Poisoned sea eagle: inadequate response from Scottish Government

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.

Of sorts.

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.

Not one.

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: firstminister@gov.scot

To email Roseanna Cunningham, please use this address: CabSecECCLR@gov.scot

Thank you.

UPDATE 29th July 2020: Poisoned sea eagle: strong response from Scottish Greens (here)

23 thoughts on “Poisoned sea eagle: inadequate response from Scottish Government”

  1. I agree with all that you say, except for Mark Avery’s “excellent letter”. In my opinion, it isn’t excellent, it’s embarrassing and in the comments section of his Facebook page I’ve explained why. Please do write to the minister(s) but please don’t follow Mark’s example – keep it short and to the point; don’t trumpet your own qualifications for commenting; don’t write from England saying how much you “engage” with Scotland and for goodness sake, DO NOT mention Braveheart!!!!

    1. ‘don’t write from England saying how much you “engage” with Scotland’
      Why Andy? We spend at least six weeks of every year in Scotland, doesn’t that give us a valid interest?
      Do you know how much Scotland makes every year from tourism?
      I hope I have misunderstood your comment and apologies if I have.

      1. Paul, I understand what you are saying but it just doesn’t sit well in Scotland, for reasons too long to go into here. Here in Orkney we frequently get letters in the local paper from tourists telling us how things could be much better. Scotland is another country. Stick to the issue, which crosses boundaries anyway.

  2. Quite so, I absolutely agree. The inadequacy of this response seems to me to reflect the fact that the Scottish government is unable or unwilling to tackle the problem. They are not alone, the UK government seems to be in the same position. I presume they are faced with such a powerful lobby from the shooting fraternity they cannot take the appropriate action. Of course the alternative explanation is that they have no real interest in doing so!

    1. I think they are willing to act but are entangled in the same web of compromised values as a lot of good folk who started out with a moral agenda i.e. needing political support and money from wider Westminster Establishment for other things. This incident and the Hare shooting thing will be interesting regards their limited powers in practice to make changes. I personally suspect they will issue very generous licences to Estates for Hare “control” shooting, and render that one a muted victory.

  3. We are all aware that the only thing politicians really understand is money. That being the case, could I please ask that anybody who is still planning to write include a line or two about tourism. With the lives of our birds of prey at stake it may seem like an irrelevance, I can assure you it is not.
    Scotland makes a lot of money out of tourism, it’s a huge part of the economy, and it brings in far more than DGS ever will. Further, if the huge amount of land given over to DGS were find a better use, it would benefit wildlife and increase tourism still further.
    This will have even more impact if you are writing from outside Scotland.

    Also, my email was forwarded to 9 wildlife companies, the six green SMPs and The Scotsman. Today I intend to fill the mail boxes of each SNP MP. Independent hotels will also be a target, don’t assume that the owners already know of this matter. Yes it takes time but do we really want this Eagle’s death to be for nothing?
    Please write today.

    1. Paul, awesome. That list will take some time to compile. I think it might be interesting if you made it available in some way so others could help you in your quest.

      1. Stuart, you were right, it did take ages to do. Each one of 52 individually. There is no easy way to click a button and email each and every MSP, at least, not that I’ve found. But, amazingly, I have had one interesting reply already so time not wasted!

  4. Clearly Mairi Gougeon got the junior, associate, summer itern to cut and paste some text – that’s how seriously the Scottish Government takes this incident.

    The Scottish Government is tone deaf on many, many issues and sadly this one is likely to be near the bottom of the list of their priorities.

    When you have the SNP leadership hobnobbing with the shooting industry, https://twitter.com/petewishart/status/1223366082695716866 then the jokes on you if you expect any change to the current situation.

    There’s a clear choice to force some movement on this. Next year, in the Scottish Parliament elections use your regional list vote and give it to a party that makes this an issue. Better still push the Independence For Scotland Party (ISP) or any list party that gets formed over the coming months to get this on their agenda.

    1. Can’t believe this quote from Pete Wishart’s twitter account – “Not entirely sure that BASC is responsible for all or any or that. I think they are opposed to driven grouse moors and they definitely take a hard line on raptor persecution. That’s why it’s always as well to meet up and discuss with organisations.”
      Have I missed something? “(BASC) opposed to driven grouse moors”???

  5. You have to be aghast at the gall of the SG people.

    When I read the quote from MG’s statement I instantly identified it as no more than worthless babble.

    In essence what we are being fed is a statement that is similar to :-

    Well here we are again. Same old crime followed by the same old story from your wonderful government.
    Are you not all just overwhelmed with pride at the way I quickly step in and tell you how disgusted and angered I am at having to explain to some annoying people that barbaric crimes now have maximum penalties that will never (as long as we have any say in the matter) be imposed.
    Also (this bit is somewhat delicate and hush-hush so be sure only to whisper it in friendly ears, if you get my drift), from time to time we will make some meaningless platitudes purely for cosmetic purposes because we cannot dare have anyone suspect that we do not intend to confront the criminals.
    You can count on us not to upset the apple cart ……… we do not want people to see all the rotten apples, do we ?

    1. Yes, Ms Gougeon is doing a wonderful job at managing expectations. I am sure she is destined for greater things in the Scottish Government.

  6. The size of the penalty is irrelevant if the chances of prosecution are so small. The real deterrent to crime is not the punishment but the likelihood of getting caught. The current legislative framework just isn’t working, Neither are the threats of licencing recommended by he Werrity review. The evidence of the continuing persecution in and around grouse moors and the use of illegal and dangerous poisons is clear to see. The amount of pressure that the SNP have been under to change the rules on the culling of mountain hares is an example of how slowly they are prepared to move. There is clear evidence, presented by Common Weal, that the Scottish economy would benefit more from stopping drive grouse shooting altogether then continuing it, from increases in wildlife tourism. Gamekeepers are well aware of where these iconic birds of prey are located and could well have a new career as guides; poacher and gamekeeper turned conservationist, but only if their attitudes change. The SNP made a big mistake with the Werrity review, Instead of appointing a truly independent committee, who would then be able to offer impartial advice, they allowed both conservationists and the shooting industry to be directly represented and making recommendations. It was bound to turn out badly and the “up to five year wait” for action that Werrity recommended condemned our wildlife to suffer more persecution. Time to act SNP, before all your loyal supporters desert for other parties.

  7. Well I’ve written to the First Minister, Cabinet Sec Cunningham & Mairi Gougeon but I’m not holding my breadth for a reply. I’ve also written to my constituency MSP who has given me the brush off – “Nowt to do with me mate”. Typical useless politician.

  8. Why not write another article that sounds like a grown up petulant child. I’m sure that’ll get everyone involved.

  9. Out the rotten apples as soon as you feel able and safe to do so, sick situation…just raptor slaughter unchecked and no suitable sentences when rare cases are successfully prosecuted.

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