Scottish gamekeeper pleads guilty to animal cruelty offence

A Scottish gamekeeper has been banned from keeping birds of prey for 10 years after keeping an eagle owl in a cramped pigsty.

The large owl was discovered by SSPCA investigators last summer.

This week gamekeeper Alan Wilson admitted failing to protect the bird from suffering when he appeared at Jedburgh Sheriff Court.

The court heard how the 59-year-old kept the owl in a filthy boarded-up pigsty at his home at Henlaw Cottages, near Longformacus.

Photos by SSPCA

Jedburgh Sheriff Court was told that investigators received a tip-off and found the owl in “utterly unacceptable living conditions” on June 5 2017.

Gamekeeper Wilson pleaded guilty to the offence under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006.

Wilson was ordered to sign over custody of the owl to the Scottish SPCA and in addition to the 10 year disqualification, he was fined £400.

An undercover Scottish SPCA spokesman said: “This case involved an eagle owl who had its welfare compromised by being kept in utterly unacceptable living conditions.

The Scottish SPCA worked in partnership with Police Scotland to seize and rescue the bird as well as providing expertise.

Both wild and captive raptors can suffer if their welfare falls below that of adequate standards.

Eagle owls are large, strong predators and like all captive predators require specialist care and expertise.

The eagle owl is currently being cared for by the Scottish SPCA and is doing well.”

Excellent partnership-working between Police Scotland and the SSPCA. Well done to all involved.

We believe this case is connected to the multi-agency raid on a game shooting estate last June (see here). It is not known if any further charges are being brought in relation to that raid.

It’s not the first time a gamekeeper with an Eagle Owl has come to the attention of the authorities in this region. In April last year we blogged about an unidentified gamekeeper who had been photographed with a tethered Eagle Owl on a grouse moor in the nearby Lammermuirs (see here).

Golden eagle Fred: some facts

The rumour mill about our satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred has been in full-on overdrive since we announced his highly suspicious disappearance last week.

As we’d promised at the start of this project, we set out to provide as much transparency as we could about the circumstances of Fred’s disappearance, including detailed information about his last known location. The problem with doing this is that information then gets accidentally misinterpreted, or deliberately distorted in some cases by those who seek to play down the possibility that Fred has become yet another victim of illegal persecution.

There are many reasons why some would want the public to believe that illegal persecution couldn’t possibly have played a role in Fred’s disapearance. It has become clear to us over the last week or so that various organisations are, behind the scenes, actively pursuing a damage-limitation offensive, particularly some of those involved with the planned reintroduction of golden eagles to south Scotland later this year, and that includes senior officials at the statutory nature conservation agency SNH.

Obviously the highly suspicious disappearance of a golden eagle in south Scotland is going to raise questions about how wise it is to release eagles in a region where persecution is still a problem. Indeed, this has been a long-standing concern about the reintroduction project but has previously been brushed aside by some officials claiming that eagle persecution was an historical, not a current issue. Fred’s suspicious disappearance suggests otherwise but rather than address this concern head on, attempts are currently being made to discredit members of our project team and the project itself.

Let’s just be clear here. At no point have we stated that Fred was killed on a driven grouse moor. We haven’t even stated that he is dead. What we have said is that Fred’s disappearance is highly suspicious, and that, like many other satellite-tagged eagles, he disappeared in an area close to a driven grouse moor. These are indisputable facts.

We have suggested that he was illegally killed, and we have very good reason to think so, which will become clear when we’re able to discuss the details after the police investigation.

At this stage we can address some of the statements that have been made (some of which have been made in good faith, others have not).

  1. Fred’s last tag signal came from a wind farm – incorrect.
  2. Fred last tag signal came from Bonaly Country Park – incorrect.
  3. Nobody went to check on Fred’s welfare while he was alive in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  4. Fred’s tag battery failed to charge in low winter light – incorrect.
  5. There has been no raptor persecution in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  6. There are no driven grouse moors in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  7. Fred did not disappear in an area where driven grouse shooting takes place – incorrect.
  8. Satellite tag mapping suggests that Fred was not actively foraging – incorrect.
  9. Because mountain hares are locally extinct, Fred must have been weak and starving – incorrect.
  10. Fred’s tag was not functioning properly because it was in woodland – incorrect.
  11. A decision was taken not to search for the tag in the North Sea – incorrect.
  12. The police aren’t interested because they are siding with the landowners – incorrect.
  13. Fred’s body was found and the tag had killed him so the story of his disappearance was fabricated to lay the blame elsewhere – incorrect.
  14. Fred was never tagged in the first place – incorrect.

Fred’s story has generated a lot of media interest over the last week, which has been very welcome. Obviously, a lot of people are very angry about Fred’s suspicious disappearance and they have every reason to be. Anger is the appropriate reaction to what looks like yet another incident of illegal raptor persecution. However, we’ve been informed that some people are directing their anger in an abusive way towards members of the Pentlands Ranger Service. Please, think about what you’re saying and to whom. The Ranger Service certainly doesn’t deserve it and we are working closely with them as this investigation continues. Thanks.

Further information about missing satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred

Last week we blogged about the suspicious disappearance of one of our satellite-tagged golden eagles.

‘Fred’ vanished in the Pentland Hills close to Edinburgh in late January and then 3.5 days later his satellite tag indicated that he (or at least his tag) was in the North Sea, some 15 miles offshore from St Andrews until the tag finally stopped sending data a couple of days later (see here).

Since Fred’s disappearance, we have been talking to many experts and among them, the engineers at the tag manufacturing company. They have recently provided us with some further technical data from the tag which are shedding light on the circumstances of Fred’s highly suspicious disappearance.

These new data have been passed to Police Scotland who are following up. Obviously at this stage we are unable to comment further but rest assured we will have more to say in due course.

In the meantime, if anyone has any information about Fred’s disappearance please contact Police Scotland, Tel: 101, or alternatively call the RSPB’s new confidential raptor crime hotline: 0300-999-0101.

RSPB launches new ‘Raptor Crime Hotline’

RSPB press release:


The RSPB has launched a confidential ‘Raptor Crime Hotline’ (0300 999 0101) to help whistle-blowers within the shooting industry come forward with information about bird of prey persecution.

The link between driven grouse shooting and the illegal killing of birds of prey, such as peregrines and hen harriers, has been widely documented. The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report revealed over 80 confirmed raptor persecution incidents had taken place in 2016, with many more likely to have gone undetected. It also showed that North Yorkshire has had more than twice as many confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other county for the last five years.

The RSPB would like to see much more acceptance from shooting organisations about the scale and conservation impact of the persecution and more support to clean up the industry and help root out those involved.

Senior Investigations Officer Guy Shorrock, of the RSPB, said: “Illegal killing is not only robbing people of the chance to enjoy watching birds of prey but has serious consequences for their populations. We are sure there are people within rural and shooting communities who know who is committing these crimes but are cautious about speaking out. This 24-hour hotline provides a completely safe and confidential way to pass on information – calls are not recorded and are treated in the utmost confidence.

We would like to see shooting organisations showing their support by including the hotline on their websites and encouraging their members to come forward with information regarding crimes against birds of prey in the UK.”

Over the years RSPB Investigations staff have spoken in confidence with gamekeepers and others within the shooting industry and received graphic reports of routine and intensive raptor persecution on many sporting estates. In addition, it has provided a disturbing insight into management culture and the pressure put on gamekeepers, often from the very start of their careers, to kill protected wildlife. The RSPB will continue to push the government to introduce licensing of driven grouse shooting to improve accountability of these estates and to promote good practise.

Guy Shorrock said: “I’ve spoken with several gamekeepers about the raptor killing they are expected to do as part of their job. It is abundantly clear that without any meaningful accountability for managers and employers on intensively managed driven grouse moors the situation will not change.”

To launch the hotline, last weekend (17-18 February) RSPB investigations staff and North Yorkshire Police distributed promotional beer mats, featuring the hotline number, around some of the pubs of North Yorkshire: a particular hotspot for raptor persecution. This was part of the public awareness-raising initiative ‘Operation Owl’, aimed at informing local people of the impact raptor persecution has on bird of prey populations, tourism and the wider countryside.

North Yorkshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Amanda Oliver said: “The launch of the RSPB’s confidential ‘Raptor Crime Hotline’ is welcomed. I would always advise the public who wish to report any wildlife crime to contact the police, however I believe a further confidential contact point such as this will help contribute towards the fight in reducing the persecution of birds of prey and bringing those committing this despicable crimes to justice“.

If you have information about the illegal killing of birds of prey, please call the RSPB’s Raptor Crime Hotline for free on: 0300 999 0101.


How wilful blindness facilitates illegal raptor persecution

Earlier this week we were invited to talk at an event in London about illegal raptor persecution in the UK. The event was the LUSH Summit, organised and hosted by LUSH, and was designed to showcase the work of many activists and campaigners from around the world who receive help and support from this extraordinary organisation.

Many of the presentations were filmed and can be watched on the LUSH Player.

We had the privilege of speaking in the Conservation room and our presentation focused on the subject of wilful blindness, how it facilitates the ongoing persecution of birds of prey in the UK and the strategies that we’re using to try to bring this to an end.

This presentation, introduced by Chris Packham, can be watched here (starts at 55.53 mins):

New initiative to target the raptor killers in North Yorkshire

How about this for proper, proactive, genuine partnership working to tackle illegal raptor killing in North Yorkshire, one of the UK’s most prolific raptor persecution hotspots.

This is really encouraging. There’s no obsfuscation here, just a clear acknowledgement that raptors are still being illegally killed in North Yorkshire and an equally clear intention from all the project partners that this will no longer will be tolerated.

Well done North Yorkshire Police, RSPB, RSPCA, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and North York Moors National Park Authority.

Press release from North Yorkshire Police, 17 February 2018:

It’s “talons out” for raptor persecutors as North Yorkshire Police launches Operation Owl

Police are urging visitors to North Yorkshire’s countryside to get involved with Operation Owl – a new initiative to reduce the number of illegal attacks on birds of prey in the county.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds. Nevertheless birds of prey (raptors) are still shot, poisoned and trapped – especially in areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting.

North Yorkshire has more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other county in England – a situation that North Yorkshire Police is determined to tackle.

Launching on 17 February, Operation Owl is a joint initiative by North Yorkshire Police, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA, together with the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks.

As part of the Operation, police will carry out surveillance checks on known raptor persecution hot-spots at random times to disrupt offender activity, and work with local landowners to make them aware of the legal position on raptor persecution. National Park volunteers will be trained to spot poisoned bait and illegal traps across the parks and the police are also calling on the public to be the eyes and ears of the police when out in the countryside.

North Yorkshire Police’s Chief Constable, Dave Jones, is the national lead on wildlife and rural crime, and the Force has what is believed to be the largest dedicated rural taskforce in the country.

Sergeant Kevin Kelly is part of that rural taskforce.  He said:

Our wonderful countryside is host to many specially-protected birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, red kites, buzzards and owls.  It is absolutely unacceptable that people think they can ignore the law and subject these birds to poisonings, shootings, nest destruction and the illegal use of spring traps without consequence. We will be doing everything in our power to catch these offenders, supported by our colleagues in the RSPB and the volunteers in the national parks. But the area is huge, so the more eyes and ears we have on the ground the better. That’s why we’re asking the public to help.”

In particular, the police are asking the public to spot pole traps.  Sergeant Kelly explained:

Trappers are using spring-loaded traps on top of posts to capture birds of prey that land on top of the post. The bird can struggle for many hours before the trapper returns to kill them. These pole traps, as they are called, are illegal. We want the public to help us find these traps. We’re advising that anyone who sees a pole trap should “spring” it if they can do so safely, note the location, take a photo, and call the police on 101 to report it. Our wildlife officers will take it from there.”

Operation Owl will run for the next year, and North Yorkshire Police is hoping that the initiative will become a blueprint for other Forces where there is a high incidence of raptor persecution.

Said Sergeant Kelly:

Like other forms of rural crime, raptor persecution is not a problem that the police can tackle alone. We need everyone involved. The weather will soon start to improve and more people will head out to the countryside.  If everyone keeps their eyes open for illegal traps and poisoned bait, it will be a massive boost to our surveillance operation. This is a real opportunity to reduce the number of wild birds that suffer and die unnecessarily, and send a clear message to offenders that we will not tolerate this crime in our countryside.”

Commenting on Operation Owl, Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, said:

The landscape of North Yorkshire attracts huge numbers of visitors every year. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible history for the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey. We are proud to support North Yorkshire Police with this initiative and would ask people to report any concerns to them. If people want to speak in confidence about raptor persecution they can contact us on 0300 9990101“.

Andy Wilson, Chief Executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority, said:

Raptors are beautiful. They are an essential part of our National Parks, but their numbers have been diminished over many years by persecution from shooting interests. We urge everyone to help prevent illegal persecution and welcome Operation Owl, which the National Park Authority is actively supporting.”

David Butterworth, CEO of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said:

The monitoring data, the number of confirmed persecution incidents and the absence of some species from large areas of potentially suitable habitat provide compelling evidence for an uncomfortable conclusion:  illegal persecution is limiting the populations of some species of birds of prey in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.  I’d like to appeal to the public to join in Operation Owl to help bring about the changes in attitudes that are so urgently needed.  Only through collective action can the persecution be stopped.


The partners have released a short video to help members of the public to recognise some common signs that raptor persecution is taking place:

Golden eagle ‘Fred’ disappears 7 miles from Scottish Parliament

Last summer, in partnership with Chris Packham, we satellite tagged a shedload of golden eagles in Scotland (see here for project details).

We haven’t blogged much about these eagles since then because they’ve been hanging around in their parents’ territories and those locations need to remain secret.

However, in mid-January 2018, one of those young golden eagles finally decided to leave home and go exploring. He had hatched at a nest site in the Scottish Borders and his parents are the only breeding pair of golden eagles in the region. This nest site has been protected for decades by the landowner and he is fiercely proud of his eagles, so much so that he named this eagle chick Fred after his grandson. The landowner and his gamekeeper joined us last June as we fitted Fred with a state-of-the-art transmitter and we were all excited at the prospect of following Fred’s movements over the coming years, with the hope that he would thrive and help to increase this tiny, vulnerable breeding population in the Borders.

Golden eagle Fred, June 2017. Photo by Ruth Tingay

Fred headed to the Pentland Hills and spent a few days ‘woodland hopping’ around the northern edge, at one point just half a kilometre from the City Bypass.

His tag was working perfectly and was providing us with accurate and frequent GPS locations.

Maps copyright RPUK:

On 20th January, Fred roosted overnight in a shelter belt overlooking a grouse moor (Black Hill) near Balerno. This is a photograph of the roost site. Fred was in the trees at the top left-hand corner of this field.

Fred’s tag continued to record his position there until just before 10am on 21st January, when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped. The last signal came from the trees half-way along this shelter belt:

We didn’t receive any new GPS locations from Fred’s tag until three and a half days later when, on the evening of 24 January, Fred’s tag began transmitting again but the GPS location showed it was in the North Sea, some 10 miles offshore from St. Andrews. His tag continued to provide GPS data until 26 January, showing his final position at approximately 15 miles offshore. No further data have been received.

Dr Tingay of RPUK said: “It is beyond doubt that Fred’s disappearance is highly suspicious. Golden eagles don’t generally fly out for miles over large bodies of sea water but even if Fred had done so, apart from defying everything we’ve learned about Scottish golden eagle behaviour, we would have seen excellent tracking data plotting his route given the reliability of his tag.

“While we will probably never know for sure, it seems likely that Fred was killed soon after 10am on 21 January, his tag was hidden to suppress the signal and then he and the tag were dumped in the North Sea. If this is indeed the case, it’s just the latest example of when those who have killed a protected bird of prey have tried to cover up evidence of their crime”.

Chris Packham said: “Once again, we have the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged golden eagle in an area managed for driven grouse shooting. What’s truly shocking about this case is that it didn’t take place in a remote Highland glen miles from anywhere, but it happened within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh, right under the noses of the Scottish Government. What must the good people of Edinburgh think, to learn that golden eagles aren’t even safe on their doorstep? That they’ve been denied the opportunity to see this iconic, magnificent bird in their local hills? This doesn’t bode well for the planned reintroduction of golden eagles to south Scotland, due to begin later this year”.

Over the coming days we’ll be blogging about the implications of Fred’s disappearance for the proposed South Scotland Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project, which was already a controversial issue before Fred’s story even began.

When we launched this golden eagle satellite tagging project at the British Birdfair last year, we said that our project would be different from other satellite-tagging projects in that if any of our tagged eagles ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, rather than sit on that information for months/years and then only give a vague description of the location where the bird had vanished, we would publish much more detailed information as soon as any police investigation was complete. We’ve fulfilled this promise and we’ve also made a video which includes an exclusive interview with Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham. You can watch it here:

We are immensely grateful to Roseanna Cunningham for granting us an audience despite her incredibly busy schedule. We are also grateful to Police Wildlife Crime Officer Andy Loughlin and the RSPB Scotland Investigations for their quick and diligent response to our concerns.

If anyone has any information about Fred’s disappearance, please contact Police Scotland on 101.


Daily Express here

Scotsman here

STV news here with a fascinating quote from Scottish Land & Estates:

We understand that the bird’s disappearance is not being investigated as a crime.

We need to learn the full facts prior to establishing any conclusions but it should be noted that the location where the eagle disappeared is not an area of intensive grouse shooting“. We’ll be blogging about this quote soon.

The Times here (behind a paywall)

Herald here

BBC news here

Guardian here

Courier here

Press & Journal here

News on Scot Gov’s grouse moor management review & mountain hare culling

In January we blogged about a number of Parliamentary questions lodged by Colin Smyth MSP relating to the Government’s grouse moor management review group and mountain hare culling.

Written responses are as follows:

S5W-14019: Colin Smyth (Scottish Labour, South Scotland) Date lodged: 23/1/2018

To ask the Scottish Government, further to its announcement on 24 November 2017, what progress has been made by the independent group for ensuring grouse moor management practices are sustainable and legally compliant; what the remit of the group is, and what timetable it is working to.

Roseanna Cunningham: The review group has now been established and it met for the first time on 16 January 2018.

The group’s remit is to examine how to ensure that grouse moor management continues to contribute to the rural economy while being environmentally sustainable and compliant with the law. The group will recommend options for regulation, which could include licensing, and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation.

The Scottish Government may also refer specific topics to the group that might be considered by it as part of its work.

The group will report to me in Spring 2019.

S5W-14020: Colin Smyth (Scottish Labour, South Scotland) Date lodged: 23/1/2018

To ask the Scottish Government, further to its announcement on 24 November 2017, what plans are in place to engage (a) stakeholders and (b) the public in the work of the independent group for ensuring grouse moor management practices are sustainable and legally compliant.

Roseanna Cunningham: During the review process, the group will engage with, and take advice from, external stakeholders as and when necessary.

A public consultation process may be required following the completion of the review, if any regulatory changes are proposed by the Scottish Government in light of recommendations made by the group.

S5W-14021: Colin Smyth (Scottish Labour, South Scotland) Date lodged: 23/1/2018

To ask the Scottish Government what efforts it has made to prevent large-scale culls of mountain hares this winter.

Roseanna Cunningham: The Scottish Government opposes large-scale culls of mountain hares. There is no current evidence to indicate that large scale culls are taking place but if evidence emerges that points to large-scale culls taking place that could cause significant population declines, locally or nationally, the Scottish Government will consider bringing forward further measures to protect mountain hares. This could include the use of Nature Conservation Orders or giving mountain hares further protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Recent analyses of available data by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) provides no evidence of a national decline in mountain hares. Data from the North East of Scotland suggests there may be local population declines but these are not reflected at a national scale.

On 26 January, SNH published a commissioned report onDeveloping a counting methodology for mountain hares (Lepus timidus) in Scotland’.

Adoption of the recommended counting methodology by land managers will help in developing a better understanding of mountain hare population cycles and trends.


On this last question, contrary to what the Scottish Government claims, there is evidence that large scale culls are still taking place (e.g. see this 2017 report from OneKind). Just last week more culling was reported from the Monadhliaths and Aberdeenshire:

For how much longer will the Scottish Government continue to turn a blind eye to this obscene bloodbath taking place on grouse moors across the country?


Peaky blindness

At the end of January we blogged about a shocking display of arrogance and abuse of position in an attempt to shield raptor killers in the Peak District National Park (see here).

We’d been sent a copy of an email, purportedly written by the then Moorland Association representative in the Peak District, addressed to a senior staff member of the Peak District National Park Authority in June 2010. Here it is again as a reminder:

Obviously, we were interested in how the Peak District Park Authority had responded to this correspondence so we submitted an FoI to find out.

The Peak District National Park Authority has now responded with this:

We no longer hold information meeting your request“.

You can draw your own conclusions from this.

We’ve written to the Park Authority again to ask when the correspondence was destroyed, and for what reason. Should be interesting.

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