Ex-Minister Fergus Ewing’s plans for pine martens explains a lot about Scottish Government’s approach to raptor protection

Fergus Ewing MSP was the Scottish Government’s Rural Cabinet Secretary from 2016-2021 until he was sacked by Nicola Sturgeon in May (see here).

He has long been viewed with suspicion by conservationists, and many would argue justifiably so (e.g. see here, here and check Google for plenty of other reports) although we did manage to get him to condemn ongoing raptor persecution on Scottish grouse moors after pointing out his long silence on this issue (here).

Many have believed that Fergus Ewing was partly responsible for the Scottish Government’s glacial approach to tackling raptor crime, with oft-heard rumours from within Holyrood circles that he and Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham were often at loggerheads over how the Government should respond. I don’t know if those rumours were true or not but I do know that the Government has dragged its feet on this issue for years and years and years (and is still doing so now).

Last week I read a comment piece from Fergus about pine martens, published in The Times, and it did nothing to change my view of what I’d call his dodgy conservation credentials. He can’t expect to be taken seriously when he proposes we should trust the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, GWCT, NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates to carefully manage protected predators, when many of these organisations have either lobbied hard for licences to kill various raptor species perceived to threaten gamebirds and/or lambs, or have repeatedly denied that raptors continue to be killed by criminals within the industry, despite the evidence being clear for all to see.

Here’s what he wrote:

Ask any local farmer, keeper or land manager about the future of the capercaillie and they will talk about the impact of predators upon this bird, whose population in Scotland is under threat. From what I have learnt over two decades as the constituency MSP for much of the Caledonian pine forest, the capercaillie’s preferred habitat, it seems unlikely that the species can survive unless its predators are tackled.

Over the last two decades, millions of pounds of public money and lottery funding have been devoted to saving the caper. But, like other ground-nesting birds such as lapwing and plover, its eggs are breakfast, lunch and dinner for a large variety of predators. In this month’s edition of The Scottish Gamekeeper, there is a photograph of a pine marten holding an egg in its mouth.

Ten years ago the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust proposed a scheme not to control pine martens but to capture and transport them from Strathspey to places without such easy meals. This, sadly, was not approved. I have lodged in the Holyrood Parliament a motion that the Scottish Government and other funding sources must urgently discuss, with the bodies that understand land management best, how to avert the loss of the caper with sustained and effective predator management programmes. Other funding providers include NatureScot, the Cairngorm National Park and the lottery, who have a programme in Carrbridge seeking to preserve the caper.

Who knows what to do? Primarily those closest to the ground – keepers, farmers, crofters and land managers. If the public and funders are willing to trust those with the knowledge – the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates, Scottish Crofting Federation and others – it may be possible to save this species.

If not, then in addition to more than £10 million already spent on the capercaillie without success, any further public money devoted to it will be wasted. Indeed, the eight-figure sum already spent will be seen as ‘the great caper-caper’ as it were, and expose any public bodies who are shown to have ignored practitioner advice to serious criticism and ridicule.


Recently I was shown this photograph of what might also be described as ‘the great caper-caper’ – the result of a capercaillie shoot on a Scottish sporting estate in 1980. It does make me wonder about the motivation of some organisations to ‘save’ the capercaillie. Save them for what? Another shooting party?

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to Fergus’s grand plan for ‘driving out the pine marten’.

He mentioned that he’d lodged a parliamentary motion on this issue but I couldn’t find it listed on the Scottish Parliamentary website.

Fergus will be delighted to learn though, that a new long term strategic recovery plan for pine martens in Britain has just been published by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, funded by NatureScot and Natural England, and it’s a very impressive piece of work.

You can download the report here:

Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single recommendation for ‘driving out the pine marten’ from the Caledonian Forest. Funny that.

What I did read was that the pine marten population is still slowly recovering in Scotland, largely thanks to full legal protection and improved habitat availability, but that the population is still vulnerable. As such, the report authors recommend protecting the integrity of existing populations to promote natural recolonisation and, where appropriate, limiting the removal of individual pine martens for potential translocation and reintroduction projects elsewhere in the UK.

There you are, Fergus. A properly-researched, evidence-based, scientific research report written by actual experts on which to base future discussions about pine marten conservation – far more appropriate than the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s quarterly rag, even though it does have a photo of a pine marten with an egg in its mouth (Shocker! Predator caught eating something!).

24 thoughts on “Ex-Minister Fergus Ewing’s plans for pine martens explains a lot about Scottish Government’s approach to raptor protection”

  1. The only one I have ever seen alive or dead was one shot during a drive on a commercial pheasant shoot, in Scotland. The keeper was shaking his head a bit among us, as either he or the shoot captain had (during the mornings shoot briefing) told the Guns not to shoot them. The custom would probably be that the Gun responsible would pay a token “fine” such as paying for the port after the Party’s evening meal. All good back-slapping stuff, that shows even when you do have the odd well intentioned keeper he is but one atom amidst the mass of pig-ignorance that prevails within the shooting world.

  2. Perhaps Fergus Ewing is more concerned about maintaining his core supporter base, than he is about protecting Scottish wildlife?
    But when the basic salary of a Member of the Scottish Parliament is £64,470, and an additional £48,449 is paid to a cabinet secretary- bringing the grand total to £112,919, then it is a very a very strong inducement not to do the right thing, if doing the right thing could lose votes.

  3. This constant need to ‘control’ wildlife is arrogant and counter intuitive to anyone who looks at the bigger picture.
    Take the human element away and allow nature to breathe.Creature numbers historically ebb and flow. We are not zookeepers.

    1. I am afraid that is ecologically illiterate within the perspective of remnant populations largely overwhelmed by human activity in all its forms ; all management tools have to be considered available and used where appropriate and luckily we do nt have large elephant populations raiding water melon crops and killing farmers at night to peruse our morals with eh ? I might kill for a water melon if all I had ever eaten was acacia and grass ?

      1. Ok so why not kill every animal that is not domesticated and therefore not of any use to the human race? Gamekeepers already did a job on White Tailed Eagles, their job is almost done on the Scottish Wildcat, they all but wiped out the osprey and red kite (but townies got in the way). Add to the list freshwater otters, pine martins, hen harriers etc, then they are nearly there, after which what is the next animal to eradicate,
        All corvids
        All gulls
        All mustelids
        starlings? Because they raid plastic covered hay bails.
        Grey squirrels because you can

        The reason human intervention is necessary is that habit for lots of species is very limited therefore prey is localised and once a predator takes up residence then that’s it. One way around this is to extend and link the areas of suitable habitat so that over time human interference can be scaled back

  4. I haven’t seen the photo of a Pine Marten with an egg in its mouth, but could it have been a ‘set-up’? An egg left out from a domesticated bird where the Marten was bound to find it, with a trail camera in place?

  5. The SG appears to be lacking integrity. They are obviously hellbent on doing as little as they possibly can to fight raptor persecution. Now the shooter’s champion is proposing to “drive out” (kill) a protected species.
    What a perverse mob they are. Protect then kill.
    Pine Martens have successfully spread into some areas. Of course, the usual wildlife persecutors who flood the shooting areas with pheasants and artificially high grouse populations don’t want them (some end up in mink traps etc., ‘by accident’ of course).
    The SG are clearly on the side of the landowning/shooting society, but lack the spine to admit it because it is not what they pretend to be. Being duplicitous inevitably creates problems. Actions are justified by falsehoods which, in turn, have to be supported by more falsehoods in a domino fashion. Eventually, the pheasants come home to roost then one domino topples and the rest follow.

    1. It’s possible that Fergus E’s position on the Landowner wing of the party may not survive the recent influx of young, active, leftist entrants. The essential bond of independence, which once united the party, is fading from view, and supporter numbers are falling.

      Declared interest – former member of the only party I ever joined, trying to be objective.

  6. The obdurate Mayor in the film ‘Jaws’ and Scottish MSP Fergus Ewing sound like they could of been soul mates and would have quite a bit in common me thinks…….

    1. Yes, and when FE eventually tumbles to his situation where he is bobbing about in a sea of trouble he is going to need a bigger boat.

  7. FE conveniently manages to avoid any reference to pine martens being a boon to red squirrel conservation because they eat the grey ones. He also doesn’t mention that caper at Abernethy stopped declining when they stopped shooting foxes (and according to Chris P returning goshawk might be keeping jay numbers at a lower level there). Also no mention of caper and black grouse at Strathspey bucking up when habitat was improved AND pine marten and goshawk moved back into it. I’ve been desperately trying to locate the old Scottish Ornithologist Club newsletter that has the article co-written by a retired gamekeeper where he described the terrible danger snares pose to caper – I’ll post it here once I find it. FE also doesn’t mention that the caper has been left with terribly small and disconnected fragments of the habitat it needs because of the tremendous resistance to getting deer numbers under control and of course they’re called grouse moors, but really they should be called red grouse moors, they’re sweet FA use to caper.

    1. I assume the mesh fences I’ve seen made more conspicuous in strange ways are an attempt to prevent Capers flying into them. As in inclined timber battens, blue rope, and even bright orange geotextile mesh.

      1. Yes that’ll be it, I don’t think any are 100% effective and maybe they can lull people into a sense of false security, but people trying to make the best of a bad situation. The problem is also that the bodies of birds killed by flying into fences might be removed quite quickly by predators so mortality rates are underestimated. There was a research project that involved someone with a bag of dead grouse walking along a span of deer fencing then trying to replicate bird strikes by throwing the dead bird forcefully at the fencing at regular intervals. These were checked later to see how quickly scavengers removed them. I often try and imagine how the person(s) involved in this project described it on their CV.

    2. The control of grey squirrels by pine marten (apparently the poor greys simply go into a depressed funk at the slightest whif of marten knowing their fate is assured) is very important for all native woodland management; they are a pset species but I am curious as to why caper stopped declining when fox control stopped; can you clarify the link if its known ? Your point about the key interest re capercaillie being landscape scale woodland and the impact of Red Deer suppressing regeneration as the key response here is important ?

      1. It’s believed that foxes are major predators of pine martens (which actually spend a lot of time hunting on the ground). So when the RSPB stopped shooting foxes at Abernethy it’s thought they helped cap marten numbers. This was also the feeling at Strathspey – pine marten moved back, but the existing, unsuppressed fox population kept a limit on their numbers too. The more and more pieces of the old jigsaw that get put back together then there’s less and less need for any type of human intervention. Lynx are major predators of foxes so theoretically if they were reintroduced to Scotland and they killed a lot of foxes then marten numbers might increase to a detrimental point for capercaillie. However, research from Europe shows that black grouse and caper do better where there are lynx. At the end of the day we know that capercaillie and curlew and so many other struggling species survived, thrived and evolved alongside a hell of a lot wider range of predators than we have today, they had more and better habitat.

        Re landscape scale reforestation, we’ve been left with pathetically tiny pockets for caper and so much else. Scandinavian conservationists have visited Scotland and are amazed we’ve been able to hang on to the caper at all. Much of that is dying through over grazing. Instead of deer culling deer fencing is often used to allow tree regeneration, but with no grazing you get thickets which aren’t that much better for caper and other woodland wildlife. You can see the same process even in urban areas where loads of small trees in plastic tubes are planted in very small plots – you end up with dreary groups of weedy trees that can’t hold a bird’s nest and with not enough light for ground flora. Bloody depressing. In spite of the huntin, fishin and shootin brigade doing their best to maintain a very caper unfriendly status quo, while blaming its low numbers on the conservation sector – they never mention success as at Strathspey https://forestryandland.gov.scot/blog/success-story-for-capercaillie-in-strathspey, progress is being made with more and more estates making a genuine switch over to nature conservation.

      2. Volunteering for a well-known national charity, though this is my own opinion, I learned about and saw the damage that grey squirrels can do. Essentially, they strip the bark leaving the live wood beneath exposed to rot by bacteria and fungi. They do this to trees with thin bark, beeches and sycamore for example.

        They sit on a side branch and chew the bark on the trunk above, and/or the top of that branch. The damage may be invisible from ground level, and may result in danger to the public.

    3. I finally managed to find the article about caper being killed in snares, page 28 of the SOC June 2001 Journal. – https://www.the-soc.org.uk/files/docs/about-us/publications/scottish-birds/sb-vol22-no01.pdf One of the authors is a retired gamekeeper who had been alarmed by what he’d seen. Given that Fergus believes it’s the people on the ground who really know about capercaillie conservation then I’m sure he’d love to be sent this. I’ll do so, but you know how it is with the internet always the chance it doesn’t get through so maybe everyone else can do this too just to make sure he gets it. Similarly I’m sure Fergus would find this article interesting from other people on the ground who’ve really helped caper, but strangely predator control didn’t figure in it – https://forestryandland.gov.scot/blog/success-story-for-capercaillie-in-strathspey.

  8. So freed fom the shackles of government, good old Fergus has decided to speak his mind. When he was in government…its well known that he was prone to abandon reason…go red in the face…and shout till he got his way.
    You can’t win arguments with the public that way. Carry on Fergus..we see you for what you are.

  9. I just came across this quote in Parkswatch – State of the Cairngorms (3) – Land Falling Apart

    ‘Over the hill in the upper River Dulnain catchment, those high numbers of Red Deer descend the glen when the weather is bad and start feeding off the regenerating Caledonian Pinewood at Kinveachy undermining the work that is being done there to provide more habitat for the capercaillie which once again faces extinction.’


    Funny how Fergus never mentioned this isn’t it?

  10. Did Fergus E not include the RSPB in his suggestion, para 3, ‘with the bodies that understand land management best’? You’d think he’d be aware of their studies at Abernethy.

    1. Yeah Fergus seems to be very selective or somehow he just keeps missing what falls outside of the estate narrative. I’ve tried helping by sending him the email below while copying in my MSP and Nicola Sturgeon, the more that do so the more we can help poor Fergus –

      Dear Fergus,

      I read your recent article in the Times concerning the supposed need to ‘control’ the pine marten to limit its supposed detrimental effect on the seriously endangered capercaillie. You said that it was the testimony of people on the ground, specifically gamekeepers, that needed to be listened to. Given this perhaps you’d like to read the article on page 28 of this journal co-authored by a retired gamekeeper which suggests snares might be more of a danger sb-vol22-no01.pdf (the-soc.org.uk)

      There’s also another article from other ‘people on the ground’ who have had great success in helping the capercaillie, but they have received little attention, perhaps because they specifically did NOT invest in predator control at all, but instead put their efforts into proper habitat management – Success story for Capercaillie in Strathspey – Forestry and Land Scotland

      For myself I wish there was more attention on the far stronger case that the pine marten is helping the red squirrel than it’s threatening the capercaillie -Pine martens: a natural ally – Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (scottishsquirrels.org.uk)

      Regards, Les Wallace

  11. “and I have had a deep frustration over issues like raptor persecution, grouse moors all over Scotland, and what muirburning is doing to the environment.”

    – Part of Cameron McNeish’s comment on leaving the SNP after ten years’ membership. He’s a mountainering journalist, if you don’t recognise his name.

    Article, as archive…


  12. Obviously old [Fergus Ewing] has not lost his ability to talk absolute bovine faeces when it comes to backing his land owning, environment wasting, wildlife persecuting buddies. The fact that he held rural related posts in the Scottish Government for so many damaging years shows just how little the Government knows and cares about what’s left of our natural heritage. I can just hear [Fergus Ewing] and his cull crazy colleagues within the Scottish Government demanding that efforts to protect seals, beavers and mountain hares be nullified by the parallel introduction of licences to continue the carnage. He should have been kicked out of his Ministerial Ivory Tower the day he took action against the proposed ban on exporting days old calves on lengthy journeys to continental veal farms.

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