RSPB challenges misinformation about satellite tags

This is an excellent blog written by Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland, countering the misinformation (that’s being kind) about satellite tags that is being touted by some in the game shooting industry.

We’ll be writing more on this shortly.

We’ve reproduced Ian’s blog here:

Challenging misinformation about satellite tags

RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations Ian Thomson outlines our thoughts on claims made accompanying the launch of a petition regarding satellite tags fitted to raptor species.

One of the greatest conservation tools to emerge in recent years has been satellite-tagging technology. Whether following the journeys of migrating cuckoos or shedding light on the dangers facing UK birds of prey, these tiny pieces of technology are becoming increasingly valuable in the conservationist’s mission to save nature.

As you read this, satellite tags are helping scientists monitor a handful of recently released captive-reared white-rumped vultures in Nepal after the species almost went extinct. It allowed the finding of a turtle dove nest in Suffolk this August, crucial for a species which has declined in the UK by 97% since 1970. Another tag’s data led us to the body of a hen harrier, Rannoch, lying in the heather, her leg caught in an illegal spring trap on a Perthshire grouse moor.

[Hen harrier Rannoch was fitted with a satellite tag at a nest in Perthshire in summer 2017]

A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), lodged a petition “calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to raptor species, to assist the police and courts in potential wildlife crime cases and to provide data transparency.”

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) briefing about the petition gives a rounded picture of the context.

However, the supporting information provided by the SGA to support their petition contains misleading information which appears to be part of an ongoing and concerted attempt to undermine the credibility of these scientifically-approved tags and the integrity of those monitoring them.

In recent years, various statements the SGA have made in the media (eg. as discussed here) are symptomatic of an organisation in complete denial about the extent of raptor persecution and it’s association with grouse moor management. Indeed, every story about a dead or disappeared satellite-tagged bird of prey on a grouse moor is met with denials, obfuscation or conspiracy theories.

[Rannoch was killed by an illegal trap on a grouse moor in November 2018. Had she not been tagged, this crime would have remained undiscovered]

The RSPB has been involved in the fitting of satellite transmitters, using experienced, trained and licenced taggers, to a wide variety of birds of prey and other species, both in the UK and abroad, for the last 15 years. As a key adviser and contributor to a number of high-profile conservation research projects involving the tagging of bird species across the world, we thought it important to share our experience to put the SGA’s claims into context.

In the UK, all tagging projects require approval from the independent British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Special Methods Panel, who rigorously scrutinise all such proposals on behalf of the UK statutory conservation agencies, including SNH in Scotland, to check their scientific validity and that the welfare of the birds tagged is ensured. The BTO’s process also ensures all projects meet Home Office requirements.

All practitioners must demonstrate experience and capability to undertake this work and this is heavily scrutinised by the Special Methods Panel. Most of those involved with this technique are experienced bird ringers and handlers. An annual licence return is supplied to the BTO by all satellite practitioners for their records, and this is a condition of receiving further licences in the future.

The RSPB also has considerable experience in monitoring the data coming from our own transmitters and in working closely with other individuals and organisations involved in similar projects, notably with regard to development of tag technology, sharing good practice and the analysis of satellite tag data.

We lead on police training on the interpretation of tag data, recently attending key events in Perthshire and Yorkshire in 2019 to ensure that the police and officers from the National Wildlife Crime Unit are equipped to carry out independent scrutiny of tag data. We have also helped ensure that, where satellite-tagged birds of prey are suspected of being illegally killed, relevant tag data is provided to investigating officers as required.

We have assisted the police in numerous follow-up investigations where tagged birds have been illegally killed or have been suspected to have been victims of criminality – as with Rannoch, mentioned above.

In 2017, the government-commissioned review of the fates of satellite-tagged golden eagles concluded that almost a third of young tagged eagles “disappeared (presumably died) under suspicious circumstances” and that “areas managed as grouse moors were strongly associated with the disappearance of many of the tagged eagles”. This independently peer-reviewed study was underpinned by data from tags that researchers from RSPB and several other organisations and agencies had fitted to Scottish golden eagles, and is key evidence that scientifically highlights the ongoing problem of raptor persecution on Scotland’s grouse moors.

Satellite transmitters, all fitted as part of projects licensed by the BTO, have revolutionised the study of bird ecology. They have proved invaluable research tools in understanding the movements of birds, from Asian vultures to English turtle doves, Welsh hen harriers and Scottish golden eagles. They have allowed us to identify important migration staging areas, key nest and roost site locations, allowing us to further protect these birds. They have also allowed recovery of dead birds, enabling post-mortem examinations to take place and identify causes of death which would otherwise remain a mystery. Indeed, they are shining a very bright light on those areas of upland Scotland where raptor persecution continues unabated.

It is unfortunate that the SGA, which has consistently attempted to undermine the veracity of tag data, has also refused to take part in meetings of the partnership for action against wildlife crime (PAW Scotland) since the government’s satellite-tag review was published. Had it done so, perhaps many of the inaccurate statements contained in the briefing document, or in their recent members’ magazine, prepared to accompany the petition would not have appeared.  One can only question their motives.


UPDATE 1st July 2022: Scottish Parliament sees sense and closes SGA’s petition seeking ‘Independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to raptors’ (here).

18 thoughts on “RSPB challenges misinformation about satellite tags”

  1. As one would expect from Ian a very good account of what is actually happening with the tagging programme of different species and how it is regulated.

    As someone involved in tracking birds with GPS technology I can confirm the fantastic information that this provides which goes a long way to the conservation of the species studied.

  2. They are in the Trump/Johnson school of Schroedinger truth. The tags are crap, they fail all the time, etc etc, yet they want to data so they know where the birds are. Perhaps they could tag a few birds and share the data.

    1. The issue about the efficacy of the satellite tags does have a pinch of truth about it. The most commonly used technology has to go off air to recharge every day or so and they use the “Doppler effect” to locate position, which is only accurate to around 500m. This makes it vitally important to get the technology which remains on continuously and which uses GPS technology, accurate to around 5m or less, small enough to use on our birds of prey. The current tags, when in operation, are EXTREMELY reliable and have been shown not to damage the species on which they have been used, They were always intended to prove migration routes of species, not be suitable to provide conclusive evidence for prosecution of wildlife crime.

      1. Hi Fight for Fairness,

        I’m afraid your understanding of the type of tags in use is several years out of date. Some tags still have to go offline to recharge but some don’t; some tags are still reliant on Doppler but some are not; many tags are using highly accurate GPS tech and some tags are hybrids of both Argos and GSM. The tech is developing fast.

  3. Perhaps we have got the wrong end of the stick here. It is the people with guns that should be tagged.

    1. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, make it a requirement of your firearms licensee to carry a GPS whenever your are out with you gun. The data can be centrally stored and when a satellite tag drops off, the police can look to see who was in the area and see if they saw any un-towards.

      If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear as the Right wing press would say

      1. How about making the license fee a more realistic price,I don’t know what it costs at the moment but it seems as if anyone can be allowed to carry a potential lethal gun around without any checks on their mind set.

      2. I seem to remember this being squashed during Cameron’s time in power. Couldn’t bear to impoverish his shooting buddies

  4. If the shooting community really does have such little faith in satellite tags, how come the GWCT have been fitting them to Woodcock & singing their praises, since 2012?

    1. I’m sure they have great faith in satellite tags and the data. Rather they are worried about how much insight it gives into their nefarious activities. So they’re playing the old propaganda game of trying to discredit the methodology giving insight into the scale of their orchestrated wildlife crime. I’m aware that you already know this, but just find it absurd that we have to pretend that we don’t know what they are really doing in case they disingenuously claim we’re libelling them. According to their logic, if they don’t get caught red handed and prosecuted, then it hasn’t happened. Using this logic, Al Capone wasn’t really a gangster, just someone who evaded paying his taxes, because that’s all he was ever convicted of.

  5. I’d suggest that the SGA are not actually in denial of the extent of raptor persecution, because being in denial suggests someone turning a blind eye to evidence, and therefore making themselves wilfully blind. However, being as those primarily responsible for illegal raptor persecution are gamekeepers and satellite tagging data suggests that illegal raptor persecution is so widespread across managed grouse moors as to be more or less universal, gamekeepers cannot be in denial about the phenomenon. This is because gamekeepers are actively engaged in it, maybe the majority. You cannot be actively engaged in doing something, and actually be in denial of this. You could possibly be in denial that it was wrong etc, have some distorted justification that it’s okay, but you cannot be in genuine denial that it is happening. You might chose to use dishonest arguments to pretend it’s not happening, but that is not denial, it’s knowing propaganda and disinformation, which is something entirely different.

    What is more even if you posit that a sizeable proportion of gamekeepers are not directly involved in this widespread illegal persecution of raptors, through say not working on grouse moors, or being on one of the unusual managed grouse moors where illegal persecution does not take place, you have enough experience to know that illegal raptor persecution by gamekeepers must be widespread. This is because gamekeepers have extensive experience and insight into “controlling” predators. They know very well that to kill such a large proportion of tagged raptors, often soon after they were tagged, means putting in a lot of work focused purely on killing raptors. Gamekeepers of all people know that to kill a raptor you don’t just wander around and hey presto a raptor just flies within shotgun range. They know the difficulty in getting that close to a predator by design.

    So a gamekeepers organization of all places has much better insight into the degree of raptor persecution, how widespread it is, and the amount of effort put into it than anyone. They have much more insight than those investigating it. So when they try to discredit the evidence, this is not denial. Rather it is propaganda to create denial amongst the public, and denial by politicians, but they themselves cannot be in denial for the reasons I have given. If they have no insight into the effort it would take to kill raptors on this scale, then they’d be thoroughly incompetent gamekeepers.

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