Poisoned red kite found dead on Scottish grouse moor – an interesting police investigation

Further to yesterday’s news from Police Scotland that a poisoned red kite had been found dead on a Scottish grouse moor at Moy (see here), news has emerged that this bird was also being satellite-tracked, which has implications for the police investigation and any potential sanction imposed on the estate as a result.

An article in today’s Strathspey and Badenoch Herald (here) published a photograph of the young kite with two of its siblings when they were fitted with satellite tags in 2019. The article also notes that this kite was from the first brood to fledge in the Cairngorms National Park, and the first successful brood in the Badenoch & Strathspey area since 1880 (thanks to blog reader Dave Pierce for posting this as a blog comment yesterday).

[The three red kite siblings, fitted with satellite tags, in the Cairngorms National Park. Photo Scottish Raptor Study Group]

It’s not often, these days, that a poisoned satellite-tagged raptor is found (although there are some notable exceptions, including this satellite-tagged white tailed eagle, found poisoned on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park earlier this year).

Since satellite-tagging became more routine, poisoning offences have dropped considerably, presumably because the presence of a satellite tag increases the probability of crime detection. Instead, the shooting and trapping of raptors have become much more prevalent killing methods because the perpetrator has more control over the crime scene (and can thus remove evidence quickly). What we usually get with satellite-tagged raptors these days is a sudden and inexplicable ‘stop’ in the tracking data, and both the tag and the bird ‘disappear’, never to be seen again (well, only if the criminal has hidden the evidence of the crime properly, unlike in this recent case where a golden eagle’s satellite tag was discovered cut off and wrapped in lead [to block the signal] and dumped in a river).

So the discovery of this poisoned satellite-tagged red kite at Moy is unusual, but also very helpful. Depending on the type of tag and it’s ‘duty cycle’ (i.e. the frequency with which the tag had been programmed to collect and transmit data), information should be available to Police Scotland to inform them of the kite’s recent movements. For example, had it been on this grouse moor for several days (in which case the likelihood of it being poisoned there would seem high) or had it travelled in from a distance elsewhere shortly before dying, which might indicate it was poisoned elsewhere?

Much will also depend on the type of poison used (which hasn’t been disclosed) and the dose and the toxicity. We know from the Police press release yesterday that it was a banned poison (one of eight listed on the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order 2005, which are Aldicarb, Alphachloralose, Aluminium phosphide,  Bendiocarb, Carbofuran, Mevinphos, Sodium cyanide and Strychnine) but some of these poisons are incredibly fast-acting and others are less so, which might also give clues to where the poison had been placed.

Information also hasn’t been released about whether a poisoned bait was found close to the poisoned red kite. Sometimes they are (especially if the poison used is fast-acting) but other times the bait is not present, which might suggest the bird was poisoned elsewhere and managed to fly some distance before succumbing to death.

In other cases bait has been found placed out on estate boundary fences – this has been a common ploy by some estates that aims to obfuscate a police investigation and point blame to an innocent, neighbouring estate where the poisoned bird may have been found dead.

For obvious reasons, the Police haven’t released much of the details because the criminal investigation is ongoing. However, it is these details that will inform the decision-making process at NatureScot (SNH rebranded) as to whether a General Licence restriction order should be imposed on Moy Estate after the discovery of this poisoned red kite.

As regular blog readers will know, General Licence restriction orders are pretty impotent because estates can simply circumnavigate them with applications for individual licences instead, but nevertheless, that’s not a reason for not imposing them where merited.

This’ll be an interesting case to follow.

UPDATE 22nd June 2022: General Licence restriction imposed on Moy, a grouse-shooting estate, after discovery of poisoned red kite (here)

32 thoughts on “Poisoned red kite found dead on Scottish grouse moor – an interesting police investigation”

  1. The persecution of raptors is now so commonplace around this area that a short, sharp shock is required. Prosecute and imprison the landowner once proof of crime is determined. This would send a very clear message for other landowners who turn a blind eye to crime on their estates.

  2. Sorry to be a bit sniffy about all of this fascinating poison/tagging and the presuppositions that go with it, but the fact remains a prosecution is pretty remote. Until we have dedicated teams of investigators (and I’m not in any way denigrating the work done by present teams from various organisations) who have the legal authority to investigate — as they see fit – and that the evidence garnered is admissable in law, then it’s all so much hot air.

    I really, really wish for a different outcome for all wildllife crimes but I fear the balance is weighted against us.

    1. Pip,

      Thanks. I don’t see your comment as being a bit sniffy at all – it’s spot on in terms of securing a prosecution.

      However, the blog post was written really with a focus on a General Licence restriction, which as you know works on the lower, civil burden of proof rather than having to rely upon the high evidential threshold for a criminal conviction. With these circumstances, and the associated tag data, there should be much more confidence from Police Scotland and NatureScot in determining whether a sanction is appropriate.

    2. In tandem with the RPUK reply below, I think it’s important that the SG retain all options when setting up the licencing sceme. The police should always be involved in investigating raptor persecution incidents because they are a criminal offence. However, the burden of proof to obtain a prosecution for criminal offences is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and the estates are very good at creating what the feel are ‘reasonable doubts’.

      The decision to revoke/remove a licence should therefore be a separate consideration under civil law where the burden of proof is on a ‘balance of probabilities’, which can use evidence from the police investigation but is not constrained by having to be beyond reasonable doubts.

      In fact SG could write into the licencing regulations a provision for making what many organisations call ‘risk based decisions’ where they are bound to take action where there is an identified risk of a certain outcome. This is often used (I’ve done it myself) in situations where people are at risk from harm e.g. child abuse, sexual harassment etc.

      We have to remember that shooting is a discretionary leisure pursuit. It is not in any way ‘necessary’ or even useful (claims of economic importance are bogus), and so no harms created by shooting should be tolerated. Raptor persecution is getting worse not better, perhaps because the estates know what’s coming but this means SG must make the new system so robust it acts as an effective deterrent and not listen to the whining self-justifications and prevarications of the shooting industry.

    3. I know what you mean Pip about the balance being stacked against us but if we don’t keep plugging away the dark side has won.

    4. You’re spot on. It’s not just wildlife crime though, the situation you describe is right across the board, regarding all animals in Scotland.

  3. It’s interesting that in the first blog regarding this poisoned Red Kite, reference was made to searches carried out on a hill near Meall a’ Bhreacraibh and Ruthven, Moy, in the northern Monadliath mountains. This would indicate that the authorities had information to suggest a search in that particular area might help identify evidence in relation to this crime.

    So depending on the location of that search, what the grounds were for conducting that search and who owns or manages that land, then this might suggest the authorities have their suspicions as to who was involved in the commission of this crime?

    Whilst it might be impossible to prove who actually committed this horrendous act to the level required for a criminal prosecution, hopefully there will be enough evidence to indicate who was most probably involved.
    And if that’s the case lets hope NatureScot are bold enough to take firm action.

    If it does transpire that suspicion comes to fall on a particular estate managing the land for grouse shooting, then this would also be a good case in point to justify exactly why the Scottish government are justified in bringing about the proposed licensing scheme. It would also totally undermine all the noise coming from the shooting lobby about the licensing being unnecessary.

    But to be honest I am sick and tired of reading about these horrendous crimes on such a regular basis.
    It’s about time those responsible were treated in the same way as any another serious organised crime group. Lets be honest, the birds that are being killed are endangered species, they are protected by law, they feature on national and European conservation programs. The government has declared the persecution of raptors as a national wildlife priority crime.
    If we were talking about poaching elephant for ivory or slaughtering rhino for its horn, we wouldn’t be dithering about with licensing schemes.
    Instead the birds would be protected by armed rangers, there would be full criminal investigations involving the use of all the investigative tactics available to bring those to responsible to justice, the money would be followed and the assets of those responsible would be seized under POCA.
    It’s time the people responsible for these crimes are labelled and treated as criminals, and publicly shamed, regardless of who they are!!!

    1. Re John L’s post :-
      December 17, 2020 at 3:50 pm

      Spot on John.

      After decades of repetitious wildlife crime many people are utterly sick of it.
      Not only sick of the crime, but concerned at having poisoners at work. Are we heading in the direction where we will need to have warning signs ” BEWARE – CRIMINALS ARE USING LETHAL POISONS IN THIS AREA (perhaps compulsory signs of that nature in certain places may be no bad thing).

      Why has the SG failed to make a significant advance against the criminals. The legislation and any changes in processes/tactics that may have been implemented has achieved little, if anything.

      There are people at large committing crimes with impunity. They are clearly aware that they are operating in an arena where the risk to them is verging on being non existent.

      What is the exact nature of the relationship between the SG and the relative landowners ?

    2. That’s an interesting thought. Armed wildlife rangers in the Cairngorms. I can just imagine the noise that would come from the SGA and others about that!!!

  4. The Scottish Government has said that will take some time to consult stakeholders and others about the detail of the licencing scheme for grouse moors following the Werritty Report. In the meantime, perhaps it would sharpen minds, if Scottish Government stated that all wildlife crime incidents from the first of January 2021 or some later date would be taken into consideration in future licensing applications made by estates.

    1. This is an excellent idea. The estates are all operating on the assumption that they will automatically be granted a licence in the first instance, whereas in most licencing situations it has to be applied for against a set of qualifying criteria. SG could, for example, make applications subject to ‘credible evidence’ of previous bad practice within the last 5 years. Equally, evidence of good practice could be rewarded subject to evidence.

      SG could then issue different categories of licence where estates that had a track record of suspicious or proven bad practice were issued with ‘provisional’ licences subject to faster and/or harsher penalties were their bad practices continued or deteriorated. As stated elsewhere, the decisons to revoke/remove licences should be risk-based on a balance of probability rather than the criminal burden of proof (beyond reasonable doubt).

      I think if estates realised they might not even get a licence or that their previous record would be taken into consideration it might induce in them now (while we wait for the ‘consultation) the correct degree of what my father used to refer to as ‘rectal tension’!

      1. It would be better if any license was based upon the current ecological ‘health’ of the estate: only estates where the flora and fauna were considered to be ‘improving’ toward their natural carrying capacity – and where water retention and quality were also considered to be improving toward its natural capacity – would qualify for an initial license.

        How many shooting estates would get a license today, based on that?

        1. I suspect that many of us fear that the shooting estates will get their licences one way or another no matter what they do. Means will be found to make that happen just as means have been found to allow it to be that way for decades.
          If licences were made dependent on there being no raptors being found killed on an estate (as some people understandably wish) then that would most certainly fail.
          At some appeal level courts will simply not permit people to be blamed for crimes without actual proof that they were directly responsible (that is why so many gangsters remain at large).

  5. It was very pleasing to read about the recent fine of £600,000 plus costs imposed on Bellway homes for destroying a bat roost at a construction site in Woolwich. OK, so it took 3 years to get there but ended up as the biggest ever fine for wildlife crime in the UK.

    While there are many differences between this and the out of sight poisoning and shooting of raptors, it does give hope that stiffer penalties for the illegal killing and persecution of birds of prey will make the perpetrators think twice (or thrice).

    I know they have to be caught and found guilty first ,but even a couple of prosecutions with really large fines would make the buggers sit up and worry.

    1. It is completely ironic that Bellway Homes should be prosecuted for the destruction of a bat roost when English Nature (as it was then) supported the destruction of a rare colony of thirteen species of bats to make way for a rail supply route for HS2.

      Both English Nature and the Department of Transport opposed my application to the European Court of Justice to have it enforce the EU’s Habitats Directive. The Bat Conservation Trust refused to join my application and, after two years, the European Commission stepped in to block my application to the court. The case was therefore never heard:-(

      Clearly, Bellway Homes do not have the same clout as Network Rail.

  6. I am an ex gamekeeper and know exactly what goes on in shooting estate’s. If the public became aware of there cruel and destructive practises which are normal to the Victorian minded so called sporting gentleman, they would be horrified.

    1. That’s very interesting. Would you be willing to write a guest blog for publication on this site as I think we should all know what really happens ‘beyond our sight’? We’d all be grateful if you did.

    2. Agreed Henry, I think that the “keepers gibbet” should be brought back by law. So instead of stuffing dead things down holes and into stink-pits and flinging corpses into dense forestry out of public sight, Estates should be made to display their collateral damage / predator control by hanging the corpses on the fence at the gates to “The Big House” for all to see. Surely they would not be afraid to show the evidence of the hard work their keepers do to “keep the balance” for the public good?

  7. Alister J Clunas
    December 17, 2020 at 5:01 pm
    wrote :-
    “The Scottish Government has said that will take some time to consult stakeholders and others about the detail of the licencing scheme for grouse moors”

    “will take some time to consult” translates into “will take as long as possible to consult

    1. Indeed Scottish Government have been slow to make a decision on the Werritty Report. Now that this has been achieved, we need to hold Scottish Government to account and prevent further inaction. If estates were informed that any wildlife crimes recorded from say the first of January 2021 would be considered as part of the licence application then it would hold estates to account long before a licencing system was implemented.

      1. I would hope that whether a particular estate receives a license to operate would take into consideration all the previous wildlife crimes recorded on or near land managed by that estate.
        Failure to do this will simply allow the wildlife criminals freedom to continue business as usual.

        In any other industry would a licence to operate be given to any individual or organisation which had consistently demonstrated that it was incapable of running its business within the law?

        The Scottish government needs to consider this new licensing, not from a conservation perspective but from a criminal perspective, and as a tool to tackle serious systemic wildlife abuse committed by criminals working for what can only be described as serious organised crime groups.

        The people who go out with a shotgun or some banned poison with the intention of killing birds of prey are criminals in exactly the same way as is the poacher who goes out to shot a rhino for its horn, or a drug dealer who goes out to shoot a rival gang member due to a turf war.

        The government needs to start using the language of crime rather than the language of conservation when dealing with those involved in raptor persecution.
        Because only when the language of crime is used will the licensing consultation process offer real solutions.

  8. “It’s not often these days that a poisoned sat-tagged raptor is found”, but this is the Tomatin Triangle home to the Untouchables, these XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX.

  9. “What is the exact nature of the relationship between the SG and the relative landowners ?..” asks a comment above…not quite the correct question..it should be why do successive SGs fail to take strong action..I believe the answer lies in both the basis of our Law system and in those applying it at present.Many of our top politicians are trained lawyers, they know that Scots Law is based on ownership, in this case land ownership. We are attacking the built in tenet that a landowner can do [almost] anything he wants on his own land….and then follows the rather more delicate matter of who is applying this Law?; at the present time far too many lawyers, QCs and even judges have a stake, or at least a strong association with game shooting. As the great majority of folk commenting on this site agree, we need big changes in our justice system, from front line investigation to court action and its follow up re licence withdrawal and custodial sentences. I believe the SG remains fearful of kick back in legal terms from the above mentioned interested parties. ..In public and media terms wildlife crime may now be a mainstream issue but the background manipulation of our institutions on this isuue remain mired in an early 20th century or even Victorian condition.

    1. Dave I think you are spot on and would also add that the shooting lobby is deeply entwined with a lot of Establishment figures and top “Sir Humphrey” Civil Servants in the Westminster corridors of power. They still have the power down there of either helping oil the cogs of the SG’s business, or chucking some grit on them instead. I wonder do MP’s & Senior Civil Servants have to record if they have been given Gun-days guesting on the top grouse moors that might otherwise have cost them £5 -£10k?

      1. Spaghum Morose :- “They still have the power down there of either helping oil the cogs of the SG’s business, or chucking some grit on them instead”

        Grit will be OK provided it is the medicated variety (ha! ha!).

        Some of the people in this polluted world of ours are as pure as the driven slush.

  10. xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx These birds are part of our ecology. Grouse Moors are not natural. We could be back in Victorian times xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx and the lack of prosecution is minimal. xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx

    [Ed: Thanks, Lynne, some of your comment has been deleted as it’s libellous]

  11. People have real diffiulty with actual wild animals inhabiting – well really anywhere! Look at how they are about badgers. And here in Australia, wombats often become victims of purposeless killing.

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