

We are both aware that NE is just playing with words and that since NE started to tag Hen Harriers in 2002 they have been in terminal decline with just 3 successful nests in 2017. We have more spoonbills breeding in Yorkshire than we do Hen Harriers and that is despite the vast ranges of heather moorland available for Hen Harriers in our National Parks.

My last email to you was not intended as an FOI request although it was interpreted as such. Fine by me.

I would like to make a formal request for information on this occasion however.

Would you please let me know from your overall collected database since 2002 how many tags (both radio and satellite technology) stopped transmitting whilst:-

  1. Within the current boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
  2. Within the boundaries of the Peak District National Park.
  3. Within the boundaries of the North York Moors National Park.

I look forward to hearing from you in a similarly timely fashion.

Regards, Mike

Natural England’s response to Mike, dated 20 Oct 2017:

[NB: We’ve cut NE’s response short to save space and because the rest of it is virtually identical to previous generic responses sent out by NE that we’ve already blogged about here].

Mike’s response to Natural England, dated 20 Oct 2017:

Dear Natural England,

Your response is absolutely bonkers and you know it is.

I have read your letter which by now, I assume, is a standard reply for anyone having the temerity to seek information from a public body such as yours. Some of us want to use the requested information constructively to help protect the Hen Harrier population in England. I wanted the information so that I could effectively lobby the 3 National Parks to get consolidated action to halt criminality on grouse moors. A laudable, if slightly ambitious aim.

You will of course be aware of the recent news from the Yorkshire Dales National Park regarding the missing/shot, but tagged, hen harrier. Time is not on their side. You are fiddling (quite literally), whilst Rome burns.

Let me challenge some of the nonsense in your reply:-

  1. “Disclosure is in effect a disclosure to the world”. Yes of course it is. What a good idea to get more people onside in an effort to stop people with guns breaking the law.
  2. “We are withholding this information as we consider its release endangers Hen Harriers”. There were 3 breeding pairs this year none of which were in the 3 National Parks referenced. It is guns, traps and poisons that endanger the remaining Hen Harriers that have the temerity to fly into our National Parks. I would argue that lack of information endangers them more.
  3. “Natural England believes in openness and transparency”. You patently do not!
  4. “More detailed information is being withheld….having said this and following a number of further enquiries we are reviewing our approach”. We are not going away. 100,000 signed the penultimate petition to Parliament and the new petition will need a response from the Minister soon. You are getting yourselves on the wrong side – time to be brave.
  5. “The academics need a ‘safe space'”. I assume you were trying to resort to irony here. It is Hen Harriers that need a safe space. The heather moorland of England should be that safe space.
  6. “We feel there is little public interest in releasing this information”. You could not be more wrong. See 1,2,3,4 and 5 above. Your current and future post bag will clearly show that this issue is not going away.

There are very many complex arguments. I think it is simple. If people with guns stopped shooting, poisoning and trapping Hen Harriers there would be more of them – there could hardly be less. I have been lucky to see Hen Harriers in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I believe my family, their children and all visitors should have the chance or the right to this privilege. We, the general public, have rights too.



It’s fascinating that Natural England is refusing to even release the fairly non-detailed info Mike requested about how many tagged hen harriers went ‘missing’ within the boundaries of those three National Parks. How does withholding that information ‘endanger hen harriers’? Answer – it doesn’t.

And actually, in its haste to just issue a blanket refusal, Natural England hasn’t realised that this information is already available in the limited info NE released earlier in October.

We’re not bothering to look at radio-tagged hen harriers because, as previously discussed, the technology was too poor to draw any reasonable conclusions. Instead, we’re just looking at satellite-tagged hen harriers (2007-2017).

With this in mind, here are the answers to Mike’s questions:

  1. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within the current boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales National Park? Answer – 11 (actually it’s now 12 if we include the latest victim that NE is refusing to discuss).
  2. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within boundary of the Peak District National Park? Answer – 1.
  3. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within the boundary of the North York Moors National Park? Answer – 1.

This doesn’t include information on the number of hen harriers that have been found dead (confirmed as illegally persecuted) within these three National Parks and neither does it include information about ‘missing’ hen harriers that were satellite-tagged by the RSPB.

Still, not to worry. Natural England reports that work on the Hen Harrier Inaction Plan is “progressing as expected“.

Yep, isn’t it just.

Cartoon by Gerard Hobley

Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Natural England delays release of information

One of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England:

As regular blog readers will know, finding out information about this ‘let’s divert attention from illegal persecution on driven grouse moors’ scheme has been as difficult as finding breeding hen harriers on driven grouse moors. Natural England has been reluctant to share its plans with the general public and all the information we’ve gleaned so far has come from 11 months of submitting FoI requests.

Here’s what we know to date:

28 Nov 2016: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: an update (here)

3 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report (here)

8 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the project group and their timeline (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: who’s funding it? (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: a bonkers proposal for Exmoor National Park (here)

12 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Wiltshire (here)

14 Feb 2017: Leaked email reveals Natural England’s views on Hen Harrier Action Plan (here)

23 Feb 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: donor countries (here)

19 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: new project manager appointed (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Dartmoor as potential new release site (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: revised costs (here)

21 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: project team visits France (here)

15 Aug 2017: Natural England Board making up justification for hen harrier southern reintroduction (here)

You’ll notice a four month gap in the above list (March/April/May/June 2017). This was because Natural England suddenly refused to release any further information, claiming it would “prejudice” the licensing process for the proposed brood meddling scheme. We challenged this, as the southern reintroduction project has nothing to do with the brood meddling scheme further north and so project details should be available for public scrutiny. Natural England had to agree and did release more information in July.

Photo of a hen harrier by Robin Newlin

In early October 2017, we submitted yet another FoI to ask for another update on the southern reintroduction project. Natural England has just replied, but instead of just sending through the relevant documents, we got this:

We regret that we must extend the time limit for responding by a further 20 working days to 27 November 2017, because of the complexity/voluminous nature of the request“.

Blimey! The southern reintroduction team must have been very very very busy between July and Oct if Natural England views this request as ‘complex and voluminous’! If we were cynics, we might not believe Natural England and we might think that Natural England is just being deliberately obstructive because it doesn’t like the criticism it’s receiving from us, and from others, on its mishandling of all-things-hen-harrier.

Guess we’ll find out at the end of November whether our cynicism is justified or not, when the ‘complex and voluminous’ paperwork is released.

Scot Gov’s grouse moor management review: update due in 2 weeks

Earlier this month the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee met to discuss progress on the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s petition calling for licensing of all gamebird hunting.

The Committee agreed to write to Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham for a ‘detailed update’ on the proposals she announced back in May 2017, which included setting up an independently-led group to consider the environmental impact of grouse moor management techniques, and to recommend options for regulation, including licensing.

Since that announcement five months ago we’ve heard very little more about this, which is particularly disappointing given one of the proposals was to ‘Immediately review all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern‘.

‘Immediate’ means occuring without delay. So has this immediate review of legal measures been completed? If not, why not? If yes, where is it?

In mid-September Roseanna Cunningham did tell the Scottish Parliament that “good progress is being made” on a number of the proposed measures and that she would “announce further details shortly“.

No further details have yet emerged.

The Environment Committee has now written to Roseanna for an update and has requested she responds by 10th November 2017.