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.

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.

Scottish Gamekeepers’ ‘handwriting expert’ on Chris Packham’s death threat letter exposed in Panorama sting

This is hilarious. The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association has been caught with its pants around its ankles, again.

Cast your minds back to April 2019, when Chris Packham received a death threat letter (see here and here) following Wild Justice’s successful legal challenge against the General Licences.

Then fast-forward two years to March 2021 when the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) made a bizarre attempt to discredit Chris’s integrity by employing the services of an unnamed ‘handwriting expert’ who apparently concluded that there was ‘very strong evidence‘ that Chris had faked the death threat letter and had written it himself.

The SGA said it had sent this ‘evidence’ to Hampshire Police and it also notified the Sunday Times (Scotland), presumably in the hope of turning public support against Chris, although it didn’t work out quite that way, when Hampshire Police dismissed the ‘evidence’ and the Sunday Times even employed the services of its own forensic document examiner who concluded that Chris was NOT the author of the death threat letter (see here and here).

At the time, it was quite puzzling that the SGA hadn’t published its ‘evidence’ from the ‘handwriting expert’ but given that the SGA often seems to rely upon anecdote and old wives’ tales as the basis for its mutterings and chuntering, nobody thought much more about it.

Now fast-forward to April this year, when an article appeared in the Sunday Times (Scotland) written by its deputy editor, Mark Macaskill, with the headline that Chris ‘faces a new claim of faking the death threat‘:

It was apparent from the Sunday Times article that the ‘evidence’ provided to the SGA by their ‘handwriting expert’ was to be used by three men being sued by Chris for alleged defamation.

As this ‘evidence’ is being relied upon by the three defendants in the libel case [to support their allegations that Chris is dishonest], Chris’s lawyers are entitled to see the ‘evidence’ of this ‘handwriting expert’ [and one other that the SGA claimed to have bought] so they asked for copies of the purported ‘experts’ reports as part of the disclosure process.

And this is where the SGA’s ‘evidence’ unravels.

The following is part of the response made to the court by Chris’s lawyers, explaining their reaction to the ‘handwriting experts’ reports after receiving them from the libel defendants’ solicitor. It’s all worth reading but pay particular attention to the paragraph I’ve highlighted in red, referring to the ‘evidence’ of the SGA’s ‘handwriting expert’ Ms Simone Tennant:

So there we have it. The SGA’s ‘handwriting expert’, Ms Simone Tennant, was previously caught out (in 2014) for apparently providing ‘flawed evidence’ in a sting operation by the BBC’s undercover Panorama programme, ‘Justice for Sale‘.

This exposé was reported at the time by BBC News (here) and by the Daily Mail (here).

Now I understand why the SGA didn’t publish its ‘evidence’ back in 2019.

And what a beautiful irony that it’s partly the SGA’s ‘evidence’, having been re-hashed in a national newspaper and online even though it was supposed to be the subject of live court proceedings, that has now led to Chris seeking further aggravated damages from the defendants in his libel claim.

The libel trial is due to take place later this year.

Gamekeepers in England try to ‘out dinosaur’ gamekeepers in Scotland over continued use of toxic lead ammunition

The ongoing use of toxic lead ammunition in the UK is no laughing matter. This stuff should have been banned years ago when Governments were first made aware of lead’s toxic effect on our environment, our wildlife, and our people.

But no, even though most of the previously significant sources of lead in the environment (e.g. lead-based paint and leaded petrol) were eliminated decades ago due to their known damaging effects, the use of toxic lead ammunition for gamebird shooting has been allowed to continue, largely thanks to selfish, idiotic shooting organisations campaigning for the right to use toxic lead and sod the consequences to the environment, wildlife and human health.

[US Fish & Wildlife Service researchers examining 58 dead Bald Eagles in 2012. 60% had detectable concentrations of lead. 38% had lethal lead concentrations. Photo by USFWS]

There are various restrictions/bans in Scotland, England and Wales introduced between 1999-2004 on the use of lead ammunition over wetlands, but research has demonstrated that that has largely been ignored by a significant number of shooters (e.g. see here).

It’s also worth mentioning for new blog readers that UK gamebird meat is still exempt from testing for poisonous lead whereas every other type of meat destined for the human food chain is not. It’s scandalous. (E.g. see here).

In 2020, after seeing the writing on the wall in parts of the US and Europe where more progressive, enlightened Governments have made huge strides to get rid of toxic lead ammo, nine of the UK’s shooting organisations, including the National Gamekeepers Organisation, suddenly made a massive U-turn and announced they were introducing a ‘five year voluntary transition away from toxic lead shot’. Many of us believed it was simply a propaganda ploy to fool the Government and the public that the shooting industry was finally taking responsibility for its filthy, damaging activities.

So far, two years into the so-called ‘transition’ they’ve made no progress whatsoever in moving away from the use of toxic lead shot (see here and here).

Notably, the dinosaurs at the Scottish Gamekeepers Association refused to sign up because they didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to support a move away from the use of toxic lead ammunition (yes, really).

Earlier this year, the main shooting organisations’ fear became reality when the Westminster Government, with support from the Scottish and Welsh Governments, finally agreed to consider a lead ammunition ban in ALL environments (not just wetlands) (see here).

As part of this process, last month a dossier was published by the UK Health & Safety Executive showing that the damaging effects of toxic lead ammo ‘are not adequately controlled‘ [more like, are not controlled at all!] and the authors set out a framework for a ban. The dossier/report is lengthy and detailed but the evidence is clear:

A six-month public consultation on the terms of the proposed ban is now underway, due to close on 6th November 2022 (see here). The consultation is based on the recommendations of the review and covers issues such as:

  • a ban on the sale of lead shot
  • a ban on the use of all types of lead ammunition for live quarry shooting including lead shot, shotgun slugs, lead bullets and airgun pellets
  • a ban on the use of lead shot for outdoor target shooting with possible exemptions for licensed athletes at licensed ranges with appropriate environmental protection measures
  • a ban on the use of lead bullets for outdoor target shooting with possible exemptions for shooting at licensed ranges with appropriate environmental protection measures
  • mandatory labelling of the packaging of lead ammunition regarding the hazards and risks of lead.

Proposed transition periods for each of the restrictions vary, and range from 18 months to five years.

You’d think that shouldn’t cause the shooting organisations any concerns at all, especially as they’re already two and a half years in to their own five-year voluntary transition away from lead ammo, right?

But look at this full-page advert by the National Gamekeepers Organisation published in this week’s Shooting Times. It’s almost like they’re trying to ‘out dinosaur’ the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and that takes some doing!

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

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

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

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

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

General Licence restricted on Cairngorms Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stop killing raptors and we can talk’, Packham tells gamekeepers

Yesterday the Sunday Times (Scotland) ran an opportunistic piece, presumably at the behest of a load of gamekeepers.

Written by Deputy Editor Mark Macaskill, it was claimed that a ‘moorland consortium’ had invited Chris Packham to visit a grouse moor to watch them set it alight, in response to Chris’s derision of muirburn whilst COP26 was taking place just down the road.

It transpires that the ‘moorland consortium’ in question is the one representing Scotland’s regional moorland groups, some of whose members are either currently, or recently have been, under police investigation for alleged raptor persecution crimes (e.g. members of the Angus Glens Moorland Group, Tomatin Moorland Group, Strathdearn & Speyside Moorland Group, Grampian Moorland Group, Tayside & Central Moorland Group), but this doesn’t appear to be a barrier to getting the deputy editor of the Times to publish favourable articles. Friends in high places, no doubt.

Anyway, a quote from the moorland groups’ co-ordinator, Lianne MacLennan, included this line:

There is an opportunity to foster a better understanding and take the heat out of a polarised debate“.

I spoke to Chris about this and at the time of writing, Chris hadn’t received the invitation but he was still pushed for a quote by Macaskill. That quote was then minimised in the print edition of the article (apparently due to lack of space) and not fully presented even in the digital edition, where space is not an issue.

It’s strange that when journalists ask for a quote they don’t use it in full. This happens a lot.

Here is Chris’s quote, in full:

Thank you for the invitation. Whilst I have a genuine desire to reach a point when real conservationists and some of the responsible factions of the game shooting industry can again sit around a table and make progress, I fear we are not yet at that point.

So I would gladly visit an estate to witness the burning . . . as long as I was also shown the whereabouts of all the graves of illegally killed raptors were buried. Until the wholesale slaughter of our precious birds of prey ends, I’m out. Its an intractable blockage to progress  – stop the killing and we can start talking. And also, science, proper science, isn’t about whether Mars Bars get singed or not. Just saying . . .

[Chris with the corpse of a male hen harrier that had been caught in a barbaric trap that had been set illegally next to the harrier’s nest on a driven grouse moor. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Here is a copy of the digital edition of the article:

Packham urged to take heat out of moorland burns

Mark Macaskill, Sunday November 21 2021

Chris Packham has declined an invitation to witness the controlled burning of Scottish moorlands after his comments during the Cop26 climate talks that Scotland was “sticking two fingers up” to a world in ecological crisis.

The naturalist and host of BBC Winterwatch, who was the victim of an arson attack at his home in Hampshire last month, used social media to highlight muirburn, which he believes contributes to carbon emissions and should be banned. He was accused of claiming, falsely, that peat, a natural carbon store, was being burnt on grouse moors.

In an effort to “take the heat” out of the debate, a moorland consortium asked Packham to be their guest on a Scottish estate to see muirburn in action.

Packham said that he was willing to engage with the shooting industry but pointed to the illegal persecution of birds of prey as a stumbling block.

“Whilst I have a genuine desire to reach a point when real conservationists and some of the responsible factions of the game shooting industry can again sit around a table and make progress , I fear we are not yet at that point . So I would gladly visit an estate to witness the burning . . . as long as I was also shown the whereabouts of all the graves of illegally killed raptors. Until the wholesale slaughter of our precious birds of prey ends , I’m out . Its an intractable blockage to progress – stop the killing and we can start talking.”

Bodies such as the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) insist that muirburn removes surface vegetation while leaving underlying layers of moss and peat intact. The practice is approved under licence from NatureScot, the government agency.

Environmentalists argue that burning on peatlands releases carbon into the atmosphere, undermining efforts to reduce emissions to help control climate change.

During the muirburn season from October to April it is estimated that the equivalent of 87,000 football pitches is burned.

Lianne MacLennan, co-ordinator of Scotland’s regional moorland groups, said that muirburn was conducted carefully and pointed to a Scottish government report last year which suggested that many bird species fared better where muirburn had taken place, although further research was required.

“Muirburn plays a vital role in preventing the type of climate-busting wildfires that lost a million tonnes of carbon in Moray and the Flow Country in 2019 and can help retain carbon in peatlands,” she said. “ We have written to Chris Packham in the hope he will come out and see what actually happens when trained, professional gamekeepers carry out the activity.”

A letter sent to Packham on Friday stated: “There is an opportunity to foster a better understanding and take the heat out of a polarised debate.”

ENDS

‘Persistent intimidation’ – raptor conservationists face ongoing harassment from gamekeepers

Award-winning investigative journalism website The Ferret published an article last week with an account of how raptor conservationists are facing ongoing harassment from gamekeepers and supporters of the grouse-shooting industry.

Thanks to journalist Stuart Spray for the invitation to contribute to this piece.

It’s reproduced here in full:

Conservationists working to protect rare birds of prey claim they are being abused online and intimidated in the field by gamekeepers and supporters of the grouse shooting industry.

Logan Steele, communications secretary for the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG), made up of conservationists working to protect rare birds of prey, told The Ferret that he is regularly contacted by workers who say they have been targeted in the line of their work.

Steele says members report incidents such as being surrounded by armed gamekeepers – often in 4x4s or on quad bikes – being followed for hours on end whilst out monitoring, being abused verbally, having tyres let down, having police called on them and even being spat at whilst drinking in the local pub.

He claims the intimidation is widespread, but most raptor workers are not prepared to go on record for fear of reprisals.

The SRSG, set up in 1980, has more than 350 voluntary members monitoring the vast majority of the 6,000 plus raptor territories checked annually as part of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme.

The scheme supplies data to organisations like the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), RSPB and NatureScot – the Scottish Government’s wildlife watchdog – to help understand population dynamics and inform conservation priorities. Members of SRSG also gather information on raptor persecution.

Gamekeepers have also previously claimed to be subjected to abuse. In a survey last November by the BASC, Countryside Alliance, Game Farmers Association and National Gamekeepers Association 64 per cent of Scottish gamekeepers said they had experienced threatening behaviour or abuse from members of the public at least once every year.

The study, which surveyed 152 gamekeepers, also found the majority (79 per cent) felt ‘less optimistic’ due to ‘targeted anti-shooting campaigns and the negative portrayal of shooting in the public domain’.

But Steele said conservationists were suffering. He added: “Our members on some driven grouse moors continue to be subjected to persistent levels of intimidation and abuse from gamekeepers. It is patently clear that raptor workers and indeed the wider public are not always welcome on some driven grouse moors“.

Steele has himself been trolled online several times. “On one occasion an ex-gamekeeper boasted online that he had fitted a tracking device to my car and knew I was at home“, he said. Concerned that he was being followed he got the car checked over but no tracking devices were found.

An image Steele posted of himself online with a hen harrier chick in 2006 was allegedly downloaded and regularly reposted on two ex-gamekeeper’s social media pages along with claims accusing him of professional malpractice without evidence.

Consultant ecologist, Andrea Hudspeth – who along with Steele received an RSPB award in 2017 for raptor campaign work – claimed she also felt threatened on shooting estates.

She added: “I have been monitoring raptors on a grouse shooting estate for a number of years now and have always been made to feel unwelcome, so much so that I don’t feel safe going there on my own.

She claimed the experience could be intimidating. Of one estate she said: “Having phoned the day before to let the estate know I was coming, I was told where I could and couldn’t go as they were shooting foxes that day. He [the head gamekeeper] told me that if I strayed into the wrong area, it wouldn’t be his fault if I got shot. At the time, that sounded like a veiled threat“.

Dr Ruth Tingay, an award-winning conservationist and director of Wild Justice, a not-for-profit organisation set up with broadcaster Chris Packham and environmental campaigner Mark Avery to ‘fight for wildlife in the courts and in the media’, told The Ferret she was subjected to online abuse on an almost daily basis.

Tingay, who runs the Raptor Persecution UK blog, claimed she received comments online that were routinely misogynistic and homophobic and involved personal slurs on her appearance and character.

My personal telephone number has been published online and folk have been incited to make abusive phone calls. I have also received abusive text messages,”, added Tingay.

My home address has been published and shared on social media. Photographs of my home have been published and shared on social media. I have been followed and photographed on grouse moors and these have been published on social media with accompanying defamatory comments.

I have been accused of fabricating evidence, of perverting the course of justice, of inflicting cruelty to wildlife, of killing eagles, of planting evidence, and conversely, and bizarrely, of withholding evidence from the police, of lying to the police, of lying to ministers, of lying to supporters, of lying in general“.

Tingay says the targeted harassment has been going on for the last six years and shows no signs of stopping. Earlier this week she was described by one shooter as “absolute poison” and another shooter opened a discussion titled: ‘Is Tingay a witch?’

These individual comments are, of course, pathetic and laughable and are easy to shrug off, so obvious is the desperation behind them”, she said. “But it’s the accumulation of the comments, that’s when the problem starts.

It’s relentless, and I think that’s very, very dangerous. That constant tide of abuse would take its toll on even the most resilient person. I’ve put measures in place to deal with it and I’m fortunate to be working with a world-class mental health coach. That’s not what I expected to need when I decided to work in the field of raptor conservation“.

However, Steele also insisted that most conservationists and grouse shooters, landowners, stalkers, ghillies and gamekeepers had a “very good working relationship”. He claimed those behind the abuse were trying to create a “false, them-and-us situation”.

The issue really resides with a small number of driven grouse shooting businesses”, he added. “In recent years we have seen some estates beginning to moderate their attitudes to raptor persecution which is very encouraging“.

The Ferret contacted the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the landowners’ representative group Scottish Land & Estates and the Countryside Alliance. None of the organisations replied to requests for comment.

However, Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg has previously said gamekeepers are currently being “undervalued” and called for action to be taken on the abuse they have faced.

ENDS

Ex-Minister Fergus Ewing’s plans for pine martens explains a lot about Scottish Government’s approach to raptor protection

Fergus Ewing MSP was the Scottish Government’s Rural Cabinet Secretary from 2016-2021 until he was sacked by Nicola Sturgeon in May (see here).

He has long been viewed with suspicion by conservationists, and many would argue justifiably so (e.g. see here, here and check Google for plenty of other reports) although we did manage to get him to condemn ongoing raptor persecution on Scottish grouse moors after pointing out his long silence on this issue (here).

Many have believed that Fergus Ewing was partly responsible for the Scottish Government’s glacial approach to tackling raptor crime, with oft-heard rumours from within Holyrood circles that he and Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham were often at loggerheads over how the Government should respond. I don’t know if those rumours were true or not but I do know that the Government has dragged its feet on this issue for years and years and years (and is still doing so now).

Last week I read a comment piece from Fergus about pine martens, published in The Times, and it did nothing to change my view of what I’d call his dodgy conservation credentials. He can’t expect to be taken seriously when he proposes we should trust the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, GWCT, NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates to carefully manage protected predators, when many of these organisations have either lobbied hard for licences to kill various raptor species perceived to threaten gamebirds and/or lambs, or have repeatedly denied that raptors continue to be killed by criminals within the industry, despite the evidence being clear for all to see.

Here’s what he wrote:

Ask any local farmer, keeper or land manager about the future of the capercaillie and they will talk about the impact of predators upon this bird, whose population in Scotland is under threat. From what I have learnt over two decades as the constituency MSP for much of the Caledonian pine forest, the capercaillie’s preferred habitat, it seems unlikely that the species can survive unless its predators are tackled.

Over the last two decades, millions of pounds of public money and lottery funding have been devoted to saving the caper. But, like other ground-nesting birds such as lapwing and plover, its eggs are breakfast, lunch and dinner for a large variety of predators. In this month’s edition of The Scottish Gamekeeper, there is a photograph of a pine marten holding an egg in its mouth.

Ten years ago the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust proposed a scheme not to control pine martens but to capture and transport them from Strathspey to places without such easy meals. This, sadly, was not approved. I have lodged in the Holyrood Parliament a motion that the Scottish Government and other funding sources must urgently discuss, with the bodies that understand land management best, how to avert the loss of the caper with sustained and effective predator management programmes. Other funding providers include NatureScot, the Cairngorm National Park and the lottery, who have a programme in Carrbridge seeking to preserve the caper.

Who knows what to do? Primarily those closest to the ground – keepers, farmers, crofters and land managers. If the public and funders are willing to trust those with the knowledge – the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates, Scottish Crofting Federation and others – it may be possible to save this species.

If not, then in addition to more than £10 million already spent on the capercaillie without success, any further public money devoted to it will be wasted. Indeed, the eight-figure sum already spent will be seen as ‘the great caper-caper’ as it were, and expose any public bodies who are shown to have ignored practitioner advice to serious criticism and ridicule.

ENDS

Recently I was shown this photograph of what might also be described as ‘the great caper-caper’ – the result of a capercaillie shoot on a Scottish sporting estate in 1980. It does make me wonder about the motivation of some organisations to ‘save’ the capercaillie. Save them for what? Another shooting party?

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to Fergus’s grand plan for ‘driving out the pine marten’.

He mentioned that he’d lodged a parliamentary motion on this issue but I couldn’t find it listed on the Scottish Parliamentary website.

Fergus will be delighted to learn though, that a new long term strategic recovery plan for pine martens in Britain has just been published by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, funded by NatureScot and Natural England, and it’s a very impressive piece of work.

You can download the report here:

Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single recommendation for ‘driving out the pine marten’ from the Caledonian Forest. Funny that.

What I did read was that the pine marten population is still slowly recovering in Scotland, largely thanks to full legal protection and improved habitat availability, but that the population is still vulnerable. As such, the report authors recommend protecting the integrity of existing populations to promote natural recolonisation and, where appropriate, limiting the removal of individual pine martens for potential translocation and reintroduction projects elsewhere in the UK.

There you are, Fergus. A properly-researched, evidence-based, scientific research report written by actual experts on which to base future discussions about pine marten conservation – far more appropriate than the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s quarterly rag, even though it does have a photo of a pine marten with an egg in its mouth (Shocker! Predator caught eating something!).

Hysteria from Scottish gamekeepers as SNP and Greens formalise talks to cooperate

Earlier this week it was announced that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in formal talks with the Scottish Greens over a ‘co-operation agreement’ designed to seal a pro-independence majority at Holyrood. Falling short of a formal coalition, the agreement could in future lead to Green MSPs becoming Ministers as part of the current Scottish Government (see Scottish Greens statement here, BBC news article here and an analysis from the Guardian’s Scotland Editor Sev Carrell here).

This proposed agreement is of huge interest to many environmentalists and although the specific policy areas of potential cooperation have not yet been agreed (see here), tackling the climate emergency (and by default, surely, the nature emergency) should be a prominent feature.

The news of these talks has triggered the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) to publish a typically over-the-top scaremongering response about perceived job losses, presumably as a ploy to keep its less well-informed members ready to join a protest at short notice: [Update 16.30hrs – see foot of blog!]

Job losses are of concern to everyone, of course, but as I’ve written previously, the SGA is once again accusing the Scottish Greens of doing something they haven’t done.

The Scottish Greens have made it an aspiration to abolish our members’ jobs‘, says the SGA.

Actually, the Greens have done no such thing. In fact in their election manifesto the Scottish Greens have committed to creating jobs in the countryside, promising ‘at least £895M over the next five years in restoring nature whilst investing in rural communities, creating over 6,000 green jobs’.

The Greens are also committed to ensuring that the licencing of grouse moors ‘is properly resourced and well enforced’ – how does that equate to rural job losses if grouse moor managers are abiding by the law?

A spokesperson from the Scottish Greens is cited today in another article about the proposed cooperative agreement amid concerns from fish farmers and National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS):

A spokesman for Scottish Green MSPs responded that it was too early to say which issues would arise in talks with the SNP.

He said that environmental harm and fish welfare was a higher priority than phasing out caged fish farms altogether.

He explained that the party’s intention was to support industries in finding alternatives to harmful and polluting activities, and not to force sudden change‘.

Perhaps if the SGA had spent less time and money sponsoring adverts against the Scottish Greens (that went well – great use of members’ funds, not), less time complaining to the electoral commission (how did that go?) and more time reading and engaging with the Greens instead of excluding them from hustings, they’d have a better grasp of what was going on and be in a stronger position to contribute to discussions instead of constantly throwing their toys out of the pram and howling, ‘It’s so unfair’.

Actually, if they’d got any sense at all they’d realise that these talks are not their greatest immediate threat – it’s the continued illegal killing of birds of prey on land managed for gamebird shooting that’s pushing them further and further in to the corner and away from public support.

That poisoned golden eagle, found dead next to a poisoned bait on Invercauld Estate, sent shockwaves through the public, many of whom had no idea this sort of barbarity still goes on.

The SGA’s response? Well I can’t see any statement of condemnation on their website, can you?

[The poisoned golden eagle found lying on a grouse moor next to a poisoned bait on Invercauld Estate. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

UPDATE 16.30hrs:

Right on cue, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has just published this:

“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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