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.