Post mortem reveals Welsh golden eagle had suffered gunshot injury

In August 2020 a walker found an adult golden eagle dead in a river in Powys, Wales.

The discovery prompted a great deal of media interest (e.g. here) as this eagle was believed to be the lone bird that had survived for approx 12 years in the wild in Wales, having escaped from captivity when she was three months old.

Just a few days before her corpse was found she’d featured in a BBC documentary presented by Iolo Williams, The Last Wilderness of Wales (available here on BBC iPlayer and well worth a watch for footage of this eagle doing her thing).

At the time of the news reports the cause of death was still to be established.

The Welsh Government organised for a post mortem where it was determined she’d died of systemic Aspergillosis. The PM report included the following description:

Asperillosis is the most comon fungal mycosis in birds. Aspergillus fumigatus is a ubiquitous opportunistic organism and factors impairing the birds’ immunity can predispose to disease. No underlying immunocompromising factors were detected on testing. There were extensive, chronic lesions throughout the carcase likely resulting in reduced feed intake, ill-thrift and dehydration and ultimately death‘.

That all looked straight forward and no cause for concern. However, an x-ray of the corpse had also revealed something much more sinister, as documented in the PM report as follows:

So, this golden eagle had been shot previously, although it’s not clear when and the pathologist thought this was unlikely to have contributed to the bird’s death.

Interestingly, the Welsh Government chose to suppress this information. Here is some internal correspondence, released under FoI, where the suppression is detailed:

In later correspondence also released under FoI, Welsh Government officials said this wasn’t deliberate suppression but just standard procedure when informing the original reporter of the incident about the cause of death, excluding any additional information that the PM may have uncovered. Government officials also stated that the Environment Minister had been informed about the gunshot injury.*

That seems reasonable behaviour under normal circumstances. However, finding the only golden eagle in Wales dead in a river couldn’t be described as ‘normal’ under any circumstances. And discovering that the eagle had been shot would also be of significant public interest, not least when there’s currently an active debate about the proposed reintroduction of golden eagles to Wales which could happen as early as next year (see here).

I’d say that public understanding of illegal persecution, including the targeting of a golden eagle, was actually fundamental to the debate.

Although according to an FoI response from the Welsh Government’s statutory conservation agency Natural Resources Wales (NRW) last month, officials there claimed to have received no correspondence about the shooting of this golden eagle either. That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? Surely officials in the environmental section of the Welsh Government talk to officials in NRW, especially on a subject as significant as the shooting of a golden eagle?

It’s not the first time information about golden eagles in Wales has been suppressed. Last month NRW withheld correspondence it had had with Wilder Britain, one of two competing organisations involved with the proposed reintroduction of golden eagles to Wales (see here).

In an FoI refusal letter, NRW argued that Wilder Britain had refused permission to release its correspondence with NRW. I’ve lodged a review of that decision because I don’t believe it should apply to correspondence written by NRW to Wilder Britain in relation to a proposed reintroduction project. I believe the public have a right to know what advice NRW has been giving to someone proposing to reintroduce golden eagles to Wales and especially now that it’s been confirmed that Wales’s only wild-living golden eagle had at some stage been illegally shot.

*Update 12.24hrs: The person who took the dead eagle from the walker and delivered it for post mortem has been in touch to say the Welsh Government did provide details of the pellet and did not try to dissuade her from sharing that information with the media. This information is supported by some of the FoI material I’ve received, which shows that the Welsh Government informed her about the pellet sometime after they’d first mentioned to her that Aspergillosis was the cause of death, and seemingly only after being prompted by an outside agency to do so.

There is further correspondence, released under FoI which hasn’t been published here, in which the Welsh Government explicitly states, ‘We aren’t planning any proactive comms‘ [about the eagle being shot].

UPDATE 17.00HRS: This blog post has been picked up by Wales Online (here)

UPDATE: This blog post has been picked up by the Mail Online, who couldn’t report it accurately (claiming the eagle was shot twice) nor manage to acknowledge the source of their story).

UPDATE 16 February 2021: Toxicology analysis has confirmed this eagle had ‘high concentrations of rat poison in its liver, which may have contributed to its death’, according to the BBC (here)

27 thoughts on “Post mortem reveals Welsh golden eagle had suffered gunshot injury”

  1. That shot will be from the ‘olden day’ type of wildlife management (which has all changed for the better nowadays, apparently), so they must have thought it wasn’t relevant.

    1. Worse than not relevant, I fear, perhaps likely to influence possible visitors. The sort of visitor who will see Red Kites in Rhyader and Eagles on Mull.

  2. Ah! The “olden day” type of wildlife management – well, visit Perthshire and step back in time where virtually everything that flies is “fair game” (geddit!) …….

  3. I cannot see the point in reintroductions that put these birds in a position where they can be shot by these detestable morons .
    The authorities dont seem to give a shit when it comes right down to it its too easy to get a shotgun in the UK and air rifles well .

    1. Shooting is much less of a problem in Wales ; this is not to say it does not exist, it does but one has to keep going; the Cambrians could be extra ordinary; really amazing with vision and confidence and be a major wild ecology tourist draw its so remote and there are so few people but that means its fiercely parochial and resistant to change and at the moment in pretty terminal ecological decline.

      1. I think there’s probably a lot more raptor persecution going on in Wales than we’re led to believe.

        For example, a few years ago ‘the most significant wildlife poisoning incident in Wales and the second highest recovery of poisoned raptors in the UK in the last 40 years’ was highlighted on this blog. The news had been suppressed by the authorities for several years prior to that. See:

        If they can keep that quiet, and the shooting of the only golden eagle in Wales, what else are they hiding from the public’s gaze?

  4. Proper field naturalist Iolo; some great shots of the Teifi Pools and glimpses of the bare sheep walk of the “Empty Quarter” as he puts it; Green Desert Daniel Defoe called it..Mate I do nt know if you are going to read this Iolo but you are mincing your words here. You know I/we have been advocating a forest here for years and years ; not total cover but on the deep molinia tussock grass that covers half of the area; its poor grazing and useless broadly; frydd forest is what I have been calling for ie birch, alder, mountain ash, scots pine; this can be integrated with grazing Forest pasture I call it….Progress has been almost non existent and you must know that and call it out. In the Elan Valley core there are quite simply just a handful of holdings and its SSSI; its quite arguable that this is SSSI of this massive area has not got Favourable Conservation Status and I have called for a legal challenge to NRW management supervision of the Elan Estate. You know as well as I do that the xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx; Golden Plover are now extinct I think I checked last year; have nt seen a Merlin in years; the Welsh Government is calling for a National Forest the length of Wales; surely you must call this Iolo ? Its a huge untramelled area and has enormous potential you acknowledge that but if you just allude to where we want to go and do nt spell it out where are we ? Never Never Land ?

    1. I am relatively new to Mid Wales but in 2019 I did find a pair of Merlins displaying in an area of the Cambrians well north of the Elan valley, when I was looking for Hen Harriers. Living as I do in the middle of a large pheasant shoot to the east of LLanidloes I KNOW there is persecution in this area particularly of Goshawk. I would agree wholeheartedly with Peter (and Iolo) on the state of much of this upland but the mutton mafia are a very powerful lobby and resistant to any change especially if it involves any ” rewilding”.

      1. Good result ; there used to be a number of Merlin east and south and east of Llanidloes and 3/4 pairs plus in the Elan particularly and more on the Towi forest fringe; a legal challenge to the management of the Elenydd SSSI should focus on Merlin particularly, for which it is designated, which are perhaps the emblematic species of Wales; symbol of the ancient Arthurian court. They are in decline; the Golden Plover have finally gone I think. Any challenge would have been easier when we still had the power of European law to assist here; but nonethless this key embematic SSSI, the second most important upland site in Wales has Unfavourable Status and this is in breach of British wildlife law. I suggest that any view should embrace the molinia “waste”; we know frydd of birch/mountain ash/scots pine is the richest semi natural habitat for redstart, tree pipits et al which are prey species for Merlin;alder in the deep wetter flushes; Merlin hunt often on the moor edge; of course I would like to see an effort re Black Grouse and its requirements; we know from the pollen record that there were more trees in the past. 40% indigenous tree cover is possible here without particularly impacting on the grazing. I have sent long entreaties to the Elan Trust and NRW suggesting that an ambitious programme in line with the calls from Welsh Government for a National Forest should be forest pasture integrating grazing ie Welsh black and this could be directly marketed to Birmingham as organic or semi organic which receives its water from here.

        I am interested that Iolo calls this the “Empty Quarter”; it is the title of one of the first of Wilfred Thesiger’s books ; his family home was in Knighton, Radnorshire and somewhere in his writings he alludes to the natural wilderness of this area as the only place in UK where he felt he was again in the solitude one experiences in Africa. This could all be part of a tourism package added to the extra ordinary grace of the Elan dams and surrounds; it would be good to see Golden Eagle here also. Mid Wales depends on tourism more than farming and I would argue this is a package that can give it a profile it lacks ; as it is vast amounts of public subsidy into these uplands are not delivering the public benefits that they are supposed to and the xxxxx xxxxx has frankly very little interest here; in my view its responsibilities should be put out to tender and other organisations asked for “A Vision”.

  5. I think in all parts of UK we are up against not just most Landowners (and their pet politicians), almost all keepers, two-thirds of farmers but also our institutions themselves exhibit an ingrained “institutional sympathy” for those interests that actively persecute or at least tolerate it. But on a positive note…more inroads have been and are being made against it in the last five years than in the last fifty. Scotland being an example that the immovable is being made to move, albeit slowly.

  6. This is almost beyond belief.

    Concealment of any information is reprehensible, but information relating to raptor persecution and, in particular, the sole surviving golden eagle in Wales is a heinous action.

    It looks suspiciously like some rather undesirable people may have slithered into positions of influence in the WG administration (not the only UK administration to suffer from contamination).

    [Ed: ‘Concealment’ is perhaps a bit strong in these circumstances. The Welsh Gov didn’t try to hide the information as such, but then nor did it seek to proactively publicise it, which was a mistake IMO]

  7. Transparency is paramount. When departments are not transparent we get suspicious. This bird had been shot at some point. This is crucial information in the fight to combat the illegal killing of raptors

  8. Whilst the post mortem did not reveal that the cause of death was attributable to the eagle having previously been shot.
    The fact that there was evidence of the bird having been shot is evidence of a crime being committed under Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

    Due to the historic nature of the crime, then a police investigation would probably be pointless and fruitless.

    However, what may be of interest is that under the present crime recording rules in England and Wales, wildlife crimes are not centrally recorded.
    Wildlife crimes are recorded centrally in Scotland, and this information is provided to the Scottish government.

    This failure to accurately record wildlife crimes across England and Wales has the effect that under the current recording rules, it is very difficult to accurately determine the scope and scale of wildlife crimes being committed. It is most probable that there is an under recording and reporting of wildlife crimes.

    This means that the government has no effective method of accurately determining just how much wildlife crime is occurring, the type of crime being committed or where those crimes are taking place.

    Neither can proper crime pattern analysis take place, which would help identify where and when crimes such as raptor persecution are taking place. (Fortunately the RSPB provide some data on this – but this data is limited to what information they are provided with or able to source).

    This is important, as without this effective analysis, the government must surely be hampered in developing proper policies and strategies to tackle wildlife crime and raptor persecution?
    How can the government claim that raptor persecution is a national priority crime if it doesn’t know how many or where these crimes are being committed?
    How can resources be adequately financed or prioritised to tackle the problem?

    Could it be that as the Scottish government is provided with this information, then Ministers have been held accountable and have been forced to take the recent steps to introduce licensing?
    Could the failure of the Westminster government to put in place accurate recording of wildlife crime mean that it is then difficult to hold the government accountable for its failures to develop legislation and strategies to tackle raptor persecution?
    Could this explain why there appears to be no move to introduce a licensing scheme for game shooting in England and Wales?
    Could it be that if accurate wildlife crime recording was available – the sheer horror of what is taking place in our countryside would be available for all to see, and public outrage would force the government’s hand?
    Is this just another manifestation of wilful blindness on the part of the government to raptor persecution?

    It will be interesting to know if the police in Wales were notified of this eagle having previously been shot, and whether this has been recorded as a wildlife crime?

    (An interesting report on wildlife crime reporting has been published by the Wildlife and Countryside Link- if people want to look into this further.)

  9. Cut to the chase……
    Raptor persecution is as rife on industrial game shoots in Wales, as everywhere, not just UK.
    Decades of seeing it there is my proof.
    Asper f is generally a secondary, opportunistic, lethal infection in Golden eagle.
    It would be very unwise to conclude that the presence of lead shot in this eagle did not contribute to the infection that caused it’s death.
    Asper f takes hold when there are even sub clinical effects of other debilitating factors such as the presence of lead.
    GE have little immunity to Asper f and any reduction in vitality can lead rapidly to demise through this infection in wild GE.
    50 years with raptors has taught me a lot.

    As to lack of transparency, lack of investigation etc etc yawn, nothing changes !
    Licencing or ban, covert surveillance, proper local policing, adequate sentencing, anti poison dog teams etc etc.

    Any release of medium or large raptors in UK will be subect to persecution, but that’s no reason to stop.
    If it was then we wouldn’t have successfully recovered Goshawk, Sea eagle and Red Kite.

    The favoured prey groups that GE require to flourish are however now absent in the sheep – knackered uplands of Wales.

    Survival on a generalist diet of corvids etc would not be a great success, so some decades of increased medium prey such as rabbits, hares and grouse in an environment with less grazing by farmed herbivores is needed before GE reintroduction in Wales.
    Wild ungulates eg deer and goats would also need to increase.

    Lifting dead or dying lambs would not endear GE up there !

    Their time will come, but not in the current ecological desert where I’ve watched many species disappear under the CAP.

    Ah, wait a minute….. Brexit… CAP….. reduced headage…… payment by environmental results……open woodland…..increased prey base…….ah… we can dream.

    Just don’t talk rewilding and Beavers – they don’t float the farmers’ boat.
    And some of the farmers will remain, as the social policy of paying them to stay in the hills unsustainably will persist as it has for 50 years.

    Those lovely coppicing machines will of course come back to Wales, just don’t keep on about it.

    Beaver kits can also occur on GE prey lists too……

    However, don’t forget that it was the blanket of Sitka Spruce that pushed some GE pairs out of south Scotland.
    Short rotation tree plantation is not eagle – friendly open woodland.

    Learn from Forestry Commission ( Gov’t Dept ) mistakes in the past !

    Keep up the pressure !

  10. Given that this eagle was an escape from captivity, much as one detests any and all persecution, what is the legal status in regard of the moron who shot at it.

    1. The species (golden eagle) is protected, regardless of it’s origins (captive or wild). Shooting at a protected species is therefore a crime, so the legal status of the moron who shot it is that that moron is a criminal. Simple as that!

    2. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) 1981- “the definition of “wild bird referred in Sect 1 of the Act does not include any bird which is shown to have been bred in captivity unless it has been lawfully released into the wild as part of a re-population or re-introduction programme”.
      So the individual who shot at it may have relied on this provision to try and avoid prosecution?

      However under section 18(1) of the WCA 1981 “any person who attempts to commit any offence under Part 1 of the Act shall be guilty of an offence”.
      This has the effect of extending the provisions of section 1 Criminal Attempts Act 1981 to the summary offences contained in Part 1 of the WCA 1981.

      Sect 1 Para 2 of Criminal Attempts Act 1981 states-
      A person may be guilty of attempting to commit an offence to which this section applies even though the facts are such that the commission of the offence is impossible.
      Para 3 states
      In any case where—
      (a)apart from this subsection a person’s intention would not be regarded as having amounted to an intent to commit an offence; but
      (b)if the facts of the case had been as he believed them to be, his intention would be so regarded, then, for the purposes of subsection (1) above, he shall be regarded as having had an intent to commit that offence

      Therefore it could be argued that a prosecution could be brought under Sect 18(1) WCA for an attempt to commit an offence listed in Part 1 of the WCA. ie -Section 1(1)(a): kills, injures or takes any wild birds.

      This would very much be a matter for the Police and Crown Prosecution Service, and would depend on what the individual believed or intended when he or she shot the eagle, along with careful consideration of the legislation.
      As the eagle is a bird listed in schedule 1 of the WCA and is of such high value conservation status, then I would also expect “public interest” would feature in any decision making process as to whether to attempt to prosecute or not?

      Whilst this hypothetical as the circumstances never arose, I hope you can follow my reasoning?
      Does anyone else have views on this?

  11. Welsh government xxxxx I’ve lived in Wales for many years and let it be said that wildlife suffers in Wales like nowhere else. The Welsh have to stop treating wildlife in this way I’ve seen it first hand. Most of them that I knew we’re unemployed and bored so they went out and shot anything even in the spring and summer later they would bost about it in the pub. Sorry if the Welsh don’t like what I say but it’s the truth.

  12. This is indeed very bad news for Wales, although not surprising. We seem to always sneak under the radar here. 3 tagged Hen Harriers going missing (how many untagged, some reports in other parts of the UK say it’s up to 10 times that amount, so have 30 gone missing in Wales?) The hot spot of the Glanusk estate, the 3 red kites in Powys recently,a Goshawk caught in a pole trap a few years ago near Beddgelert, badger baiting, hare coursing, illegal fox hunting. I could go on. There has been a hell of a lot of activity on [Ed: rest of this sentence deleted as libellous]. Our SACs need to be looked at urgently as they are not doing what they are supposed to. The Welsh Assembly appointing species champions, from what I have seen, they don’t seem to do much apart from use it to increase their publicity to make them look “good”.

    Back to the Eagle, this time, my personal opinion, is that gamekeepers are not to blame. I have attended a few meetings in the last few months regarding Eagles in Wales. Most of the concerns come from another sector, and from what I have seen, they are dead against the birds being here.

  13. What worries me here is the mention of a second piece of lead in the corpse which wasnt found….in the 1980s I retrieved the corpse of a golden eagle off a mountainside in perthshire suspecting that it had been poisoned [another recent death nearby] was eventually x-rayed months later and found to have died from a single shotgun pellet in the gullet which had nicked an artery……..also worth mentioning that no one accidentally shoots a bird of that size….

  14. … accidentally shoots a bird of that size…. But in court they would claim it was an accident “Oh, I was aiming at a red grouse and suddenly from nowhere this big bird got in the way, honest.” Funny how accidents seem to happen more often than would be expected statistically. “Sorry, I spilled a few drops of this funny liquid onto a rabbit I had just shot, so I left it there, and the next day there was a dead eagle lying there”.
    What really p*sses me off is that many raptors that are recovered and X-rayed have been shot more than once. Just check some of the horror stories on this blog, or look elsewhere for evidence of multiple historical wounds and different sizes of shot found in carcasses. As we are all aware, the cases that are revealed are just the tip of the iceberg…..
    As for the Welsh golden eagle, I doubt very much if the perpetrator(s) shot it because it was an escape from captivity and they wanted only “pure, wild” stock in Wales. In that case, they would have removed the rings (unless of course they only wounded it). There is no other bird of that size in Wales so the moron(s) that shot it new damn fine what they aimed at. There are certainly no legal quarry species in Wales that come anywhere near that size of bird.
    Asperillosis may well have been the cause of death, and I would imagine that a bird that had been shot would already have been in a weakened condition after having been shot, not least if it was shot with a toxin such as lead.
    This blog gets more and more depressing……but keep the pressure up :-)

    1. Paul,
      You make a good point and I refer back to my comment about the failure to accurately record crimes against raptors. If each incident where there is evidence to indicate a bird has been shot was recorded as a separate crime. Or each time poisoned bait was laid and each creature which died as a result of the illegal poisoning was recorded as a separate crime, then the crime figures would more accurately reflect what is actually happening. I have no doubt the sheer volume of wildlife crime would be so high the public would be horrified.
      This failure to accurately record crimes also makes any claims by the shooting industry that raptor persecution incidents are diminishing absolute nonsense, as without accurate data it is impossible to know just how many crimes are actually occurring and whether there is an increase or decrease in crime.

      It is time England and Wales fell in line with Scotland and accurately recorded wildlife crimes through the Home office, so that the government could be presented with this data, and then held accountable.

      I strongly suspect there is a reluctance by government to do this, as it would lay bare the sheer scale of the atrocities being committed by humans on our wildlife. It would enable crime hotspots to be identified and put the focus on those responsible.
      At the moment those responsible are able to use the vagueness in crime data to avoid responsibility, and so to trot out through their media propaganda machines stories to mislead the public and politicians. (this isn’t just about game shooting but also what is occurring in some sectors of agriculture too!) So it is very much in their interests to use their influence and political leverage to ensure they aren’t exposed!

      Accurate crime data would also expose the weaknesses in the current wildlife protection legislation and penalties. If far more wildlife crime is actually occurring than is currently being counted, then the calls for tougher legislation and harsher penalties is something which could not be ignored. At the moment it is all too easy for politicians to claim there isn’t a problem.

      At a time when public sentiment is turning towards climate change, environmental and wildlife conservation issues then the shooting industry has something very much to fear, if it can be shown there is a link between wildlife crime and the way that certain elements in the shooting industry conduct themselves.
      Is it any wonder then that there exists this failure to accurately record and count wildlife crime?

      The people who illegally kill birds of prey aren’t morons- they are evil, devious, calculating criminals who are part of organised crime groups. They don’t deal in drugs, human trafficking or theft- they slaughter endangered, protected and vulnerable wildlife. They are pushing certain species towards extinction and that makes them particularly nasty.
      Is there really that much difference between someone who poaches elephants or rhino, for ivory or horn; and someone who kills Golden Eagles or Hen Harriers to ensure lots of game birds for fee paying clients to shoot???

      1. Good post John L .

        Insofar as crime reporting is concerned there can be no doubt that what is reported is but a very small proportion of the true figures.

        Dead birds can be found and reported. Do all these reports end up in the public domain (highly doubtful) ?

        Dead birds can be found and not reported (my guess is that is a fairly large group).

        Dead birds may not be found (probably the largest group).

        The problem is immense because criminal activity is immense and the efforts by national governments/assemblies are wholly inadequate (or worse).

        On 12 Dec. in “Some Blogs of interest (1)” there is reference to a remarkably appropriate comment by Donald Dewar:-

        “It is over 22 years since the man who would become Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar MP, rightly described raptor persecution as a “national disgrace”. His declaration was the first of a string of politicians from across the political spectrum to make similar strong statements condemning the illegal killing of Scotland’s birds of prey on grouse moors, and giving various warnings to that industry to put their house in order.”

        What Donald Dewar had to say was, of course, an entirely pertinent comment on a festering sore.

        The problem with sores that are allowed to fester is that they devolve into systemic infections.
        And so it has come to pass that from having wildlife persecution that was a national disgrace we now have governments/assemblies (who have failed to destroy the infection) that are a national disgrace.

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