Why the Invercauld golden eagle killer will evade prosecution

Last week we learned that Police Scotland had conducted a raid, under warrant, of several properties on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park following the discovery of a deliberately-poisoned golden eagle and a number of poisoned baits (see here).

This was headline news on social and mainstream media. For some, judging by the responses I read, the news was shocking. Some people were clearly previously unaware that deliberately laying out poisoned baits to kill birds of prey was even a thing in 21st Century Britain, and that a golden eagle had been killed this way, inside the Cairngorms National Park, the supposed jewel of the UK’s protected areas, was incomprehensible to many.

For those of us all-too familiar with the issue of ongoing illegal raptor persecution on driven grouse moors, the news wasn’t shocking at all. Not one tiny bit. Not even the brazen, blatant criminality involved in this case. We’ve seen it over and over and over again.

And the worst thing about that inevitability is the knowledge that the eagle killer will not be brought to justice. Despite the police’s ability to narrow down the likely perpetrator to one of just a handful of individuals, and despite a shiny new law ramping up the sentence for those convicted, the certainty that justice will not prevail is just about as depressing as knowing that yet another eagle was killed before it even reached its first birthday.

The victim this time was a young male golden eagle who hatched on a nearby estate in 2020. We know this because just prior to fledging last June, researchers at the Scottish Raptor Study Group had ringed him and his sister with a leg band each containing a unique identification code.

[The male golden eagle (on the right) with his sister after being ringed on the nest in June 2020. Photo by SRSG]

His poisoned corpse was found by a member of the public on Friday 19th March 2021. Ironically, this is the day that Scottish gamekeepers were holding an online protest about progress and modernisation (see here).

However, the discovery of this eagle’s corpse wasn’t the first indication of someone committing wildlife crime on Invercauld Estate during the third period of lockdown. A few days earlier a member of the public had stumbled across another poisoned bait nearby and, not knowing what it was, posted a photograph on social media asking if anyone knew what it might be. It was a classic image of a bait totally covered in dead insects – an indication of the toxicity of the poison used.

Fortunately the photo was immediately identified as being worthy of a report to the RSPB, who notified the police, and the bait was collected and sent for analysis. A search of the immediate area didn’t reveal any victims of the poisoned bait.

Several days later the eagle’s corpse was discovered, laying face down on the grouse moor close to an obvious poisoned bait (mountain hare).

[Poisoned golden eagle with poisoned mountain hare bait. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Wildlife crime officers from Police Scotland responded immediately and the eagle’s corpse and the poisoned bait were sent for toxicology tests.

For some reason yet to be explained, Police Scotland did not immediately apply for a warrant to search properties at Invercauld Estate. Given the physical evidence from the scene, and the history of raptor persecution in this area, I would argue that the police had sufficient evidence to apply for a warrant without delay.

But they didn’t.

Instead, they waited for almost seven weeks before conducting a search under warrant, and they conducted this search when there was snow on the ground. It was an utterly pointless exercise because by then the news of this poisoned eagle was out, and had been out for weeks, certainly in game-keepering circles (as evidenced by posts on social media) and shooting industry circles (as evidenced by this post from Scottish Land & Estates, here). The perpetrator(s) had been given all the time in the world to ensure every scrap of evidence was removed before the search party arrived.

Now, it could be that Police Scotland was waiting for the toxicology results to be confirmed prior to applying for a warrant. A positive result would certainly increase the justification for a warrant to be issued, although looking at the crime scene photograph it should have been pretty bloody obvious what had happened and thus sufficiently evidenced to secure a warrant.

Whatever. Hopefully the police’s decision-making process in this case will be reviewed and lessons will be learned because a seven week delay is simply not good enough.

However, we shouldn’t fall in to the trap of believing that had a search been conducted immediately after the discovery of the poisoned eagle, that the perpetrator(s) would have been discovered, charged and prosecuted. It just doesn’t work like that.

Where these crimes are uncovered on massive, privately-owned estates where multiple people are employed, it is virtually impossible for the police to identify the perpetrator with sufficient evidence to charge them. In all the years that golden eagles have been illegally killed in Scotland, there has never once been a successful prosecution. Not one.

Even though large driven grouse shooting estates generally operate with a clear hierarchical structure, where a named person is hired as a ‘beatkeeper’ for a particular part of the estate, and he/she is answerable to the head keeper, when it comes to police interviews we know that ALL the keepers from across the whole estate will either (a) deny that one person has responsibility for a given area or (b) will give ‘no comment’ interviews. This leaves the police with nowhere to go with their investigation.

It’s not the police’s fault – although they suffer the brunt of the public’s frustration when these crimes go unpunished time and time again – it is the fault of ‘the system’, and that is the fault of the politicians for failing to effectively address it. And to some degree, it is our fault for not doing enough to pressurise the politicians to act.

Last November the Scottish Government took its biggest step yet and announced it was to introduce a licensing scheme for grouse shooting, partly to address ongoing environmental concerns about certain aspects of grouse moor management (particularly muirburn and the use of medicated grit) but also to address the issue of the ongoing killing of birds of prey. The discovery of this poisoned golden eagle goes some way to justify the Government’s decision to ignore Werritty’s recommendation to wait for yet another five years before doing anything.

The preparatory work for this licensing scheme should now begin in earnest as the SNP was re-elected last week. It remains to be seen exactly how a licensing scheme will be used to sanction estates where raptor persecution continues – if it’s anything like the Government’s previous attempts to address it (e.g. vicarious liability and General Licence restrictions) then we can expect more of the same atrocities and injustices which will lead campaigners to push for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting as the inevitable next step.

Many of us believe the time for a ban is now, particularly because enforcement of a licensing scheme will be so very difficult unless the Government introduces radical new measures such as unannounced spot checks with specialist detection dogs and the widespread use of covert surveillance equipment by an elite team of specialist investigators, paid for by hefty licence registration fees. It is up to us to push for stringent enforcement powers, increased investigatory powers for the SSPCA and a commitment from Government that if raptor persecution crimes are still evident under the new licensing regime that it will be scrapped and a ban on driven grouse shooting will be introduced with immediate effect. I look forward to seeing who is appointed as the new Environment Cabinet Secretary.

The question is, how any more golden eagles (or white-tailed eagles, buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, goshawks, peregrines, short-eared owls, tawny owls, kestrels, merlins, ospreys, marsh harriers, sparrowhawks etc) will suffer excruciating and savage deaths before the Government finally accepts that enough is enough?

For additional reading, I recommend this latest post from Nick Kempe on the ParkswatchScotland blog (Eagle persecution, land management and the Cairngorms National Park, here).

27 thoughts on “Why the Invercauld golden eagle killer will evade prosecution”

    1. J Law

      Vicarious liability can only be considered when (a) the identity of the person who committed the original offence is known, (b) the police can establish a relationship between the offender and the landowner (or sporting agent etc) and (c) the police can demonstrate that the person they are considering charging with vicarious liability did not know the offence was taking place AND s/he took all reasonable steps AND exercised all due diligence to prevent the offence being committed.

      Please see this blog for more detail on how it works:


  1. A complete ban must be the only way this horror show will ever stop. Too many people are obviously looking the other way or are themselves oblivious to suffering and how most people are disgusted when they read about these things.

  2. Just tragic another bird has needlessly . It shouldn’t matter is it happened on the estate, was carried out by [Ed: rest of comment deleted as libellous]

  3. I accept that it is difficult to get the evidence which would lead to a conviction. However, 7 weeks delay in the search of dwellings is unacceptable and has no doubt hindered or halted the process.
    Until owners of the estates are charged for these crimes or DGS is banned more and more Raptors will suffer and die.
    It’s really quite simple if grouse moor owners are charged with these crimes they will make sure they hire the right people and manage them effectively.

    [Ed: Unless it is made a strict liability offence, it would be unjust to prosecute a grouse moor owner for an offence that s/he may have had no knowledge of, and had taken all due diligence to prevent it from happening. I’m not generally a fan of strict liability in many circumstances, or for joint enterprise, but when there is an ongoing crime wave for which all other legal avenues have failed to address it, then I think it becomes an option for consideration. The Spanish model is working well]

  4. “For some reason yet to be explained, Police Scotland did not immediately apply for a warrant to search properties at Invercauld Estate. Given the physical evidence from the scene, and the history of raptor persecution in this area, I would argue that the police had sufficient evidence to apply for a warrant without delay.
    But they didn’t.
    Instead, they waited for almost seven weeks before conducting a search under warrant, and they conducted this search when there was snow on the ground. It was an utterly pointless exercise because by then the news of this poisoned eagle was out, and had been out for weeks, ……….etc.”

    The current set up is utterly putrid.

    The criminal detection and prosecution failure rate is fixed at near 100% which logically generates a sickening suspicion of the kind that does not need to be defined here because it is self evident.

    What we have is justice ALBAnian mafia style.

  5. I thought that the licensing scheme tying it to the land and by extension the shoot managers or landowners, and the removal of licenses would have concentrated minds [Ed: rest of comment deleted as potentially libellous]

    1. OK, fair enough, although I’m a little puzzled as to what could be potentially libellous, but you know better than me about these things. Cheers, Jill

  6. Why can’t the owner of the estate be held responsible. Have a “the buck stops here policy. Im sure if a few estate owners were imprisoned there would be a rapid drop in cases.

  7. It seems to me that the vicarious liability law, like the Hunting with Hounds Act in England & Wales, has been deliberately set up to be unenforceable. Blair admitted his dishonest manipulation of the Hunting with Hounds Act to make it full of loopholes, presumably it was xxxxxxx who was protecting his landed friends when vicarious liability was introduced.

  8. The police are complicit with quite a lot of wildlife crimes from the poisoning of raptors to turning a blind eye to blatant fox hunting. Even when they have photographic proof nothing gets done. The only way the wildlife act will work is when they totally ban all forms of blood sport. Also the banning of firearms.

  9. Surely the Wildlife Officer should be chivvying the Police to make timely searches for perpetrators. These Officers are often ex The Job and have good working relations with the Force to make their jobs viable.

  10. As Ruth points out, this case highlights the inadequacies in the current wildlife legislation to actually protect wildlife and bring the wildlife criminals to justice.
    The evidence of this is plain for all to see, with repeated crimes and a repeated failure to charge and put offenders before a court.
    I would argue that the failure of politicians to address this issue is because certain wildlife crimes could potentially show the association between some of the rich wealthy landowners or estates, and the criminals they employ to manage their land for game shooting. Whilst this employment of criminals might not be intentional, the necessity to produce artificially high grouse numbers required for DGS will ultimately result in some of those employed to manage the land to resort to criminal behaviour. There is no doubt some of these landowners have great political influence, so could it be that politicians are reluctant to bring about the necessary changes in legislation to enable the police to conduct thorough and robust investigations, fearing it could tarnish the image of people with supposedly high standing in society?
    Politicians aren’t stupid, they know the public are outraged by these crimes, so will pass legislation to make it appear as thought they are acting tough on wildlife crimes -like passing laws to increase sentencing or penalties. But if no one is actually convicted -what good are these tough penalties?

    I would also suggest the proposed Licensing scheme is also another political public relations exercise. It sounds good, but from what I understand there will still be legal tests that will have to be meet before the proposed legislation will actually result in any estate where wildlife crimes are uncovered from actually losing its licence.
    Whilst the burden of proof will be civil (- “on the balance of probabilities”) – this will still give great scope for lawyers to argue whether an estate is culpable for any wildlife offences discovered on land managed by that estate. If it can’t be shown that there is a strong association or circumstantial evidence between the wildlife crimes uncovered and the way the estate is managed, I think we can be sure it will be very difficult to provide sufficient evidence to meet the civil law burden of proof to demand that the estates licence be revoked?
    It will be all too easy for estates to claim they are the victim of the actions of some undiscovered 3rd party who is trying to stop them operating- something we are already seeing with some wildlife crimes.
    The licensing system simply won’t work without a proper functioning investigatory framework.
    Licensing runs all the risk of allowing the status quo to remain, and the illegal slaughter of birds of prey to continue.

    I believe what is needed are much greater investigatory powers for the police and other statuary bodies charged with investigating these crimes. This needs to include covert surveillance, as well as giving wildlife crimes the same legal status as “indicatable crimes”.

    For example, as in this case with the poisoned golden eagle, the flaws in the current system of investigating wildlife crimes can be deduced.
    The police only have to have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, and have reasonable grounds to suspect a suspects involvement in that crime to take action and arrest a suspect. (PACE Sect24 (2))
    As such it could be argued that finding a dead golden eagle next to a dead hare should be sufficient evidence to reasonably suspect that the eagle may have been illegally killed with poison, and an offence committed. This is a common modus operandi to kill raptors; and if other similar crimes have already occurred in that locality then that should simply add weight to the suspicion that the death of this eagle was not natural and most probably the result of foul play.
    As such I fail to understand why there is frequently a delay in waiting for toxicology results before there appears to be any action to identify and apprehend suspects, when the circumstances all suggest an offence may have been committed?
    The suspect xxxxx, (or xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx for that matter if conspiracy to commit the crimes was considered) could then have been arrested under Sect 24 (e) PACE (- to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question, and prevent that person destroying evidence or colluding or making contact with co- suspects or conspirators.) (English law- so the equivalent Scottish law would need to be applied)

    Had indictable investigatory powers also been available to the police, then immediately upon arrest, a Sect 18 search could have been applied for. Which would have immediately allowed the police to enter and search premises occupied or controlled by the suspect where there were reasonable grounds for suspecting that evidence relating to that offence, or to another connected or similar indictable offence might be found. In this case poison. This could be done before the suspect or suspects were even questioned.

    Such actions would have completely negated the time delay between finding the poisoned bird, awaiting toxicology results and applying for search warrants etc. A delay which appears to allow the suspects time to dispose or conceal any incriminating evidence.

    Sect 18 search powers would be in addition to the search powers afforded by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

    Stronger investigatory powers would also have made it possible for the police to examine a suspects mobile phone or other electronic devices to show whether the suspect had been in the vicinity of where the crime had occurred. This is normal practice in the investigation of serious crimes. If there is forensic evidence to put a suspect at the scene of a crime then that is good circumstantial evidence.

    If wildlife criminals are going to be brought to justice, or any DGS licensing scheme is to be effective , then the police need to have all the investigatory powers of indictable offences at their disposal, just as they have with other crimes, and then to use them effectively.
    It also demonstrates why those charged with investigating wildlife crimes not only need to have thorough knowledge of wildlife offences and evidence gathering, but also expert knowledge in managing investigations and suspects. Have the police considered embedding CID detectives in their wildlife crime units to help manage this aspect of an investigation?

    However I do wonder whether due to consistent belittling of the police in the media, have they become frightened of being accused of being heavy handed and disproportionate in how they go about their business. (consider how the media stirred up public resentment towards the police over the Clapham Common vigil arrests, and the Met Commissioner had to come on national media to defend their actions.) There will be many who view wildlife crime as something minor; and this is reflected by the fact that most wildlife offences are tried summarily in a magistrates court rather than at a crown court. So to jump in and arrest suspects before there is concrete proof of a crime could seen by some as the actions of an over zealous police service? Perhaps this is another reason to raise the serious nature of wildlife crimes to that of other indictable offences?

    Whilst I have said much of this before.
    This really isn’t rocket science, and by providing the police with more robust investigatory powers, they might actually have a chance of bringing offenders to justice.
    However, I suspect politicians will be reluctant to consider these issues because it puts them on potential collision course with those with wealth, land and political influence who do not want the current status quo regarding game bird shooting upsetting. So instead we will see words of condemnation for the crimes, tougher penalties for those convicted, but nothing to actually help the police bring about those convictions. It seems to me to be nothing more than an exercise in damage limitation by the politicians.

    As Ruth identifies the system isn’t working, and is failing to protect some of most valuable and endangered species.
    We must also never forget that the wildlife which is being illegally killed, often suffers greatly in the process. These are living sentient beings that feel pain and hurt. This fact has been recognised by parliament. So to fail to protect these vulnerable, valuable and endangered creatures from suffering at the hands of some very evil people is totally unacceptable.

    Apologies for the length of this, but I wanted to add support to what Ruth has said.

  11. Lordy – it must be bad if Nick Kempe is falling on this side of the fence!
    (partly in jest, but he has been very circumspect over the years.)

  12. Seven weeks? Jesus Christ.
    Imagine if this was child protection and there was a seven week delay in investigation.
    There would be a national outcry, a national inquiry and someone on high resigning.
    Absolute and utter scandal!

  13. Criminality will continue to thrive unless landowners are made responsible ( and liable) for criminality under their management . Something comparable with the “Use – Cause and Permit” legislation for fleets of vehicles!
    Not only the driver of an illegal HGV can be prosecuted, but also the fleet manager or owner may be prosecuted for causing or permitting the illegal use of the vehicle …. there IS an answer IF there is the will to do it. Sanctions should include confiscation of property comparable with the proceeds of crime legislation!

  14. Rather than keep trying and getting nowhere, the law should remove the abilities to commit the crime, Drug dealers loose assets. Estate owners should loose land . A sliding scale of punishments.

    1. I suggest the law’s should start gently, with removal of grants and going on, if continued, to thorough investigation of taxation status, with the intension of applying pressure with little room for appeal, and no grounds for support from other estates.

      1. Hi Sog. Like many people concerned with these things I think a lot about ‘what should be done’. You say ‘start gently’ which is reasonable and it is what I used to think. I have changed in the last 2 or 3 yrs because the Estates Owners and Agents (more so than the keepers) are 90% of the time not reasonable people, they will view ‘starting gently’ simply as weakness. I now say ‘ban the lot’ and make each Estate apply for a permit to kill or take, say 2000 grouse, 2000 pheasants, 50 deer, 10 foxes, 50 crows, etc, etc over a given area of land per year. And to state the ecological and/or business needs(s) to justify it. Oh, and they will have to pay a regulatory fee for these permits which covers wages for regional rangers to monitor the effects of the permit. Just my thoughts.

  15. On May 11 at 1130 SOG posted:-

    “I suggest the law’s should start gently, with removal of grants and going on, if continued, to thorough investigation of taxation status, with the intension of applying pressure with little room for appeal, and no grounds for support from other estates.”

    That will never see the light of day.

    I had best whisper this as we don’t want anyone to notice.

    The Gov. does not want to do anything to hurt those who are the driving force behind all the crime. That is how we have ended up with decades loads of legislation that appears (to the public) to be useful, but achieves damned little (could it also be why criminal investigations almost invariably lead into blind alleys – think about it !)

    Just ask yourself why this state of affairs exists. In theory any legislation can be created (and could have been donkeys years ago), but it never will because the Gov. does not want it to happen.

    Why will the Gov. not go for the people & money at the root of the problem. There has to be a reason for that, but it is kept secret (we can but imagine).

  16. I wonder if there is some sort of public liability issue with illegal poison placed on estate land to which the public have access. Perhaps someone (the RSPB perhaps) might weite to NFU insurance with such a question?

  17. It’s quite clear the government doesn’t want to change the status quo. I think we’ve now come to a point that the estates which had reduced or stopped raptor persecution will see the xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx as a sign they can resume the depravity themselves without fear of any prosecution or meaningful sanctions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s