Poisoned golden eagle: will a General Licence restriction now be imposed on Invercauld Estate?

Earlier this month it was reported that police had conducted a raid, under warrant, on several properties on the Invercauld Estate following the discovery in March of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and some poisoned bait (see here).

I’ve since blogged about why I think the golden eagle killer will evade criminal prosecution (see here) and a little bit about NatureScot making noises about considering a potential General Licence restriction on this estate (see here). A General Licence restriction is nowhere near as serious as a criminal prosecution but it is, in the words of former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse who worked hard to get this apparent sanction introduced, a ‘reputational driver’ (see here).

It’s my view that a General Licence restriction is long overdue here, given the history of alleged wildlife crime offences, and a blog that was published yesterday has further strengthened that view, of which more in a minute.

This area around Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park has been at the centre of a number of alleged wildlife crime offences over many years.

[Estate boundaries based on data from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]

There was the discovery of three poisoned buzzards on Invercauld Estate in 2005 (here), the discovery of an illegally shot peregrine at the Pass of Ballater in 2011, the reported coordinated hunt and subsequent shooting of an adult hen harrier at Glen Gairn on the border of Invercauld and Dinnet Estates in 2013, the illegally-set traps that were found near Geallaig Hill on Invercauld Estate in 2016, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Calluna ‘on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater’ on 12 August 2017, the opening day of the grouse shooting season (here) although it’s not clear whether this was on Invercauld Estate or neighbouring Dinnet Estate, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged white-tailed eagle ‘Blue T’ on Invercauld Estate in May 2018 (see here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Stelmaria ‘last recorded on grouse moor a few miles north west of Ballater, Aberdeenshire on 3rd September 2018 (see here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier (Wildland 2) on Invercauld Estate on 24 September 2019 (here) and now the discovery of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and poisonous baits on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in March 2021 (see here).

The suspicious disappearance of three satellite-tagged hen harriers and one white-tailed eagle in one small area managed for driven grouse shooting should raise lots of eyebrows given the unequivocal scientific pattern that has been identified for such occurrences (e.g. see here and here) and especially in an area where the alleged hunting and subsequent shooting of a hen harrier was witnessed and reported several years earlier.

However, according to NatureScot’s current Framework for how it makes decisions on whether to impose a General Licence restriction, the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged raptor is not, in itself, considered sufficient evidence, even when there’s an emerging pattern in one particular area:

Unexplained ‘stopped no-malfunction’ satellite tags may be considered by NatureScot as supporting information in making a decision, particularly where multiple losses have occurred on the same land. However such instances will not be considered as evidence under the terms of this Framework unless recorded as a crime by Police Scotland‘.

The most significant, and indeed tangible, wildlife crime incident that could be linked to Invercauld Estate was the discovery of illegally-set traps on the estate in 2016, which led to the horrific suffering of a Common Gull whose legs were caught in two of the traps (see here).

[Photo of the Common Gull after being released from the traps. Photo by Graeme Rose]

Long-term blog readers may recall this incident and the farcical non-existent enforcement measures that ensued. The SSPCA attended in the first instance and had to euthanise the gull due to the extent of its injuries but because of their ridiculously restricted investigatory powers, they were not permitted to search the area for more traps – this had to be done by the police, who conducted a search several days later where it was discovered that other traps (i.e. evidence of potential crime) had been recently removed prior to the police search (here).

Then there was an odd statement of denial from Invercauld Estate, bizarrely issued by the GWCT on behalf of the estate (a strange activity for a so-called independent wildlife conservation charity, see here) and incidentally, this denial is not that dissimilar to the one we saw recently from the estate in relation to the deliberately poisoned golden eagle – see here.

I challenged the estate’s claim that Police Scotland had not found any evidence of illegal activity back in 2016 and Police Scotland issued a statement in response (see here).

I then submitted a series of FoIs that revealed what looked like some very odd goings on between the estate, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Scottish Government, which resulted in ‘secret action‘ apparently being taken against a gamekeeper but no prosecution followed, and nor did NatureScot impose a General Licence restriction for this incident (and NatureScot has refused to discuss its decision saying ‘it’s not in the public interest‘ to tell us).

I did wonder whether NatureScot had not imposed a General Licence restriction due to a technical issue – the fact that the SSPCA, not the police, attended the scene and found the evidence of the illegally-trapped gull. If you look again at NatureScot’s Framework for decision-making on restrictions, it says that evidence must be provided by the police. It doesn’t say anything about evidence from the SSPCA being acceptable. I hope I’m wrong on that because as a statutory reporting agency, the SSPCA’s evidence should be considered just as robust as any evidence put forward by Police Scotland – I’ll check with NatureScot about it.

However, yesterday a blog was published on the excellent ParksWatchScotland blog, written by Graeme Rose, one of the guys who had actually found the critically-injured gull on Invercauld Estate in 2016. It’s a harrowing tale, but it’s incredibly enlightening in that he pursued the enforcement authorities for several years after the incident and by doing so uncovered all sorts of shenanigans. He says he received a text in July 2020 from the former Convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority who told him that a gamekeeper had indeed ‘been let go’ after the gull incident in 2016, despite the estate’s protestations at the time that any offence had even taken place. I believe this is the information that was deliberately redacted by the CNPA and the Scottish Government when I’d asked them about it in those FoIs.

What a pitiful state of affairs.

Will we see anything different in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle? Well, we’ve already seen that Invercauld Estate has ‘left’ the Eastern Cairngorms Moorland Partnership, although there was absolutely zero indication whether the estate was expelled or left of its own accord (see here) so it looks like the Cairngorms National Park Authority is staying true to form and not wanting to be explicit about any action that may or may not have been taken. Why is that, do you think? Could it be anything to do with who sits on the CNPA’s Board? There are some interesting characters with some interesting connections to the grouse-shooting world, and even to Invercauld Estate itself.

And what about NatureScot and its deliberations about whether there is sufficient justification for a General Licence restriction on Invercauld Estate? That’s going to be VERY interesting and is something I’ll definitely be tracking. Watch this space.

19 thoughts on “Poisoned golden eagle: will a General Licence restriction now be imposed on Invercauld Estate?”

  1. [Ed: Thanks Peter but I’m not prepared to publish that – it’s potentially libellous]

  2. Thanks again for your reporting on the machinations around Invercauld Estate, CNPA and NatureScot, clearly laying out that tale of woe is quite and achievement. My blood boils with every raptor loss but the account of the actions and lack of actions of those organisations involved is far far worse and I fear that, with the powers that be colluding and avoiding their duty, it will lead to others taking on themselves to act.

  3. It was a quote from the internet and Wikipedia.

    [Ed: With additional commentary from you, implicating named individuals with criminal activity on this estate]

  4. Interesting that one of the Cairngorm National Park Councilors, xxxxx xxxxx has a son who is a gamekeeper on Invercaull.

  5. The area is awash with grouse moor lickspittles…..beaters, picker-uppers and retired keepers…all of whom stand to make a few pennies on shoot days. How does the law police the actions of these people? The only reealistic way to catch these criminals is through the use of covert cameras and monitoring.
    Thank goodness, SLE who represent the “people with nothing to hide”, fully support the use of independant monitoring and covert cameras……of course they dont!
    But it would really help xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx if they stopped campaigning against it and welcomed it as a way of protecting their best interests….. if they were interested?

  6. The only conclusion possible is that a variety of people are colluding in covering up criminal offences. I think this would be classed as conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It is interesting as while the Scottish tourism industry sells Scotland as being a wildlife haven, the reality is some of the wildlife is persecuted and killed frequently.

  7. While fully behind getting the General Licence removed from any given Estate where wrongdoing is demonstrable, I ask myself to what extent will it stop the xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Unless the regulatory body follows up their action by sending enforcement people to keep an eye on them, for example at 3am to 6am in the summer, and search for baits, traps and snares etc , then to me it is just an (albeit politically meaningful) paper exercise. Predatory birds and mammals of all types will still be getting nailed.

  8. What really sickens me is the web of lies, deceit, coverups, collusion and dishonesty surrounding raptor persecution, and then the failure of the authorities / politicians to tackle this.
    The places where raptor persecution takes place are not vast urban areas with large populations where the perpetrators can simply disappear or never be identified.
    The majority of raptor persecution incidents take place in remote areas with a very small rural population. Of that small population those with the “means, motive and opportunity” to commit the crimes can usually be readily identified.
    It is a very small number of people responsible for these crimes.
    I strongly suspect there is no real commitment by the authorities to go after these people, or those who employ them.
    If these were crimes committed against “vulnerable innocent people” the failure of the police, authorities and politicians to bring those responsible to justice would be shouted loudly from the roof tops, and heads would be made to hang in shame.
    The fact we live in a society where landowners and estates can employ people who are suspected of managing the land in a way which is not only detrimental to so much wildlife, but also where illegal activity is also suspected of taking place, shows just how rotten the whole system is. Why isn’t there contract law in these circumstances requiring an employer to actively assist the police in their investigations into wildlife crimes, and where a failure of the employer to put in place working practices to help identify offenders is an offence in its own right. This might just stop the the current impasse of not being able to identify who was responsible for managing a certain area of land where a crime has been discovered. (in most factories and industrial settings it is possible to identify individual machine operators!)
    What makes this even worse is the fear that potential witnesses on many estates feel about speaking out or assisting the authorities bring these criminals to justice. The threat of eviction or job loss must loom large in many peoples minds, and this no doubt helps creates the wall of silence which greets so many raptor persecution investigations.
    Revoking a General Licence is pretty meaningless. Whilst this might be seen as a statement by the authorities, in reality it changes very little. Who is going to go out onto an estate and observe whether the conditions of a GL are actually being observed? As far as I can tell the current conditions of the GL scheme are not properly monitored- how many Jackdaws have died this Spring caught in crow traps set on grouse moors, how many wild birds not on the list of permitted to be killed have been shot? The number of raptors found with old pellet wounds suggest this number may be considerable.
    Why do we have Stewardship schemes which provides public funding to estates for conservation work, but where there is no immediate revocation of that funding, and a requirement to pay back previous funding, if illegal activity is suspected or identified?
    It all has a whiff of a system which wants to pretend to be doing something, but in reality is doing very little.
    There is a real risk that unless the politicians and authorities get a grip and bring those responsible for wildlife crimes to justice, that public confidence will be lost.
    This could eventually lead to a rise in “animal rights extremist” type activity.
    Many estates already report damage to legally set traps etc, and occasionally there is disruption to shoot days.
    If this failure to bring the raptor persecution criminals to justice continues, and there is a perception of collusion between the authorities and criminals, then there is every possibility that such animal rights activity could escalate; with normally law abiding people taking the law into their own hands to commit criminal acts which they ordinarily would never dream of committing; but feel compelled to do when they see the items associated with wildlife persecution littering the countryside, knowing that behind this are even worse atrocities being committed against endangered and supposedly protected species.
    Many people will view the failure of National Parks Authorities to tackle wildlife crime within the park as a complete abdication of their responsibility. If the Park Authority won’t tackle the crimes, then who will?
    It should be a wake up call to government and those in authority when ordinary people feel morally compelled to act or take the law into their own hands, because the law and those charged with upholding it have failed to protect what it should.
    There has been a lot of media exposure regarding the illegal drug trade in this country, and the efforts of the police and authorities to go after not only the low level street dealers, but also the drugs lords who are behind the production and importation of what is a financially lucrative business.
    I just wish this level of motivation, and zeal by the authorities, and national mainstream media exposure of the crimes would be applied to the raptor persecution criminals and those who support them.

  9. Is there any answer to the ‘not in the public interest’ escape clause? If enough people were motivated to express an opinion, perhaps via the RSPB, could it be reversed?

  10. It ‘appears’ that there has been a history of collusion and dare I say corruption between statutory agencies and xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Will we ever get justice for our Raptors? We will surely have to take matters into our own hands if this Raptor killing doesn’t cease and the statutory agencies don’t properly investigate and secure convictions

  11. All one can say is that NatureScot are not interested in punishing estates for continual criminal behaviour unless they are absolutely forced into acting. Instead of using police charges, i.e. the criminal burden of proof, they should be using the civil burden of proof, i.e. most probable.

    This is why, given the necessary ban is not going to happen, licensing needs to be introduced with an independent adjudication panel, not the compromised CPFS or NatureScot, whose failures are legion and imply, at worst, corruption / collusion and at best indifference / incompetence.

    1. Personally, I think that the cause of a lot of the inaction by the Scottish Government can be laid at the feet of a single SNP MSP. . I do hope they are not permitted to continue in the post they held before the election.

  12. It might be worth looking at whether any gamekeepers have been “let go” after this recent incident. “Letting go” of one or more keepers, who will no doubt be given the relevant references to help them find another position, would certainly go a long way to helping ensure that licences for other individuals will be forthcoming — and thus, of course, avoiding any real hassle for the Shooting estate.

  13. What about if we just started a public campaign to bring all estates inside National Parks under public ownership (and rewild like Mar) .,.. if we focus on public opinion demanding that there shouldn’t be any of this going on within a National Park, that might get folks behind it …. why would we allow any of this inside our parks ??? maybe threatening them with the court of public opinion forcing MSP’s along this path might have more effect ???

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