Further to Monday’s appalling news that a young white-tailed eagle has been found illegally poisoned on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park (see here and here), the Scottish Government has responded.
The official twitter channel of the Scottish Government, covering the environment and rural economy (@GreenerScotland) posted this at four minutes to five yesterday afternoon:
If the Scottish Government thinks that is an adequate response it’d better think again.
Superficially, it looks good, as is undoubtedly intended. A photo of a serious-looking Environment Minister and a statement expressing disgust and anger, ending with what looks to be a zero-tolerance policy for those who commit these atrocious crimes.
Job done. That’ll calm the baying public and stem the tsunami of angry emails heading for the First Minister’s inbox, right?
Sorry, but no, it won’t. Whichever civil servant put this together has not only seriously misjudged the mood but has also underestimated the public’s depth of anger about the illegal poisoning of this young eagle. Fobbing us off with a trite statement about custodial sentences for the guilty just isn’t going to cut it.
Why not? Well because we all know, that even though an increase in custodial sentences for wildlife crime is widely welcomed and long overdue, that no matter what the sentence, the chances of the culprit actually being caught is still disproportionately minuscule in comparison to the weight of the sentence.
In fact, there has never been a successful prosecution for the illegal killing of an eagle in Scotland. Ever. Even though scores of them have been found illegally shot, poisoned or trapped over the years, and scores more have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances (confirmed by a Government-commissioned report), not one single eagle-killer has ever been held to account.
Why not? Because the evidence required to convict is almost impossible to attain. For example, ten years ago three golden eagles were found dead on a prestigious grouse-shooting estate in Sutherland. They were found within days of each other and all three had been poisoned with banned chemicals. The police raided the estate and found a stash of 10kg of Carbofuran (a banned pesticide) inside a locked shed. This was the biggest cache of carbofuran ever found in the UK and was described as being ‘enough to wipe out the entire Scottish golden eagle and red kite populations several times over’. They also found poisoned baits laid out on the hill. At least one of those eagles died with the poisoned bait still in its beak – that’s how potent and fast-acting some of these poisons can be.
An estate employee was charged and the case went to court. However, he was only convicted for having possession of the banned poison. He wasn’t even charged with poisoning those eagles simply because there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that he had laid the bait that killed those eagles.
So when the Scottish Government tells us that the maximum sentence for poisoning an eagle has been increased to a five-year custodial sentence, in this context it’s totally meaningless because the poisoner will evade ever being brought to justice.
Now that’s not to say the increased penalties for wildlife crime are a waste of time – they most definitely are not and are a very welcome addition, but increased penalties alone just aren’t going to save the day here. The Scottish Government cannot continue to ignore the massive elephant in the room. That is, that the majority of these crimes against birds of prey are linked to the ‘sport’ of driven grouse shooting.
We know it, and the Scottish Government knows it.
This latest response from the Scottish Government bares strong similarities to a statement made last month about its intention to establish a ‘wildlife crime task force’ to assess whether increased powers for the SSPCA would be worthwhile (see here). What was (deliberately) missed out was the fact that the government had already spent the previous nine years cogitating this very issue! The announcement was even accompanied by the very same photograph of Minister Gougeon as used in yesterday’s announcement. The civil servants must think it adds gravitas.
Well, it doesn’t. And as we said last month, this is no reflection on the integrity and sincerity of Mairi Gougeon. Having met her several times and listened to her talk, there is absolutely no doubt that she finds these crimes as abhorrent as we all do. But she, and her fellow Cabinet Ministers and Secretaries, need to step up to the plate.
We don’t want banal memes or meaningless platitudes or pretence that this is all in hand. It isn’t and the image of that dead sea eagle should haunt every single member of the Scottish Government – they are allowing this depravity to continue.
Thank you to all of you who have written to the First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) and Environment Cabinet Secretary (Roseanna Cunningham). It is clear that their inboxes have been deluged. Good, they need to be.
If you haven’t written yet, please consider doing so. Mark Avery has published his excellent letter (see here) for those wondering what to say.
Here are the email addresses of the relevant ministers:
To email Nicola Sturgeon, please use this address: email@example.com
To email Roseanna Cunningham, please use this address: CabSecECCLR@gov.scot
UPDATE 29th July 2020: Poisoned sea eagle: strong response from Scottish Greens (here)