New study shows pheasants still full of poisonous lead shot three years after start of ‘voluntary transition’ to non-toxic shot

Three years ago in February 2020, nine UK game-shooting organisations made a massive U-turn after years and years and years of defending the use of toxic lead ammunition, and said they wanted to drag the industry into the 21st Century by making a five-year voluntary transition away from lead ammunition (see here).

A lot of us were sceptical because (a) we rarely trust anything the industry tells us; (b) previous ‘voluntary bans’ by the industry on a number of issues have been spectacularly unsuccessful (e.g. see herehere and here); (c) the ongoing failure of the shooting industry to comply with current regulations on many issues, including the use of lead ammunition over wetlands (here), means there should be absolutely zero confidence in its ability and/or willingness to stick to any notional voluntary ban; (d) the Scottish Gamekeepers Association refused to sign up to the proposed five-year transition period because they believe there is insufficient evidence to support the claim that lead can have damaging impacts on humans, wildlife and the environment (here); and (e) in the very same year that nine shooting organisations committed to the five-year transition, BASC announced it was set to fight a proposed EU ban on the use of lead ammunition on wetlands (see here).

Fortunately for us, a new, independent project was established, led by experts at Cambridge University, to monitor the professed voluntary five-year transition from toxic lead to non-lead ammunition in the UK. Called SHOT-SWITCH, the project intends to test wild-shot pheasants offered for sale across Britain each year and determine if they have been killed using toxic lead or non-lead shotgun ammunition. Interestingly, the project is supported by funds from the RSPB and from Waitrose, who you’ll recall were the first supermarket to be heading towards a ban on selling game meat shot with lead ammunition (see here, but who seem to have been duped by the shooting industry last season – here).

To find out more about the SHOT-SWITCH project please visit the webpage here

Lead shot pellets removed from a pheasant carcass. Photo: Rhys Green

For the last two years, Shot Switch has published peer-reviewed scientific papers to demonstrate that 99.5% of the pheasants they tested contained toxic lead shot (see here and here).

This year, year three of the study, the scientists have published another peer-reviewed paper, and guess what? Well, you can read it for yourselves:

They’ve also issued a press release, which reads as follows:


Three years into a five-year pledge to completely phase out lead shot in UK game hunting, a Cambridge study finds that 94% of pheasants on sale for human consumption were killed using lead.

The pledge, made in 2020 by nine major UK game shooting and rural organisations, aims to protect the natural environment and ensure a safer supply of game meat for consumers. Lead is toxic even in very small concentrations, and discarded shot from hunting poisons and kills tens of thousands of the UK’s wild birds each year.

A Cambridge-led team of 17 volunteers bought whole pheasants from butchers, game dealers and supermarkets across the UK in 2022-23. They dissected the birds at home and recovered embedded shotgun pellets from 235 of the 356 pheasant carcasses.

The main metal present in each shotgun pellet was revealed through laboratory analysis – conducted at the Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK. Lead was the main element in 94% of the recovered shot pellets; the remaining 6% were predominantly composed of steel or a metal called bismuth.

The results are published today in the Conservation Evidence Journal.

At the request of the Defra Secretary of State, the UK Health & Safety Executive assessed the risks to the environment and human health posed by lead in shots and bullets. Their report proposes that the use of lead ammunition be banned, and this is currently under review. While remaining committed to phasing out lead shot voluntarily, many shooting organisations do not support the proposed regulatory restrictions.

If UK game hunters are going to phase out lead shot voluntarily, they’re not doing very well so far,” said Professor Rhys Green in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, first author of the study.

He added: “The small decrease in the proportion of birds shot with lead in the latest UK shooting season is nowhere near on track to achieve a complete transition to non-toxic ammunition in the next two years.”

This is the third consecutive year the team has conducted the analysis. Their latest study shows a small improvement on the 2021/22 and 2021/20 shooting seasons, when over 99% of the pheasants studied were shot using lead ammunition.

In separate initiatives, some suppliers of game meat for human consumption – including Waitrose & Partners – have voluntarily announced their intention to stop selling game killed using lead shot. An assurance scheme has also been launched to encourage suppliers and retailers to facilitate the transition.

The team did not find any pheasant on sale in Waitrose in 2022/23 despite repeated visits to 15 different stores. Waitrose staff reported that the company had not been sufficiently assured by any supplier in 2022/23 that all pheasants had been killed using non-lead ammunition.

Waitrose is the only retailer we know of fully complying with the pledge not to supply pheasant killed using lead, but it’s only managing this by not selling any pheasant at all,” said Green.

Pheasant was marked as being ‘temporarily unavailable’ at Waitrose stores this winter. Photo: Ruth Tingay

Steel shotgun pellets are a practical alternative to lead, and the vast majority of shotguns can use them or other safe lead-free alternatives. Shooting magazines and UK shooting organisations have communicated positive messages for three years about the effectiveness and practicality of non-lead shotgun ammunition.

Shooting and rural organisations – including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust – have consistently provided information and detailed guidance to encourage the transition from lead to non-lead ammunition since 2020.

Denmark banned lead shotgun ammunition in 1996, and a successful transition was made to steel and bismuth. It’s safer for the environment and gives game shooting a better image,” said Green.

A previous study led by Green found that pheasants killed by lead shot contain many fragments of lead too small to detect by eye or touch, and too distant from the shot to be removed without throwing away a large proportion of otherwise useable meat. This means that eating pheasant killed using lead shot is likely to expose consumers to raised levels of lead in their diet, even if the meat is carefully prepared to remove whole shotgun pellets and the most damaged tissue.

Lead has been banned from use in paint and petrol for decades. It is toxic to humans when absorbed by the body and there is no known safe level of exposure. Lead accumulates in the body over time and can cause long-term harm, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney disease in adults. Lead is known to lower IQ in young children, and affect the neurological development of unborn babies.

Funding from the RSPB and Waitrose supported this work.


UPDATE 7th March 2023: Question tabled in House of Lords on gamebird-shooting industry’s failure to stop using toxic lead ammunition (here)

‘SNP leadership race is perfect opportunity to tackle land (& grouse moor) reform’ – comment piece by Max Wiszniewski

Max Wiszniewski is Campaign Manager for REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform.

He’s written a comment piece for today’s edition of the National, discussing the current SNP leadership race which Max thinks is a perfect opportunity to tackle land (and grouse moor) reform.

His article is reproduced below:

THE leadership election for the Scottish National Party, the party of government, could literally change the face of Scotland.

Scotland will soon have a new first minister at a time when land reform and grouse moor reform is high up on the political agenda. Parliamentary bills on both are due in the not-too-distant future and real reform remains popular with both the public and particularly within the membership of the SNP.

After more than two decades since we established the Scottish Parliament, our nation still has the most inequitable land ownership in  the developed world.  Members of the SNP may be familiar with the figure that around 432 families own more than half of Scotland’s private land. 

There has been important, albeit very limited, progress in diversifying land ownership in recent years but new leadership at the top level is Scotland’s opportunity to really go for it.

Grouse moors are a metaphor for land reform issues in Scotland – a lot of land used for the benefit of very few people at the expense of our wildlife and the environment – with a steep cost to rural people who deserve so much better than the limited opportunities these large estates afford them.

An area around half the size of Wales is managed for grouse shooting in Scotland which provides fewer jobs and opportunities than alternative land uses.

Nature-based tourism, excluding “field sports”, is worth more than £1.2 billion overall – more than 50 times to our economy than grouse shooting, while forestry has an economic impact over 15 times greater per hectare.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of animals like foxes, stoats, weasels, crows and even “non-target species” like hedgehogs are killed every year, just so more grouse can be shot by very few people for the controversial “sport”.

In a time of climate crisis, an area of more than 200,000 football pitches is regularly burned on grouse moors (muirburn) to make the land more suitable for grouse, scarring the landscape and damaging our vital peat reserves – an internationally significant carbon sink.

If we seek to advance opportunities for rural people, jobs in shooting grouse for sport is not in our future. With the destruction to our wildlife and the environment, grouse shooting offers nothing for a modern Scotland under new leadership. We need real reform.

Whoever is elected, the new party leader should take confidence that tackling this issue properly and speeding up land reform efforts would be popular with the SNP membership that elected them.

In 2020, despite it getting lost as part of a conference “super-motion”, an SNP membership motion to essentially end driven grouse shooting was backed by more branches than any other resolution that year. 

Moreover, if the enthusiastic support for radical land reform – including progressive land taxation – from the hundreds of people at Revive’s SNP conference meetings is anything to go by, the SNP leadership really can be brave.

The Scottish Government has started some good work on the grouse reform front but needs to go much further. It most certainly should not be brow-beaten by those representing large, landed interests into watering-down what it already has proposed or from going further.

The new SNP leader may also recognise that despite what is claimed, these powerful vested interests do not represent rural Scotland or most of its people (who are actually against grouse shooting).

The lobbyists for sport shooting do, however, wish to halt the change the SNP have aspired to for decades.

All the unsustainable things that take place on these moors, so more grouse can be shot for sport, must end to allow us to transition to a more diverse mosaic of land uses in upland Scotland.

This will help diversify land ownership as well.  It’s estimated that for every brace of grouse killed for sport, £5000 can be added on to the estate’s value for the owner. If you end the speculative land value created from this unsustainable land use, coupled with land reform, it can help more communities take back our land. 

The successful Langholm buyout of a former grouse moor in southern Scotland, which is revitalising the local area, is a great but rare example that depended on immense dedication and voluntary efforts from local people to achieve it as well as huge sums of money to  be raised.

The Government should use a push and pull philosophy. As well as incentives, they should use the law to disincentivise individuals or overseas corporations from owning large estates like grouse moors – to bring down the price of land for communities to purchase.

Land taxes should not be one of the tools that are left off the table. Having the land ownership diversity of a normal European country like one of our Nordic neighbours is not radical, it’s inherently sensible.

Whatever happens in this leadership election, we hope all the candidates will openly commit to pursuing the inherently sensible cause of land reform, land taxes and real grouse moor reform in Scotland. If so they will change the face of Scotland for the better.

The new leader should have no problem saying to the people of Scotland that this land is our land. This country is yours, and it’s time to take it back again.

Max Wiszniewski is Campaign Manager for Revive, the coalition for grouse moor reform


Dorset landowner cleared of assaulting gamekeeper & beater after argument over low number of gamebirds available to be shot

There’s been widespread media coverage of a court case at Weymouth Magistrates this week, which mostly focused on a ‘frustrated’ landowner, William Elder, throwing a dead partridge at his gamekeeper, Daniel Burden, and the gamekeeper throwing it back at his boss, after an argument about whether paying guests had been given the best opportunity to shoot as many pheasants and partridges as they’d paid to kill on a shoot day at Stancombe Farm in Askerswell, Dorset.

This article from The Telegraph provides a pretty good overview of the case. [Update – the article has been reproduced in full at the end of this blog]

Despite the sensationalist media headlines, the partridge-throwing incident wasn’t really the focus of the case. The landowner had been charged with two counts of assault – one for allegedly kicking and chest-bumping his gamekeeper, and one for allegedly kicking a teenage beater up the backside.

Magistrates cleared Mr Elder of both assault charges (the magistrates’ reasoning is included in the Telegraph article – worth a read!).

We often hear about the tensions between shoot owners and their gamekeepers, and the sometimes unspoken pressure that shoot/landowners place on their employees to produce sufficient quantities of gamebirds, whether that be pheasants, partridges or grouse, to satisfy the expectations of paying shooting guests. This is often provided as an explanation for why some gamekeepers illegally kill birds of prey. And although this particular case doesn’t involve allegations of raptor persecution, it does provide clear evidence of those tensions, only this time they were spoken and came straight from the shoot owner’s mouth.

UPDATE: The Telegraph article in full:

A landowner threw a dead partridge at his gamekeeper in a falling out over the lacklustre spoils of a £15,000 game shoot, a court has been told.

Farmer William Elder took issue with the direction his team of beaters were driving pheasants and partridge at his Dorset farm.

With guns paying almost £2,000 each for the day’s shooting, he was concerned some of them hadn’t bagged enough birds – and would ask for their money back.

He was charged with assault after an argument with his gamekeeper and a teenage beater over the issue.

Mr Elder, who was standing with the guns, berated gamekeeper Daniel Burden and the beaters over the radio, causing some of them to walk off in protest.

Later, the 60-year-old farmer and Mr Burden came together at the farm with both men accusing each other of acting aggressively.

Mr Elder claimed his gamekeeper threatened to “belt” him and the shoot captain, Steve Smith, had to come between the pair.

A court heard Mr Elder then threw a partridge he was holding at Mr Burden, hitting him on the leg.

In retaliation, the gamekeeper picked up the dead bird and threw it back at his boss.

Mr Burden, who is in his 40s, further claimed the farmer “chest bumped” him and then kicked him several times in the legs.

One beater also accused Mr Elder of assaulting him in the disagreement over the way the pheasants were being flushed out of woods.

The teenager, who can’t be named for legal reasons, claimed Mr Elder kicked him in the backside and told him to “get off my land”.

Mr Elder denied both allegations of assault, but admitted to throwing the patridge out of sheer frustration.

The partridge throw wasn’t included in the assault charge.

He was found not guilty of both charges following a trial at Weymouth Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

The court heard that the incident happened towards the end of a day of shooting on Stancombe Farm in the village of Askerswell, Dorset, on Nov 11 2021.

Mr Elder has run shoots on his 700-acre farm for 35 years and the event in question was one of the first to be held after the relaxation of Covid rules.

The shoot involved eight guns standing at set pegs at the bottom of a hill and the team of beaters driving out pheasants and partridge at the top.

There had been three drives in the morning and breaks for elevenses and lunch without any issues.  

But during the afternoon drive, Mr Elder became angry when he felt one end of the line was pushing the birds the wrong way.

He later explained he was aware that three of his clients positioned on one side of the estate had only bagged between 10 and 15 birds.

Mr Elder, who has owned the farm for 40 years, said: “My prepared statement was written within hours of the incident because I was going to bring a complaint against [the two complainants].

“Also the gunners could have come back with a financial claim on me so I also wrote it to show the gunners I was not at fault.

“I am responsible for the whole game, anything I say to the beaters they have to do. I can’t have people running around doing what they want.

“They have to follow my orders from a safety point of view because you have got people with guns. I’m not rude, I just give sharp orders.

“One side of the line kept moving the birds the wrong way. I had three guns who weren’t having any shooting.

“The five guns on the other end had lots, about 70 to 80 shots each, the three guns on the right side probably only had 10 to 15 shots each.

“He kept on moving when I expressly asked him not to. In the end I did say a sharp order ‘for god’s sake, please stop’.

“I was trying to get the birds over the other guns.”

Mr Burden said: “Everything was going well as far as I was concerned.

“Mr Elder was complaining the other end of the line was moving and coming in too quickly.

“From where I was I could see the other end of the beating line. Mr Elder wasn’t correct.

“As we got towards the end I realised some of the beaters had left due to the way he was talking to him so on the radio I told Mr Elder we couldn’t do another drive after this one because some of them had left and we didn’t have enough beaters to do it.”

Magistrates heard that the teenage beater first encountered Mr Elder on his way back to the farm.

Mr Elder claimed the teen was “extremely aggressive” and had a beater’s flag raised above his head so he kicked out in self-defence.

He said: “He started shouting at me that I don’t know anything about running a shoot and ‘we’re gonna do you’. He pushed past me, hitting me with his shoulder, and I pushed him away with my boot on his backside.”

Back at the farm Mr Elder said he told his clients not to tip the keeper because he had “lost the plot”.

Describing what happened with Mr Burden, he said: “Dan said ‘I’m going to f—— well belt you’ and Steve had to step in front of him.

“I said ‘go on, hit me, don’t just threaten me’ and in a fit of frustration I threw a partridge. It was supposed to hit the ground but it actually hit Dan at his feet.

“He started shouting all sorts of stupid names like ‘p—-’ and then threw the partridge back at me.

“Dan said ‘I’m going to bloody well hit you’ again but Steve said ‘no stop’ and I told him to go and never come back.”

Robert Ford, chairman of the bench, said the court had two contradictory statements regarding the alleged assault of Mr Burden and so they could not be sure beyond reasonable doubt that it happened.

With the alleged assault on the teenager, Mr Ford said they accepted Mr Elder was a man of good character and that he believed he perceived a threat and the push was proportionate.

The court found Mr Elder not guilty of both charges.


Andy Wightman revamps ‘Who Owns Scotland’ website

Formidable land reform campaigner Andy Wightman has revamped his ‘Who Owns Scotland‘ website – a fantastic resource for anyone interested in land ownership and a site I’ve used countless times to investigate locations of raptor persecution crimes.

Here’s a new brochure from Andy to encourage new subscribers:

If you have any questions about the project, please contact Andy at

You might also be interested in following Andy’s personal blog, Land Matters, here.

Scottish Raptor Study Group pays tribute to Patrick Stirling-Aird on his retirement

Last weekend at its annual conference, the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) paid tribute to Patrick Stirling-Aird MBE, who has retired from his long-held position as SRSG Secretary.

Duncan Orr-Ewing presenting Patrick Stirling-Aird with his retirement gift from the SRSG, a specially-commissioned peregrine painting by Keith Brockie

The following text is a copy of the tribute to Patrick, delivered at the SRSG conference by Duncan Orr-Ewing.

Patrick Stirling-Aird MBE

SRSG Conference 18 February 2023

The Scottish Raptor Study Group is extremely fortunate and proud to have had Patrick Stirling-Aird as our Secretary for more than 20 years. It is believed that Patrick started in this role on 19th February 2000.  I have been asked to say a few words to recognise the massive contribution Patrick has made to raptor conservation in Scotland. I hope that I can do this justice.

Whilst we all know and admire Patrick in his SRSG lead-administrative role, I would like to start in giving some background on Patrick’s early years, as well as his raptor experience, knowledge and credentials. Patrick became interested in the environment as a small boy, and according to his wife Sue, was particularly fascinated by insects in his formative years. This interest was encouraged by his grandmother, and for his eighth Christmas she bought him “The Birds of the British Isles and their Eggs” by T.A Coward. The three volumes were digested in detail and voraciously by the young Patrick and this began a lifelong passion for birds. Whilst at Edinburgh University Patrick and group of friends spent many weekends walking in the Scottish hills and it is then when he developed an interest in raptors, and especially the peregrine falcon.    

In his book “The Peregrine Falcon” of 2012 Patrick claims to have seen his first peregrine more than 40 years ago, so going back to the early 1970s. He says it was these first sightings, and the recognition of the peregrine as an “ecological barometer”, that got him involved with formal raptor monitoring. At this time, raptor monitoring was pioneering work promoted especially by Derek Ratcliffe, who warmly acknowledged Patrick’s work and influence in his own monographs on the peregrine and raven.  Patrick mentions that it was the late John Mitchell then of the NCC, the late Don MacCaskill of the then Forestry Commission, Pat Sandeman, and Bob MacMillan wearing various hats, who first got him involved with much more detailed peregrine monitoring. Don and Bridget MacCaskill became lifelong friends and Patrick, Sue and I very recently attended the celebration of Bridget’s life at Balquhidder Parish Church following her death over Christmas at the age of 100. Her partner Don passed away 20 years ago.  In the 1970s and when Patrick took up raptor monitoring in west Perthshire encouraged by John Mitchell, the peregrine had of course become an extremely rare breeding bird following the pesticide crisis caused by DDT and Dieldrin in the 1960s and as revealed by those dedicated individuals who monitored peregrines across the UK at the time.

I first met Patrick in the early 1990s and when I became a member of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group, having moved down from the Highlands. He was the Chair of CSRSG since its formation in 1983 and only stood down seven years ago.  In the 1990s we met for our spring and autumn CSRSG meetings in the rather grand surroundings of Kippenross in Dunblane –  in Patrick’s dining room. At that time our membership was limited to about 10 hardy individuals including the aforementioned Don MacCaskill and John Mitchell.  Patrick was definitely in charge of monitoring peregrines, golden eagles and ravens. It amused me at the time that other species including ospreys and red kites, my own passions, were given relatively short attention at meetings! Owls were barely mentioned unless prompted (something that has not changed greatly)! The focus was clearly on the three key raptor species – Patrick’s birds!  What was also clear was Patrick had huge attention to detail.  Patrick was trained and worked as a solicitor and brought this attention to detail to his raptor monitoring. His minutes of meetings were exemplary. His raptor data record keeping was, and still is, second to none. When discussing particular raptor sites, he could call on an extensive background history of each site rigorously documented year by year. If anybody was asked to monitor any peregrine sites for him or to search certain glens for occupancy, you could expect a full documented history of that site, sometimes going back for over 50 years, detailing alternative sites, productivity, and information on how to access to get the best view of nests. At that time in the early 1990s, I took over monitoring many of John Mitchell’s peregrine sites in Loch Lomond and received huge encouragement from Patrick, anxious that data for critical long term monitoring sites was not lost.

Patrick’s own study area has always been across the boundary between Central Scotland and Tayside and Fife Raptor Study Group areas. He has monitored all of the peregrines from Glen Artney up to Glen Almond and across to Stirling for decades. He has also monitored the breeding golden eagles and ravens in these areas. However, when discussing other sites for these species in these RSG areas there do not seem to be many that he has missed during his time either!  For SRSG nationally in Scotland, and for CSRSG and Tayside RSG more locally, he has coordinated national population surveys for peregrine –  in particular in 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2014.   

By Patrick’s own admission he likes to monitor his birds alone. He also impatiently waits for the good weather to go and do his work on the hill.  Characteristically he wears his “plus twos”, and when he goes out, he tends to spend all day on the hill monitoring on one or a small number of sites in a day, and spending hours observing peregrines and eagles from a distance, observing and noting behaviour carefully. I have monitored raptors, albeit sometimes different species, over decades in a broadly similar area to Patrick, and what has also struck me from my own conversations with folk on the ground is the respect that he also carries with the landowners, gamekeepers and stalkers. Patrick has always made time to speak to estate owners and their employees both before and after his monitoring visits. In my time, I have rarely heard anybody saying a bad word about Patrick, even when he has had to have the difficult conversations with estates about the suspicious disappearance of birds he has been monitoring or their apparently criminal breeding failure! On one rather difficult case Patrick was asked to go and give evidence in court against one gamekeeper on land where he had been monitoring raptors for years – not at all pleasant.  Patrick is calm, forceful and never shies away from conflict, as also reflected to me in my research for this presentation by another longstanding friend of the peregrine/golden eagle and raven, Wendy Mattingley. Patrick produces an annual newsletter for estates and their staff on the birds he has monitored and his reflections on the overall breeding season that year for the eagles, peregrines and ravens.

Sadly in many parts of Patrick’s study area he has been monitoring a decline in numbers of breeding peregrines in recent decades in line with national trends for this species in the Scottish uplands, however the ravens have been faring well, and the eagles that he monitors are now largely free from human interference. With regards ravens, Patrick is definitely a crag nesting raven person, and I have joked with him previously that he has not yet caught onto the fact that many of our Central and Tayside ravens are now tree nesting! 

In the mid-1990s I spent some long days on the hill with Patrick often in horrendous snowy conditions protecting an eagle site near Balquhidder known to be targeted by egg collectors. On one occasion in a blizzard Patrick and I witnessed what later turned out to be a notorious egg collector heading to the eagle site far away from us and at high altitude, and disappearing from our view in the snow-storm. Gallingly, we learnt later that this person was raided by the police in the north of England, and had robbed the eagle nest on the day we were both out on the site.

I am privileged to have been out of the hill on a number of occasions with Patrick over many years and every trip has been a learning experience. There are not too many people who have had this benefit although I also know that Patrick has sometimes also taken out his wife Sue and three daughters.  Sue Stirling-Aird has reminded me of a characteristic event typical of Patrick and both his dry sense of humour and commitment to raptor monitoring above all else. At Kippenross Patrick and Sue were hosting a group of Americans. Patrick had been out on the hill all day and the expectant Americans were looking forward to hearing tales of eagles and clambering around crags. When he arrived back and was asked to report, Patrick responded “I am afraid that I have negative information”. 

The list of very important roles Patrick has undertaken over many years as the SRSG Secretary is endless. He was a member of the UK Government’s Raptor Working Group from 1995 to 2000. For those who are unaware this initiative was set up originally to tackle what was perceived by the then Conservative administration as “the raptor problem” and ended up meeting 25 times and making 25 recommendations for the enhancement of raptor conservation! Several officials singled out Patrick for special praise for his unstinting contributions to the group. 

In my own role at RSPB Scotland, we used these report recommendations in the early 2000s to tackle the Government to do more for raptor conservation, and much of the progress that we see today is founded on that report. The formation of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, which Patrick was critical to forming, is one very good example of the report’s outcome. Patrick reinforced the need of course for effective raptor monitoring. The DETR RWG Report was a seismic moment for raptor conservation in the UK and included the production of the SRSG document “Counting the Cost” which used SRSG data to highlight the continuing illegal persecution of raptors in Scotland, including Patrick’s own long term peregrine study in Central Scotland – “Human interference apparently affected about one fifth of the peregrine breeding population in central Scotland, 18% less young produced in the years 1981-1996”.

In his role as SRSG Secretary, Patrick has represented the Scottish Raptor Study Groups on the Moorland Forum, the Police Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group and has been on the oversight group of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Group since its inception 20 years ago. Patrick attends countless meetings representing the SRSG. His controlled persistence in defence of raptors, and against criminal persecution is unique, using his background training and professionalism as a solicitor to maximum effect. Over the years I have attended many meetings in my RSPB Scotland capacity, where Patrick has been representing the SRSG, and where raptor conservation has come under concerted attack. Usually our voices have been greatly outnumbered, and the atmosphere can be hostile. Patrick has steadfastly defended raptors and the conduct of SRSG fieldworkers.  No matter how discordant the voices of the those in denial of raptor persecution, Patrick has calmly and robustly spoken up for raptors and raptor workers.  Not a lover of the phrase ‘balance’, Patrick has very much followed the ethos of his early mentor Derek Ratcliffe in speaking up for raptors.  He warmed to the closing lines of Derek Ratcliffe in his 2003 foreword to ‘Birds of Prey in a Changing Environment’:  “Raptor enthusiasts will have to speak up, and assert their simple conviction that birds of prey are as important as gamebirds or homing pigeons.”

Patrick has written numerous cogently argued, sometimes necessarily legally technical letters on our behalf to newspapers, magazines, Government Ministers, the Police and NatureScot to either defend or promote raptors. His detailed minutes and notes of meetings are unequalled and allow members to be kept comprehensively informed with what is happening within the political and conservation world. He carries around a large file of notes which usually means that whilst others are scrabbling around on their laptops Patrick can lay his fingers more immediately on the required information – and ammunition for a key point saliently made.   

Whilst many of these meetings are often not pleasurable occasions, over the years it has gradually felt like we have been winning the argument, based largely on hard facts and reason, and also our passion for the birds. In these moments, Patrick’s dry sense of humour can be a major tonic! We are on the cusp of securing grouse moor licensing in 2023 and this is testament to many decades of hard work by a number of key individuals, who can hold the ring and talk authoritatively about raptors.  Patrick has played a totemic role in this.   

Patrick has served time on the UK RSPB Council and has previously been a member of the RSPB Scottish Advisory Committee. He has been on the SWT Council and a member of the BTO Research & Surveys Committee. He is a Director of Natural Research which has done so much excellent scientific work on raptors.  We in the SRSG community and his family were all absolutely delighted when Patrick was awarded an MBE in 2005 in the New Year’s Honours list for his services to wildlife conservation and this award was subsequently presented at a ceremony Holyrood Palace. This demonstrated the high regard with which he is held throughout the conservation and political world.

In summary, Patrick’s reputation and influence as a ‘volunteer’  within the conservation world is second to none. We are truly indebted to him for his dedication to and involvement with the Scottish Raptor Study Group and more importantly for his own work on peregrines, golden eagles and ravens. He also seems to be the only person that I am aware of who has got the measure of Dave Anderson, or “David”, as Patrick calls him.

Finally, whilst Patrick has stood down as SRSG Secretary, he continues to be an active member of both CSRSG and Tayside and Fife RSG. At our last CSRSG meeting Patrick handed over a few of his sites to others including myself, but remains our Species Coordinator for golden eagle and for peregrine, and continues to monitor a number of sites even though now in his 80s. On a personal note, I am pleased to call Patrick a friend, and look forward to the next decade of raptor monitoring alongside this exceptional and inspirational individual!      

Thank you to Sue Stirling-Aird, Wendy Mattingley, Logan Steele and Des Thompson who contributed to this presentation.


Natural England’s response to sentencing of criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen

Following the sentencing last week of criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen in Dorset (here), I’ve been reviewing the responses from various organisations including the RSPB (here), the game-shooting industry (here) and Dorset Police (here).

Today I’m reviewing Natural England’s response.

Natural England (NE) published the following blog (reproduced below) on the day Allen was sentenced (16th Feb 2023):

By Stephanie Bird-Halton, National Delivery Director.

Today, Paul Allen, a gamekeeper working on the Shaftesbury Estate in Dorset, was sentenced for offences of possession of dead buzzards, keeping of banned pesticides and failing to comply with conditions of shotgun and firearms certificates.

Natural England is determined to tackle the scourge of raptor persecution. One of our roles involves investigating incidents where wildlife has been poisoned and we assisted Dorset Police in in this prosecution, gathering evidence and providing specialist technical advice. We are extremely pleased that he has been held to account for his appalling offences against wildlife.

This case, and the death in Dorset of one of the stunning White-tailed Eagles reintroduced to the Isle of Wight, are clear examples of a wider problem: the widespread misuse and abuse of poisons in the countryside which is killing birds of prey, and poses ongoing risks to the public.

During the coronavirus lockdown period, there was a spike in the number of poisoning cases reported with 230 accepted into the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS) in 2020/21 as compared with 124 in 2019/20 and the problem has not gone away. In 2021/22, Natural England accepted 133 incidents of animal deaths suspected to be poisonings into WIIS. Cases remain unevenly spread throughout England with the highest number of incidents consistently being found in North Yorkshire (28 in 2019/20 and 54 in 2020/21).

When we investigate an incident and confirm it is a poisoning, we assess the evidence gathered, post-mortem results and tissue analysis to find out if the poisoning was as a result of a misuse or abuse of pesticides. Misuse is not following the legal requirements of use, whereas abuse is deliberate use in an illegal manner to poison animals. Where the evidence is unclear, cases are classified as “unspecified”. Not all cases accepted into investigation reach the assessment process, particularly where it becomes clear that pesticides have not been involved in the death of the animal.

In 2020/21, 37 cases of animal poisoning were assessed as being the result of abuse. There were six cases of misuse and 140 unspecified. 21 of the abuse cases related to the poisoning of raptors and these cases were passed on to the Police for further investigation.

The RSPB’s Bird crime 2021 report, published last November tells the same story of raptor persecution, with 80 confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution in England, mainly through shooting, trapping or poisoning.

Based on data from WIIS, from 2016 onward, Natural England has observed a particular increase in frequency of Second-Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides (SGARS) being linked to the cause of death in animals or being found in relatively high concentrations in those animals.

Rodent control is essential to public health and users of rodenticides, including SGARS, span many industries including pest controllers, farmers and food producers. Other users of rodenticides include the game shooting industry. The use of anticoagulant rodenticides by professional users must follow the requirements of the industry led rodenticide stewardship regime Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use UK set up in 2016, as well as complying with the product label requirements.

It is imperative that anyone dealing with a rodent problem keeps within the law, follows the best practice guidelines, only using rodenticides after alternatives have been explored and doing so in a graduated, careful and responsible way, ensuring that rodent carcasses are disposed of promptly. However, cases of raptors dying with high levels of rodenticides in their system suggest there is a problem with the use of rodenticides – whether this be from deliberate abuse or misuse.

NE will continue to play its part, investigating poisoning incidents and working with the police and other partners to prosecute offences. Anyone can help – reports from the public can play an essential part in identifying cases of raptor persecution. However, without all landowners, land managers and gamekeepers complying with the law and reporting illegal activity, the impact on our wildlife will continue.


It’s a bit all over the place to be honest, mostly focusing on the mis-use of rodenticides, which, whilst important in the wider scheme of things, had nothing whatsoever to do with gamekeeper Paul Allen’s conviction.

It’s interesting though that they mention the poisoned white-tailed eagle that was found dead on the same estate ten months after Allen’s crimes were discovered (and for which nobody has been held responsible because Dorset Police botched the investigation). Natural England had a role to play in the follow-up to that botched investigation, along with the Health & Safety Executive, and I’ll return to this once NE has responded to some pending Freedom of Information requests.

The last sentence in NE’s statement is just laughable:

However, without all landowners, land managers and gamekeepers complying with the law and reporting illegal activity, the impact on our wildlife will continue‘.

You don’t say!

But at least NE has explicitly laid the blame of raptor persecution at the door of the game-shooting industry. That is helpful from a campaigning perspective.

In addition to this blog, NE’s Chief Executive Marian Spain tweeted about the case:

She came in for some criticism from others on Twitter for failing to mention the other partners involved with this successful prosecution, notably the RSPB, just as Dorset Police had failed to acknowledge their involvement. Although in Marian’s case I doubt this was a deliberate, petty and vindictive move, unlike Dorset Police’s probable motivation.

But what struck me most about her tweet was her claim that one of the ways NE works to tackle raptor persecution is by ‘working with shooting bodies to change attitudes‘ and by ‘prosecuting offenders‘.

How’s that going then, Marian? How many attitudes has NE changed? Given that 2020 saw the highest level of reported raptor persecution crimes in 30 years (here) and the most recent report from 2021 had the second highest number on record (here), I’d argue that attitudes haven’t changed one bit.

She might point to DEFRA’s ludicrous hen harrier brood meddling sham as ‘evidence of changed attitudes’ (because a handful of grouse moor owners are now ‘allowing’ hen harriers to breed) but I’d point out that since hen harrier brood meddling began in 2018, at least 77 hen harriers are known to have been illegally killed or have gone ‘missing’, mostly on or close to grouse moors (here). That’s not a change in attitude. That’s evidence of on-going law breaking by an industry that NE has jumped into bed with, switched on the electric blanket and pulled up the duvet.

And as for ‘prosecuting offenders‘, I think Guy Shorrock’s tweet says it all (Guy, a now-retired RSPB Investigator, worked for 30 years in this field so I think he’s well placed to ask the question):

‘Rising crimewave of raptor persecution across UK’ – feature article in The Mirror

There’s a two-page spread in today’s Mirror newspaper on the ‘rising crimewave of raptor persecution across the UK’, written by Environment Editor Nada Farhoud.

There isn’t anything in this article that regular blog readers won’t already know about but that’s not really the point. It’s good to see the extent of these crimes being exposed to the average tabloid reader, whom for many will be the first time they’ve heard about it.

Well done to the RSPB’s Investigations team for providing the information and taking out the journalist to visit grouse moors in the Peak District National Park.

The article can be read here.

Dorset Police response to sentencing of criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen

Well it’s taken them long enough, but finally Dorset Police has managed to issue a statement about the conviction and sentencing of criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen, who pleaded guilty to multiple wildlife, poisons and firearms offences whilst working on the Shaftesbury Estate in March 2021.

You’ll recall I was surprised when Dorset Police failed to mention anything about Allen’s forthcoming court appearance and subsequent conviction back in January, despite the force publishing statements about a wide variety of other criminal cases at various stages of progression through the criminal justice system (see here), but at last, they’ve got around to saying something. Although what they’ve chosen to exclude from this press statement is far more revealing than what they’ve chosen to include.

The following statement was published on the Dorset Police website last Thursday:

A man has been sentenced at court for wildlife and firearms offences in East Dorset following a multi-agency investigation led by rural crime officers.

Paul Scott Allen, aged 54, was sentenced at Weymouth Magistrates’ Court on Thursday 16 February 2023 after admitting a total of seven offences at a previous hearing.

The defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing a live or dead wild bird under schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and two charges of failing to comply with the conditions of a firearms certificate.

Allen also admitted the following offences:

Using a biocidal product in contravention of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Possessing an unlawful substance under the Plant Protection Products Regulations 2012

Possessing a regulated substance without a licence under the Poisons Act 1972.

Allen was sentenced to 15 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months. He was also ordered to pay fines and compensation totalling more than £2,900. 

The investigation was launched by Dorset Police’s Rural Crime Team following reports of suspected bird poisonings on a rural estate in East Dorset.

Following work with partner agencies including Natural England and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, a warrant was executed on Thursday 18 March 2021. During searches a number of dead birds of prey were located.

Officers also searched the address of Allen, a gamekeeper at the estate, and found a shotgun and ammunition, which were not covered by the defendant’s firearms certificate. Further enquiries uncovered a number of prohibited toxins at the premises.

Allen was interviewed by officers and – following detailed enquiries and liaison with experts from the Crown Prosecution Service – was charged with the various offences.

Chief Inspector David Parr, of Dorset Police, said: “We take all reports of wildlife crime and rural criminality very seriously. This case has seen us work with partners including Natural England and the National Wildlife Crime Unit to compile evidence before liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service Specialist Wildlife Prosecutor who agreed to the charges against the defendant.

“Wildlife crime remains a key objective of the recently expanded Dorset Police Rural Crime Team and we will continue to work with our partners to investigate criminal offences and deal with offenders robustly.”

Stephanie Bird-Halton, National Delivery Director for Natural England, said following the hearing: “Natural England is determined to tackle the scourge of persecution of our birds of prey. We assisted Dorset Police in this prosecution, gathering evidence and providing specialist technical advice. We are pleased Allen has been held to account for his offences against our wildlife. 

“Without landowners and land managers complying with the law and reporting illegal activity, the impact on our wildlife will continue.

“If members of the public spot birds of prey they suspect may have been poisoned, we would ask them to contact the police, but not to touch the bird.”

Angharad Thomas, the CPS Wessex Wildlife Lead, said: “We work closely with the police on all wildlife related cases to make sure there is sufficient evidence to meet our legal test for prosecution.

“In this case, the review of extensive and complex evidence made it clear that Allen’s offending posed a significant threat to human and animal life, as well as having a negative impact on the countryside.

“Anyone acting otherwise than in accordance with firearms licences or in contravention of laws intended to protect our wildlife and countryside will be prosecuted.”


To a casual observer, this press statement is straightforward, detailed and complimentary about a number of partners involved in the investigation that led to a successful conviction. Hooray! Tea and medals all round! But for those of us who’ve taken more than a passing interest in this case, what this statement actually is is petty and vindictive.

Why do I think that? Well, look closely and you’ll see that one of the significant partners in this multi-agency investigation, the RSPB, has been erased completely from the narrative by Dorset Police.

The statement mentions other partners including the NWCU, Natural England and the CPS, but there’s no mention whatsoever of the RSPB or the specialist role it brought to the case, from initial liaison with the (now former) Dorset Police wildlife crime officer, Claire Dinsdale, to helping plan and then conduct the search under warrant of Allen’s premises, to providing expert guidance on what was found, organising the forensics testing on the exhibits, then having considerable input into the file preparation for submitting to the CPS and then considerable liaison with the CPS itself.

As you can see, the RSPB wasn’t just along for the ride, it made an important and weighty contribution to the case, so why has Dorset Police gone out of its way to exclude it? My guess would be that it’s because the RSPB has been extremely supportive of Claire Dinsdale as she continues to battle senior officers over the botched investigation into the poisoned white-tailed eagle (an on-going saga).

I was also amused to read in the press statement the quote from Chief Inspector David Parr of Dorset Police, who said: “We take all reports of wildlife crime and rural criminality very seriously….. Wildlife crime remains a key objective of the recently expanded Dorset Police Rural Crime Team and we will continue to work with our partners to investigate criminal offences and deal with offenders robustly.”

Yeah, right, as long as it doesn’t involve conducting a police search on a shooting estate to look for evidence about who might have poisoned a white-tailed eagle, especially if a gamekeeper on that estate just happens to already be under investigation for multiple wildlife, poisons and firearms offences, and especially if a local Conservative MP has been kicking off about ‘wasting police resources on investigating wildlife crime’. Yeah, apart from that, Dorset Police will ‘continue to work with our partners [apart from the RSPB] to investigate criminal offences and deal with offenders robustly‘.

Game-shooting industry’s response to sentencing of Dorset gamekeeper Paul Allen

Further to last week’s blog about criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen’s sentencing for committing multiple wildlife, poisons and firearms offences on the Shaftesbury Estate in Dorset (here), here is a round-up of responses from the organisations within the game-shooting industry who also serve on the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), whose main objective is to raise awareness amongst the organisations’ members about illegal raptor persecution and prevent these crimes from happening:

Convicted gamekeeper Paul Allen. Photo: BNPS

National Gamekeepers Association: The previous statement published by the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), after Allen had pleaded guilty at a hearing in January, was so cryptic that the casual visitor to the NGO website wouldn’t have known it related to Allen and his crimes (see here).

So it’s pleasing to see that this time the NGO has published a statement acknowledging that criminal gamekeeper Paul Allen is an NGO member and that he has now been expelled. The following statement has prominent billing on the NGO’s website:

Expulsion from membership is good, and I applaud the NGO for publicising this action, although in reality it has no bearing whatsoever on Allen’s ability to continue working as a gamekeeper. Although often described by the shooting industry as a ‘profession’, gamekeeping isn’t regulated in the same way as I what I understand to be an actual ‘profession’.

For example, in many other (actual) professions, you’d be disbarred/struck off from practicing if convicted of an offence, especially an offence commissioned whilst undertaking your ‘professional’ duties. Not so for gamekeeping – you can be chucked out of one of the membership clubs but you can still ‘practice’/be employed as a gamekeeper even with a criminal conviction. We’ve seen this happen on many occasions, where a convicted gamekeeper has simply moved to another estate and carried on as though nothing has happened.

I note that the NGO’s statement on Allen has not been publicised on the NGO’s Twitter or Facebook accounts, only on its website.

British Association for Shooting & Conservation: BASC didn’t bother to publish any statement after Allen’s criminal conviction back in January, but it has done now he’s been sentenced, which is progress. The following statement has prominent billing on the BASC website:

As with the NGO’s statement, it’s good to see that BASC also hasn’t tried to be cryptic as its statement is clearly linked to Paul Allen’s crimes, conviction and sentencing.

Predictably, there’s a considerable amount of damage limitation included in the statement, talking about the so-called ‘minority who engage in this criminal behaviour‘ and maintaining that the shooting industry ‘works hard to support sustainable shooting‘ (er, the importation & release of 60+ million non-native gamebirds every year cannot possibly be described as ‘sustainable’!) but at least it’s published something in recognition of Allen’s crimes. Although, as with the NGO, I note that BASC’s statement on Allen has not been publicised on the BASC Twitter or Facebook accounts, only on its website.

COUNTRYSIDE ALLIANCE: Remains silent on Allen’s crimes, conviction and sentencing. No surprise.

COUNTRY LAND & BUSINESS ASSOCIATION (CLA): Remains silent on Allen’s crimes, conviction and sentencing.

I’ll blog shortly about responses to Allen’s sentencing from Dorset Police and Natural England.

15 sacks of pheasants dumped in Dyfi River in Wales – police investigating

Fifteen plastic sacks full of pheasant remains have been found dumped in the River Dyfi near Machynlleth in Wales.

The first nine sacks were found on 14th February, seemingly thrown from a bridge near Glantwymyn, probably in the hope they’d be washed out to sea. However, likely due to the weight of the dead birds in the sacks and the low river flow, they stayed put.

Images of the sacks in the river were sent to County Councillor Elwyn Vaughan, who posted images on Twitter and alerted Dyfed Powys Police.

Powys County Times website published an article about the discovery of the dumped carcasses a few days later (see here).

However, on Friday Councillor Vaughan reported finding a further six sacks that had also been dumped in the river:

According to the article in Powys County News, Dyfed Powys Police and ‘environmental health’ are investigating.

Regular blog readers will know that the dumping of shot gamebirds is not a new phenomenon, it’s been happening up and down the country for years, e.g. in Cheshire, Scottish borders (here), Norfolk (here), Perthshire (here), Berkshire (here), North York Moors National Park (here) and some more in North York Moors National Park (here) and even more in North Yorkshire (here), Co. Derry (here), West Yorkshire (here), and again in West Yorkshire (here), N Wales (here), mid-Wales (here), Leicestershire (here), Lincolnshire (here), Somerset (here), Derbyshire’s Peak District National Park (here), Suffolk (here), Leicestershire again (here), Somerset again (here), Liverpool (here), even more in North Wales (here) even more in Wales, again (here), in Wiltshire (here) in Angus (here), in Somerset again (here), once again in North Yorkshire (here) and yet again in West Yorkshire (here).

Earlier this month DEFRA Minister (and gamebird shooter) Lord Benyon failed to address a question put to him in the House of Lords by Natalie Bennett about the risk of avian flu being spread by the (unlawful) reckless dumping of shot gamebirds in the countryside (see here).