Scottish Parliament sees sense & closes SGA’s petition seeking ‘independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to raptors’

Hallelujah! After almost three years of wasting valuable parliamentary time, the Scottish Parliament has finally closed the petition lodged by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) calling for the ‘independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to raptors’.

I’ve blogged about this petition several times before (here, here), as has Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland – well worth a read here.

The petition has been closed because the cross-party committee scrutinising it recognised that adequate and proportionate monitoring is already in place. Contrary to the SGA’s ignorant and misinformed propaganda, there is already plenty of cooperative partnership-working between satellite taggers, the tagging licensing authorities, landowners and the police. We collaborate and share our data in order to improve conservation benefits for these iconic species across Scotland. What we don’t do is share data with those who would use the information to disturb and/or kill eagles or other tagged raptors.

Had the SGA not walked off from the PAW Scotland Raptor Group in 2017 when the damning results of the Gov-commissioned Satellite Tag Review Report was published, they’d have known that this petition was an utterly pointless waste of everyone’s precious time.

The SGA lodged this petition in September 2019 and it was seen by many as just the latest in a long line of efforts to undermine and discredit the use of raptor satellite tags, simply because the tagging of raptors like golden eagles, hen harriers, white-tailed eagles and red kites has exposed the previously hidden extent of illegal raptor persecution on many grouse moors and has finally led the Scottish Government to committing to the introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse shooting in Scotland.

[The satellite tag fitted to this golden eagle led researchers to a grouse moor in the Angus Glens where the bird was found to have been illegally poisoned. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Raptor persecution crimes attract huge media attention because it’s hard to believe that people are still killing golden eagles and other raptors in Scotland in the 21st century.

As a result of this ongoing publicity, the game-shooting industry has spent considerable time and effort trying to undermine the satellite-tagging of raptors, either by launching disgusting personal & abusive attacks against named individuals involved in the tagging projects, or by blaming tagged raptor disappearances on imaginary windfarms, or by blaming tagged raptor disappearances on faulty sat tags fitted to turtles in India, or by blaming tagged raptor disappearances on bird activist‘ trying to ‘smear gamekeepers’, or by claiming that those involved with raptor tagging projects have perverted the course of justice by fabricating evidence, or by claiming that raptor satellite-tagging should be banned because it’s ‘cruel’ and the tag data serve no purpose other than to try and entrap gamekeepers.

There have also been two laughable attempts to discredit the authoritative golden eagle satellite tag review (here and here), thankfully dismissed by the Scottish Government. The industry knows how incriminating these satellite tag data are and so has been trying to do everything in its power to corrode public and political confidence in (a) the tag data and (b) the justification for fitting sat tags to raptors, hence this latest petition from the SGA. Unfortunately for the SGA, its petition wasn’t enough to derail the Government’s response to the Werritty Review in 2020, as many of us suspected was the intention.

[A young golden eagle fitted with a satellite tag in Scotland prior to fledging. Photo by Dan Kirkwood]

Those of us involved in raptor satellite tagging in Scotland submitted evidence to the various committees that have scrutinised this petition (e.g. Scotland’s Golden Eagle Satellite Tagging Group, who described the SGA’s petition as ‘fact-free nonsense’ (here); RSPB Scotland (here), and me (here), although strangely, in the three years the petition has been active, none of us have been asked about our evidence or invited to attend any of the hearings.

The latest committee to review this petition was the Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee, who considered the petition at its meeting on Tuesday (28 June 2022).

The Committee had received a submission from NatureScot identifying that new data-sharing protocols [between taggers and NatureScot] are now in place that perhaps were not in place when the petition was originally submitted. [Ed: This is not the case at all; data-sharing has been open with NatureScot for years, just not formalised in writing because none of us deemed it necessary, so all NatureScot has done is confirm what was already happening!].

NatureScot also told the Committee it believes that the data provides important oversight and that tagging is being done ‘competently, professionally and in an open way’.

The Committee had also received correspondence from Police Scotland who said it was also happy with the protocols in place.

On this basis, the petition was closed. It was also noted that in future, stakeholders will be invited to attend the committee to provide expert input. That is welcomed.

I did note, though, that hilariously, the SGA had submitted a last-minute note to the Committee on the evening before the meeting, crying about how its attempt to get involved with the satellite tagging of a golden eagle last year had apparently been ‘blocked’. Funny, I didn’t think the SGA supported satellite tagging?!

Is there no end to their hypocrisy?

It’s a beautiful irony actually, as it illustrates perfectly just how regulated the field of satellite-tagging is in the UK, contra to the SGA’s absurd claims in this petition. All satellite-tagging project proposals have to provide rigorous scientific justification for fitting these tags, which is then scrutinised by a special panel of experts at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO, the licensing body). If the proposal doesn’t meet these rigorous standards, the licence will be refused.

You can read the Committee’s decision to close the petition here:

You can read the SGA’s story of apparently being ‘blocked’ from fitting a satellite tag to a golden eagle last year:

And if you want a really good laugh, I’d encourage you to read the Golden Eagle Satellite Tagging Group’s expert evisceration of the SGA’s petition here.

New paper provides insight in to golden eagles in north east Scotland

A new scientific paper has been published in the journal Scottish Birds (the quarterly journal of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) detailing the recent history of golden eagles in a north east Scotland home range, authored by two long term members of the North East Raptor Study Group, Alastair Pout and Graham Rebecca.

It’s a remarkable piece of work in that it details information collected over a 40-year study (all conducted under licence), providing a fascinating, multi-decade insight into the ongoing challenges these eagles face when trying to breed in some parts of the species’ range, especially in areas that are managed for intensive driven grouse shooting. The impact that a simple change of estate ownership can have on the level of disturbance to the eagles, especially when a home range might cover multiple estate boundaries as this one does, is sobering.

The paper also highlights the ineffectiveness of much of the legislation that’s supposed to protect these eagles, from development projects to those intent on killing eagles to protect their gamebirds. This won’t be news to regular blog readers and explains why many historical eagle territories remain vacant in large parts of NE Scotland and why there’s such a high turnover a young, immature eagles attempting to breed. The persecution is obviously continuing in these areas, on such a scale as to cause regional population level effects.

Again, this isn’t news – scientists have been warning of the impact of persecution on the Scottish golden eagle population for decades (e.g. see here) and although we’ve seen some small improvements in some areas of Scotland in the last few years, the problem still very much persists in others.

Many thanks to the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club for allowing me to publish the Scottish Birds paper here. Well worth a read:

Scottish Gamekeepers Association takes hypocrisy to the next level

There are hypocrites, and then there’s the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA).

Yesterday, the SGA threw a major tantrum over the police reporting of an investigation into a dead golden eagle, found in Strathbraan earlier this year. The SGA is claiming that the police report was ‘insensitive’ and ‘led to gamekeeper abuse’. In fact the SGA’s exact words were:

As a result [of the police appeal for information], this directed unwarranted public suspicion towards the estate and its staff“.

What utter tosh.

The reality is somewhat different. The police statement wasn’t ‘insensitive’ at all. It was factual and timely and didn’t infer responsibility for the death of the eagle on anybody, let alone on gamekeepers. It was simply an appeal for information/witnesses of a potential wildlife crime. It didn’t even name an estate so quite how the SGA can claim the police appeal directed unwarranted public suspicion towards the estate and its staff is anyone’s guess. It’s fantasy stuff.

Let’s look at the facts.

On 17th May 2022, the Tayside Police Division of Police Scotland made the following appeal for information on social media:

How is this appeal in any way ‘insensitive’? The Police, quite rightly, didn’t even claim the eagle had been killed illegally. They said it had been found dead and a post mortem would be carried out to establish the cause of death.

Police Scotland was perfectly entitled to consider the eagle’s death suspicious, given the ongoing illegal persecution of raptors, and particularly golden eagles, in this region. Strathbraan is an area where at least eight satellite-tagged eagles have ‘vanished’ in recent years, including one whose tag was found a few years later, wrapped in lead sheeting and dumped in the river (here). Strathbraan was identified as a raptor persecution hotspot by the 2017 Government-commissioned golden eagle satellite tag review. Strathbraan is circled in orange below:

In addition to ongoing golden eagle persecution in this region, there was also the suspicious disappearance of a white-tailed eagle (here), an illegally-trapped hen harrier called Rannoch (here), the suspicious disappearance of a hen harrier called Heather (here), the illegally shot peregrine (here), the long-eared owl held illegally in a trap (here), the ~100 corvids found dumped in a loch (here), the failed raven cull demanded by Strathbraan gamekeepers but thinly-disguised as something else (here) and most recently the General Licence restriction imposed on a Strathbraan estate for wildlife crimes (here), a decision based on evidence provided by the police.

Police Scotland updated the public on this investigation yesterday, with this statement on social media:

Now, I’m not the world’s greatest fan of Tayside Police when it comes to investigating suspected wildlife crime, and especially raptor persecution – they don’t have a good track record and few of us trust them to do a decent job – but on this occasion I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong at all.

I think the SGA is just using this incident as another opportunity to play the victim card, to force the Scottish Government into setting up a ‘gamekeeping taskforce’ to ‘achieve Government policy changes’ for an industry that claims to have been ‘marginalised’ (perhaps if the industry stopped killing raptors the public might look upon them more favourably).

The taskforce is something that shooting organisations have been pushing for for over a year but the Scottish Government has so far resisted. It seems to me like this latest incident has been hijacked by the SGA to apply pressure on Government, perhaps as a way in to water-down the forthcoming legislation on grouse shooting, which let’s not forget is only coming in because some gamekeepers continue to kill raptors, despite years of being warned of the consequences. It’s too late for tears from the SGA; the industry could have and should have done much, much more to stamp it out. Now they all have to deal with the consequences.

But what astonishes me the most about the SGA’s latest contrived melt down is the hypocrisy of it all. Here is an organisation crying tears at bedtime about what it claims to be ‘abuse’ (although the extent of this is contested – here), and yet some SGA directors, members, and committee members have played a central role, for years, in the online harassment and abuse of raptor conservationists or indeed anyone or any business seen to be supporting raptor conservation and grouse moor reform (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).

The SGA is also the organisation that, in a nasty and vindictive attack on Chris Packam, hired what they claimed to be a ‘handwriting expert’ to allege that Chris had faked his own death threat. This made national headlines, presumably after a tip off by the SGA to the press. The SGA’s ‘handwriting expert’ was recently exposed as a graphologist willing to present knowingly inaccurate evidence in court documents – here.

And now they’re crying about the ‘abuse’ they allege to have received after a straightforward police appeal for information about a dead eagle?

Laughably pathetic.

The impact of forestry on Golden Eagles in Scotland: fully-funded PhD available

The University of Chester, in collaboration with Scottish group Natural Research Ltd, is offering a fully-funded PhD for a student to investigate the impact of forestry on golden eagles in Scotland.

This is a rare and pretty special opportunity, working with internationally-recognised experts in golden eagle ecology and biology and with access to an incredible satellite tag data set, comprising over 10 million records amassed over 15 years from more than 200 golden eagles.

[Photo by Peter Cairns]

Here is the project description:

Golden Eagles in Scotland have largely recovered from historically low levels over the past two centuries but their distribution is still constrained by persecution and habitat loss across parts of their former range. Afforestation represents a potential source of habitat loss for Golden Eagles as closed canopy conifer afforestation can result in a loss of open ground used by Golden Eagles. However, the effects of afforestation on Golden Eagles are currently unclear with some research indicating a marked reduction in breeding productivity or loss of territories and others demonstrating less dramatic effects. As part of their response to the climate crisis the Scottish Government aims 21% forest cover for Scotland by 2034. This increase in woodland cover, along with the maturation, and felling, of previously planted commercial forestry represents a significant land-use change for Golden Eagles.

This project aims to assess the response of individual Golden Eagle to forestry and their use, or avoidance, of woodland habitats within their home ranges. The project will use data from satellite tracking of a large number of individual territory holders and dispersing, young birds to investigate landscape-scale use of and reaction to afforested and woodland habitats. It will also focus on individual territories in order to create fine-scaled maps of forest habitats which can be used to investigate behaviour related to the spatial structure of forest patches as well behavioural changes associated with forest maturation. The project will also examine the use of forests as roost sites and investigate the characteristics of individual roost locations and their use both temporally and spatially by single and multiple individuals. The successful student will engage in several desk-based analytical processes and also be expected to undertake some field work in the main study areas.

Improving our understanding of the reaction to, and use of, forested woodland habitats by Golden Eagles in Scotland should lead to recommendations that can inform the future planting and management of forests by statutory bodies and foresters working in Scotland with the aim of contributing to the continued recovery and maintenance of the Golden Eagle population.

Project supervisors

  • Dr Matt Geary, Biological Sciences
  • Dr Lottie Hosie, Biological Sciences
  • Dr Alan Fielding, Natural Research Ltd.
  • Dr Phil Whitfield, Natural Research Ltd.

Qualifications and eligibility

The candidate should have an undergraduate degree (minimum 2.i) in a relevant subject area and, ideally a qualification at Masters level or relevant professional experience related to the project. Some experience with statistical modelling, particularly mixed effects models, and spatial analysis would be useful along with familiarity with statistical and GIS software.

Funding

University fees will be covered for up to three years full time or six years part-time. In addition, the student will receive an annual stipend, currently £16,602.

Application deadline: 16th June 2022

Interview date: TBA

Anticipated start date: 1st October 2022

For further details including how to apply, please see here.

Dead golden eagle found in Strathbraan: Police Scotland appeals for information

Police Scotland has issued an appeal for information / witness appeal this evening, as follows:

An investigation is under way after a Golden Eagle was found dead in the Glen Quaich area of Perthshire on Monday, 25 April. Officers attended and removed the eagle. A post mortem examination will be carried out in due course. Anyone with info call 101, inc 0835 of 28 April‘.

They haven’t revealed any further details.

The sharp-eyed amongst you will know that the ‘Glen Quaich area of Perthshire’ is dominated by driven grouse moors, often referred to on this blog as Strathbraan, and has been identified in a Government-commissioned report as being a hotspot for raptor persecution, particularly golden eagles, of which at least seven have ‘disappeared’ in recent years, including one whose tag was found a few years later, wrapped in lead sheeting and dumped in the river (here).

[A view of a grouse moor in Strathbraan. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

And then there was the suspicious disappearance of a white-tailed eagle (here), an illegally-trapped hen harrier called Rannoch (here), the suspicious disappearance of a hen harrier called Heather (here), the illegally shot peregrine (here), the long-eared owl held illegally in a trap (here), the ~100 corvids found dumped in a loch (here), the failed raven cull demanded by Strathbraan gamekeepers but thinly-disguised as something else (here) and most recently the General Licence restriction imposed on a Strathbraan estate for wildlife crimes (here).

So although Police Scotland hasn’t released any further details so the cause of the eagle’s death isn’t yet public, the fact that (a) they’re investigating, (b) they’ve issued an appeal, and (c) this is an area with a deserved reputation for its high density of raptor-killing criminals, what do you think the chances are that the post mortem (which surely has been completed by now?) will show this eagle has been illegally killed?

UPDATE 25th June 2022: Scottish Gamekeepers Association takes hypocrisy to the next level (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.

Lochan Estate in Strathbraan loses its appeal against General Licence restriction imposed for wildlife crime

Lochan Estate, a pheasant and grouse-shooting estate in the notorious Strathbraan region of Perthshire has lost its appeal against a General Licence restriction that was imposed on the estate in January 2022 after Police Scotland provided the licensing authority (NatureScot) with evidence of wildlife crime against birds of prey on the estate.

Regular blog readers will know that the three-year General Licence restriction on Lochan Estate took effect on 25th January 2022, prohibiting the use of General Licences 01, 02 and 03 on the estate until 25th January 2025 (see here).

NatureScot stated the restriction was imposed after the discovery of a dead hen harrier (named Rannoch) on the estate’s grouse moor in May 2019. Her foot was still caught in the jaws of a spring trap (see here).

[Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Lochan Estate’s response to the restriction came swiftly and an unnamed spokesperson was quoted as follows:

The estate categorically rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing in relation to the welfare of wildlife.

We made very robust representations five months ago and only received the notification this week, which we found surprising given the material we produced.

We will therefore be appealing this decision.”

On 1st March I noticed that the official restriction notice on NatureScot’s website had disappeared so I assumed that was an indication that the estate had formally appealed the decision (NatureScot’s protocol seems to be to retract the restriction during the appeal process). This was confirmed when I contacted NatureScot’s licensing team to query the missing restriction notice and I was told the estate’s appeal had been lodged on 22nd February 2022.

Yesterday, the official restriction notice re-appeared on NatureScot’s website, which I assume to mean that the estate’s appeal has been rejected and the restriction now stands until it expires on 25th January 2025.

This is the area of restriction:

As many of you already know, this 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).

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

Meanwhile, the General Licence restriction imposed on Invercauld Estate in January 2022 (following the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle and poisoned baits (see here) has also been challenged by the estate and a decision on that appeal is due imminently.

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

South Scotland golden eagle population boosted by translocation of sub-adults from Western Isles

Press release, South Scotland Golden Eagle Project (3rd March 2022)

South of Scotland golden eagle population reaches new heights thanks to novel research technique

The pioneering South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project has become the first in the UK to successfully translocate free-flying young golden eagles (aged between 6 months and 3 years) to boost a low population of this iconic bird. These new additions bring the total number of golden eagles in the south of Scotland to around 33 – the highest number recorded in the area since the early nineteenth century.

[A satellite-tagged sub adult golden eagle, photo by John Wright]

Taking a new research approach, under licence from NatureScot, the team leading the groundbreaking charity project revealed today (World Wildlife Day – Thursday 3 March) that they had successfully caught, transported and released seven golden eagles from the Outer Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides were selected as the source to boost the south of Scotland population because these Islands host one of the highest densities of golden eagles in Europe. The birds were released almost immediately on arrival in a secret location in the southern uplands of Scotland.

The project team is continuing to monitor the birds’ progress to see if they settle and breed in the area. If they do, this could be a ground-breaking for the project. 

Throughout the process, the project team followed NatureScot’s strict novel-research guidelines which were assessed by Scotland’s Nature Agency against the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations. Only a small number of projects have used this technique. If successful it could be used further to support wider raptor conservation programmes.

The team has previously (from 2018 to 2021) successfully released 12 young eagles collected as chicks from nests in the Highlands and Islands. This is a process that is much more widely used for raptor conservation programmes. The released eagles have all settled in south of Scotland, with frequent sightings of interactions including with other native eagles.

Explaining the significance of the most recent translocation, Dr Cat Barlow, Project Manager for the Project said: “This new novel-research licence has provided a significant boost in our efforts to ensure golden eagles truly flourish in southern skies. Though it is still early days, this is the first in the UK to trial this approach as part of raptor reinforcement. This could be a ground-breaking technique for the global conservation management of golden eagles and other raptors. We will continue to monitor these birds to see if they settle, thrive and breed in the south of Scotland, which will be the real measure of success.

“Our work has only been possible due to the support of National Lottery Heritage Fund, our project staff and partners, NatureScot licensing team, raptor specialists, Advisory Panel members, estates, CalMac Ferries and of course the community in the south of Scotland. We’re incredibly grateful to them all.”

Scotland’s Environment Minister Mairi McAllan MSP added: “The success of this project can be traced back to 2007 – golden eagles faced extinction from southern Scotland for a number of different reasons and the Scottish Government made a commitment to achieve positive change.

“Thanks to the close partnership working between conservationists and land managers in the south of Scotland, the financial support from sponsors and the world-leading techniques employed by the project, there are now more golden eagles in southern Scotland than there has been for hundreds of years, with birds even being seen in northern England.

“Scotland was one of the first countries to recognise the twin crises of nature loss and climate change, and this project shows what we can achieve with determined efforts to restore our lost biodiversity.”

Francesca Osowska, NatureScot’s Chief Executive, said: “This ground-breaking project has accomplished so much over just a few years, bringing a viable population of golden eagles back to south Scotland and inspiring other similar initiatives around the world. Particularly during the twin crises of climate emergency and biodiversity loss, it’s wonderful to see a success like this.

“Golden eagles are a vital part of Scotland’s wildlife, and we’re passionate about returning them to places where they used to thrive.  This is brilliant partnership working, and a great support for the local green economy.”

In the past, the Project has focused on collecting much younger chicks (aged 6 to 8 weeks) directly from nest sites with twins, but the team has struggled to source a sufficient number of birds, particularly when Covid-19 restrictions were in place. After thorough research and consultation over welfare and ecological issues with an expert Scientific Advisory Panel, the Project identified a new research-based approach involving catching and moving free-flying young golden eagles from a naturally densely populated area.  At every stage, the welfare of the birds has been paramount.

An experienced team of expert raptor ecologists, Dave Anderson and Robin Reid, and Scottish Raptor Study Group member Graeme Anderson carefully caught the young (sub-adult) birds at bait sites in the Outer Hebrides. The team was careful not to select adult or breeding birds, and aged the birds based on their plumages. Five females and two males were housed in specially designed travel boxes and quickly transported by road and sea to the south of Scotland. The birds were satellite tagged by licensed individuals and swiftly released.

Andrew MacNair, Head of Marketing at CalMac Ferries, who supported the careful transportation of the birds, said: “We are truly honoured to have been able to support the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project’s groundbreaking research. As well as global environmental and economical threats such as climate change, Scotland continues to face its own environmental challenges, and we all have a role to play in protecting it for future generations to enjoy.”

Caroline Clark, Director for Scotland, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, who have provided key funding for this work, said: “This translocation of seven eagle subadults is fantastic news for the biodiversity of the South of Scotland, and for the world as a whole. It is great to see the partnership successfully working, and the way communities across the South of Scotland have embraced and supported the new arrivals.

“Thanks to National Lottery players, the £1.5m funding we have provided to the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project means they can play their part in protecting Scotland’s outstanding wildlife and landscapes.”

The seven new arrivals have been named by a range of individuals, school children and organisations. Sir E Scott School on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where the eagles came from, named their eagle Rowan – the project is forging links between the school and Sciennes Primary School in Edinburgh.

Project partners RSPB Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, Scottish Forestry, NatureScot and the Southern Uplands Partnership, had worked on the project together for more than 11 years before releasing the first eagle chicks in 2018.  Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, project partners and the Scottish Government, the initiative is a key project under ‘Scotland’s Biodiversity. A Route Map to 2020’, supporting the Government’s ‘2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity’.

For the latest project and festival news, or to donate to the charity initiative, visit: www.goldeneaglessouthofscotland.co.uk  

ENDS

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

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