Ben Macpherson is latest Environment Minister after reshuffle

Scottish Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon has been appointed as Public Health Minister, to replace Joe Fitzpatrick who resigned last week.

As Mairi moves on, the new Environment Minister (or Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, to be precise) is Ben Macpherson, who moves from another Ministerial role in to this new position.

[Photo from website]

The Scottish Government website has posted this bio:

Ben grew up in Edinburgh before studying a BA Honours degree in Philosophy and Politics at the University of York. After graduating he returned to Edinburgh and worked in a number of different roles before going on to complete a postgraduate LLB and a Diploma in Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh. He then qualified as a solicitor and practised as a lawyer with one of Scotland’s large commercial firms. As well as his legal training, Ben has worked in financial services, for an NGO, in renewable energy, in a school and in hospitality.

Throughout his career, Ben has been a committed political activist. In 2016 this culminated in being elected as the MSP for the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency, where he lives.

As a backbencher, Ben has previously served on the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee, Justice Committee and Sub-Committee on Policing. He was also a Parliamentary Liaison Officer to the First Minster between 2016-2018. In June 2018 he was appointed as Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development in the Scottish Government, before moving in February 2020 to his current role as Minister for Public Finance and Migration.

He is a committed internationalist and passionate about social justice and sustainable, inclusive economic progress. Beyond working and campaigning, Ben likes running, football and watching films and documentaries.

The news of Ben’s appointment was met with undisguised fury by some in the game shooting sector, who began hurling personal abuse at him on social media for, er, living in Edinburgh. Fortunately this foul vitriol was diluted somewhat by the warm welcome he received from many in the conservation sector.

This junior ministerial position is still overseen by Cabinet Secs Roseanna Cunningham (Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform) and Fergus Ewing (Rural Economy & Tourism). Roseanna is not standing for the 2021 election so there’ll be another new face for this portfolio in May, unless an old face returns…..

Paul Wheelhouse for Cabinet Secretary would be a bit of a result if the SNP retain power. A thoroughly decent guy with plenty of Ministerial experience, including a period as Environment Minister (2012-2014), where he was particularly active on pushing forward measures to combat illegal raptor persecution (e.g. general licence restrictions, wildlife crime sentencing review, instructions to Crown Office to utilise all enforcement tools available, review on gamebird management in European countries).

After the Scottish Government’s landmark decision last month (here) to finally introduce a licensing scheme for grouse shooting as soon as possible in the next Parliamentary session, assuming they are re-elected, there are interesting times ahead as the details of this scheme are still to be thrashed out.

Hen harriers doing well on Mar Lodge Estate but what happens when they leave?

Back in 2016, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was celebrating the rare success of a hen harrier breeding attempt on the Mar Lodge Estate, the first such success for decades (see here).

[A young hen harrier fitted with a satellite tag on Mar Lodge Estate in 2016. Photo by Shaila Rao]

The NTS has just published an update on the return of hen harriers to Mar Lodge Estate, detailing further breeding successes in each year since (see here).

This is really, really encouraging news, but it’s only half of the story. Breeding success is meaningless if survival rates are low, and they are low, very low. The most recent national survey of hen harriers in Scotland, conducted in 2016, documented a 9% decline since the previous survey in 2010. It was the second successive decline in the Scottish hen harrier population revealed by national surveys, signalling a worrying trend. In the longer term, over a period of just 12 years, the number of breeding pairs had dropped by 27% in Scotland (see here). Illegal persecution connected to driven grouse moor management is widely acknowledged as being the most significant threat to this species’ conservation, not just in Scotland but across the UK (e.g. see here).

The NTS blog recognises this and states:

However, it’s not all good news. The success of hen harrier breeding at Mar Lodge Estate led to us being involved in the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project and through this 14 harrier chicks from Mar Lodge Estate were satellite-tagged between 2016 and 2020. But of these 14 chicks, only one still survives in 2020 – a female named Tamara, who spends much of her time in Perthshire. Eight of the satellite tags stopped suddenly, with no trace of a bird or body found, raising suspicions of possible foul play‘.

Some of those young birds satellite-tagged at Mar Lodge didn’t even make it out of the Cairngorms National Park, ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances on driven grouse moors – e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, joining a growing list of other sat-tagged hen harriers that have vanished or been found dead there (e.g. see here, here, here, here). Such is the extent of this issue, the Cairngorms National Park Authority has had to publish statements that illegal persecution continues to be a problem (e.g. see here).

Some of those young birds from the Mar Lodge Estate feature on the grim list of 45 hen harriers ‘missing’ or confirmed illegally killed in the UK since 2018 – see here. I’m led to believe that this list is now out of date (see here).

Marsh harriers breed in Ireland for the first time in a century

Press release from Irish Raptor Study Group (15 December 2020)

Rare Marsh Harriers breed in Ireland for the first time in a century

The Irish Raptor Study Group, a voluntary organisation committed to the conservation of birds of prey, is delighted to confirm that two pairs of Marsh Harrier Cromán móna (Irish name) have successfully bred in Ireland in 2020. The Marsh Harrier was last known to have bred in the Republic of Ireland around 1917. The two pairs were confirmed from Co. Galway and Co. Westmeath with both pairs successfully fledging two young.

[Marsh harrier, photo by Markus Varesvuo]

The Marsh Harrier is a large and dark coloured bird of prey with a long tail and light flight with wings held in a shallow ‘V’. Adult males have smoky grey tails and wings with chestnut belly and shoulders, while females are dark brown with a creamy head crown. Marsh Harrier can be found on open freshwater wetlands and extensive reedbeds, selecting to nest on piles of reeds surrounded by dense marshy vegetation. Marsh Harrier is a generalist wetland predator with a mostly aquatic diet including small birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Marsh Harrier were adversely affected by prolonged persecution and widespread wetland/fen destruction during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Approximately 80% of the original extent of fens in the Republic of Ireland has been lost to drainage for peat extraction and reclamation for agricultural land. The cumulative impact of wetland loss due to the Arterial Drainage Act 1945 and the preparatory drainage across bogs in Galway and Roscommon for energy production by Bord na Mona from 1946 limited any real prospect of Marsh Harriers returning in Ireland.

Marsh Harriers are scarce summer visitors to Ireland but more likely to be seen in winter along the south east coast. The last 20 years has seen the recovery of the breeding population of Marsh Harrier along the east and south eastern coastal band of England to more than c.430 breeding pairs. The steady population recovery elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, has almost certainly assisted the current increase in England, with a spill over of individuals into Ireland. However, the scale of habitat loss in Ireland may make recolonisation of breeding Marsh Harrier a very slow process.

The Marsh Harrier, like the Eurasian Crane Corr*, Osprey Iascaire Coirneach* and the Bittern An Bonnán Buí* is one of our lost wetland treasures. Recent ambition within our Programme for Government to rehabilitate and re-wet peatlands provides an amazing opportunity for ecological restoration. Both the €108 million funding for Bord na Móna rehabilitation plan and the European Innovation Partnerships Initiative (EIP) on the rewetting of farmed peatlands are strategic actions contributing to the governments climate change mitigation, however they also provide the chance to maximise other ecosystem service co-benefits such as protection of biodiversity and benefit our rare wetland species. These initiatives could also foster opportunities for re-establishing and/or reintroducing the Crane and Bittern.

*Irish name


Andy Wightman MSP resigns from Scottish Greens

Andy Wightman MSP has resigned from the Scottish Greens as of today.

His letter of resignation, including his reasons for leaving, can be read here.

[Andy with golden eagle ‘Adam’, who later disappeared in suspicious circumstances on a grouse moor in Strathbraan (here). Photo by Ruth Tingay]

It’s reported in a number of papers (e.g. here) that he hasn’t ruled out standing as an independent, standing for another party, or indeed re-joining the Scottish Greens.

Andy has been a massive supporter of this blog right from the very early years and has been involved in addressing the issues highlighted on here in both a personal and professional capacity. I’m privileged to have worked with him on a number of platforms and look forward to finding new opportunities to continue.

UPDATE 28th February 2021: Andy Wightman to stand as Independent candidate for Highlands and Islands (here)

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)

Poisoned red kite found on Scottish grouse moor

Press release from Police Scotland (16th December 2020)

Appeal for information – poisoned bird of prey – Ruthven, Moy

Police Scotland has confirmed that a red kite found dead in the Ruthven area in October, had been poisoned with a banned pesticide.

[A poisoned red kite, photo by Marc Ruddock. NB: Not the poisoned red kite in this particular incident]

Further searches were carried out yesterday (15 December) with partner agency RSPB on hill ground near Meall a’ Bhreacraibh and Ruthven, Moy, in the northern Monadliath mountains.

No further poisoned raprtors or animals were identified.

Police Constable Daniel Sutherland, Highlands and Islands Wildlife crime Liaison officer, said:

Traces of a banned pesticide have been detected in a Red kite found in the area. This incident is sadly another example of where a bird of prey has been killed through ingestion of an illegally held poison.

I strongly urge anyone within the local and wider community to come forward with details on any information about this incident.”

Following consultation with the Scottish Government Rural Payments Directorate and the Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), Police Scotland requests members of the public and any dog walkers to be cautious when walking in the surrounding area and the immediate vicinity. 

Anybody who has information about this incident, banned pesticide possession or misuse, or other information relating to raptor persecution please contact Police Scotland on 101 or pass on information anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.


This is a very good response from Police Scotland – a press release out the day after the police search and a clear warning to the public to be cautious in this area, especially if walking with dogs. The name of the banned poison isn’t given, probably for investigative purposes, but by telling the public it’s a banned poison we know it’s one of eight highly toxic pesticides (or perhaps a combination) listed on the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order 2005, which are Aldicarb, Alphachloralose, Aluminium phosphide,  Bendiocarb, Carbofuran, Mevinphos, Sodium cyanide and Strychnine.

Now, about the location. According to Andy Wightman’s excellent Who Owns Scotland website, the area of land mentioned in the police press release is part of the Moy Estate in the northern Monadhliaths. Or at least it was when Andy compiled his data – it’s possible, of course, that there have since been boundary changes.

Regular blog readers will be familiar with the Moy area. Moy Estate was raided by police ten years ago after the discovery of poisoned bait and dead raptors and illegally set traps. A gamekeeper was later convicted of possession of a red kite after its bloodied corpse was found in the back of his vehicle. It had two broken legs and a head injury. A bloodied shinty stick was also found in the back of the vehicle.

The remains of two further red kites were discovered on the moor, including a severed red kite leg and some wing tags that had previously been fitted to a kite, all found buried in holes under some moss. A jar in one of the gamekeeper’s houses contained the leg rings of four young golden eagles – nobody could account for how they had ended up inside that jar. A live hen harrier was found caught by its leg in an illegally-set spring trap. It survived after being rescued by raptor workers.

No further charges were brought against anyone for any of the offences uncovered at Moy.

In 2016 Police Scotland issued an appeal for information following the discovery of disturbed and abandoned buzzard and goshawk nests in the Moy Forest. One goshawk and four buzzard nests were abandoned in suspicious circumstances, with some evidence of illegal disturbance. These nests were being monitored by staff from Forestry Enterprise Scotland. No charges were brought.

For previous blogs on Moy see here.

I would imagine, after this latest discovery, that Ministers in the Scottish Government who recently decided to press on with the introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse shooting estates, despite cries of ‘It’s unnecessary regulation!‘ and ‘It’s all so unfair!‘ from the shooting industry, can today feel vindicated that their decision was the right one.

They now need to get on with it and get it implemented ASAP, because this latest victim is evidence that raptor persecution continues, despite all the denials routinely chuntered out by the so-called leaders in the game shooting industry.

UPDATE 17 December 2020: Poisoned red kite found dead on Scottish grouse moor – an interesting police investigation (here)

Man guilty of wildlife crime offences against red kites & a badger

Article from the South Wales Argus (13th December 2020)

Caerphilly man found guilty of hunting and killing badger

A MAN is facing a prison sentence after he was convicted after a trial of hunting and killing a badger.

Dewi James Price, 39, of Commercial Street, New Tredegar, Caerphilly, was also found guilty of offences against red kites.

He had denied the charges during a trial at Newport Magistrates’ Court.

[Photo of red kite by Gareth Scanlon]

Price was found guilty of killing a badger in the Builth Wells area of Powys on February 18, 2018.

The defendant was also convicted of taking a red kite in Gelligaer, Caerphilly, on May 19, 2019.

He was also found guilty of intentionally or recklessly disturbing a red kite while it was in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young and of intentionally or recklessly disturbing the dependent young of a red kite.

Price’s case sentence was adjourned and is due to take place at Newport Crown Court on December 23.

He was granted conditional bail.


UPDATE 7 January 2021: Sentencing delay for man convicted of offences against badger and red kites (here)

UPDATE 13 February 2022: Badger killer and red kite chick thief avoids prison (here)

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)

Some blogs of interest (1)

Readers of this blog might find these other blogs of interest.

RSPB Scotland: Reflecting on Scottish Government’s announcement of plans to licence grouse shooting (here)

ParksWatchScotland: How will the Scottish Government’s proposals for grouse moors affect the Cairngorms? (here)

Dr Hugh Webster: White hares & red herrings – a look at the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s proposal to translocate mountain hares from grouse moors to, er, elsewhere (here)

Parkswatch Scotland: Muirburn and environmental destruction in the Cairngorms – Glen Callater and the Invercauld Estate (here)

Parkswatch Scotland: Prince Charles and conservation in the Cairngorms National Park (here)

Guy Shrubsole (guest blog for Inkcap newsletter): The Queen must rewild Balmoral (here)

Martin Harper: Good news and a challenge for a Friday about burning of vegetation on peatlands (here)

Alan Stewart: Timeline of wildlife legislation in Scotland (here)

Colin MacLennan (guest blog for Mark Avery): My Decathlon petition (here)

Trees for Life: Legal challenge to protect beavers in Scotland (here)

Red kite killed in barbaric illegal trap on pheasant-shooting estate – no prosecution

A red kite suffered a brutal and agonizing death when it was caught in a barbaric illegal trap at a pheasant-release pen on an unnamed Berkshire shooting estate in August 2020.

A member of the public found the dead kite, hanging upside down with its legs caught in a pole trap, a cruel device that has been outlawed since 1904.

[Red kite hanging dead in an illegal pole trap on a Berkshire shooting estate. Photos via RSPB].

The member of the public reported the incident to the estate (please note – if you find something like this report it to the police and the RSPB, straight away). A gamekeeper was reportedly abusive and threatening in response.

The incident was reported to the RSPB a couple of days later, who contacted Thames Valley Police. Fortunately in this instance, senior estate officials had already reported the crime to the police and had instructed the gamekeeper to retrieve the dead kite and the illegal trap.

The gamekeeper was interviewed and denied setting the trap on his pheasant pen and claimed it was ‘a set-up’.

There appears to be insufficient evidence to progress a prosecution.

For further details of this horrific crime, and the ongoing difficulty of securing sufficient evidence for a prosecution, please see the RSPB Investigations Team’s blog here.