Update on raptor persecution investigations in Scotland from National Wildlife Crime Unit

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club’s (SOC) virtual annual conference. One of the speakers I was keen to hear was PC Gavin Ross, an Investigative Support Officer at the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU).

Gavin is the ISO for Scotland and has been in post for a year (see here).

His presentation opened with an explanation of the differences between the NWCU and Police Scotland (essentially the NWCU is an intelligence gathering unit but it also has other functions, particularly supporting the police with wildlife crime investigations). He went on to describe the seven national wildlife crime priorities and the importance of partnership-working in tackling wildlife crime. In fact he mentioned the importance of partnership-working quite a few times and encouraged attendees to report anything suspicious as this information all helps to build an intelligence portfolio around certain areas and individuals.

The subject of raptor persecution was prominent in this presentation, as you might expect for an audience with the SOC.

We learned that this year alone there had been police enquiries into the death and /or disappearance of 14 eagles: 11 golden eagles and 3 white-tailed eagles. It was emphasised that as only a small proportion of eagles are tagged, this figure was likely the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Six of the 14 investigations related to satellite-tagged birds (whose tags had stopped suddenly without any indication of a technical malfunction, and are therefore considered suspicious).

Two of the 14 investigations are considered ‘historical’ in that they relate to the discovery of items (tags!) that had been cut off eagles and dumped in a river or a loch in previous years (e.g. see here and here for previous examples of this).

As these are ongoing investigations much of the detail was redacted from the presentation. That’s fair enough for a while, to protect the integrity of the investigations, but I hope Police Scotland will be publicising the circumstances of these incidents in due course.

Gavin also talked about what he called ‘Operation Stoop, aka Operation Tantallon’, which is the ongoing investigation into the theft and laundering of wild peregrines. This is a multi-agency operation involving the police, Scottish SPCA, NWCU and SASA, with additional support from members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group. So far three people have been charged, including a serving police officer (see here), but as it’s a live case many details are currently being withheld.

Gavin didn’t reveal any details but talked about the wide range of investigative techniques deployed so far, including surveillance, peregrine DNA analysis, searches under warrants, bankers warrants, cyber crime and the Proceeds of Crime Act.

I think the breadth of this investigation and the resources being thrown at it is testimony to the seriousness and extent of this particular crime, and from what I hear it’s certainly not just restricted to Scotland. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more in due course.

Overall this was an interesting and well-delivered presentation. I hope the NWCU will consider doing more of these and making them freely available on their website.

8 thoughts on “Update on raptor persecution investigations in Scotland from National Wildlife Crime Unit”

  1. It was indeed an interesting talk. What surprised me was I think he said that around 2,700 export licenses were issued for Peregrines either this year or last. I wonder how many of these were laundered?

  2. I am not remotely au fait with this Peregrine “export” business.
    Who is involved in this ? Where do the birds come from ?
    2700 is a shocking figure – WTF is going on ?

  3. I checked Gavin’s talk again, and for clarity, some of the working conclusions from Operation Stoop were :-
    This is a huge growth industry due to demand from the middle east.
    In 2007, 73 export permits were applied for, relating to peregrines and peregrine hybrids.
    In 2020, 2347 export permits were applied for, relating to peregrines and peregrine hybrids.
    APHA compliance checks went down when trade went up.
    This is the biggest emerging threat to UK wildlife crime policing.

    I’m not sure what APHA stands for, but worrying that the checks went down.
    No doubt a lot of these exports were from genuine captive breeding programs, but if checks have been reduced, who knows?

    1. Hi Hoppy – APHA is the Animal and Plant Health Authority – a Govt agency – they ‘work to safeguard animal and plant health for the benefit of people, the environment and the economy’ and cover a wide range of activities – disease alerts, trade and so on.

  4. I understand there are only about 400 pairs of Golden Eagles in Scotland (please correct me if I am wrong).
    So if the police were investigating 11 potential crimes relating to the death or disappearance of these birds this year, then that is bad enough. But as stated, this number of potential crimes which have resulted in a police investigation will be only be a very small percentage of the total number of crimes being committed, most of which will never come to the authorities attention.
    This suggests that a significant percentage of the Golden Eagle population in Scotland is potentially suffering from criminal persecution.
    If that is the case, then those who manage the habitats where this persecution is happening are clearly not fit to be managing those habitats, as it would be reasonable to expect that the emphasis of that habitat management should be focused on preservation and conservation of these birds- anything else would be totally unacceptable.

    It’s perhaps time the Scottish Government considered other options to protect these birds from those already enacted or proposed. (licensing of grouse moors may not stop this persecution)
    I believe most people in the UK will have some awareness of poaching issues in Africa, or attacks on other endangered species such as mountain gorillas, as the illegal killing of such species usually attracts worldwide national media coverage.
    So why isn’t the illegal killing of eagles in this country receiving such worldwide condemnation, with investigative journalists exposing just what is happening in Scotland and creating massive public awareness? (The National Geographic article was an exception- and more journalism like this is needed.)
    Perhaps if the landowners on whose estates this criminal activity was occurring were exposed and condemned by the worldwide media, there might be some serious questions asked by the hunting tourists who are attracted to the grouse moors and who spend a considerable amount of money on sport shooting? Are they being deceived into thinking some of this money is used to pay for conservation of iconic species like eagles? If those estates where the conservation of species other than grouse is questionable were exposed in the worldwide media, it could have potential consequences on the financial viability of those estates?

    It is also questionable why grouse moor owners and organisations which represent grouse shooting aren’t promoting the conservation of rare species of birds of prey such as eagles or hen harriers. Some of the hunting estates in Africa which attract foreign hunters claim that some of the revenue generated from “trophy hunting” is used to pay for the conservation of endangered species.
    Reading through all the grouse shooting promotional literature, I am struck that much is made of species like curlew or plover, but hardly a mention of raptors. Why?
    Are the grouse shooters not interested in conservation of some of the UK’s most rare and magnificent bird species, or is it all just about “having a jolly good time blasting as many birds as possible out of the sky and damn anything which interferes with a good days shooting”???

    Poaching of iconic species in Africa like rhino and elephant are protected by armed rangers. Perhaps its time something similar was introduced into the National Parks in Scotland, and then maybe the criminals would think twice if their activities were likely to challenged by rangers, where arrest, prosecution and public exposure were an inevitable consequence of their criminal activity?

    The only way raptor persecution will stop is when politicians start thinking outside the box, and have the courage to introduce measures which tackle those responsible. At the moment that doesn’t seem to be happening.

    1. Good points. Recent cases of Rhino poaching in the likes of Malawi have seen perpetrators get sentanced up to 15years. Closer to home the likes of Spain imposes custodial sentences in terms of years served for similar crimes against raptors etc. Contrast that to these islands were such issues are treated as a joke by government and judiciary.

  5. To clarify my previous statement, apparently 73 export permits were applied for relating to peregrines and peregrine hybrids in 2007. In 2020 this had risen to 2,347, yet the number of APHA compliance checks went down when the trade went up! No doubt a lot of these were for genuine captive bred birds, but with fewer checks being done, who knows?

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