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.

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).

“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

Leadhills Estate – General Licence restriction extended after police report more evidence of wildlife crime

Regular blog readers will be well aware that the notorious Leadhills Estate, a grouse-shooting estate in South Lanarkshire that has been at the centre of police wildlife crime investigations at least 70 times since the early 2000s, is currently serving a three-year General Licence restriction based on ‘clear evidence’ of raptor persecution offences, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).

That original General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate by NatureScot in November 2019 and is valid until November 2022.

[Chris Packham holds a dead hen harrier. This bird was caught by the leg in an illegally-set trap on the Leadhills Estate grouse moor in May 2019. The trap had been set next to the harrier’s nest and was hidden by moss. The harrier’s leg was almost severed. Unfortunately, extensive surgery could not save this bird. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

However, since that original restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019, further alleged offences have been reported and are the subject of ongoing police investigations (see here) including the alleged shooting of a(nother) short-eared owl by a masked gunman on a quad bike as witnessed by a local resident and his eight year old son in July 2020 (see here) and the discovery of yet another batch of banned poisons, also in July 2020 (here). A satellite-tagged hen harrier (Silver) also vanished in suspicious circumstances on the estate in May 2020 (here), and although NatureScot don’t count missing satellite-tagged raptors as sufficient evidence for a General Licence restriction, the disappearance can be used as supportive evidence if further alleged offences are also being considered.

It’s been over a year since those further alleged offences were reported and we’ve all been waiting to see whether NatureScot would impose a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Instead, the licensing team appears to have been focusing on helping out the estate by issuing it with an out-of-season muirburn licence last year (see here) and considering another application from the estate this year (see here). It really beggars belief.

Anyway, NatureScot has finally got its act together and has indeed imposed a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Here is the statement on the NatureScot website:

29 September 2021

NatureScot has extended the restriction of the use of general licences on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire until 2023. The decision was made on the basis of additional evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds.

General licences allow landowners or land managers to carry out actions which would otherwise be illegal, including controlling common species of wild birds to protect crops or livestock.

A restriction of the use of general licences was implemented on Leadhills estate in November 2019, in response to police evidence of crimes against wild birds occurring on the land. This decision extends the period of the existing restriction.

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s s Director of Sustainable Growth, said: “It is hugely disappointing to have to be considering further issues of wildlife crime against wild birds and we are committed to using the tools we have available to us in tackling this. In this case we have concluded that there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property for a further three years. They may still apply for individual licences, but -if granted – these will be closely monitored.

We work closely with Police Scotland and will continue to consider information they provide us on cases which may warrant restriction of general licences. The detection of wildlife crime can be difficult but 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 this from occurring in the future.”

ENDS

NatureScot’s Robbie Kernahan is quoted here as saying the General Licence restriction will apply “for a further three years“, which should take the restriction up to November 2025.

However, when you look at the actual restriction notice on NatureScot’s website, it says the restriction will extend to July 2023.

Eh? That’s not a three-year extension. That’s only an eight-month extension. I sincerely hope this is just a typo and the date should read November 2025.

It’s good to see NatureScot finally get on with this but I have to say that given there’s a need for an extension of the original General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, due to further evidence from Police Scotland about ongoing alleged wildlife crime there, doesn’t that demonstrate just how ineffective the General Licence restriction is as a tool for tackling wildlife crime??

I’ve written many times about the futility of this scheme, and have even presented evidence about it to a Parliamentary committee, not least because even when a General Licence restriction has been imposed, estate employees can simply apply to NatureScot for an individual licence to continue doing exactly what they were doing under the (now restricted) General Licence (e.g. see here)!

And although former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, who was responsible for first introducing General Licence restrictions in 2014, considered that it would work as a ‘reputational driver’ (here), I’ve previously shown with several examples how this is simply not the case (e.g. see here) and that a General Licence restriction remains an ineffective sanction.

Nevertheless, it’s all we’ve got available at the moment and on that basis I would like to see NatureScot now get on with making decisions about restrictions on a number of other estates, such as Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park where a poisoned golden eagle was found dead next to a poisoned bait earlier this year (here).

And Invercauld isn’t the only estate that should be sanctioned, is it, NatureScot?

UPDATE 30th September 2021: Extension of General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate confirmed as pitiful 8 months (here).

UPDATE 6th October 2021: Leadhills Estate’s reaction to extended General Licence restriction (here).

UPDATE 23rd February 2022: NatureScot refuses to publish details of Leadhills Estate’s general licence restriction appeal (here)

Reports of wildlife crime doubled during lockdown, says Police Scotland Chief

Press release from Police Scotland:

Operation Wingspan, a year-long campaign to tackle wildlife crime, working with partners, including the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Scotland, has seen considerable success and is now entering its final phase.

This involves officers working on the persecution of fresh water pearl mussels and tackling all aspects of poaching, including hare coursing. As with previous phases, it will involve a combination of enforcement action and education.

Overall, the campaign has involved officers engaging with a number of organisations, including the agricultural community, ranger services, land managers and game keepers with the aim of educating the wider public and encouraging them to report wildlife crime to the police.

Detective Sergeant Billy Telford, Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime Co-ordinator, said: “We have many internationally renowned species that attract thousands of nature lovers and tourists every year to Scotland, but many crimes against wildlife are cruel and barbaric, often involving a painful death.

From hunting deer, hares or badgers with dogs, to using poisons or snares on protected birds, and protecting one of our lesser known species, the critically endangers freshwater pearl mussel, Operation Wingspan is raising awareness and hopefully encouraging people to come forward and report this kind of crime.”

[This young golden eagle was found ‘deliberately poisoned‘ with a banned toxin on an Invercauld Estate grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in March this year. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Operation Wingspan began in October 2020 and Phase One saw officers tackling the trade in endangered species and included visits to over 300 business premises, such as antique dealers, retro shops and pet shops across Scotland to advise owners and provide information about potential contraventions under The Control of Trade in Endangered Species (COTES) 2018 regulations. It resulted in the seizure and recovery of alligator heads from across the country.

Phase Two tackled badger persecution, working with the charity Scottish Badgers, to highlight that badgers and their setts are protected, that it is an offence to harm or interfere with them and that badger baiting is illegal. Where ongoing risks were identified, action was taken to protect the sett and the badgers.

Phase Three saw officers taking part in a construction conference to outline the responsibilities of developers, highlighting that it is an offence to destroy or damage roosts, as well as engaging with bat groups and visiting vulnerable roosts, ultimately leading to people being charged for undertaking development that threatened the welfare of bats.

In Phase Four concentrated on raptor persecution. Officers have carried out a number of activities, including patrols of vulnerable nesting sites, warrants executed in relation to wildlife crime and a social media campaign with an educational video that was produced in collaboration with the RSPB.

Detective Chief Superintendent Laura McLuckie said: “Reports of wildlife crime doubled during lockdown and Police Scotland is dedicated to working closely with a wide range of partner organisations to reduce the harm to species targeted by criminals and the communities who rely on them for employment and tourism across Scotland.

Tackling wildlife crime is not just about enforcement, it is also about working with partners and raising public awareness to prevent it happening. Indeed, the public has an important role in helping up to investigate reports of wildlife crime and I would urge anyone with concerns or who suspect a wildlife crime has been committed to contact us on 101, and if it is an emergency to call 999.”

More information can be found on our website: https://www.scotland.police.uk/wildlifecrime

ENDS

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.

Poisoned golden eagle: Cairngorms National Park Authority refuses to publish correspondence with Invercauld Estate

In March this year, a golden eagle was found dead, next to a poisoned hare bait, on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park.

Toxicology results showed the eagle had been illegally poisoned with a banned pesticide. Police Scotland conducted a multi-agency search, under warrant, of various properties on Invercauld Estate in May 2021 (here) and issued an appeal for information on what they described as a ‘deliberate’ poisoning (here).

The Cairngorms National Park Authority issued a statement condemning the deliberate poisoning (here).

Invercauld Estate also issued a statement, supporting the police investigation and denying that the deliberately poisoned eagle was found on land managed for grouse shooting – even though, er, it seems that it was (see here and here).

[The deliberately poisoned golden eagle, next to the poisoned hare bait, on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate, March 2021. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

The following week, the Cairngorms National Park Authority published a further statement, this time on behalf of the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership (ECMP), a consortium of six estates, including Invercauld, supposedly working in partnership with the Park Authority since 2015 to deliver ‘coordinated and sustainable moorland management’.

The statement from ECMP (read in full here) confirmed that Invercauld Estate ‘had left the group‘. There was no indication whether Invercauld had been expelled or had resigned of its own accord or what process, if any, had been undertaken to reach a decision.

So I submitted an FoI to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to try and find out.

Here’s part of the response I received:

This response came as no surprise to me because the Cairngorms National Park Authority has form for covering up the consequences of alleged criminal behaviour on Invercauld Estate – e.g. see here, here and here. The Park’s Board also has a number of members with a clear association with Invercauld Estate – whether this had any bearing on the Park’s decision about what to release and what not to release can only be open to speculation, obviously, because the information is being withheld. Again.

Still, as long it’s being withheld to allow Police Scotland to ‘complete their investigation’, which of course the CNPA will know (or at least can predict) to be going absolutely nowhere, just like the other ~80+ raptor persecution crimes uncovered in the Cairngorms National Park since 2003 that, with a single exception, haven’t resulted in a prosecution.

Part of the material that the CNPA did release suggests that Invercauld Estate resigned and wasn’t pushed (see below) although without seeing the full correspondence between the estate and the CNPA I’d be wary of drawing any conclusion because it just doesn’t add up, given Invercauld’s protestations when the news first broke that this eagle had been found poisoned on that estate.

This is a copy of an email sent from the CNPA’s Chief Executive, Grant Moir, to the Board. It’s a bit difficult to read with such a tiny font so it’s transcribed below:

Dear Board Member

The East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership will shortly be putting out the attached statement following a meeting of the partnership yesterday. At the meeting the partnership heard from Invercauld estate and Invercauld estate tendered their resignation from the partnership. After a good discussion the partners agreed to the resignation and have all agreed to the wording of the attached statement. It was also clear from the meeting that the remaining members are determined to make the partnership work.

NatureScot have also released a statement today which indicates they are looking at general licence restrictions for Invercauld Estate.

Throughout I have been keeping the Convenor of the Board up to speed on the issues and I will update the board further on Friday if there is any further information.

All the best

Grant

Grant Moir, Chief Executive, Cairngorms National Park Authority

So what of the Police’s ongoing investigation in to this deliberately poisoned golden eagle? No further news (but I trust they’ll be asking the CNPA for copies of the unpublished correspondence between Invercauld and the Park Authority because apparently it’s relevant to the police investigation).

Will NatureScot decide to impose a General Licence restriction on Invercauld Estate? No news.

What of the future of the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership? A recent blog addressing this very issue from Nick Kempe writing for ParkswatchScotland is well worth a read (here).

And what of the Scottish Government’s promise to get to work on drafting the terms and conditions of a grouse shooting licensing scheme, whereby estates can lose their licence if raptor persecution crimes continue? No further news.

Game-shooting industry called out on raptor persecution by one of its own

It’s been almost four weeks since we learned that a deliberately poisoned golden eagle was found on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park (see here).

This abhorrent wildlife crime is just about as serious and high profile as it gets.

[The poisoned golden eagle and the poisoned bait. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

The golden eagle (along with the white-tailed eagle) has the highest level of protection of any bird species in Scotland (not just the bog standard protection given to all bird species, but the gold standard that includes protection of its nest site and protection from harassment all year round).

It’s an iconic species, loved by millions and on most wildlife lovers’ list of ‘must-sees’ when they visit Scotland.

The Cairngorms National Park is supposed to be the UK’s jewel in the crown and again is on the list of ‘must-sees’ for many visitors to Scotland.

It’s no wonder then, that when one of those wild golden eagles is found slumped and cold in the heather on a prestigious estate in the Cairngorms National Park, right next to a poisoned mountain hare bait deliberately placed to kill wildlife, the news is going to be both shocking and prominent.

And it was.

So how come the game-shooting industry has, on the whole, remained silent about this disgraceful crime? The only statement from a shooting organisation that I could find was from Scottish Land & Estates, the landowner’s lobby group. The statement was vague and short on detail (no mention that the golden eagle had been illegally poisoned and no mention that the eagle’s corpse and the poisoned bait had been discovered on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate, an SLE member, no less, and that this isn’t the first time the estate has been under investigation).

Still, at least SLE published something. As far as I can tell, almost four weeks on there is no statement of condemnation on the websites of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, BASC, GWCT, Countryside Alliance, or Scottish Association for Country Sports.

Doesn’t that silence speak volumes?

I’ve thought a lot about why these organisations, with their vociferous claims of having ‘zero tolerance’ for raptor persecution, should remain silent on such a high profile crime when all eyes are upon them. I haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable explanation because there simply isn’t one. There’s no reasonable explanation, or excuse, for not condemning this crime. None at all.

But where there is ground to benefit is in plausible deniability. In that, if nobody acknowledges that this crime even happened, then the constant denials that there’s even an issue, let alone that it’s an out of control issue, can continue. Think about it. The denials can’t continue if the organisations have previously acknowledged and condemned a recent raptor persecution crime. So the strategy seems to be, shut up, say nothing and it’ll all blow over soon and then we can get back to pretending how much we love raptors whilst simultaneously campaigning for licences to kill them and turning a blind eye every time another one gets taken out on land managed for gamebird shooting.

I’m not the only one to notice the silence and the denial.

The following letter was published in this week’s Shooting Times:

The recent disturbing news of a police raid on Invercauld estate after the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle next to a bait should disgust and anger all in the shooting community. Sadly, for quite a few members of that community, these feelings of revulsion will not be felt.

If any readers can steel themselves to check out the Raptor Persecution UK blog they will find a sickening list [here] of illegally killed raptors from all around the Cairngorms.

If, as shooting’s representative organisations keep telling us, “it’s a few bad apples”, I would suggest that this area of Scotland could well contain the orchard.

Invercauld is one of the most prominent sporting estates in Scotland, with a reputation to uphold around the world, yet this is not the first time it has been investigated in recent years.

This begs the question, how many similar crimes go undiscovered? More pertinently, when they are discovered, how often is the burden of proof insufficient to bring a prosecution?

This fact is well known to the perpetrators, and should be borne in mind when the relative scarcity of successful prosecutions is used by the industry’s representatives to deny the scale of the problem.

Paul Tooley, by email.

I don’t know who Paul Tooley is, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this Paul Tooley (above) is the same as this Paul Tooley or this Paul Tooley (scroll down to comments section).

Whoever he is, bloody well done for calling out these organisations.

Although as a campaigner I shouldn’t really mind the industry’s silence. In my view it’s indicative of complicity / covering up / shielding the guilty and that just means we’re another step closer to toppling this filthy ‘sport’.

Poisoned golden eagle: will a General Licence restriction now be imposed on Invercauld Estate?

Earlier this month it was reported that police had conducted a raid, under warrant, on several properties on the Invercauld Estate following the discovery in March of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and some poisoned bait (see here).

I’ve since blogged about why I think the golden eagle killer will evade criminal prosecution (see here) and a little bit about NatureScot making noises about considering a potential General Licence restriction on this estate (see here). A General Licence restriction is nowhere near as serious as a criminal prosecution but it is, in the words of former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse who worked hard to get this apparent sanction introduced, a ‘reputational driver’ (see here).

It’s my view that a General Licence restriction is long overdue here, given the history of alleged wildlife crime offences, and a blog that was published yesterday has further strengthened that view, of which more in a minute.

This area around Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park has been at the centre of a number of alleged wildlife crime offences over many years.

[Estate boundaries based on data from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]

There was the discovery of three poisoned buzzards on Invercauld Estate in 2005 (here), 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 suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier (Wildland 2) on Invercauld Estate on 24 September 2019 (here) and now the discovery of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and poisonous baits on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in March 2021 (see here).

The suspicious disappearance of three satellite-tagged hen harriers and one white-tailed eagle in one small area managed for driven grouse shooting should raise lots of eyebrows given the unequivocal scientific pattern that has been identified for such occurrences (e.g. see here and here) and especially in an area where the alleged hunting and subsequent shooting of a hen harrier was witnessed and reported several years earlier.

However, according to NatureScot’s current Framework for how it makes decisions on whether to impose a General Licence restriction, the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged raptor is not, in itself, considered sufficient evidence, even when there’s an emerging pattern in one particular area:

Unexplained ‘stopped no-malfunction’ satellite tags may be considered by NatureScot as supporting information in making a decision, particularly where multiple losses have occurred on the same land. However such instances will not be considered as evidence under the terms of this Framework unless recorded as a crime by Police Scotland‘.

The most significant, and indeed tangible, wildlife crime incident that could be linked to Invercauld Estate was the discovery of illegally-set traps on the estate in 2016, which led to the horrific suffering of a Common Gull whose legs were caught in two of the traps (see here).

[Photo of the Common Gull after being released from the traps. Photo by Graeme Rose]

Long-term blog readers may recall this incident and the farcical non-existent enforcement measures that ensued. The SSPCA attended in the first instance and had to euthanise the gull due to the extent of its injuries but because of their ridiculously restricted investigatory powers, they were not permitted to search the area for more traps – this had to be done by the police, who conducted a search several days later where it was discovered that other traps (i.e. evidence of potential crime) had been recently removed prior to the police search (here).

Then there was an odd statement of denial from Invercauld Estate, bizarrely issued by the GWCT on behalf of the estate (a strange activity for a so-called independent wildlife conservation charity, see here) and incidentally, this denial is not that dissimilar to the one we saw recently from the estate in relation to the deliberately poisoned golden eagle – see here.

I challenged the estate’s claim that Police Scotland had not found any evidence of illegal activity back in 2016 and Police Scotland issued a statement in response (see here).

I then submitted a series of FoIs that revealed what looked like some very odd goings on between the estate, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Scottish Government, which resulted in ‘secret action‘ apparently being taken against a gamekeeper but no prosecution followed, and nor did NatureScot impose a General Licence restriction for this incident (and NatureScot has refused to discuss its decision saying ‘it’s not in the public interest‘ to tell us).

I did wonder whether NatureScot had not imposed a General Licence restriction due to a technical issue – the fact that the SSPCA, not the police, attended the scene and found the evidence of the illegally-trapped gull. If you look again at NatureScot’s Framework for decision-making on restrictions, it says that evidence must be provided by the police. It doesn’t say anything about evidence from the SSPCA being acceptable. I hope I’m wrong on that because as a statutory reporting agency, the SSPCA’s evidence should be considered just as robust as any evidence put forward by Police Scotland – I’ll check with NatureScot about it.

However, yesterday a blog was published on the excellent ParksWatchScotland blog, written by Graeme Rose, one of the guys who had actually found the critically-injured gull on Invercauld Estate in 2016. It’s a harrowing tale, but it’s incredibly enlightening in that he pursued the enforcement authorities for several years after the incident and by doing so uncovered all sorts of shenanigans. He says he received a text in July 2020 from the former Convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority who told him that a gamekeeper had indeed ‘been let go’ after the gull incident in 2016, despite the estate’s protestations at the time that any offence had even taken place. I believe this is the information that was deliberately redacted by the CNPA and the Scottish Government when I’d asked them about it in those FoIs.

What a pitiful state of affairs.

Will we see anything different in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle? Well, we’ve already seen that Invercauld Estate has ‘left’ the Eastern Cairngorms Moorland Partnership, although there was absolutely zero indication whether the estate was expelled or left of its own accord (see here) so it looks like the Cairngorms National Park Authority is staying true to form and not wanting to be explicit about any action that may or may not have been taken. Why is that, do you think? Could it be anything to do with who sits on the CNPA’s Board? There are some interesting characters with some interesting connections to the grouse-shooting world, and even to Invercauld Estate itself.

And what about NatureScot and its deliberations about whether there is sufficient justification for a General Licence restriction on Invercauld Estate? That’s going to be VERY interesting and is something I’ll definitely be tracking. Watch this space.

“Another poisoned golden eagle? If the SNP are serious about protecting wildlife we need an Environment Secretary who will act” – Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley has written a brilliant opinion piece for the Courier (published 10th May 2021) in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle found on Invercauld Estate in March.

The article is reproduced below:

THERE is a job of some urgency for the new Environment Secretary at Holyrood.

You may have read about the golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld estate in the Cairngorms National Park.

The guiding principles for a national park should centre around the wellbeing of the landscape and its ecology. Nothing else. Otherwise, why bother to have a national park at all?

But what Scotland has instead is two national parks obsessed by tourism and the rural economy.

As it happens, I have just been reading a book called “A Life in Nature”, a collection of writings by Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He wrote this:

“For conserving wildlife and wilderness there are three categories of reason: ethical, aesthetic, and economic, with the last one (at belly level) lagging far behind the other two.”

And this:

“Conservationists today are involved in a gigantic holding operation – a modern Noah’s Ark to save what is left of the wildlife and wild places, until the tide of new thinking begins to flow all over the world.”

Long wait for tide to turn

He wrote that 60 years ago.

But because I read it at the same time as Nicola Sturgeon’s astonishing election achievement was playing out, I began to think that there is an opportunity right here, right now.

If we are on a tide of new thinking, it has never been more important that the Scottish Government appoints an Environment Secretary with a radical agenda.

And please don’t let Fergus Ewing anywhere near it, because he is far too chummy with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

The golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld this spring is the latest in a breathtaking catalogue of around 80 crimes against wildlife in the national park’s young life

The first thing I think the new Environment Secretary should do is to familiarise himself or herself with the track record of the Cairngorms National Park in conserving wildness and wildlife, and then to consider how the land within the park is managed.

The result of that familiarising process should be cause for a great deal of concern for the new Environment Secretary.

If it isn’t, the Scottish Government will have appointed the wrong person, because the golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld this spring is but the latest in a breath-taking catalogue of around 80 crimes against wildlife in the national park’s young life (it was established in 2003).

Twelve golden and white-tailed eagles have been killed in that time along with 24 buzzards; and 10 hen harriers in the last five years alone.

A sea eagle nest tree was deliberately felled and nests of peregrine and goshawk were destroyed.

All that inside the national park, in the last 18 years, and all of these birds have the highest level of legal protection.

Victorian values

That alone should be enough to persuade the new Environment Secretary that the situation calls for new thinking.

The estates’ attitudes towards birds of prey are symptomatic of a far wider contempt for those species of nature which they judge to be inconvenient for what remains a depressingly Victorian attitude to land and wildlife.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority’s response to the eagle-killing was dismal. A statement on its website says: “The CPNA condemns this senseless and irresponsible behaviour and condemns it in the strongest possible terms. Raptor persecution has no place in 21st century Scotland and no place in this national park.”

How can you revere a landscape when the principal management tools of its private owners are fire and guns and poisons, burning the land, killing the wildlife?

No, it doesn’t condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

If it had done, the park authority would be screaming down the phone to the Scottish Parliament that grouse moor and deer forest should have no place in 21st century Scotland or inside the national park.

They are completely incompatible with thoughtful conservation of a landscape that should be revered for its wildlife and wild landscape.

How can you revere a landscape when the principal management tools of its private owners are fire and guns and poisons, burning the land, killing the wildlife. And why aren’t national parks owned by the nation?

That might have amounted to something like the strongest possible terms.

The other problem with the park authority’s statement is that, alas, there IS a place for raptor persecution in 21st century Scotland, in many places, and one is the Cairngorms National Park.

Reality doesn’t match ambition

The first words you read on the home page of the Cairngorms National Park Authority website are these: “An outstanding national park, where people and nature thrive together.”

It is a very worthwhile ambition, but it is a long way from the reality on the ground.

The new Environment Secretary might also like to consider that one of the reasons for such a toll of wildlife is that as things stand, the estates know they will almost certainly get away with it, for there are hardly ever prosecutions.

If our newly-elected government wants to project the image of a forward-thinking independent Scotland on the European stage – and I sincerely hope it does given my lilac and yellow votes for the SNP – then the tide of new thinking should perhaps begin by blowing away that embarrassing Victorian stain from the face of the land.

ENDS

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