RSPB wants ‘action & delivery’ from Scottish Government on grouse moor licensing scheme

RSPB Scotland has published a blog today calling for ‘action and delivery’ from the Scottish Government on its promised grouse moor licensing scheme.

The Government announced in November 2020 that grouse shooting businesses in Scotland will need to be licensed to operate, under new proposals to tackle raptor persecution.

It also announced that muirburn will also only be permitted under licence, in order to protect wildlife and habitats, regardless of the time of year it is undertaken and whether or not it is for grouse moor management or improving grazing.

The Government stated there will also be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes, such as approved habitat restoration projects.

Since that announcement in November 2020, there hasn’t been any further action, but there has been plenty more evidence of illegal raptor persecution, including the poisoning of this golden eagle on a grouse moor at Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park:

RSPB Scotland writes:

We have been very patient, but nearly 20 months on from this announcement, we want to see some action and delivery on these promises by the Scottish Government. Proposals must be brought forward in the forthcoming Programme for Government in autumn 2022 for the introduction of grouse moor and muirburn licensing legislation in the next Parliamentary year“. 

You can read the full RSPB blog here.

Invercauld Estate in Cairngorms loses appeal against General Licence restriction imposed for wildlife crime

Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park has lost its appeal against a General Licence restriction that was imposed on the estate in February 2022 (see here) after Police Scotland provided the licensing authority (NatureScot) with evidence of wildlife crime against birds of prey on the estate, notably the discovery of a ‘deliberately poisoned’ golden eagle lying next to a poisoned hare bait in March 2021 (see here).

[Photo of the poisoned eagle & hare bait found on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Regular blog readers will know that the three-year General Licence restriction on the Gairnshiel & Micras part of Invercauld Estate took effect on 9th February 2022, prohibiting the use of General Licences 01, 02 and 03 on the estate until 9th February 2025 (see here).

The estate submitted a formal appeal against NatureScot’s restriction decision on 25th February 2022 and the official ‘restriction notice’ was removed from NatureScot’s website. I looked today and the notice has been reinstated, which I take to mean that the estate’s appeal has failed, in the same way that Lochan Estate’s recent appeal against restriction also failed (see here).

Here is the map from Naturescot showing the area of restriction on the Gairnshiel & Micras area of the estate:

If you’re at all familiar with Invercauld Estate you’ll recognise that this restriction area is only a small part of what is a massive grouse-shooting estate in the Cairngorms National Park (data from Andy Wightman’s excellent Who Owns Scotland website) rather than the restriction being applied across the entire estate, as seems to have been the case with other sanctioned estates:

I was curious about why the General Licence restriction was, well, restricted for want of a better term, to just the small area of Garnshiels and Micras, so I asked the licensing team at NatureScot about that decision.

The response from NatureScot was prompt (thank you!) and went like this:

‘…The decision was made on the basis that the evidence of crime provided [by Police Scotland] related to this one beat, rather than across the whole estate; and that the separate beats on this estate are managed independently of each other. Hence, the ultimate decision was to restrict to the beats where the evidence of crime occurred‘.

As many of you already know, the three-year General Licence restriction is barely worth the paper it’s written on because the estate can simply apply for ‘Individual licences’ (instead of relying on the General Licences) to continue its activities as before, albeit with the minor inconvenience of having to have a bit of a paper trail. This has been a major criticism of the General Licence restriction process ever since it began in 2014. This, combined with the shooting industry’s apparent reluctance to shun any estates where restrictions have been imposed for wildlife crime, means that the General Licence restriction is an utterly ineffective sanction (e.g. see here).

We were even provided with first-hand evidence of its ineffectiveness when further evidence of suspected wildlife crime was detected on two estates that were already serving a General Licence restriction for wildlife crime! Raeshaw Estate in the Scottish Borders had its Individual licences revoked (here) and Leadhills Estate was given a three-year extension to its original three-year General Licence restriction (here), a decision which it subsequently appealed and lost (here).

You may remember that in February, Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell asked Parliamentary questions about this absurd so-called sanction (see here); more on that shortly.

General Licence restriction imposed on Invercauld Estate in Cairngorms after poisoned golden eagle & baits found

In March last year a dead golden eagle was found face-down on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. It had been ‘deliberately’ poisoned with a banned substance, according to Police Scotland, and two poisoned baits were found close-by (see here).

[The poisoned golden eagle, next to a poisoned hare bait. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

[Invercauld Estate inside the Cairngorms National Park. Boundary data from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]

Today, 11 months after the grim discovery, the Scottish Government’s statutory nature conservation agency NatureScot has imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on part of Invercauld Estate. Here’s the press release:

General Licence restricted on Cairngorms Estate

NatureScot has restricted the use of general licences on part of the Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park.

The decision was made on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds. This evidence included a poisoned golden eagle found on the estate in March 2021, along with a rabbit and a hare carcass, both baited with poison. The restriction will apply to the Gairnshiel and Micras moor on the estate, where the evidence of poisoning was found.

Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s Head of Wildlife Management, said: ““These poisoning incidents are appalling and an act of animal cruelty. The indiscriminate use of poisons is not only lethal to our iconic Scottish wildlife, but can also pose a serious health risk to people and domestic animals that come into contact with it. 

We are committed to using all the tools we have available to tackle wildlife crime. In this case, there is clear evidence of criminal behaviour. Because of this, and the risk of more wildlife crimes taking place, we have suspended the use of general licences on this property for three years. They may still apply for individual licences, but these will be closely monitored.

This measure will help to protect wild birds in the area, while still allowing necessary land management activities to take place, although under tighter supervision. We believe this is a proportionate response to protect wild birds in the area and prevent further wildlife crime.

We work closely with Police Scotland and will continue to consider information they provide on cases which may warrant restricting general licences. The detection of wildlife crime can be difficult, but this is the third time in recent months when we have restricted use of general licences on the basis of evidence of crime taking place. New and emerging technologies, along with a commitment from a range of partners to take a collective approach to these issues, will help us stop wildlife crime.”

General licences allow landowners or land managers to carry out control of common species of wild birds, such as crows and magpies, to protect crops or livestock, without the need to apply for an individual licence.

ENDS

Here is the map showing the restricted areas on Invercauld Estate. The restriction applies from 9th February 2022 to 9th February 2025.

This has been a long time coming for this estate. I wrote about it in May 2021 (here) and I’ll repeat it here.

Invercauld Estate and the surrounding area has been at the centre of many alleged wildlife crimes over the years, including the discovery of three poisoned buzzards on the estate in 2005 (here), the discovery of a poisoned red kite at the Spittal of Glenshee on Invercauld Estate in January 2007 according to former police wildlife crime officer Alan Stewart (in litt. 9 Feb 2022), the discovery of an illegally shot peregrine at the Pass of Ballater in 2011, the reported coordinated hunt and subsequent shooting of an adult hen harrier at Glen Gairn on the border of Invercauld and Dinnet Estates in 2013, the illegally-set traps that were found near Geallaig Hill on Invercauld Estate in 2016, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Calluna ‘on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater’ on 12 August 2017, the opening day of the grouse shooting season (here) although it’s not clear whether this was on Invercauld Estate or neighbouring Dinnet Estate, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged white-tailed eagle ‘Blue T’ on Invercauld Estate in May 2018 (see here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Stelmaria ‘last recorded on grouse moor a few miles north west of Ballater, Aberdeenshire on 3rd September 2018 (see here), the discovery of a golden eagle flying around the area with a spring trap attached to its foot in August 2019 (here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier (Wildland 2) on Invercauld Estate on 24 September 2019 (here) and the discovery of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and poisonous baits on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in March 2021 (see here).

I’m pleased to see this restriction finally imposed on Invercauld, although I’d much rather have seen a series of criminal prosecutions. The restriction will have very little material affect on the game-shooting activities on Invercauld because the estate can simply apply for an individual licence allowing it to continue its activities as if no ‘clear evidence of criminal behaviour’ has been uncovered (more on that ridiculous situation shortly) but it does mean the estate’s reputation is damaged and it also means this can be used to apply pressure on organisations such as Scottish Land & Estates and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who both claim to have a zero tolerance of raptor persecution.

Will Invercauld Estate and its gamekeepers remain members of these two organisations?

UPDATE 7th April 2022: Invercauld Estate in Cairngorms National Park loses appeal against General Licence restriction imposed for wildlife crime (here)

“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

Why are golden eagles still poisoned on Scottish grouse moors? The long road to Werritty and beyond

Today is the 26th November 2021. It’s been exactly one year since the then Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon announced the Scottish Government’s long-awaited response to the Werritty Review on grouse moor management and a decision to implement a licensing scheme for grouse shooting.

How we got to that position was the subject of a talk I presented at the REVIVE national conference a couple of weeks ago, hosted by Chris Packham at Perth Concert Hall.

[Chris Packham opening the REVIVE coalition for grouse moor reform conference. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

There had been an intention for a recording of the entire event to be made available but we learned subsequently that unfortunately the venue’s audio system had failed. REVIVE’s campaign manager, Max Wiszniewski has since published a conference overview (here) but I thought I’d take the opportunity to share the main points from my talk, to try and put Mairi Gougeon’s announcement in to some sort of context, and it seems fitting to do that today.

My opening slide was a screengrab of Minister Gougeon making that historic statement on 26th November 2020:

The key recommendation put forward in the Werritty report – is that a ‘licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse’. This is a recommendation that I accept.

However, while I the understand why the review group also recommended that such a scheme should be introduced if, after five years, ‘there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management’, I believe that the Government needs to act sooner than this and begin developing a licensing scheme now”.

There’s no question that this was a significant statement and although some campaigners were disappointingly dismissive (including several commentators on this blog), I think that when you understand the history of exactly what it took to get there, over many, many years of hard campaigning at substantial personal cost to many, you’ll hopefully appreciate why so many of us celebrated it as a huge victory. It’s not the end point, not by any means, but it is hugely symbolic of the direction of travel.

My next slide is a photo that I use in pretty much every talk I give on raptor persecution in the UK:

This is a photograph of a young golden eagle, found illegally poisoned on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in 2006. It was photographed by former RSPB Investigator Dave Dick (now retired) who had been sent out to retrieve it for post mortem. He had picked up many other illegally killed birds of prey on grouse moors over the years, but this image epitomises everything in its pitiful, poignant, senselessness.

I asked the audience to hold this image in their head as the talk progressed to cover some of the key moments in this long campaign against criminal activity and for effective law enforcement against those criminals.

I started with the basics – the 1954 Protection of Birds Act which brought legal protection for all raptor species in the UK, with the exception of the sparrowhawk which finally received full protection in 1961. So for most UK birds of prey, they’ve supposedly been protected for 67 years! This isn’t a new law that society needs time to adjust to and for which we should forgive any lack of adherence. This legislation was enacted a lifetime ago and was probably in place before every current working gamekeeper was even born. Ignorance of the law is no defence and that statement applies here, in spades.

In 1998, 44 years after raptors were declared ‘protected species’ in law, the then Secretary of State, Donald Dewar described the level of raptor persecution in Scotland as “a national disgrace“. He promised that following devolution the following year, the Scottish Government would take “all possible steps to eradicate it”.

RSPB Scotland started publishing annual reports in 1994, meticulously documenting raptor persecution. Their 20th report, published in 2004, documented that 779 birds of prey had been confirmed illegally killed between 1994 and 2004. This figure was considered the tip of the iceberg as wildlife crime, including raptor persecution, is widely recognised as being under-recorded for a number of reasons.

During the late 1990s-mid-2000s, and actually continuing to this day, researchers published a suite of scientific papers documenting the impact of illegal raptor persecution. This wasn’t just the odd ‘rogue incident’ here and there; raptor persecution was so extensive and systematic it was having population-level impacts on a number of species, notably the golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine and red kite. The peer-reviewed evidence was conclusive – much of the killing was linked to game-shooting, and particularly to driven grouse moor management.

[An expanse of driven grouse moors inside the Cairngorms National Park. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

In 2000, the UK Raptor Working Group (established in 1995 and comprising a variety of statutory agencies, conservation NGOs and game-shooting bodies) published a report with a series of recommendations to address the recovery of bird of prey populations and their perceived impact on gamebirds, moorland management and pigeon racing.

In 2002, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) advised the Scottish Executive to accept most of the recommendations of the 2000 report and this led to many developments, with a particular focus on partnership working. Most of these so-called partnerships have since proven to be utterly ineffective (e.g. Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Raptor Group, Heads Up for Hen Harriers) mostly due to them being heavily weighted towards game-shooting interests who seem intent on preventing progress by means of constant denial and obfuscation.

In 2004, raptor satellite-tagging began as a novel method of studying the biology and ecology of several species, notably the golden eagle. The significance of this will become apparent later.

[Two young golden eagles fitted with satellite tags prior to fledging. Photo by Dan Kitwood]

In 2005 the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order was enacted, making it an offence for anyone to possess any of the eight highly toxic poisons used most frequently for killing birds of prey. This piece of legislation has proven useful in that it has allowed law enforcement agencies to prosecute for the lesser offence of ‘possession’ in cases where it has been virtually impossible to provide sufficient evidence to prosecute for actually poisoning a bird of prey.

In 2007 an adult golden eagle was found poisoned at her nest site in the Borders. She was part of the only breeding pair in the region. Nobody was prosecuted and the ensuing public outrage resulted in the then Environment Minister Mike Russell ordering a Thematic Review into the prevention, investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime, which led to a series of recommendations to improve enforcement activities.

[Police officer Mark Rafferty holding the poisoned corpse of the Borders golden eagle. Photo by Dave Dick]

In 2010, this blog was launched primarily to raise public awareness about the scale of illegal raptor persecution in Scotland. It was later widened to cover the whole of the UK. It’s had over 7.5 million views to date.

In 2011, the Scottish Government launched a poisons disposal scheme, offering a sort of ‘amnesty’ and the safe destruction of any banned poisons that might have been left over from when it was legal for people to have these toxins in their possession (i.e. pre-2005).

Also in 2011, Peter Peacock MSP put forward an amendment for the Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill to introduce additional powers for the Scottish SPCA to enable them to investigate a wider suite of wildlife crime, including raptor persecution. Then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham rejected the amendment but committed to launch a public consultation on this subject.

Later in 2011 the Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Act was enacted and in 2012 this led to the Scottish Government having to publish its first annual wildlife crime report. The legislation also brought in vicarious liability, providing an opportunity for prosecutions against landowners and sporting agents whose employees had committed certain offences linked to raptor persecution. After almost ten years there have only been two successful prosecutions. That’s not because there haven’t been more opportunities for prosecution – there have been plenty – it’s because for the most part the Crown Office has refused to take the cases. When pushed for an explanation we’ve simply been told ‘it’s not in the public interest to proceed’. One case was not progressed because the landowner / hierarchy of supervision could not be established because the identity of the person was hidden in an offshore trust.

In 2013 the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse ordered a review of the penalties available for wildlife crime and appointed Professor Poustie to lead the review.

Also in 2013, after RSPB video evidence was published showing a gamekeeper allegedly shooting a hen harrier on its nest on a grouse moor in Morayshire, which led to a prosecution that was later dropped because the Crown Office ruled the evidence ‘inadmissible’, huge public uproar led to Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse having discussions with the Lord Advocate about maximising opportunities for prosecution and the Lord Advocate subsequently instructed the Crown Office to utilise all investigative tools for enforcement against wildlife crime. This had zero impact – several other high profile cases involving RSPB video evidence have also since been dropped due to this apparent inadmissibility.

[A screen grab from an RSPB video showing the alleged shooting of a hen harrier on a grouse moor]

In 2014 Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse introduced General Licence restrictions for shooting estates where police evidence confirmed that raptor persecution had taken place but where there was insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution against a named individual. This was supposed to be a ‘reputational driver’ to deter crimes but has proven to be utterly ineffective with just a handful of restrictions applied over the last seven years and most ‘sanctioned’ estates simply given an individual licence to allow them to continue the activities which were supposed to have been restricted under the General Licence. It’s just bonkers.

Also in 2014, Paul Wheelhouse ordered a review of gamebird management systems in other European countries to see whether these different management approaches could help address ongoing raptor persecution in Scotland.

Also in 2014, the Scottish Government finally launched a public consultation on increased powers for the SSPCA, three years after first agreeing to set this up.

In 2014, Mark Avery and Chris Packham launched the concept of Hen Harrier Day to draw attention to the plight of the hen harrier, timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season on 12th August. Hen Harrier Day has now become an annual event and volunteers Andrea Hudspeth and Andrea Goddard have organised these high profile events in Scotland.

In 2015, with raptor poisoning crimes still occurring, not content that the poisoners had already been given an opportunity to hand in their illegal stashes back in 2011, the Scottish Government launched its second poisons amnesty scheme, ten years after it became an offence to possess these dangerous toxins. How many chances do these gamekeepers get?

Also in 2015, SNH launched its ridiculous Heads up for Hen Harriers project – joining forces with shooting estates to fix nest cameras at hen harrier nests to determine the cause of breeding failures on grouse moors (yes, really!). It was doomed to failure because obviously the gamekeepers on estates where the cameras had been installed would not destroy the harriers/nests (at least not while the birds were within camera range) and the study’s ‘findings’ would then be skewed towards natural predator events and poor weather conditions which the grouse shooting industry would then point to as being the main cause of hen harrier breeding failure on grouse moors. It was nothing more than a greenwashing project.

Also in 2015, Scottish Environment LINK published a damning report demonstrating that wildlife crime enforcement measures were still weak, inconsistent & ineffective, seven years after the HM Inspector of Constabulary published its Thematic Review into the prevention, investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime and its subsequent recommendations to improve enforcement measures. Even today, apart from the RSPB’s meticulous records, it’s virtually impossible to get accurate raptor persecution statistics due to incoherent recording across agencies and Police Scotland’s strange decisions to sometimes withhold information, long after investigations have closed.

Also in 2015, Professor Poustie’s review of wildlife crime penalties was published, making a series of recommendations to substantially increase penalties for certain types of wildlife crime, including raptor persecution.

A year later in 2016, then Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod accepted the Poustie Review recommendations to substantially increase penalties for wildlife crime. These were not finally enacted until four years later in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, increasing the maximum penalty for the most serious animal welfare and wildlife crimes to five years imprisonment and unlimited fines. We have yet to see these utilised by the courts.

Also in 2016 the Scottish Government made a manifesto pledge to establish a Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit as part of Police Scotland. This has not happened and appears to have been quietly dropped.

Also in 2016, the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) launched a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for the introduction of a state-regulated licensing system for gamebird shooting. These volunteers who later spoke so passionately and convincingly in front of a televised Parliamentary committee in 2017 were subjected to a barrage of offensive online abuse from a number of gamekeepers and their hangers-on and this hate campaign continues to this day.

[SRSG members Patrick Stirling-Aird, Andrea Hudspeth, Logan Steele and Duncan Orr-Ewing outside the Scottish Parliament building. Photo by SRSG]

2016 also saw what in my opinion was the most significant and important event in the road leading to the introduction of grouse moor licensing. The RSPB published a press release about the suspicious disappearance of eight satellite-tagged golden eagles on grouse moors in the Monadhliaths between 2011-2016. Public outrage about this news, combined with the fact that nobody had ever being successfully prosecuted for killing a golden eagle, led to then Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham calling for a review of golden eagle satellite tag data to establish whether there was a pattern to the disappearance of tagged eagles and whether there was a link with driven grouse shooting. Of course we all knew there was, but it was significant that the Cabinet Secretary had officially requested the analysis. Predictably, this Government-sponsored review coincided with a concerted smear campaign by the grouse shooting industry to undermine the functionality and reliability of satellite tags and the integrity of the highly qualified and licensed researchers who were fitting the tags to eagles. This continues to this day.

In 2017 the review of gamebird management in other European countries was published, showing that gamebird shooting in the UK was the most unregulated and unaccountable system of all those reviewed. This didn’t result in any direct action from the Scottish Government other than an instruction for the Werritty panel to consider the report’s findings as part of its Grouse Moor Management Review.

Also in 2017 Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responded to the public consultation on increased SSPCA powers (3 yrs after the consultation closed!) & rejected it ‘based on legal advice’ which was never explained. As an alternative, she announced a Police Special Constables pilot scheme in the Cairngorms National Park to help detect raptor persecution crimes and bring the offenders before the courts.

The most significant event in 2017 was the publication of the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review. This comprehensive and forensic review was devastating, showing that almost one third of satellite-tagged golden eagles (131 of them) had been illegally killed or had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances between 2004-2016, and there were irrefutable geographic clusters centred on some driven grouse moors:

On the basis of this report, Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham ordered yet another independent review, this time to assess the environmental impact of grouse moor management and to provide recommendations and options for regulation, including the potential for a licensing scheme. Professor Werritty was appointed to lead the review.

In 2018 REVIVE was launched – a consortium of environmental, social justice and animal welfare groups seeking grouse moor reform in Scotland. The well-attended launch took place in Edinburgh and Chris Packham was the keynote speaker. Inevitably this led to yet another smear campaign by certain elements of the grouse shooting industry which continues to this day.

[Photo by REVIVE]

In 2019 the Police Special Constables pilot scheme in the Cairngorms National Park came to an end in complete failure. They didn’t report a single wildlife crime during this two-year scheme but illegal raptor persecution continued, as evidenced by the RSPB’S annual reports.

In December 2019 the Werritty Report was finally published two and a half years after it was commissioned. It highlighted many of the problems associated with driven grouse moor management but crucially it recommended a further five-year wait before the introduction of a licensing scheme to allow the grouse shooting industry yet more opportunity to oust the criminals within rather than have regulation foisted on it by legislation. This recommendation was clearly a result of having a number of representatives from the grouse shooting industry serving on the so-called independent panel. Meanwhile, the raptor killing continued.

In 2020 MSP Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) proposed increased powers for the SSPCA as an amendment in the Animals & Wildlife Bill. The then Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon rejected the amendment but promised to establish a task force later in summer to consider increased powers. Deja vu, anyone?

In November 2020 the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act was enacted, increasing the maximum penalty for the most serious animal welfare and wildlife crimes to five years imprisonment and unlimited fines (after the recommendations of the Poustie review published in 2015). This raises the status of some offences to ‘serious’ and thus for the first time allows the Police to seek permission to utilise covert video surveillance in areas where raptor persecution is suspected. I know there is enthusiasm for this from a number of police officers and I look forward to seeing some results.

In December 2020, a year after receiving the Werrity Review, Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon announced the Scottish Government’s intention to introduce a licensing scheme for grouse moors without waiting for a further five years as the review had recommended.

[NB: I understand that Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland will publish a blog later today (26th November 2021) detailing what has happened in the year following this announcement. I will publish the blog here when it’s available]. Update – Ian’s blog available here

In January 2021 the new Environment Minister Ben MacPherson responded to a Parliamentary Question from Mark Ruskell MSP and admits that the promised taskforce to consider increased powers for the SSPCA had not yet formed but was ‘expected later this year’. This is ten years on from when increased powers for the SSPCA was first mooted in the Scottish Parliament.

In September 2021 the Scottish Government published its five-year Programme for Government and it included commitments to deliver the recommendations of the Werritty review, and to establish a taskforce to review increased powers for the SSPCA, to report by the end of 2022. Yet another Environment Minister (the 9th one?) is in post – Mairi McAllan.

In October 2021 the ridiculous Heads Up for Hen Harriers ‘partnership’ project was closed, with SNH declaring it a ‘success’. It wasn’t, at all. I’ll be blogging about this separately in the next few days.

Meanwhile, in May 2021 a young golden eagle was found deliberately poisoned, lying dead next to a poisoned bait, on an Invercauld Estate grouse moor inside the Cairngorms National Park. Sixty-seven years after raptors gained legal protection and 23 years after Donald Dewar declared raptor persecution in Scotland ‘a national disgrace’, golden eagles and other raptors are still being illegally killed on some driven grouse moors.

[The poisoned golden eagle, next to the poisoned hare bait, on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park in May 2021. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

So despite all this campaigning and political movement, nothing has changed on the ground. Golden eagles (and other raptor species) are still being killed on grouse moors, even inside the Cairngorms National Park, and still not one person has been successfully prosecuted.

It’s shameful that we, ordinary members of the public, have to campaign just to have the law upheld, but its even more shameful that despite decades of compelling evidence, the Scottish Government has still not taken effective action against the criminals within the driven grouse shooting industry.

Even so, we should absolutely celebrate how far we have come, and it’s been hard work and at great personal cost to many, but don’t underestimate just how much more work there is to come.

Royal family ‘hypocritical’ to have grouse shooting at Balmoral – headline in The Times!

Crikey, it’s coming to something when The Times (Scottish edition) headlines with this:

Royal family ‘hypocritical’ to have grouse shooting at Balmoral.

This paper is not known for its criticism of the establishment and especially not of establishment hobbies such as driven grouse shooting (e.g. it was only on Sunday the paper was publishing what looked very much like an attempted stitch-up of Chris Packham at the behest of a load of gamekeepers (or more likely the gamekeepers’ masters)).

Anyway, today’s headlining article is very welcome. I’m afraid it sits behind a paywall but as it’s based on the writing of Nick Kempe, whose brilliant blog ParksWatchScotland should be a must-read for anyone interested in the mis-management of Scotland’s two national parks, the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, then I’d encourage you to cut out the middle man and go direct to Nick’s blog.

The blog post on which today’s article in The Times is based is this one:

COP26, the Royal Family and the failures of the Cairngorms National Park, published by Nick on 12th November 2021 and can be read here.

And if that whets your appetite, there’s now a follow-on blog called:

The £23m sale of the Abergeldie Estate – the Royal Family should pay for their environmental damage, published by Nick on 22nd November 2021 (here).

It’s a fascinating and useful discussion which will help inform your reaction the next time you hear a senior Royal claiming green / conservation credentials.

Scottish grouse moors set on fire in Cairngorms National Park while world leaders discuss climate emergency in Glasgow

Press release from REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform:

11th November 2021

Scotland’s Muirburn Shame

National Park burns while world leaders discuss climate emergency in Glasgow

Scottish landowners are being accused of putting two fingers up to COP26 as they cause environmental damage through muirburn during the global climate conference.

REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform has published graphic footage of muirburn in the Cairngorms National Park, highlighting the hypocrisy of the practice as Scotland hosts UN climate talks to reach agreement to tackle the climate emergency. The footage filmed by REVIVE partners, the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, shows large swathes of moorland burning intensively.

[Gamekeepers setting fire to heather on peatland on Edinglassie Estate, Cairngorms National Park last week. Photo by League Against Cruel Sports Scotland]

League Against Cruel Sports Scotland Director, Robbie Marsland said: “It beggars belief that heather burning on this scale is happening at the very same time as a global summit on climate change.

Every year thousands of hectares of heather goes up in smoke in Scotland’s highlands and much of it is on deep peat. The heather is burnt to increase the number of grouse that can be shot for entertainment. 

Our film also shows the dramatic impact of the burning – a treeless brown desert stretching to the horizon. But this is just the impact which is visible. What we can’t see is the carbon stored on this land leaking into the atmosphere, undermining efforts to reduce climate emissions. In the context of the international conference on the climate crisis this to me, looks like these landowners are putting up two fingers to COP 26.”

Muirburn involves burning heather moorland to provide unnatural habitats for game birds to increase numbers for sport shooting. The practice is an issue of growing concern due to the increasing extent and intensity of burning on grouse moors, and particularly the effects of burning over deep peat.

Dr Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, a REVIVE coalition partner said: “Allowing landowners to burn land indiscriminately puts our vital peatlands at incredible risk by allowing the carbon it stores to leak into the atmosphere, undermining other efforts to reduce climate emissions.

This is a very serious issue for grouse moors, because much of that land is high in peat, and peaty soils contain a massive amount of carbon. With the eyes of the world on Scotland’s climate action, the management of all our peat-rich grouse moorland will have to improve radically to contribute to national efforts to cut emissions.”

The Scottish Government recently announced a series of measures to license grouse moors, including addressing issues such as muirburn, following the Werritty Review of grouse moor management.

Campaign Manager for REVIVE Max Wiszniewski added: “With every sector under pressure to reduce carbon emissions and help tackle the climate emergency it is staggering that muirburn for a purpose as unnecessary as increasing the number of grouse that can be shot for entertainment is deemed acceptable. Scotland’s vital peat reserves are under constant threat from the damage caused by increasingly intensive muir burning on grouse moors and we would urge the Scottish Government to ban this environmentally damaging practice.

The footage shows moor land in the Highlands quite literally on fire with huge plumes of smoke billowing into the atmosphere. Muirburn is just one of a number of unpalatable practices in the circle of destruction that surround grouse moors causing significant environmental, social and animal welfare concerns.”

Muirburn season runs from 1st October until 15th April in Scotland. [Ed: and incredibly can be extended to 30th April with landowner permission!]

ENDS

Here is a short video:

The Daily Record also has an article on this today (here), which provides detail of the identities of the estates featured in this footage – reported to be Edinglassie Estate and Allargue Estate. If you can look beyond the tabloid sensationalism, it’s an interesting read.

I particularly liked this bit:

[Robbie] Marsland, [Director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland] said arguments put up by estate owners for burning the heather are bogus.

He said: “The people who burn the land regularly claim they do it to help conserve lapwing. However, the clue of their real motive is rather obviously in the title of the moors. They’re not called lapwing moors, they’re called grouse moors“.

There’s also a quote from Stuart Young, Chief Executive of Dunecht Estates (which includes Edinglassie Estate) whose reported comments included this:

Controlled fires following the official Muirburn Code do not damage the peat underneath and also serve as an essential management tool to prevent and reduce the extent and severity of uncontrolled wildfires which are a really serious threat to the nature conservation and carbon sequestration benefits provided by moorland“.

It’s cleverly worded, but of course fails to acknowledge that not all grouse moor owners comply with the (mostly voluntary) Muirburn Code. With the intensification of grouse moor management in some areas of Scotland comes an increase in the extent and intensity of rotational heather burning. These fires have even been lit on areas of deep peat (forbidden by the voluntary Muirburn Code, which many land managers seem to simply ignore) causing damage to protected blanket bog habitat – in fact 40% of the area of land burned for grouse moor management in Scotland is on deep peat according to a 2019 report commissioned & published by the Revive Coalition (see here).

Meanwhile, last month conservation campaign group Wild Justice was refused permission for judicial review of the much criticised and frankly grossly inadequate regulations brought in by DEFRA to limit vegetation burning on peatland soils in the uplands of England. Wild Justice has appealed this ruling and a decision is expected in early December.

Ps. REVIVE’s annual conference will take place in Perth this Sunday (14th Nov) and tickets are still available (here). Speakers include Chris Packham, Lesley Riddoch, Andy Wightman and others (see programme here). Please note, the start time has been put back to 11am to accommodate attendees arriving on public transport.

I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Cairngorms National Park Authority targets intensive gamebird management in draft Park Plan

The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) is targeting intensive gamebird management in its latest draft National Park Plan (2022-2027), much to the outrage of some of the CNPA Board members.

This focus isn’t just restricted to intensive driven grouse moor management either; this time the CNPA also has its eyes on the release of non-native gamebirds (pheasants and red-legged partridges) and what ecological impacts that might cause.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time the CNPA has made any attempt to get this issue into the five-yearly National Park Plan. Questions about driven grouse shooting were inevitable after the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce a licencing scheme in an attempt to regulate the criminals still operating in plain sight (here) but the release of non-native gamebirds inside the National Park has, until now, largely been ignored.

Nick Kempe, author of the excellent ParkWatchScotland blog, has raised the issue a few times over the last few years (well worth a read, e.g. see here and here) and he’s pointed out that the CNPA has failed to even monitor how many birds are released inside the National Park, let alone how many are subsequently shot.

A quick look around on some of the shooting websites shows that these birds are not in short supply in the National Park. Ralia Estate, located on the western side of the Park, is apparently offering clients the opportunity to shoot between 200-500 red-legged partridge/pheasants per day during the season – that’s an obscene amount of killing. And not all their clients are even able to distinguish between a pheasant and a buzzard (here).

[Photo of a pheasant shoot on Ralia Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, via Guns on Pegs website]

In addition to pressure on the CNPA from Nick Kempe, the issue of the impact of gamebird releases on biodiversity has also been gaining traction in England, with DEFRA being forced to review the potential impacts of releasing these alien species on protected areas and to develop a licensing scheme for gamebird release after a legal challenge last year from conservation campaign group Wild Justice (see here).

Whatever has led the CNPA to start looking at this issue inside the Cairngorms National Park, it’s a long overdue but nevertheless very welcome move, although not all the CNPA Board members agree if their responses to the draft Plan are anything to go by.

These responses can be watched in a fascinating video of the CNPA Board meeting held earlier this month which has now been put online. The point of the meeting was for CNPA staff, led by CEO Grant Moir, to present the draft National Park Plan for 2022-2027 to the Board for their ‘approval’ to put it out for a three-month public consultation.

This process for the Park Plan has been in motion for quite some time, but if you listen to some of the Board members’ comments you’d think it had been foisted on them out of nowhere.

To summarise the process, the Park Plan has been put together after an initial public consultation asking people to help shape the plan’s objectives, now it’s gone to public consultation (23rd Sept – 17th Dec), then the CNPA staff and Board will consider all the consultation responses and put together a final Plan in the spring, to put to Scottish Ministers next June.

This video of the Board meeting is well worth your time. It’s just over an hour and a half long, so it will take some commitment on your part, but honestly, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve watched in ages.

(CLICK HERE to watch).

It starts off with someone calling a register and you feel like you’re watching a classroom parody, and actually this theme is quite appropriate later on in the video as some of the participants have to be schooled repeatedly, not just about the consultation process but also about how to behave during the Board meeting.

Then for the first 25 minutes there’s a clear explanation about the process and about the draft consultation document from three CNPA staff, before the floor is opened to the Board members to ask questions / make comments etc, and for CEO Grant Moir to respond.

I won’t spoil the surprise but look out for some familiar names making fools of themselves as they question why gamebird management is part of the draft Plan (Doug McAdam, serial raptor persecution denier and former CEO of grouse moor lobby group Scottish Land & Estates; Geva Blackett, former parliamentary officer for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association & married to the now retired Factor of Invercauld Estate) and especially watch out for Deirdre Falconer and John Kirk – the latter for his views on peatland restoration (and while he’s talking, watch CNPA staff member Gavin Miles’s eyes – they say it all!).

I’ve got to say, CEO Grant Moir and Xander McDade (CNPA Convenor) gave a masterclass on how to provide a calm, measured and well-evidenced response to what at times were contributions verging on hysteria. You’ll be pleased to know that there are also some eminently sensible Board members, and at least two of them restored some faith in the ability of the Board (Fiona McLean and Peter Argyle).

On the Park Plan consultation itself, as mentioned above, it is now open until 17th December and anyone can contribute to it – whether you’re a Park resident or visitor – you can find the consultation online HERE.

I may come back to the Plan’s objectives in a later blog – I did notice that tackling raptor persecution, which has featured quite prominently in previous Plans, doesn’t seem to be included this time [NB: see update at foot of blog], probably because the CNPA has failed to get to grips with it, as evidenced by the latest poisoned eagle found earlier this year on a Cairngorms grouse moor (here) and the news last week that a Police Scotland dive team is searching a Cairngorms loch after the discovery of a dumped golden eagle satellite tag (here).

On gamebirds, the first step is to gather evidence on how many are released and how many are shot in the Park, before any assessment can be made on the impact of these alien species on biodiversity. It’ll be fascinating to see how the CNPA is going to define ‘sustainable pheasant and partridge shooting / releases’ inside a National Park. Surely that’d be zero releases of non-native species?

There’s also an objective to curtail muirburn, and there will be long arguments during the consultation period about what will constitute a legitimate reason to set fire to peatland vegetation during a climate emergency. Manipulating the habitat to support artificially-high numbers of red grouse for shooting is not a good enough reason, in my view.

UPDATE 08.20hrs: Tackling raptor persecution IS included in this latest draft Park Plan – see A14 in ‘Actions’ and A6 in ‘Policy’. Thanks to a blog reader for pointing this out.

Golden eagles have been illegally killed on Scottish grouse moors for 40+ years but apparently we shouldn’t talk about it

In response to the news that Police Scotland are investigating the circumstances of five eagles found dead in the Western Isles earlier this month (see here), Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), the grouse moor owners’ lobby group has issued what I’d call a staggeringly disingenuous statement, where the blame for ongoing raptor persecution appears to be being projected on to those of us who dare to call out the shooting industry for its ongoing war against birds of prey.

Here’s SLE’s statement in full, dated 20 August 2021:

Response to raptor fatalities should not depend on location or landuse

Reports of five eagles being found dead on the Western Isles are very serious. 

Police Scotland has said that officers are investigating and it is to be hoped that the facts of these potentially shocking incidents are established as quickly as possible.

The birds – four golden eagles and a white-tailed sea eagle – were found at separate locations on Lewis and Harris and it is said that, at this stage, they are not linked.

No grouse shooting takes place on the Western Isles and we wholeheartedly support the police’s appeal for information and anyone who can help should call Police Scotland on 101, or make a call anonymously to the charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

It has been suggested that intraguild predation – where one species predates on another – may be one possible explanation in these cases but equally we accept there is the prospect that a terrible wildlife crime has been committed to protect livestock.

If that is the case, outright condemnation is the only rightful response.

That applies wherever raptor persecution takes place.

The response from some quarters thus far to the incidents on the Western Isles is in sharp contrast to what happens over alleged incidents that occur in areas where land is managed for grouse shooting. In these cases organisations and campaign groups are very quick off the mark to point fingers. If a wildlife crime takes place on land managed for shooting, livestock farming or any other land use (and such incidents are thankfully rare, becoming more so all the time) then it must be investigated and the culprits should face the full force of the law. It can be difficult to prosecute but Scotland now benefits from some of the most stringent laws against raptor persecution in Europe. A lot more could be achieved with less finger pointing and more constructive collaboration on the ground. Scotland is fortunate to have historically high numbers of golden eagles and we want to see even more of them.

ENDS

So SLE is unhappy that campaigners keep ‘pointing fingers’ at the grouse-shooting industry whenever an illegally shot / poisoned / trapped bird of prey is discovered dead or critically injured on, er, a driven grouse moor?!!!!!!!!!

Or when satellite-tagged hen harriers and golden eagles keep ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances, on or close to driven grouse moors.

If these crimes were just a one-off, once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence then yes, perhaps SLE would have a point. However, the connection between the driven grouse shooting industry and the illegal persecution of birds of prey has been clear for decades, and backed up with endless scientific papers and Government-commissioned reviews (here are the latest for golden eagle and for hen harrier).

Here’s an example of how long this has been going on – a scientific paper published in 2002, using data from 1981-2000 – demonstrating an indisputable link between grouse moors and illegal poisoning:

1981 – that was 40 years ago!!

And yet here we are in 2021 and still illegally poisoned golden eagles are being found dead on grouse moors and still nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted in Scotland for killing a golden eagle. The most recently confirmed poisoned eagle was this one inside the Cairngorms National Park, right next door to the royal estate of Balmoral. In fact this eagle is believed to have fledged on Balmoral a few months before it flew to neighbouring Invercauld Estate (an SLE member, no less) where it consumed a hare that had been smothered in a banned pesticide and laid out as a poisoned bait. The person(s) responsible for laying this poisoned bait have not been identified.

[Poisoned golden eagle laying next to poisoned mountain hare bait, Invercauld Estate, Cairngorms National Park. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Such is the extent of illegal persecution on some driven grouse moors, it is having (and continues to have) a population-level effect on some species, including golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.

And such is the extent and quality of this scientific evidence, the Scottish Government has committed to implementing a licensing scheme for grouse shooting in an attempt to try and rein in the criminal activity that underpins this so-called ‘sport’ because Ministers recognise the grouse-shooting industry is incapable of self-regulation.

I don’t know what SLE means when it says it wants ‘more constructive collaboration on the ground‘. Perhaps it means that gamekeepers will step forward and provide more than ‘no comment’ interviews when the police are investigating the latest crime on a grouse-shooting estate, instead of offering the usual wall of silence?

Perhaps it means the estate owners will refuse to employ the sporting agents and head gamekeepers whose methods are well known to include routine raptor persecution? (These individuals are well known – it’s no secret within the industry who they are).

Or perhaps it means that the shooting industry itself, including the game-shooting organisations, the shooting press etc will blacklist those estates known to still be killing birds of prey, instead of accepting funding donations from them and pretending that they don’t know what’s going on there?

That’d be useful, constructive collaboration, wouldn’t it?

Until all of that happens, SLE and the rest of the grouse shooting cabal can expect people like me and my colleagues in the conservation field to continue shining a bloody great big megawatt spotlight on this filthy industry.

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