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.

No prosecution for shot raptors found on Millden Estate, Angus Glens

On 8th October 2019, the Scottish SPCA executed a search warrant with Police Scotland on various properties on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens looking for evidence of animal cruelty and animal fighting, including badger baiting, after 58 gruesome photographs were reportedly sent to a printing shop in England by a Millden Estate employee.

Millden Estate is known for its grouse shooting (having been described in a sales brochure in 2011 as being ‘The Holy Grail‘ of grouse moors and ‘One of the finest sporting estates in Scotland‘) The estate also hosts pheasant and partridge-shooting on its low ground.

Millden Estate has also been described as a ‘savage, stripped, blasted land‘ by author and photographer Chris Townsend (here).

Millden Estate gamekeepers, along with others in the Angus Glens, have previously been feted by senior politicians, including former Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Fergus Ewing MSP, former Minister Graeme Dey MSP, and by Prince Charles who was photographed with Millden keepers as he opened a tweed workshop in Beauly in 2019.

Millden Estate was also visited by Professor Werritty and his colleagues in 2018 during the review of grouse moor management; they visited the estate apparently to see an example of ‘best practice for managing grouse moors’.

The estate, one of a number in the Angus Glens, is also long- known amongst conservationists as a raptor persecution hotspot after the discovery of poisoned and shot buzzards in 2009 and 2011 (here), a poisoned golden eagle (Alma) in 2009 (here), and a satellite-tagged golden eagle seemingly caught in a spring trap and then apparently uplifted overnight and dumped on Deeside with two broken legs & left to die (here). Nobody has ever been prosecuted for any of these alleged offences and Millden Estate has denied any responsibility.

In October 2019 during the morning raid at Millden Estate the SSPCA did find evidence of animal fighting and cruelty, including badger baiting, and after two and a half years of protracted legal process, in May this year 28 year old gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies was convicted of a number of animal cruelty, animal fighting, and firearms offences: (for previous blogs on this case see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Davies is due to be sentenced on Monday.

Other evidence of alleged wildlife crime was also uncovered during that search of Millden Estate back in October 2019, including the discovery of a number of dead raptors wrapped in bags at at least three separate locations, apparently including at the residences of two estate employees.

Whilst the SSPCA led on the investigation into animal cruelty/animal fighting, Police Scotland led on the investigation into the dead raptors (because the SSPCA don’t, yet, have the powers to investigate cases where a wild animal is already dead – bonkers, I know – see here for the background on this).

I have spent the last two and a half years chasing Police Scotland about these dead raptors and asking for status updates on the investigation. I have to say I’ve been summarily unimpressed. The investigation has been conducted at a snail’s pace and communication has been dire. I understand that the dead raptors all underwent post mortems and it was determined they’d been shot. No information has been provided about the number of species involved (although it’s been reported that some were buzzards), nor the number of individuals confirmed to have been shot, although I know of at least three.

Earlier this week I asked the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) about this case and whether it was progressing (i.e. has anyone been charged?). To its credit, the COPFS response was fast, but the case outcome familiarly frustrating:

The Procurator Fiscal received a report relating to a 28 year old male and incidents said to have occurred between 1 January 2019 and 8 October 2019. After careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the available admissible evidence, the Procurator Fiscal decided that there should be no proceedings taken at this time. The Crown reserves the right to proceed in the future should further evidence become available‘.

I doubt we’ll ever be informed about the extent of the raptor persecution uncovered (even now, nearly three years after the raptor corpses were found, Police Scotland has failed to issue any press statement) and we’ll certainly not learn any more detail about why charges weren’t brought because the COPFS is not obliged to inform the public about its decision-making process. Apparently transparency doesn’t apply.

To be fair, a prosecution would depend on an individual suspect being identified but there are multiple employees at Millden Estate (16 were listed in the estate’s sales brochure in 2011) and a recent photo on social media suggests there are multiple gamekeepers (there’s a photo online showing 13 men dressed as gamekeepers in Millden Estate tweed at the start of the 2020 grouse season).

I think it’s fair to say that any employee could have the motivation, means and opportunity to commit wildlife crime – we now know that at least one of them, Rhys Owen Davies, was doing exactly that, apparently right under the noses of his colleagues and bosses on Millden Estate – but just having the motivation, means and opportunity isn’t sufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution. Having a carrier bag full of shot raptors at your house isn’t enough for a court of law to convict, although if there was a bag of dead raptors at my house I’m pretty sure I’d notice them and I’m pretty certain I’d have notified the police.

So where does that leave us? We await the sentencing of gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies on Monday but I don’t expect any of us have high hopes for a fitting sentence.

Millden Estate must surely now qualify for a General Licence restriction, a monumentally ineffective sanction but the only thing left on the table until the Scottish Government pulls its finger out and introduces the licensing scheme it promised to develop in November 2020.

But even if the authorities do decide to impose a General Licence restriction on Millden Estate, that won’t curtail the estate’s ability to continue to host grouse, pheasant and partridge shoots. The estate, which is run through a series of companies and limited liability partnerships (LLPs), including one called Millden Sporting LLP, reported tangible assets in 2021 of £17.5 million.

That’s a lot of money, and with it comes a lot of influence.

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

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