Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills

Following Tuesday’s news that a peregrine had been illegally killed with a highly toxic banned poison in the Pentland Hills Regional Park earlier this year (see here), we’d also blogged yesterday (here) about other recorded wildlife crime in this area, including the shooting out of a merlin’s nest in 2017:

We’ve been asked some questions about the merlin case so here are some background details about that crime.

A breeding pair had taken over an abandoned crow nest at the top of a tree on the edge of a small copse. The immediate land was being used for sheep farming but the site was close to an area being managed for driven grouse shooting (as you can see from the above map). The sheep-farming landowner (believed to be Alastair Cowan of Eastside Estate, according to Andy Wightman’s brilliant Who Owns Scotland website) was known to be very supportive of raptors having previously given permission to local Raptor Study Group members to erect nest boxes for kestrels and nest baskets for merlin.

[Merlin nest tree, photo SSPCA]

The merlins had laid four eggs and were at the incubation stage when a routine monitoring visit by licensed Raptor Study Group fieldworkers led to suspicions that the breeding attempt had failed. Climbing to the nest to investigate, they found smashed eggs and feathers from the adult female congealed together. They also found residual bits of bark in the nest cup and fresh damage marks on the surrounding tree branches that were suspected to have been caused by shotgun pellets. Given that the eggs were on the point of hatch, the fieldworkers were concerned the incubating female had been shot on the nest, although there was no sign of her body but had she been shot it’s possible her body had been scavenged by corvids.

[Merlin nest contents, photo SSPCA]

The incident was reported to the SSPCA who also notified the police. Typically in a case such as this that’s as far as things would have gone. It would have been recorded as a ‘probable’ wildlife crime but without witnesses or video evidence it would have been virtually impossible to progress the case.

However, although the prospects of solving the case were slim to zero, the SSPCA investigator wanted to do everything possible to at least demonstrate that this was a crime, so after securing the landowner’s permission, the top of the tree was cut off and sent for digital x-ray. The results were clear, the nest and the branches around the nest were peppered with shotgun pellets:

[X-rays from SSPCA]

It could be argued that the nest had been blasted by a shotgun prior to the merlins taking it over for their breeding attempt; if the nest had previously been occupied by corvids then destroying the nest, eggs and adults of specified corvid species is a legal activity under the terms of a General Licence. It’s a fairly barbaric thing to do but nevertheless it is a lawful activity, routinely undertaken by gamekeepers up and down the country who only require a shotgun certificate and the landowner’s permission.

However, in this case the fresh damage marks to the tree branches and the presence of pieces of bark in the nest cup were indicative that this nest had been blasted with a shotgun while the nest was being used by a protected species, the merlin.

The shooting of a nearby raven’s nest the previous year (see map above) where the corpse of a raven riddled with holes was found on the nest is also suggestive that someone with access to a shotgun is waging a determined campaign against protected species in this area. Perhaps the same person using a dangerous toxic poison to kill peregrines?

Full credit to the SSPCA for the extraordinary and creative lengths they were prepared to go to to secure the evidence that would see this incident recorded as a confirmed crime. We’re not aware of any other case where a tree top has been removed and x-rayed.

Although nobody has been charged, the details of this case, along with the other recorded wildlife crimes in the Pentlands, are all building a picture of yet another raptor persecution hotspot in south Scotland, right under the noses of the Scottish Government (who, incidentally, still haven’t responded to the news that a peregrine was illegally killed in this area with a highly toxic banned poison).

34 thoughts on “Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills”

    1. Unlikely, they’re our smallest falcon and their prey is mainly small passerines with the odd rodent and insects.

      1. Some gamekeepers may regard Merlin as a “disruptive” bird especially on driven Grouse days, as they could flush the grouse away from the guns.

        1. It’s quite possible the shooter didn’t check. Routinely shoot & check later, if at all. Wouldn’t be bothered what was hit so long as it wasn’t a game species. If poison is laid out there’s nothing discriminatory about that.

  1. It was 2017. The event was reported to the police. Will it be recorded in the 2017 Wildlife crime Report which goes to the EECLRC? I’m not aware of how far an investigation has to proceed before it is recorded there. I’ve just checked the RSPB Raptor Persecution Map Hub. It’s on there. Can’t wait for the report to be made public.

    1. crypticmirror,

      That’s such a lazy, uninformed and unhelpful comment. The police WCO in this case was professional and thorough, and happy to work in a genuine partnership with the SSPCA, the landowner and the local RSG fieldworkers.

      1. You’ll pardon me if I have trouble believing the word “genuine” in that. Making excuses for the police, a body more than well placed to make its own excuses, doesn’t really help until they start racking up the results to the point where the lack of a conviction is more notable than the other.

        1. crypticmirror,

          And slagging off the police with unsubstantiated claims is helpful how, exactly? (That’s a rhetorical question btw, I have no intention of wasting any more time on this conversation).

          The police are not above criticism, that’s for sure, but on a case by case basis. You do this particular WCO a great disservice.

          1. It doesn’t matter how good you think an individual officer is if they are part of a corrupt institution.

            1. I also find the continuing comments regarding police corruption rather disingenuous and offensive. If commentators have actual knowledge of corruption either put up or shut up.

  2. I’m just starting to pick up on the horrors of driven grouse shoots and wild life crime; more needs to be done to bring this to the attention of the public in general. Land owners and gamekeepers are playing at god with our native wildlife. And its not in the name of moorland management. Money is all that matters to some, whilst others get pleasure from killing. It must be stopped.

  3. I appreciate that some who contribute to the comments on this blog are keen to lay all ills at the door of driven grouse shooting, but not everyone involved in controlling corvids is a fully signed up member of the SGA…

    If I was a gambler, I’d say that this incident, and perhaps the shooting of the raven nest (pending further information on that one) is the result of someone believing they’re doing some good by shooting out any visible crows nests, rather than a specific effort to kill the merlins nesting there. Ignorance rather than intentional. If the estate is “friendly”, have they not commented on the matter? Could be as likely a shepherd or farm worker as a grouse keeper respons

    1. Realised the end of my comment was deleted for some reason. Full version as follows

      I appreciate that some who contribute to the comments on this blog are keen to lay all ills at the door of driven grouse shooting, but not everyone involved in controlling corvids is a fully signed up member of the SGA…

      If I was a gambler, I’d say that this incident, and perhaps the shooting of the raven nest (pending further information on that one) is the result of someone believing they’re doing some good by shooting out any visible crows nests, rather than a specific effort to kill the merlins nesting there. Ignorance rather than intentional. If the estate is “friendly”, have they not commented on the matter? Could be as likely a shepherd or farm worker as a grouse keeper responsible. Just trying to put some perspective, based on the information given. There’s enough confirmed incidents involving the grouse industry to go on without feverishly pointing the finger at every incident involving a raptor. Weakens the argument in my view. “Fred” the golden eagle is a strong example of that

  4. SSPCA clearly went to extraordinary lengths and specialist expertise to recover the evidence that was necessary to reveal a crime had actaully occurred.

    Scot Gov should be held to account with their decision to not provide them with appropriate powers to assist reduce wildlife crime.

    Perhaps Scot Gov does not want the public to see the true scale of wildlife crime and are happy for an under resourced and largely unskilled police officers to deal with wildlife crime on their own.

    This plays totally into the hands of wildlife criminals.

  5. As we can’t get the culprits ( and when we do the courts let us down) let’s do the only other thing available, get the sport. Ban driven grouse shooting, after all its riddled with crime

  6. I would guess that the Merlin nest was shot at in mistake for a crows nest, if grouse shooting goes then it will be replaced with more forestry, or some of the lower moors ploughed out and turned over to cattle and sheep.

  7. Great effort by the raptor workers and SSPCA on this investigation of the illegal killing of my favourite wee falcon. Its a pity the crime could not be pinned on anybody.

    1. The possible ‘accidental’ shooting of the sitting Raven and Merlin begs some interesting questions. The first, and most obvious, point is the fundamental rule that you don’t shoot at anything if you don’t know what it is. it’s no excuse, for example, to say that you thought it would be crows because they had used those nests previously. The second question relates to the actual offence – if there is one. Section 1(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act refers to it being an offence for a person to intentionally kill a wild bird. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the person with the gun was authorised to be on the land for the purpose of shooting crows, he would be covered by the provisions of the General Licence whilst doing so. However, if he shot a Merlin in the belief that the nest was occupied by crows, would he be guilty of intentionally killing it. Maybe there are precedents in law which have dealt with such situations. However, the legal situation could be made much clearer by adding ‘recklessly’ to Section 1(1), as happened with Section 1(5) in relation to the disturbance of Schedule 1 species. Maybe someone on this blog may have had experiences of such cases. The nearest I can get, from personal knowledge, is the pheasant shooter who shot and seriously injured what he thought was a goose which turned out to be a swan! He was found guilty of shooting the swan and for shooting wildfowl with lead ammunition.

      1. Hi Dylanben,

        If the merlin was shot on the nest it would be an offence for the intentional or reckless disturbance of a wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young.

        1. OK. Time to take my Devil’s Advocate hat off and say that I fully agree the Merlin situation, it being a Schedule 1 species. This would apply anywhere in England, Scotland and Wales..

          Regarding the Raven nest, lizzybusy has, below, helpfully set out the provisions of Section 1(1) and provided a link to the WCA 1981. This raises an anomalous situation as the law, as it applies in Scotland, does in fact include the term ‘recklessly’ in relation to the basic legal protection afforded by the Act – precisely as I was suggesting it ought to do! This addition was made under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. I’m south of the border where separate provisions, highlighted ‘E+W’ in the link provided, apply. No such amendment has been made here so we’re currently stuck with the law as originally drafted as regards Section 1(1). Bringing the point full circle, in Scotland, both the Raven and the Merlin would have been covered under the ‘recklessly’ provision in Section 1(1) whereas, in England, only the Merlin situation would have been clear-cut under Section 1(5).

          Things are bad enough without basic protection legislation being different in the respective countries. It’s a pity that ‘recklessly’ was not added to Section 1(1) in England and Wales under the CROW Act 2000 which appended that term to Section 1(5).

      2. Various Offences under the

        Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

        Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs.

        (1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly

        (a)kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

        (b)takes, damages, destroys or otherwise interferes with the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

        (bb)obstructs or prevents any wild bird from using its nest;

        he shall be guilty of an offence.

        (5)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly —

        (a)disturbs any wild bird included in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young; or

        (b)disturbs dependent young of such a bird,

        he shall be guilty of an offence. . . .

        SCHEDULE 1
        Birds which are Protected by Special Penalties

        Part I
        At All Times

        Common name Scientific name
        Merlin. Falco columbarius

  8. If the raptor study group member knew the nests were merlin and raven why didnt the person pulling the trigger?

    Walking around the countryside shooting anything that resembles a crows nest is surely reckless behaviour.

    Just the same as shooting every squirrel drey assuming it is occupied by grey squirrels and recklessly shooting red squirrels.

    These so called ‘country people’ are quick to state that townies dont know anything about the countryside. They cant have it both ways.

    What ever way you look at it the person pulling the trigger was wrong and culpable of reckless behaviour.

  9. It should be noted I think that there are locals and Italians who shoot in this area regularly as well, who are not gamekeepers.

    It can be quite astonishing to challenge a group of shooters in a field just 8 miles from the Scottish Parliament , and not one claim to speak a word of English, even when they are shooting 100 yds from suburbia.that seems to have come to a stop as there were a lot of complaints, but happened over several years with the farmer’s permission .They took a pigeon magnet , shot some pigeons,but on occasions there did seem to be other feathers left too. One in particular went to rather desperate measures when he thought I had taken his photo,which made we wonder if he was legally allowed to shoot here. He didn’t seem interested in pigeons at the time in question .He and an Italian resident here shot on at least one occasion nr Balleny, not far from these incidents, a few years back.I was told where they were by an authorative source when complaining about the noise that evening- the person first denied he knew who was shooting then said I couldn’t possibly have been disturbed by them as they were up at …

    1. In an attempt to prevent red herrings and plausible errors.

      From what I have heard this area is not used for commercial shooting and is farmed for sheep. There is no permissions other than a very select number of persons to shoot in this area.

      Also the landowner was very supportive and cooperated with the investigation.

      1. The raptor persecution problem is not confined to commercial operations. It might take two to tango, but it takes only one individual to shoot a merlin. In this case it is good to hear that the landowner cooperated (assuming he wasn’t hiding anything), but the criminal who shot the birds may have undertaken this action entirely on his or her own initiative, without involving or informing the landowner. In certain parts of Scotland, pigeon fanciers can be more heavily involved than gamekeepers when it comes to “taking out” nesting Peregrines, for example.

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