Why we satellite tag raptors and why the grouse shooting industry wants to stop us

A year ago today saw the publication of the Government-commissioned Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review, which showed how almost one-third of all satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland (41 of 131 eagles) had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances between 2004-2016, many of them vanishing in particular clusters on or close to driven grouse moors:

It seems timely then to undertake a review of how many more satellite-tagged raptors (not just golden eagles) have ‘disappeared’ since that damning analysis was undertaken (data cut off point 15 January 2017), a period of just 15 months between then and now.

An astonishing 14 sat-tagged raptors have vanished during this short period: 3 x golden eagles, 2 x white-tailed eagles, 8 x hen harriers, 1 x Montagu’s harrier. Eight of these ‘disappeared’ in Scotland, five in England and one in Wales. In addition to the missing 14, a further two satellite-tagged raptors (hen harriers) were found dead and post mortem results indicated illegal persecution.

Here’s the list:

January 2017: Hen harrier Carroll, Northumberland

March 2017: Golden eagle #338, Cairngorms National Park

August 2017: Hen harrier Calluna, Cairngorms National Park

August 2017: Montagu’s harrier Sally, Norfolk

October 2017: Hen harrier John, Yorkshire Dales National Park

October 2017: Hen harrier Manu, North Pennines

October 2017: Hen harrier Kathy, Argyll & Bute

December 2017: Golden eagle, Monadhliath Mountains

January 2018: Golden eagle Fred, Pentland Hills

February 2018: Hen harrier Aalin, Wales

February 2018: Hen harrier Marc, North Pennines

February 2018: Hen harrier Saorsa, Angus Glens

March 2018: White-tailed eagle Blue X, Strathbraan, Perthshire

March 2018: Hen harrier Finn, nr Moffat

March 2018: Hen harrier Blue, Cumbria

May 2018: White-tailed eagle Blue T, Cairngorms National Park

Of course, not one of these 14 recently ‘disappeared’ sat-tagged raptors will make it in to the ‘official’ wildlife crime stats (just as none of the 41 missing golden eagles and 60+ missing hen harriers have made it there) because, without a body, the police’s hands are tied. This suits the grouse-shooting industry because they can point to the ‘official’ crime stats and claim, disingenuously, that raptor persecution is in decline and argue that this is evidence that the industry has cleaned up its act.

Unfortunately for the shooting industry, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged raptors still makes headline news because, quite obviously, in the vast majority of these cases there is no other plausible explanation other than illegal persecution. The authoritative golden eagle satellite tag review demonstrated 98% tag reliability (supported by robust statistical analyses) and showed that sat-tagged golden eagles were 25 times more likely to ‘disappear’ in Scotland than anywhere else in the world where golden eagle tagging studies, using identical tags, have taken place.

As Dr Hugh Webster said: “They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“.

[Satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred, who disappeared in suspicious circumstances in January. Photo: Ruth Tingay]

As a result of this ongoing publicity, the game-shooting industry has spent considerable time and effort trying to undermine the satellite-tagging of raptors, either by launching disgusting personal & abusive attacks against those involved in the projects or by arguing that raptor satellite-tagging should be banned because it’s ‘cruel’ and the tag data serve no purpose other than to try and entrap gamekeepers. The industry knows how incriminating these sat tag data are and so is trying to do everything in its power to corrode public and political confidence in (a) the tag data and (b) the justification for fitting sat tags to raptors.

As ever though, the game shooting industry hasn’t done its homework.

One of the latest claims being made by some in the industry is that there’s no need to fit sat tags to species like golden eagles because ‘we know all we need to know’ and ‘fitting tags doesn’t stop illegal persecution so why bother fitting them’? There are also repeated claims that tag data are ‘not shared’.

Let’s just nip this in the bud, shall we? The main reason for fitting sat tags to golden eagles is not to entrap gamekeepers; it’s to provide information for conservation and scientific research. Sure, if a tagged eagle then ‘disappears’ in suspicious circumstances of course that’s going to be publicised – why shouldn’t it be? But that is NOT the main objective of satellite-tagging eagles. And tag data ARE shared, just not with armed criminals intent on killing eagles, and who have a long track record of doing exactly that.

For those still struggling to understand the simple rationale behind golden eagle sat-tagging, below is a summary list of research & conservation studies in Scotland that are benefitting from golden eagle satellite tag data. As you can see, it’s all collaborative, there’s plenty of open data-sharing amongst research groups, and far from ‘knowing all we need to know about golden eagles’, the sat tag data are showing us exactly how little we actually did know prior to the availability of this new technology:

Peer-reviewed scientific paper: Weston, E.D., Whitfield, D.P., Travis, J.M.J. & Lambin, X. 2013. When do young birds disperse? Tests from studies of golden eagles in Scotland. BMC Ecology 13, 42. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6785/13/42 [Co-authors: University of Aberdeen and Natural Research; tagging data from several institutions.]

Peer-reviewed scientific paper: Weston, E.D., Whitfield, D.P., Travis, J.M.J. & Lambin, X. 2018. The contribution of flight capability to the post-fledging dependence period of golden eagles. Journal of Avian Biology 49. [Co-authors: University of Aberdeen and Natural Research; funding contribution from SSE; tagging data from several institutions.]

Regional Eagle Conservation Management Plan (RECMP). A joint initiative to encourage the conservation of golden eagles in the Central Highlands Natural Heritage Zone (NHZ 10), involving SSE, The Highland Council, Natural Research, Haworth Conservation, RSPB, SNH, Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, and other contributors. Research funded by SSE. The RECMP research has produced data from 15 eagle nestlings tagged in or near to NHZ 10 which are pooled with other tagging research initiatives. Data from satellite tagged birds have also been contributed and are available as a resource for ongoing and future initiatives on education and community outreach also associated with RECMP.

Ongoing research projects under RECMP (projects involve several collaborators from different institutions; analyses involve tagging data shared by several institutions):

  • A simple topographic model to predict golden eagle space use [Golden Eagle Ridge Model: GERM]. Manuscript to be submitted shortly to ornithological journal.
  • Displacement of young golden eagles from wind farms in Scotland.
  • Age of first breeding and natal dispersal distance in Scottish golden eagles.
  • Use of settlement areas by dispersing golden eagles in Scotland.
  • Variation in dispersal behaviour of young golden eagles in Scotland.

Raptors and Forestry Joint Working Group. Current membership involves SNH, FCS, FES, RSPB, Haworth Conservation, CONFOR, Borders Forest Trust, Natural Research and Scottish Raptor Study Group. Evidence base for use of forestry by golden eagles is being supported by research derived from satellite tagged birds, to lead to guidance for practitioners. Preliminary research work, involving eagle satellite tagging data (including GERM: model development also supported by SNH and FCS), presented at a Sharing Good Practice event organised by FCS and SNH, 14 May 2018.

Scottish Natural Heritage, with assistance from Natural Research. Programme of tagging young eagles in National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to increase knowledge of connectivity with wider environment.

Scottish Raptor Study Group. Data used by several regional SRSG workers to identify ‘new’ territories if dispersing birds occupy a territory; and used to identify any gaps between known territories. Data improve efficiency of survey and monitoring.

Novel proposals for development and forestry. Data from satellite tagged eagles supplied and available to SNH, private/independent forestry consultants and Forestry Commission Scotland (forestry proposals); and SNH and ornithological consultants for EIA (e.g. wind farm or power line planning proposals). Data improve assessments of new proposals.

SNH Commissioned Report 982, funded by Scottish Government and SNH, included analyses which apart from the priority of analysing the ‘suddenly disappeared tags and birds with these tags’ also led to results on survival of dispersing young and lack of any evidence of tagging causing ‘harm’, for example.

As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot of scientific research going on to help inform conservation strategies for golden eagles in Scotland (some of which will also be applicable elsewhere in the world), and most of this research would be virtually impossible to achieve without satellite tag data. The gamekeepers, ridiculously, think it’s all about them; it clearly isn’t, although the criminal activities of some of them is certainly impacting on the conservation of golden eagles in some parts of Scotland, as has been well documented. For that reason, we, and others, will continue to highlight and publicise the illegal persecution of golden eagles (and other raptors) for as long as it takes to force the authorities to take meaningful action against the criminals responsible.

Raven cull: latest update

Somebody posted a comment yesterday to ask what was happening with the raven cull, so here are a few updates:

As far as we are aware, the controversial raven cull continues in Strathbraan.

The raven cull has become an international embarrassment for SNH and the Scottish Government – see this excellent blog by Dr Rob Sheldon.

There was an interesting segment on BBC Springwatch last night showing footage of sheep predating lapwing and curlew eggs (available on BBC iPlayer here for 29 days, starts at 48.26 mins). There was also mention of a research paper that showed sheep had killed and eaten at least 680 Arctic Tern chicks on Foula over a seven-year period. Here is a link to that paper: Furness 1988 Predation of tern chicks by sheep

It would be interesting to find out if any studies of sheep predation on waders has taken place in Strathbraan, prior to SNH’s decision to licence the killing of ravens ‘to see what happens’.

[Raven photo by Dieter Schaeffer]

Despite concerted efforts by many people lobbying their MSPs to support Alison Johnstone’s Parliamentary motion calling for the raven cull licence to be withdrawn, so far only 14 MSPs have signed up (as of noon today):

Patrick Harvie (Greens), John Finnie (Greens), Andy Wightman (Greens), Ross Greer (Greens), Mark Ruskell (Greens), Claudia Beamish (Labour), Iain Gray (Labour), Daniel Johnson (Labour), Colin Smyth (Labour), Johann Lamont (Labour), Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats), Tavish Scott (Liberal Democrats), Christine Grahame (SNP) and Mairi Gougeon (SNP).

[UPDATE 2pm: Anas Sarwar (Labour) has now also signed]

Disappointingly, several SNP MSPs have been sending out a generic response, claiming that this is an ‘operational matter for SNH rather than the Scottish Government’, although Graeme Dey (SNP) reportedly sent out his own personal response which included the statement:

I note your comment regarding consulting with the RSPB. And I understand where you are coming from. But in my experience you cannot engage with that organisation on matters such as this and arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The RSPB is opposed to any measures such as these even when they might be designed to protect other bird species“.

That’s quite a statement from the convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee (and it’s also inaccurate – the RSPB has and does undertake predator control and hasn’t tried to hide it – e.g. see here). If Graeme Dey MSP thinks the RSPB ‘cannot be engaged with’ on issues of bird conservation, on what issues does he think the RSPB can be engaged to arrive at ‘a satisfactory conclusion’ (whatever that means)?

Alison’s motion requires 30 signatures by 11 June to progress to a Parliamentary debate but this, unfortunately, looks unlikely. It also seems unlikely that the Scottish Government has any plans to step in and intervene.

So where does that leave us?

Watch this space…..

Law seminar to discuss admissibility of video evidence

After several controversial decisions by the Crown Office last year, where prosecutions for alleged raptor persecution were dropped due to the perceived inadmissibility of video evidence (e.g. hen harrier shooting on Cabrach Estate here; setting of illegal pole trap on Brewlands Estate here), there followed a series of blogs written by law academics at Aberdeen University (see here and here) that provided a welcome explanation about the legal complexities behind these decisions.

Aberdeen University’s School of Law is now hosting a free public seminar on this issue, with contributions from Dr Phil Glover (a lecturer at the School of Law and an expert in the law of evidence, investigatory powers and related human rights matters), Malcolm Combe (senior lecturer and an expert in property law), Ian Thomson (Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland) and Tim Baynes (Director of Scottish Land & Estate’s Moorland Group and the Gift of Grouse). After the presentations audience members will be invited to participate in an open discussion.

DATE: 15 June 2018

TIME: 3.15pm – 5pm

VENUE: The Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen

This is a free event but spaces are limited so booking is essential. Further information & a link to the online booking system is available HERE.


Laughable statement from SGA on missing satellite-tagged hen harriers

Following Tuesday’s news that three more satellite-tagged hen harriers have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances (here), the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has issued a statement about the two that vanished in Scotland (one in the Angus Glens and one near Moffat).

So according to the SGA, these suspicious disappearances ‘merit further, independent, investigation‘. Note the use of the word ‘independent’. Does the SGA not accept these harriers have disappeared in suspicious circumstances? Does the SGA not consider Police Scotland’s investigation ‘independent’? Police Scotland will have had full access to the satellite tag data to make an independent assessment of whether the harrier’s disappearance was suspicious or not, and presumably the Police agreed with the RSPB that the disappearance was indeed suspicious, not least because the circumstances mirrored the circumstances of 41 sat-tagged golden eagles, revealed by a Government-commissioned independent report to have disappeared in suspicious circumstances, several of them in, er, the Angus Glens:

The SGA statement looks like the usual well-rehearsed dig at the RSPB – indeed ex-SGA Director Bert Burnett wrote on social media in reference to the hen harrier that vanished in the Angus Glens: “I think I’m justified in claiming that the area was searched by people involved in the tagging and the bird was found and as it died naturally and was of no publicity value it was secreted away”.

Is he seriously suggesting the RSPB have perverted the course of justice? That’s a very serious allegation. Is this view shared by the SGA?

The official SGA statement also states: ‘There has been a commitment in Angus over the last few years to changing past reputations‘ (and therefore by inference this hen harrier couldn’t possible have been illegally killed).

We’re very interested in this phrase, ‘commitment to changing past reputations’. What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean the SGA is finally acknowledging that gamekeepers in the Angus Glens have been involved in illegal raptor persecution? If that is what the SGA means, perhaps it could elaborate on which raptor persecution incidents it now accepts had gamekeeper involvement? We’d be fascinated to know, because for as long as we’ve been writing this blog the SGA has consistently denied the extent of raptor persecution on grouse moors in the Angus Glens, despite all the evidence to the contrary (see here for an extensive list of raptor persecution incidents uncovered in the Angus Glens).

A classic example of SGA denial was the case of the sat-tagged golden eagle that was caught in a spring trap on an Angus Glens grouse moor in 2012, suffering two broken legs. The eagle was then driven through the night to be dumped in a Deeside layby where it lay in agony for a further four days before it died. Despite being given access to the eagle’s sat tag data and the findings of the official post-mortem report, the SGA concocted the most far-fetched explanation possible for this eagle’s injuries – see here.

Here is that dead golden eagle [photo by RSPB Scotland]

The other interesting part of the SGA’s official statement was this: ‘We know talks have been held between sporting estates regarding translocating a pair of breeding harriers…..‘. Talk, as they say, is cheap. There should be no need to translocate hen harriers to the Angus Glens. We know, thanks to satellite tag data, that young hen harriers regularly visit the Angus Glens – and why wouldn’t they? The habitat is good, there’s a plentiful food supply, and there aren’t any resident territorial adults to chase them away. And this last bit is the telling part. Not one successful hen harrier breeding attempt in the Angus Glens since 2006. Why is that? It’s pretty obvious.

The estates also presumably know that there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that anyone would authorise the translocation of hen harriers to the Angus Glens. The golden rule, as laid out by the IUCN, is that translocations can only take place if the cause of the species’ decline has been identified and rectified. We know what the cause is, and we also know that it hasn’t been addressed.

The estates can talk about their supposed desire to undertake translocations all they want (and they will because they think it makes them look like conservationists) but as long as these satellite-tagged raptors keep ‘disappearing’ in the area, and for as long as the breeding territories remain suspiciously vacant, their words are hollow.

Does your MSP support the raven cull licence?

Three weeks ago Alison Johnstone MSP lodged a Parliamentary motion raising political concerns about the Strathbraan raven cull licence and called for its immediate withdrawal. She also called for SNH to withdraw the use of the Open General Licence in this area in response to the catalogue of confirmed and suspected wildlife crimes recorded in recent years.

Nine days after the motion was lodged, only five MSPs had signed in support:

Patrick Harvie (Greens), Christine Grahame (SNP), John Finnie (Greens), Andy Wightman (Greens) and Ross Greer (Greens).

[Raven photo by Dieter Schaeffer]

To progress to a Parliamentary debate, where the subject can be exposed to political scrutiny, the motion requires support from at least 30 MSPs from more than two political parties by 11 June 2018.

We believe that if this licence (and the process used to approve it) remains unchallenged, it is likely to be replicated in other areas dominated by driven grouse moors, and we’re likely to see similar applications for other species, especially buzzards, to be killed ‘just to see what happens’. If you think this is unlikely, read the comments made by SNH’s Nick Halfhide earlier this month, including the words: “Let’s have more trials [culls] whether it’s about ravens or other things so we can really test to see what we can learn from this kind of approach“.

This kind of approach” means SNH basing future conservation decisions on rural myth and old wives’ tales instead of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

[Cartoon by Mr Carbo]

Due to these concerns, a couple of weeks ago we encouraged blog readers to contact local MSPs and ask them to sign in support of this motion. We know many of you have done this (thank you) judging by the correspondence we’ve received.

We know that Conservative MSPs appear to be sending out a generic response to these requests from their local contituents, and we can guess that this response has been written for them by one of the ‘countryside organisations’ given that its full of old wives tales that aren’t even relevant to this licence (e.g. ‘Ravens often target and kill new born lambs by the barbaric removal of their eyes and tongues‘) and unsupported claims such as ‘SNH take a robust evidence-based approach when issuing licences‘.

Unsurprisingly, Alison’s motion has not been supported by any Conservative MSP.

So who has supported it?

As of 5pm this evening, the following MSPs have signed in support:

Patrick Harvie (Greens), Christine Grahame (SNP), John Finnie (Greens), Andy Wightman (Greens), Ross Greer (Greens), Mark Ruskell (Greens), Claudia Beamish (Labour), Iain Gray (Labour), Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats), Daniel Johnson (Labour), Colin Smyth (Labour) and Mairi Gougeon (SNP).

That’s a total of 12 MSPs from four political parties. The cross-party support is excellent but the numbers are nowhere near enough. Eighteen more signatures are needed to secure a debate.

Is your MSP on this list? Have you asked them to support this motion? If you have, and they haven’t yet responded, please chase them up. If you haven’t asked them, please consider doing so. MSPs are more likely to engage if they’ve received a bucketful of correspondence on a particular issue from their local constituents.

If you’re not sure who your MSP is please click here to find out. And remember you’ll have more than one MSP – your constituency MSP and your regional list MSPs.

Thank you

Raven cull: Parliamentary questions & answers

Earlier this month Claudia Beamish MSP (South Scotland, Labour) lodged a series of Parliamentary questions about the raven cull licence issued by SNH to a consortium of grouse shooting representatives, permitting the mass culling of ravens ‘just to see what happens’.

Claudia’s questions have now been answered by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham (or to be more accurate, SNH has provided these answers to Ms Cunningham):

Eh? How’s that ‘monitoring’ going to work, then? How many ‘inspections on the ground’ will SNH be able to resource? And what will those ‘inspections’ entail? Asking the gamekeepers for a list of the ravens they’ve killed and expecting them to be truthful accounts? Come on, this is an area where in recent years an illegal clam trap was found, a buzzard was found caught in an illegally-set spring trap, a red kite was found illegally poisoned, a raven was found illegally poisoned, there have been suspicious failures of breeding attempts by hen harriers, red kites and buzzards, and there has been a suspiciously high turnover of red kites and a suspicious loss of breeding red kites at nearby sites. Oh, and a young satellite-tagged white-tailed eagle also disappeared in suspicious circumstances two months ago.

We know from the raven cull licence application there are 31 individuals (mostly gamekeepers) undertaking predator control in the Strathbraan area: how the hell does SNH expect to ‘monitor’ their activities?

That’s an awful lot of licences issued by SNH to kill an awful lot of ravens (there’ll be more on this in the papers tomorrow). It says the Strathbraan licence ‘was granted for science, research and education purposes’. Really? Killing a load of ravens ‘just to see what happens’, without any parallel control study, isn’t good science, isn’t good research and certainly isn’t educational.

Eh? That’s about as vague a response as you can get. What aspects of habitat quality and management did SNH consider? Why did SNH decide habitat improvement was a less favourable option than killing a load of ravens ‘just to see what happens’? And what ‘other predator control’ did SNH consider extending and why did SNH decide killing a load of ravens ‘just to see what happens’ was a better alternative?

Did SNH consider undertaking raven dietary studies as a non-lethal alternative to killing ravens ‘just to see what happens’? If so, why wasn’t this considered a favourable option? And if SNH didn’t consider it as an alternative research option, why not?

The licence SNH has issued for killing ravens in Strathbraan is unprecented. Previous raven cull licences have been issued to individuals, mostly sheep farmers, to undertake small-scale, local culls for the supposed protection of livestock (lambs) but not for spurious ‘science, research and educational purposes’. We don’t believe SNH has ever issued a licence permitting the mass killing of ravens over such a large area and for such a tenuous purpose as ‘to see what happens’. For this reason, SNH cannot compare the Strathbraan licence with any other raven cull licences and as such, other stakeholders should have been consulted, especially those who have been involved with the monitoring of the local raven population in this area for decades (i.e. Scottish Raptor Study Group). Excluding other stakeholders also flies in the face of SNH’s purported interest in ‘partnership working’. Many suspect that SNH did not communicate with other stakeholders because SNH knew full well that those stakeholders would have strongly objected to the licence application.

We discussed this answer in today’s earlier blog – see here.

Crow cage traps? To capture and kill ravens? Seriously? Aside from the obvious welfare issues of using live ravens as decoys inside these traps for weeks on end, how will the gamekeepers determine whether the raven(s) caught inside the trap are not breeding adults? (Remember, this licence only permits the killing of young, non-breeding ravens).

Sorry SNH, but none of these Parliamentary answers inspire any confidence in your ability to effectively monitor the implentation of this raven cull licence, nor the credibility of your reasons for issuing it in the first place.

Raven cull update: scientific advisory committee NOT being asked to repeal licence

Earlier this year, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) issued a licence permitting the mass killing of ravens in Strathbraan, Perthshire, on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’.

The licence was issued to a consortium calling itself the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders, on the pretext of protecting waders, but many of us believe it is actually to protect red grouse, given the number of game-shooting organisations involved and given the amount of grouse moor within the raven cull zone.

[Map of the raven cull zone at Strathbraan by RPUK. Boundary line in yellow; grouse moor boundaries in white]:

Earlier blogs on the controversial raven cull licence can be read here.

There are a few updates on this issue:

Firstly, the public petition opposing the killing of ravens ‘just to see what happens’ has now reached an incredible 165,000 signatures (see here). Public opinion is clearly against this cull and yet SNH, and the Scottish Government, continues to ignore these concerns.

Secondly, SNH has delayed the release of information about this cull licence for a further 20 working days. It was due to release its FoI response yesterday but has said it needs more time. It is now due to report no later than 20 June 2018.

Thirdly, and perhaps most shockingly, it now looks like SNH’s so-called ‘re-think’ on the raven cull licence, as reported in The Times, was nothing but a blatant attempt to mislead the public and quell the barrage of deserved criticism about this licence. Remember, SNH told us that ‘in recognition of the concerns expressed’ it had asked its Scientific Advisory Committee to review the subject. However, in response to a Parliamentary question lodged by Claudia Beamish MSP earlier this month, it turns out that the Scientific Advisory Committee is NOT being asked to advise whether the licence should be withdrawn:

Question S5W-16449:

To ask the Scottish Government when the review of the lethal control of ravens licence that was granted to the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders will be completed; what aspects of the licence will be reviewed and whether the review will consider repealing the licence.

Answered by Roseanna Cunningham on 18/5/2018:

Scottish Natural Heritage’s Scientific Advisory Committee will review at the end of May of how the licence that was granted to the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders fits with the wider work on adaptive action to save waders.

The Committee will consider the scientific evidence available on potential impacts of raven predation on wader populations in Strathbraan, and the methodologies proposed in this particular case. The Committee will also review the proposed monitoring to maximise what will be learned from this project. The Committee is not being asked to consider repealing the licence, but their advice will help inform ongoing discussions with the licence holder. The licence was granted initially for one year as part of a proposed five year project.

What the hell? So even if the Scientific Advisory Committee (an esteemed panel of scientifically-qualified experts) considers that the scientific evidence IS NOT available to support the notion that raven predation impacts on wader populations (as far as we’re aware this evidence isn’t available), and therefore the licence shouldn’t have been issued, SNH can, if it wants, ignore this advice and continue to licence this multi-year raven cull.

If our understanding of this situation is correct, we believe this gives us further grounds to challenge SNH’s decision via judicial review. We continue to have discussions about this with some lawyers who have a special expertise in judicial review.

We’ll be blogging again shortly on the other responses to the Parliamentary questions about the raven cull licence lodged by Claudia Beamish MSP [UPDATE 4pm: see here] and also providing an update on the Parliamentary motion lodged by Alison Johnstone MSP (Lothian, Scottish Greens) calling for the withdrawal of the raven cull licence.

Meanwhile at SNH HQ:

[Cartoon by Mr Carbo]

Red kite suffers horrific injuries from illegal gin trap

From Powys County Times, 22 May 2018:


An RSPCA appeal for information has been launched following the death of a red kite caught by an illegal gin trap.

RSPCA Cymru was alerted after the poor bird of prey was found bleeding, and with broken legs, in the trap on the B4340, near New Cross and Abermadwr on May 7.

The caller who found the bird transferred the animal to a local veterinary practice on Park Avenue, where it was confirmed that the legs had been broken by the trap.

Sadly, the vet was left with no choice but to put the bird to sleep to prevent further suffering.

Gin traps, such as the device used in this incident, are spring-operated and illegal to set and use, although not illegal to own. It is also illegal to set any spring trap in the open or on top of a post.

The RSPCA say they are following a line of inquiry about the placing of the trap – but are calling on the local community in Aberystwyth to get in touch should they have any relevant information.

RSPCA inspector Keith Hogben said: “These gin traps were made illegal to set many years ago and yet shockingly are still being used to catch animals. They are indiscriminate and sadly this red kite is the latest victim.

The potential consequences of these devices for animals and humans are so severe. I shudder to think what could have happened had a toddler, for example, crossed the path of this trap.

We are following a line of inquiry on this incident but are eager for more information to come to light as to the circumstances behind this illegal trap being put down.

The RSPCA’s inspectorate appeal line can be reached on 0300 123 8018, and all calls are treated in confidence.”


Three more satellite-tagged hen harriers ‘disappear’ in suspicious circumstances

RSPB press release, 22 May 2018:


Police and the RSPB are appealing for information following the disappearance of three protected, satellite-tagged hen harriers in Scotland and Cumbria.

After monitoring her progress since she fledged last June, a hen harrier named Saorsa suddenly ceased sending transmissions in February 2018 whilst located in the Angus Glens, Scotland. She has not been seen or heard of since.

A male bird, named Blue, then raised concerns in March this year when his tag, which had also been functioning perfectly, suddenly and inexplicably cut out near Longsleddale, Cumbria.

In the same month, a tagged bird named Finn – after young conservationist Findlay Wilde – vanished near Moffat, Scotland. Finn was tagged as a chick in 2016 from a nest in Northumberland, one of only three hen harrier nests to fledge young in the whole of England that year.

[RPUK map]:

RSPB Investigations staff conducted a search for all three birds, but no tags or bodies were found. Where tagged hen harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies have generally been recovered. Cumbria Police and Police Scotland are making local enquiries.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with just three successful nests recorded in England in 2017. There is a slightly larger population in Scotland. These slight, agile birds of prey nest on the ground, often on moorland. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that their declining population is largely associated with human persecution.

Several birds have been fitted with a lightweight satellite tag as part of the EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project to help build a better understanding of hen harriers, their movements and the threats they face. Since the project began in 2014, a number of tagged hen harriers have disappeared in similarly inexplicable circumstances.

Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said “The UK population of hen harriers is really hanging in the balance and the disappearance of these three birds is extremely troubling. These tags are over 90% reliable and capable of transmitting long after a bird has died. If these birds had died of natural causes we would expect to recover both the tag and the body. But this has not been the case.

Findlay Wilde said “In the short time we followed Finn, we went through every emotion possible; from the excitement of knowing she had safely fledged to the nagging worries that she was settling in high-risk areas; and then of course to the worst news of all. Finn isn’t just another statistic in growing listing of missing hen harriers. Her life mattered, and she mattered to me.”

If you have any information relating to any of these incidents, call police on 101. Or to speak to RSPB investigations in confidence, call the Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.


Dr Cathleen Thomas of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project has written a blog which provides more details of each of the missing harriers – here.

Finn Wilde has also written a blog about the loss of ‘his’ hen harrier – here

The news of these three suspicious disappearances will come as absolutely no surprise to anybody. And neither will the responses of the game-shooting industry, as it trots out the usual, well-rehearsed denials and fake concerns. We’ve seen it time and time again, whether it be about vanishing hen harriers or vanishing golden eagles, and we’ll doubtless see it many more times again. That it’s allowed to continue without sanction is a bloody scandal.

The two young hen harriers that disappeared in Scotland are very interesting.

Saorsa hatched on the Balnagown Estate in Sutherland in 2017. She disappeared in the Angus Glens – a well-known blackspot for illegal raptor persecution and, ironically, in the consituency of Mairi Gougeon MSP, the Hen Harrier Species Champion.

[Photo of Saorsa in the nest, by Brian Etheridge]

We believe the Balnagown Estate was one of several participating in the controversial Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project, whereby estates agree to have cameras installed at hen harrier nest sites to identify the cause of nest failure and help understand the species’ on-going population decline. We’ve blogged about this greenwashing scam many times, and we’ll be doing so again in the very near future, but for now, the fate of Hen Harrier Saorsa is a good demonstration of how futile the project is. She was raised on an estate where there are absolutely no concerns about illegal raptor persecution whatsoever (there’s no driven grouse shooting on the Balnagown Estate) but once she dispersed from the relative safety of that estate, she was at risk. Heading for the Angus Glens, where successfully breeding hen harriers have been absent since 2006, was a seemingly fatal mistake.

Hen Harrier Finn, named after young conservationist Findlay Wilde, hatched on protected Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, 2016. Finn’s last tag transmission came from near Moffat, SW Scotland, which is the location of the controversial golden eagle translocation project, due to start this year.

[Photo of Finn by Martin Davison]

Now, let’s assume that DEFRA’s outrageous hen harrier brood meddling plan had been in place in 2016, and that the Forestry Commission had agreed to participate, then Finn and her three siblings would have been removed from the nest, reared in captivity and then released back to the wild in mid-August, close to their natal territory. This brood meddling plan is purported to ‘protect’ young hen harriers, and DEFRA / Natural England / the grouse-shooting industry all claim that this technique will help increase the population of hen harriers. It’s another greenwashing scam.

Would brood meddling have saved Finn? No, of course not, because Finn ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances (presumed to have been illegally killed) in March, several months after she would have been returned to the wild post-brood meddling. So as many of us have been arguing for years, brood meddling will not help hen harriers because it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of illegal raptor persecution, year-round, that has brought this species to its knees.

Brood meddling is due to begin in England this year, but there are two on-going legal challenges, via judicial review, from Mark Avery and the RSPB. We await further news on these cases.

Meanwhile, across the grouse moors of northern England and Scotland, it’s business as usual for the hen harrier killers.

[Cartoon by Mr Carbo]

UPDATE 24 May 2018: Laughable statement from SGA on missing satellite-tagged hen harriers (here)

UPDATE 25 January 2019: SGA fabricates ‘news’ on missing sat-tagged hen harrier Saorsa (here)

Red kite shot & blinded in North Pennines raptor persecution blackspot

Press release from RSPB, 21 May 2018:


The RSPB is appealing for information after a protected red kite was found shot in Country Durham.

The bird was found alive on 23 April in Derwent Gorge, in the North Pennines AONB, by a member of the public who alerted the group Friends of Red Kites (FoRK). An x-ray by a local vet showed the bird had three shotgun pellets lodged in its head, neck and wing. The bird was cared for but went blind from its injuries and had to be euthanized.

[Photos by Robson & Prescott Vets, Morpeth]

Durham Police visited the area where the bird was found but so far have no leads as to who shot the kite. The RSPB is now appealing to the public for information.

Like all birds of prey, red kites are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to deliberately kill or injure a wild bird. Those found to have done so could be given an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail.

Since 2010, six kites have been poisoned or shot near Derwent Gorge, including a red kite found poisoned in nearby Muggleswick in 2014.

And in February this year, a rare hen harrier disappeared in suspicious circumstances less than an hours’ drive away from this latest incident. The hen harrier, which was wearing a special satellite tag, suddenly and inexplicably stopped transmitting after it flew over a grouse moor near Middleton-in-Teesdale. [See here]

Jenny Shelton from the RSPB’s Investigations Unit said: “Spring is a crucial time of year when adult kites will be feeding their young, so the death of this bird could have also affected any family it might have been raising. Red kites were almost completely wiped out of the UK until they were reintroduced in the 1980s. This has been a wonderful success, and most of us enjoy watching these impressive birds. But threats like persecution are preventing them from naturally expanding their range and we clearly have a problem area on our hands here. As mainly scavengers, these birds are no risk to anyone. Blasting this bird from the sky was a thoughtless act.”

Jenny added: “We would like to thank Friends of Red Kites and Robson and Prescott Veterinary Hospital in Morpeth who have been a huge help.”

Allan Withrington of Friends of Red Kites said: That anyone could even think about shooting one of these beautiful, graceful birds is beyond my comprehension. We are saddened by yet another wildlife crime and look forward to hearing the results of any investigation.”

If you have any information relating to this incident, call Durham Police on 101 quoting reference number: DHM230420180371.

If you find a wild bird which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form HERE


Well done to the RSPB for putting out this appeal for information. It’s a shame there’s no similar appeal on Durham Constabulary’s website (at least not at the time of writing this blog). Why not?

UPDATE 16.15hrs: We’ve updated the two maps (above) to show the location of Derwent Gorge (as opposed to the nearest town of Shotley Bridge). Derwent Gorge is bang next door to the grouse moor at Muggleswick, and lies within the North Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

UPDATE 17.00hrs: Well done to the North Pennines AONB for publishing the following statement on their website:


The report of the killing of a protected red kite in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) has come as very distressing news.

Chris Woodley-Stewart, Director of the North Pennines AONB Partnership, said: “We are appalled that someone has committed this despicable crime. Someone must know who is involved and we would urge anyone with any information to come forward. There are so few raptors across the Northern uplands because of this illegal persecution – no one should pretend otherwise.

We met with the police recently to raise awareness of raptor crime and we plan to follow this up. It needs more people to speak out against raptor crime, more resources put into investigation, a commitment to bring prosecutions and stiffer sentences for those found guilty.”

If you have any further information on this incident, please call Durham Police on 101 quoting reference number DHM230420180371 or the confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101. All calls are anonymous.