“These crimes are being covered up”: RSPB Scotland speaks out as bird crime soars

Bird crime soared across the UK in 2020, and RSPB believes Scotland’s native birds of prey will continue to be persecuted, according to two new articles published yesterday in The Courier and The Press & Journal:

Birds of prey such as hawks, eagles, kites, buzzards, harriers, falcons and owls are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

The RSPB’s annual report revealed that 2020 was the worst year on record for bird crime across the UK.

There were 137 known and confirmed incidents of birds of prey being killed, the highest number in 30 years.

This trend has continued in 2021, according to Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations.

He said: “Bird crime covers a whole manner of crimes against wild birds, but what is particularly of concern are those crimes that have an impact on the populations and ranges of a variety of species.”

According to Mr Thomson, bird crime, also known as raptor persecution, is particularly rife in the north-east, with the hen harrier population being a fraction of what it was 20 years ago.

He also explained that golden eagles are only occupying around a third of the breeding territories that they ought to; meanwhile, peregrines have largely disappeared from the uplands in the north-east.

Mr Thomson believes that these low population numbers are largely down to the persecution of birds of prey for the intense land management of grouse moors.

Birds of prey are at the top of the food chain and they hunt and eat grouse and pheasants.

In an attempt to maximise the number of game birds available for clients to shoot, grouse moor managers will eliminate any threats to their birds.

This can include burning patches of heather moorland and releasing clouds of smoke into the air, leaving medicated grit out in the open and hare baiting.

The National Golden Eagle Survey shows that across Scotland the population as a whole is doing well and that there are significant increases in the west where there are no grouse moors.

Mr Thomson said it is the east of Scotland where the populations are a fraction of what they should be.

Scientific reports show that the illegal persecution of golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines are largely happening in areas managed for game bird shooting.

Unfortunately, these findings are largely happening in the middle of nowhere,” Mr Thomson said, “out of sight, out of mind, where witnesses are very far and few between.

But, occasionally, an incident occurs that is detected.

In 2020, about a week into lockdown when the entire population of the country was told to stay indoors or to exercise within five miles of your house, we had a young white-tailed eagle poisoned on a grouse moor in Strathdon, in an area with an appalling history of crimes against birds of prey going back 10-plus years.”

Mr Thomson explained there have been cases of birds of satellite-tagged birds disappearing under “suspicious circumstances”.

In March a golden eagle was illegally poisoned on the Invercauld Estate, a grouse moor in the Cairngorms.

Last year a satellite transmitter that had been fitted on a golden eagle was found at the side of a river.

It was wrapped in lead sheeting and thrown into the river where it lay for four years until a walker found it on the bank.

Mr Thomson said: “This is the efforts that people are going to cover up these crimes, they don’t want to be caught.

The problem is, as I say, these crimes are seldom witnessed; to actually get any idea of the scale of it we’re really depending on doing population studies.

We’re never going to find all the victims because, needless to say, if someone shoots a golden eagle they’re not going to leave it around for the RSPB or the police or a hillwalker to find.

These crimes are being covered up.”

The RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations explained that there are other factors that have impacted the populations of birds of prey.

He said that all birds face challenges “just surviving”, through natural mortality, starvation, and loss of habitat due to the intensification of land management or agriculture.

Because of this, populations are much lower than what would be ideal, and so deliberate and illegal killing is adding extra strain to the populations.

As well as being important for biodiversity, birds of prey are an attraction for tourists visiting Scotland.

People interested in photography travel from all over the world to capture Scottish wildlife, bringing millions to the economy.

Mr Thomson highlighted that, on the Isle of Mull, around £5 million a year goes into the island from people going to see white-tailed eagles.

The Scottish Government plans to introduce licensing to grouse moors, which Mr Thomson described as a “game-changer”.

He believes the loss of a license to shoot will introduce a significant deterrent to the estates that do persecute birds of prey.

There are places you wouldn’t want to take your dog for a walk in case it gets caught in a trap or eats something poisonous,” he said. “It’s not just birds that are dying, it’s people’s pets.

Perish the thought that some day some small child will come into contact with chemicals like this, it could have absolutely devastating effects.

It’s not only illegal but it’s reckless and indiscriminate.”

ENDS

11 thoughts on ““These crimes are being covered up”: RSPB Scotland speaks out as bird crime soars”

  1. This news is extremely depressing to those who love our native birds of prey
    Preventive action is required by Scottish Govt now!

  2. Scottish Govt. and action there’s a joke. Just getting a decent pay rise, £60000 plus for doing nothing. That’s no joke

    1. Correct – these chisellers in Holyrood stand shoulder to shoulder with the shooting junta and they are all egocentric freeloaders.

  3. “The hen harrier population being a fraction of what it was 20 years ago”.

    “golden eagles are only occupying around a third of the breeding territories that they ought to; meanwhile, peregrines have largely disappeared from the uplands in the north-east.”

    Statements which appear totally at odds with the noise coming from the shooting industry, and dare I say it organisations such as Natural England and various politicians, who all make claims about working with partners to eradicate raptor persecution, and reports about how marvellously Hen Harriers are doing through such schemes as the Hen Harrier brood management program, or how much better Hen Harriers thrive of moors managed for grouse shooting, where the tireless work by gamekeepers to eradicate predators such as stoats, foxes and crows benefit ground nesting birds such as the Harrier.

    But the RSPB Scotland report has perhaps hit the nail on the head in the claim that -“In an attempt to maximise the number of game birds available for clients to shoot, grouse moor managers will eliminate any threats to their birds.”.

    I believe this is a very uncomfortable truth for the shooting industry. It is part of what lies behind the financial incentives for driven grouse shooting. Eliminating those threats to game bird numbers, not only influences the yearly revenue which can be generated from the shooting, but also the value of the land, which is in itself tied to game bird numbers.

    The financial benefits are probably part of the reasons why many land owners own grouse moors rather than turn them over to another use. As long as this financial link is tied to game bird numbers, which in turn influences the revenue which can be made from driven grouse shooting then there will never be an end to the persecution of anything which is a threat to those game bird numbers.

    It is also very interesting that the RSPB have also stated that ” all birds face challenges “just surviving”, through natural mortality, starvation, and loss of habitat due to the intensification of land management or agriculture.”

    Fortunately there are many in the farming community who understand the vital role they play in helping nature. But this comes at a cost, and in a society where many supermarkets and consumers want the cheapest products, and with government trade policies which often don’t recognise the high cost to UK farmers of high animal welfare or environmental standards, then I am not sure as a society we are doing enough to support those farmers who want to farm in harmony with nature, or penalise those who only want to maximise the profit they make from their land regardless of the destruction it causes? This is another form of indirect raptor persecution, and perhaps something which doesn’t receive the attention it should?

    Where I am not entirely in agreement with the RSPB report is the claim that licensing will be a “game changer.”

    Whilst it would be nice to believe the licensing of grouse moors will eradicate raptor persecution. I remain very doubtful. When one considers just how few raptor persecution incidents are witnessed, reported, investigated and prosecuted, then there is little fear that even with licensing, those responsible will ever be identified. Licensing will still require that there is some proof, even with the lower burden of proof of civil law that an estate was culpable in a raptor persecution incident. When landowners can afford the most eminent legal counsel, and the evidence at best will be sketchy, are we really going to see shooting estates held accountable in a court of law, and the license removed?

    If the introduction of licensing doesn’t stop the raptor persecution associated with grouse shooting, then what?

    The shooting industry will no doubt claim there never was any link to raptor persecution and grouse moor management.
    Politicians could be in a difficult position, in that they will have enacted legislation which has failed; and political pressure from the vested interests will be so great that it will long, long into the future before any other measures to tackle raptor persecution are even considered.

    I have to hope that licensing will work, but my fear is that the wildlife criminals will become even more devious, even more careful, evidence about what just is happening even more hard to find, and the persecution will persist.

    It is worth considering- laws don’t always stop something happening, they just make certain actions illegal, and even with laws, there will always be those who break them. Good laws are ones which are just and can be enforced, and offenders swiftly and easily brought to justice and punished. Criminals will always do their damnedest never to get caught!!

  4. These crimes have to an extent always been “under the radar” of ordinary folk and the authorities, it is thanks to sites like this that is now less so. Even so we only know about a small proportion of these crimes, they are committed by dedicated criminals who are by and large careful about there being no witnesses and largely no evidence in most cases, it is and always has been endemic in game management, increasing with shoot and land values or when “they” feel under pressure.
    Licencing may help as long as the burden of proof is as in civil cases and NatureScot or whoever is responsible is quick off the mark with suspension of licences where there is crime. However this crime will only truly Stop when DGS and other commercial game shooting is condemned to history.

  5. “When one considers just how few raptor persecution incidents are witnessed, reported, investigated and prosecuted, then there is little fear that even with licensing, those responsible will ever be identified.”

    and

    “Licencing may help as long as the burden of proof is as in civil cases and NatureScot or whoever is responsible is quick off the mark with suspension of licences where there is crime.”

    So long as people continue to campaign for a licensing system which depends solely upon successful prosecutions of criminal activity then licensing will surely fail (*).

    This single-minded, blinkered, view on what licensing should be dependent upon limits its chances of success (there has already been a Parliamentary e-petition for a scheme not dependent upon successful prosecutions, so the case has been publicly made.)

    (*) Maybe that is the intention: fight for years to establish a licensing scheme which makes no difference? At the very least, campaign for a change in attitude by the prosecution services to allow covert surveillance evidence in court.

    1. I don’t disagree Keith, Licencing may be easier to achieve than a ban but unless it is rigorous may be a step in the wrong direction giving the proponents of DGS in Scotland years and years of getting away with it whilst grouse shooting continues. A ban would be far better but at least if a licence is suspended it hits the Bs in the pocket bigtime and that has to be a deterrent.

    2. Keith,

      You have taken my quote out of context. The full paragraph explains that sanctions in a licensing scheme will still require some evidence of wrong doing by an estate, with the evidence evaluated on the civil law burden of proof.
      If you read and understood what I have written, you will find I am not campaigning for a licensing scheme dependent solely upon successful criminal prosecutions, in the criminal courts, based upon the higher burden of proof required in criminal law.
      I am questioning whether, with the current state of almost no evidence, or so little evidence of an estates involvement in so much of the of wrong which takes place, that will be sufficient to impose sanctions under any licensing scheme?
      To suggest myself or others have campaigned for a licensing scheme which makes no real difference is just nonsense.

      Any licensing scheme will have to be fair.
      Would it be fair to withdraw an estates licence based solely on the evidence that a number of satellite birds have disappeared in a particular area without any evidence of that estates involvement in the disappearance of those birds?
      Is a licensing scheme going to be a one sided charter which favours the views held by the conservation lobby?
      Do you think land owners/estate owners, or the shooting industry would accept such a scheme?
      Do you think any government would even propose such a scheme?
      I am quite sure that with any licensing scheme operating under the civil law, the law will still require there to be some evidence or proof of raptor persecution by a particular party before that party has any license revoked. Mere suspicion will not be enough.

      There is also the risk that any proposed licensing scheme could be as ineffective a piece of legislation as the Hunting Act, which has failed to properly protect foxes from those who want to chase and persecute them.
      Any proposed licensing scheme, will need to very carefully scrutinised to ensure that it isn’t full of legal holes, get out of jail cards, or other idiosyncrasies which allow the current state of affairs to continue.

      Perhaps you could explain how you envisage a proposed licensing scheme, in which sanctions can be imposed without any real evidence, or very little evidence of wrong doing or malpractice by an estate, will work in practice?

      I notice you don’t answer the question of how to proceed in the future, if any licensing scheme doesn’t stop or significantly reduce the raptor persecution associated with driven grouse shooting. It could take years before politicians are prepared to accept such a failure and look at new legislation?

      Neither do you address the very real prospect that those responsible for raptor persecution will no doubt be even more careful when undertaking their illegal activities, and ensure that any evidence of their crimes or malpractice is eradicated, so that even with a licensing scheme operating under the civil law burden of proof there will be no or very little evidence for the justification to remove a licence.

      Licensing also poses the real risk that some land managers will intensify the management of the grouse moors, so that all predators such as stoats, fox, crows etc are legally removed from the land, and the land is managed solely to increase game bird numbers to compensate for the loss which may result from raptor predation. Whilst such activity would be perfectly lawful, it could have a negative impact on biodiversity and fragile eco systems? The Hen Harrier brood management scheme is a good example of how the law has been manipulated to allow for the lawful removal of a certain species of raptor from grouse moors. Could we see other raptor species included in future schemes, if their presence is deemed detrimental to a landowners game shooting interests, and they are operating under a licensing scheme?

      These are all questions which need to be properly addressed, and answers carefully evaluated.

      I do agree that the current investigative options open to the police and authorities when investigating suspected raptor crime is very limited, and no doubt hinders successful prosecutions. I have written about this in previous comments on this blog, as well as to my MP in a detailed letter regarding criminality associated with driven grouse shooting.

      Perhaps the single minded, blinkered approach is believing that a government and politicians, with all the pressure from those with vested interests in grouse/ game shooting, will deliver a licensing scheme which properly and effectively stops raptor persecution, delivers biodiversity, and in effect reduces the revenue which can be generated from driven grouse or game shooting. We live in a world where economic interests frequently trump moral or ethical interests.

      I believe licensing should be part of a whole raft of measures which encourage landowners to move away from driven grouse shooting to other more beneficial uses for their moors and uplands. Measures which will still allow land owners to have some useful financial reward from their moors, yet allow nature in all its forms to flourish, and where no raptor persecution takes place.
      At the moment we appear a long way from such a holistic set of proposals being enacted in law, and perhaps more importantly a belief by many grouse moor owners, that there are better alternatives to driven grouse shooting, so that they accept such a vision for the future.
      Licensing in what of ever form it takes, but on its own, may not deliver what many hope.

      Don’t forget we are all on the same side, we may not always agree on the detail, or the road to take, but ending raptor persecution, and creating a countryside where nature is able to flourish has to be the end goal.

      1. You should go back and read, on here, the lengthy debates about what sort of licensing is required which could work, and also the explanation about what sort of licensing was envisaged in the Parliamentary e-petition calling for such licensing.

        You will find they are based upon independent baseline ecological assessments of the current situation and annual set incremental improvements to that situation.

  6. What perturbed me was something Ian Thompson said which isn’t reported in the above article.

    In the Autumn/Winter 2021 edition of Nature’s Home, page 72, Ian says he thinks that “Grouse could be a product we celebrate; a truly wild harvest”. It says “He also sees a bright future for sustainably managed grouse moors”.

    I don’t. Sticking that debased, ubiquitous term aimed primarily at fake virtue signalling (“sustainably”) in front of something entirely unnatural (“managed grouse moors”) hardly even begins to address the seriousness of the environmental catastrophe faced in our uplands.

    As for the ‘wild harvesting’ of our avifauna, isn’t that the very activity which brought the RSPB into existence to prevent?

    1. “In the Autumn/Winter 2021 edition of Nature’s Home, page 72, Ian says he thinks that “Grouse could be a product we celebrate; a truly wild harvest”. It says “He also sees a bright future for sustainably managed grouse moors”.”

      I don’t like the sound of that one little bit.

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