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.


10 thoughts on “Scottish Raptor Study Group pays tribute to Patrick Stirling-Aird on his retirement”

  1. …..i enjoyed reading that…’s people like Patrick that have helped us understand so much about our native species of bop over the years!
    Happy retirement Patrick….you certainly deserve it….and thankyou for everything that you have done!

  2. My own thanks to Patrick for his tremendous help in launching and participating in Operation Countrywatch Partnership, a joint Tayside Police initiative which I co-chaired with SNH, now NatureScot. We managed to get several estates to sit round the table and discuss issues of common concern, particularly raptor persecution. On one estate peregrine pairs which had failed to produce chicks for years sudden;y managed during at least the duration of Op Countrywatch to fledge chicks annually. My thanks also to Patrick for taking me to a golden eagle eyrie (out of season), which I actually managed to climb into and appreciate its size. Lastly, I never needed my specs to read Patrick’s notes; his handwriting is huge, with very few words to a page. I think his A4 paper must be delivered by the lorry-load. Really well done Patrick for your years of service to golden eagles and peregrines.

  3. A genuine gentleman in the true sense of the word. His knowledge and ability are to aspire too ! Thank you Patrick.

  4. Well done Patrick! Enjoy your retirement…..although I suspect we won’t notice any change in your behaviour that we’ve come to value and respect over the last few decades!! Keep the data coming in and the forthright discussions taking place with all our countryside management colleagues (apologies for encouraging him further, Sue!).

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