A new scientific peer-reviewed paper, authored by a group of highly-respected award-winning ecologists, commends the “exemplary” and “thorough” scientific approach of the golden eagle satellite tag review.
The paper has just been accepted for publication but due to publishing restrictions we’re unable to publish it here (although we’ve read it in full). When it finally becomes available it’ll be a must-read for researchers involved in animal satellite-tracking projects where being able to distinguish between actual death and transmitter failure is important to understanding threats to that species.
Sergio, F., Tanferna, A., Blas, J., Blanco, G. and Hiraldo, F. (2018). Reliable methods for identifying animal deaths in GPS – and satellite-tracking data: review, testing and calibration. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.13294.
The authors have devised a system, based on the interpretation of various tag data, which correctly distinguished between actual death and transmitter failure in their sample. They found this system worked perfectly for their GPS tags but was not so reliable for tags using only Doppler locations.
[Fig. 3 from the paper]
Using this system, the authors suggest that the highly suspicious disappearance of golden eagles in Scotland as identified in the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review “would be most likely confirmed as deaths by our method, thus strengthening the suspicion of illegal killings (Branch 3b, Fig 3)”.
For the reader with a limited understanding of different tag types and the quality of technical data associated with different tags, this paper probably won’t make much sense at all. However, we’ve highlighted it here for good reason.
A couple of weeks ago some extraordinary claims were made about the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review. Ronnie Clancy QC, a senior lawyer, claimed that the review contained “significant shortcomings” and that there was evidence of “unconcious bias“. His rationale for these comments is apparently contained in a report he was commissioned to write by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), although this report has not been released in the public domain and the story was only run on the BBC News website (here), so we’ve been unable to see the context of these selective quotes.
However, when you look at the quotes that were published by the BBC, it’s not difficult to tear them apart. On the allegation of supposed “unconcious bias”, the BBC reports that Mr Clancy QC said the report authors (Drs Whitfield and Fielding) looked like they had “manipulated” the study “to obtain a desirable result“. This opinion was further fuelled in the BBC report by the SGA’s Chairman Alex Hogg, who claimed that the report’s findings were initially insignificant “until the authors (Whitfield & Fielding) shifted the parameters and extended the boundaries of the moors by up to 4km“.
Dear oh dear. Had they paid attention to the Sat Tag Review they would have read the discussion about why the parameters were extended – which is a perfectly acceptable scientific method known as hypothesis testing – to 4km. Initially, Drs Whitfield & Fielding had used the presence of strip muirburn as a simple way of mapping the location of grouse moors. However, as they explained in the review, grouse moor management extends beyond the boundaries of strip muirburn, often to a considerable distance (e.g. predator control to benefit red grouse takes place in forestry and woodland beyond the actual moors) so to capture the full extent (and impact) of grouse moor management requires extending the search boundary beyond the actual moor. They illustrated this point with this map (we have added the yellow arrow for clarity) showing the last known locations of three satellite-tagged golden eagles. One of these (yellow arrow) ‘disappeared’ on land that wasn’t a grouse moor, per se, but was surrounded by grouse moor. Had they stuck rigidly to using strip muirburn as the grouse moor proxy, this eagle, and several others that ‘disappeared’ when roosting in forestry close to a grouse moor, would not have been classified even though it’s blindingly obvious that the location was associated with grouse moor management.
Quite why the SGA asked a lawyer to opine on a piece of scientific research is anyone’s guess. No doubt, Mr Clancy is a skilled lawyer – you don’t gain QC status without demonstrating legal excellence. But is Mr Clancy a scientist? Does he have experience and expertise in assessing scientific rigour? Is he familiar with satellite tag technology? Is he an expert in golden eagle ecology? Does he have a detailed understanding of the ~100 scientific references cited in the review? Has he authored any scientific papers himself? Why didn’t the SGA commission a review by a qualified scientist? Couldn’t they find one who’d say what they wanted to say? And why has this opinion piece only just emerged, some 17 months after the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review was published?
The more you think about this, the more intriguing it becomes. Our guess is that the SGA, realising how comprehensively damning were the findings of the Sat Tag Review, sought advice on making a legal challenge against the Scottish Government for accepting the review’s findings. Why else consult a lawyer? However, although the Cabinet Secretary commissioned the current grouse moor management (Werritty) review on the back of the Sat Tag Review’s findings, there have been no legislative changes based explicitly on the Sat Tag Review, which makes a legal challenge untenable. And even if legislative change (e.g. licensing) does occur after the Werritty Review, the Sat Tag Review will only have played a small role – it just happened to be the final straw in a giant haystack of evidence against the unsustainable and environmentally damaging aspects of grouse moor management.
If this is what happened, then rather than waste the money they spent seeking legal advice (unless Mr Clancy worked pro bono), perhaps the SGA thought they’d make the best of a bad job and simply present the advice as legal opinion in an attempt to undermine the evidence being presented to the ongoing Werritty Review.
Sadly, the SGA hasn’t published Mr Clancy QC’s report – and that is their perogative, as it is, after all, a privately-commissioned piece of work – but it’s a real shame because we would have been very interested in reading Mr Clancy’s opinion on the contemporaneous records of illegal raptor persecution associated with the various geographic clusters of ‘disappearing’ eagles on or close to grouse moors, and the ever-increasing pile of peer-reviewed scientific research that has linked grouse moor management to illegal raptor persecution, all documented and referenced in the Sat Tag Review. Oh, and not to mention the long list of golden eagles whose bodies have previously been found shot and poisoned on, er, grouse moors.
[Golden eagle ‘Fearnan’ found illegally poisoned on an Angus Glens grouse moor. Photo by RSPB]
We understand Mr Clancy’s report has been submitted to the Werritty Review as ‘evidence’. We welcome this. Professor Werritty, as a senior academic of some repute, will no doubt treat it with all the regard deserving of a non-scientific opinion commissioned by an organisation that has repeatedly sought to deny the link between grouse moor management and golden eagle persecution.