Last Friday we blogged about how the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) had published a statement claiming that a satellite-tagged hen harrier (‘Saorsa’) had been “re-sighted in Perthshire” after the RSPB reported it as having disappeared in suspicious circumstances from the Angus Glens last year.
RSPB Scotland issued a statement in response which said the SGA’s claim was “completely false” (here).
Despite being told “there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the claim that it [Saorsa] has reappeared“, the following day the SGA was still promoting its fake news on Twitter:
Other Twitter users offered equally conclusive evidence that Saorsa was alive and well, along with Shergar:
It’s also worth revisiting the SGA’s statement made when Saorsa was first reported missing last year, especially an extraordinary claim made by Bert Burnett of the SGA, who suggested that the RSPB had peverted the course of justice by finding Saorsa’s body and ‘secreting it away because it had died of natural causes’ (here).
On last Friday’s blog we said we’d return to the SGA’s latest press release about Saorsa to discuss some of the other inaccurate claims made about the satellite-tagging process. Many of the myths have been dealt with before, on this blog and elsewhere, and yet still the SGA churns out this guff, either too stupid to grasp the basics or deliberately trying to discredit the technology that’s revealing so much about the widespread extent of illegal raptor persecution.
So, here’s the SGA’s original press release (Friday 25 January 2019) and our commentary in italics:
GAMEKEEPERS SEEK ACCOUNTABILITY OVER SATELLITE TAGGED RAPTORS
Scotland’s gamekeepers are calling for accountability regarding satellite tags fitted to wildlife.
The call comes after The Scottish Gamekeepers Association learned that a tagged Hen Harrier, reported as disappearing ‘suspiciously’ in Angus last May, was re-sighted in Perthshire afterwards, according to investigators.
[RPUK: Nope, she hasn’t been “re-sighted” since she vanished in the notorious Angus Glens in Feb 2018].
Anti-grouse moor campaigners who owned the tag’s data publicly blamed the grouse industry, urging Scottish Government to license the sector.
[RPUK: Nope, the RSPB are not “anti-grouse moor campaigners”, they are simply calling for the regulation of grouse moor management. And nope, when Saorsa disappeared the RSPB did not “publicly blame the grouse industry” – the SGA has fabricated this claim – you can read the RSPB’s press statement about Saorsa’s disappearance in Feb 2018 here and you won’t find a single word of accusation against anyone or any industry].
However, no media statements were issued to correct the accusations, leaving local estate employees living with the burden of criminal suspicion.
[RPUK: No media statements were issued (by the RSPB) because, er, Saorsa is still missing from the Angus Glens. And again, to repeat ourselves, the RSPB did not make a single accusation against any industry, estate or estate employee when reporting Saorsa’s disappearance].
The SGA has also learned of a sea eagle currently flying around Grampian with a tag dangling from its body, potentially endangering its welfare.
[RPUK: Are we seriously expected to believe that the SGA is concerned over a sea eagle’s welfare?!! Isn’t this the group that has repeatedly lobbied for licences to enable the legal killing of this and other raptor species in Scotland? Ah yes, here. And isn’t this the group that’s lobbied the Scottish Government in abject hysteria about sea eagles potentially eating babies? Ah yes, here and here. And hasn’t this species been relentlessly persecuted on Scottish grouse moors, notably the victim of illegal poisoning (e.g. here), as well as having its nest tree illegally felled on an Angus grouse moor? Ah yes, here].
The female sea eagle, pegged with yellow wing markings and the letter ‘E’, has been spotted by concerned land managers.
In recent times, four golden eagles have also been independently photographed in the Angus glens with displaced tags; one clearly hanging from a bird’s neck.
Another eagle was observed in Perthshire last week with the bird’s feathers completely obscuring the tag; something manufacturers acknowledge will distort readings.
[RPUK: If a tag’s solar panel has been covered by a feather the tag won’t charge and the steady decline in battery voltage will be revealed in the tag’s engineering data. This means the tag operator can correctly identify battery drainage as the cause of the loss of data rather than the sudden and unexpected loss of data that is caused when someone kills the eagle and destroys the tag and hides the evidence of the crime].
Gamekeepers believe tags are now being deployed by campaigners as political weapons, aware there is no independent scrutiny.
[RPUK: Gamekeepers believe many things, such as white-tailed eagles being a threat to babies and toddlers, but it doesn’t mean there’s any truth in that belief. The SGA needs to read up on the strict regulations governing the deployment of satellite tags in the UK, which includes researchers quite rightly having to provide a proposal to the licensing authority that includes the detailed scientific justification for fitting a tag. Anybody seeking permission to fit tags as “a political weapon” will be laughed out of the door by the, er, independent scientific committee that scrutinises every single application].
Whilst the SGA is not advocating a ban, they believe Scottish Government must act to make fitting and monitoring of the devices accountable.
[RPUK: See above response]
An FOI to Scottish Natural Heritage by SGA revealed that the heritage body currently holds no information from satellite tags in Scotland, despite hundreds being operational.
Similarly, tag reliability cannot be independently verified as there is no duty for tag owners to disclose information regarding malfunction.
[RPUK: Incorrect. There is actually a duty for tag operators to report on tag status. In addition, concientious researchers are publishing data on tag malfunctions to enable tag manufacturers to constantly update and overcome any technical glitches in tag design. In addition, in the interest of transparency details of golden eagle tag malfunction were made publicly available in the Scottish Government-commissioned review in 2017. The number of tags known to have malfunctioned were insignifcant in relation to the number of tags that suddenly stopped and then vanished in suspicious circumstances, the vast majority of those occurring on driven grouse moors].
“At the moment, satellite tags are like the wild west,” said SGA Chairman Alex Hogg. “Anyone with funding can buy one, have it fitted to a protected bird, and retain its data. They can then release interpretations to the media, if the tag stops. We saw this with the choreographed ‘Fred the Eagle’ case near Edinburgh, which remains unexplained despite a concerted attempt to finger a grouse moor.
[RPUK: Incorrect. See above response on the rigorous licensing regulations for tag deployment in the UK. As for golden eagle Fred, we reported that he disappeared in suspicious circumstances right next to a grouse moor, in an area where other raptor persecution crimes had been discovered, just like all the other sat-tagged golden eagles that have disappeared in almost identical circumstances. We did not, at any time, accuse the grouse moor owner or his employees of any involvement. The SGA didn’t like the reports, which incidentally were all published with police approval, because Chris Packham’s involvement in the reports created a media storm. Too bad, the SGA had better get used to that – watch this space].
“Although tag fitters are approved, we have seen basic ‘granny knots’ used to fit tags and we have just heard of two tagged Harriers in Perthshire being killed by foxes within three days, with only one tag and body recovered. A tagged adult Harrier lost on National Trust ground this year was never found, neither was its tag, and a predated youngster was only discovered by chance. These are stories the public never hear and it is a shame they have to come out behind a veil of secrecy.
[RPUK: Could Alex Hogg explain how the SGA has been close enough to a sat-tagged raptor to identify a supposed ‘granny knot’? (The skilled fieldworkers who fit sat tags have had a long laugh about the depth of ignorance revealed by that claim, by the way). And as for Hogg’s claim that the public ‘never hear’ of tagged raptors dying from natural causes (it’s hardly news, Alex), perhaps he should pay more attention to RSPB blogs – here’s one from just a few weeks ago which, again in the interest of transparency, details, er, the natural deaths of several tagged hen harriers, but again these natural losses are heavily outnumbered by those that have vanished in suspicious circumstances on driven grouse moors].
“Despite claims these devices are almost infallible, failure rates and unexplained loss are high and there have been numerous examples of lost birds turning up alive or birds re-appearing miles or days from last tag signals.
[RPUK: These tags have a high rate of proven reliability but of course there will be a few exceptions to the rule – nobody has ever denied that. The point is, these ARE exceptions to the rule and no matter how hard the SGA tries to deny it, the suspicious clustering of ‘missing’ tagged raptors, as repeatedly shown in the 2017 golden eagle sat tag review, is overwhelming evidence of continued widespread illegal persecution. We expect a similar pattern when the English hen harrier satellite tag data analysis is finally published (any time now?) and when the Scottish hen harrier satellite tag data analysis is finally published (hopefully soon). It’s strange that the SGA isn’t clamouring for these studies to be published].
“If this information was held independently, all this could be scrutinised transparently by experts and the relevant authorities could act accordingly.”
[RPUK: Er, the golden eagle sat tag data WERE scrutinised transparently by independent experts, and the relevant authority (Scot Gov) DID act accordingly by instigating a comprehensive review of grouse moor management and asking for recommended options for regulation, including estate licensing! Has Alex been smoking something?]
Late last year the SGA commissioned a legal opinion of SNH’s report into the fates of satellite tagged golden eagles, a paper which sparked the present review of grouse shooting.
[RPUK: Ah yes, the legal opinion that everybody dismissed, including the Scottish Government, not least because it was written by a lawyer with no scientific expertise].
The opinion, authored by QC Ronald Clancy, made a strong case for independent scrutiny of tags as the report relied entirely on manufacturer data for its conclusions.
“The present tagging system gives rise to accusation but no prosecutions.
“If tags are to be used to identify crime then the information must be held independently so it may lead to court action.
“If independent data monitoring makes things more difficult for people committing wildlife crime, that surely is in everyone’s interest,” added SGA Chairman Alex Hogg.
It’s quite clear that the game-shooting industry, and especially the SGA, has spent considerable time and effort in recent years 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, or by claiming the raptors have been killed by imaginary windfarms, or by claiming conservationists have killed the raptors to set up gamekeepers, or by misapplying scientific results from failed saltwater turtle tags in the Indian Ocean to golden eagles in Scotland in the hope that nobody would notice! The industry knows how incriminating these raptor sat tag data are and so is desperately 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.
Fortunately, Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham is no fool and neither is the public. Every time another satellite-tagged raptor disappears in suspicious circumstances, another nail gets hammered in to the coffin.
“They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“ (Dr Hugh Webster).
UPDATE 30 January 2019: A sketch from Mr Carbo