19
Dec
14

Sea eagles demonised, again

eagle-snatches-sheepIt seems barely a month goes by without someone trying to demonise white-tailed eagles in Scotland.

This time it’s the handiwork of Telegraph ‘journalist’ Auslan Cramb, with an article headlined:

Sea eagles eat more lamb than fish, despite their name, according to research.

We really shouldn’t be surprised that this scaremongering drivel has been churned out by Cramb. He’s the same ‘journalist’ who in October falsely claimed that ‘Wind turbines have killed more birds of prey than persecution this year‘ – a claim we demonstrated was false here.

His latest claim is based on the results of a series of photographs that were taken at a white-tailed eagle’s nest in Argyll between January and July this year. Yes, that’s right, footage from a single nest, filmed during a single period. Hardly representative, is it?

According to SNH, this eagle pair brought in 117 prey items to the nest. 67 of these (57%) were unidentifiable. Of the items that were identifiable, 21 items were mammals, 14 were birds, 7 were fish and ‘8 or 9′ were lambs.

So this camera at this particular eagle’s nest, during this particular period, filmed one or two more lambs than fish. Does that justify the scaremongering headline that sea eagles eat more lamb than fish? Hardly. But then a headline such as ‘Pair of sea eagles enjoy a varied, generalist diet’ isn’t really what the raptor killers want the public to believe, is it?

The article also fails to explain that these ‘8 or 9′ lambs could well have been taken as carrion (i.e. the lambs were already dead and the eagles simply scavenged the carcasses).

To try and pass these results off as a conclusive scientific study is pure desperation. It’s what’s known as ‘utter bollocks’ in scientific terms. Trying to determine raptor diet using a single method (such as nest camera footage) is a well-known problem that is beset with bias. There are numerous methods of obtaining such data (e.g. analysis of regurgitated pellets, analysis of prey remains, camera footage) and considerable research has shown that a combination of methods should be used, rather than a single one. The additional issue of using a sample size of one (nest) is just laughable. It is also well known that the diet of individual eagle pairs can vary across years in western Scotland, as reported by sea eagle experts Mike Madders and Mick Marquiss in 2003.

The most recent, properly conducted, scientific study on white-tailed eagle diet in western Scotland was published in 2013. That study included the analysis of pellet and prey remains from 16 sea eagle nests on Skye, Mull, Lewis and Harris, over an eight year period. The study found that 49.6% of the eagles’ diet comprised seabirds, 19.2% sheep, 13.4% lagomorphs and 6.1% fish. However, the authors acknowledged that the estimation of fish in the eagles’ diet was probably under-estimated due to the methods of dietary analysis that they used.

The purpose of installing the camera at the Argyll eagle pair’s nest was part of an on-going effort to understand the conflict between sea eagles and farming/crofting interests in western Scotland. This is a long-standing and controversial issue that we’ve blogged about a lot (here is an example). It would appear that if farmers/crofters want to deter sea eagles there’s a simple solution – attach a small black plastic box to the lamb’s neck (about the size of a matchbox). Why? Because a load of lambs were radio tagged during an earlier study into alleged lamb-killing eagles and the results showed that not one single lamb was killed by an eagle. The crofters claimed the eagles had been ‘put off’ because of the radio collars/tags. (They also claimed that the eagles had been given supplementary food during the study period, and that some eagles had been ‘bird-napped’ to remove them from the study area!).

18
Dec
14

Ross-shire Massacre: 9 months on

KeystoneCopsIt’s been nine months since 22 raptors (16 red kites + 6 buzzards) were illegally killed in a mass poisoning incident near Conon Bridge, Ross-shire.

Still no word from Police Scotland on the name of the ‘illegally held substance’ that was used to kill these birds.

Still no arrests.

Still no charges.

Still no prosecution.

Still no justice.

Police Scotland’s handling of this investigation continues to astound….

You may remember, back in October, some senior officers from Police Scotland gave evidence on this case to the Parliamentary Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment Committee (RACCE). The police were being questioned about their idiotic recent press release which had stated: “These birds were most likely not targeted deliberately but instead were the victims of pest control measures“.

We were particularly interested in what Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham had to say to the RACCE about this press release:

We put out information into the public domain that we thought was going to clarify what we thought our best assessment was, lay behind the intent of the acts that we’re investigating, and from everything that we have done, in combination with a number of other agencies who are active in this field AND WHO SUPPORTED THE PRESS RELEASE THAT WE PUT OUT [Emphasis by RPS], we wanted to say that it didn’t appear that the activity had sought to deliberately target the birds that had been killed“.

We were intrigued about who these “other agencies” were that had supposedly “supported the press release that we put out” because, to be blunt, we didn’t believe ACC Malcolm Graham’s claim.

So in October we encouraged blog readers to email ACC Graham to ask him for clarification on the identity of these “other agencies“. There was no response for six weeks. So last week we encouraged blog readers to consider writing to the Information Commissioner to put in a formal complaint about Police Scotland’s refusal to respond. That prompted the following letter from Police Scotland, sent on 11th December 2014:

Dear XXXXX XXXXX

ACC Graham has asked me to reply to your email on his behalf.

I can confirm that a number of organisations both governmental and non-governmental have assisted the police in this enquiry from the outset. Significantly, both the RSPB Investigations Team and the SSPCA Special Investigations Unit have been involved and offered professional opinions at various times based on their experience of the the killing of birds of prey and the use and impact of poisons.

When drafting the press release these considered opinions along with those given by others were taken in to consideration. The press release reflected the belief at this time that the birds of prey were not the intended target of the illegal poison. However, as stated in the press release the illegal killing of the 16 poisoned birds remains a crime and therefore subject to a criminal investigation.

Regards,

Sergeant Andrew Mavin

Scottish Wildlife Crime Coordinator

Specialist Crime Division

Police Scotland

Glasgow West End Police Office

609-611 Dumbarton Road

Glasgow

G11 6HY

An interesting response, eh? We already know that RSPB Scotland didn’t support the press release (see here), and neither did Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse (see here). The SSPCA didn’t respond to our queries so we don’t know whether they supported the release or not but we could take an educated guess.

While we wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that Police Scotland gave misleading evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, we would suggest that their evidence (specifically, their claim that “other agencies who supported the press release that we put out“) deserves further scrutiny and we’ll be writing to the RACCE about this.

Meanwhile, we await with interest to see whether the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, responds to MSP Dave Thompson’s request for a review of the police handling of this investigation.

Previous blogs on the Ross-shire Massacre here

17
Dec
14

Barn owl shot, red kite poisoned

Cheshire Consabulary logoCheshire Constabulary are appealing for information after a series of wildlife crimes, including the shooting of a barn owl, swan and heron, and the suspected poisoning of a red kite.

The crimes took place at Risley Moss Nature Reserve in Warrington, Cheshire, “in recent weeks”.

No further details available.

Article in the Warrington Guardian here.

16
Dec
14

New study suggests that killing crows is mostly pointless, most of the time

crows in trap Walter BaxterYesterday saw the publication of a new scientific research paper entitled: A review of the impacts of corvids on bird productivity and abundance. The paper is available for free download here.

If you want to skip over the technical details, the authors have helpfully issued a press release which provides a more general overview for the more casual reader. It reads as follows:

A MURDER OF CROWS?

They steal, raid nests, and keep the company of witches. But the unpopular crow may not be as big a menace as people think.

A new study has found that crows – along with their avian cousins the magpie and the raven – have surprisingly little impact on the abundance of other bird species.

Collectively known as corvids, these birds are in fact being menaced by mankind in the mistaken belief that removing them is good for conservation.

The new study was led by researchers at the University of Cape Town and published this week in the leading ornithological journal Ibis. It found that in the vast majority of cases (82 percent), corvids had no impact at all on their potential prey species.

“Many nature lovers have been distressed to witness a crow or magpie raiding the nests of their beloved garden songbirds, stealing their eggs or eating their defenceless chicks,” said study co-author Dr Arjun Amar from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute for Ornithology. “Although this predation is entirely natural, these observations can be upsetting to witness and often leave people wondering if these predators might be reducing bird numbers.”

“However, our global review suggests that we should be cautious before jumping to conclusions over the impacts these species may have. Just because a predator eats something occasionally does not always mean that they have an impact,” Dr Amar said.

The study, the first of its kind, reviewed all published evidence on whether predation by corvids actually reduces the overall breeding performance of birds or, more importantly from a conservation perspective, reduces their numbers. Data were collated from 42 studies of corvid predation conducted across the globe over the last sixty years.

Not only were corvids unlikely to have any impact on their potential prey species, if there was an impact it most often affected the breeding success of the prey species rather their subsequent numbers. Half of cases found that corvids reduced breeding success whereas less than 10% of cases found that they reduced prey numbers in the long term.

“These results have big implications for the likely benefits of corvid control,” Dr Amar said. “They suggest that killing corvids will be of most benefit to those interested in gamebird shooting rather than conservationists.” He added: “Bird hunters are usually most interested in increasing numbers of birds available to shoot immediately after the breeding season and this appears to be where corvids have most impact”. “Conservationists on the other hand, are usually interested in increasing a species population size and our results suggest that only in a very few cases did corvids have an influence on this aspect of their prey,” Dr Amar said.

The review analysed the impact of six corvid species on a variety of prey species including gamebirds, songbirds, waders, herons, cranes, sea birds, waterfowl and raptors. The 42 studies incorporated into the review included 326 cases of corvid – bird prey interaction Most of the data stemmed from field research in the UK, France and the United States. The impacts were determined partly by comparing bird counts before and after corvids were either removed or their numbers reduced.

The review also found large differences between the impacts of crows, historically considered the most ‘cunning’ corvid, and magpies which are sometimes killed by home owners hoping to protect songbirds in their gardens. Crow species were six times more likely to have an impact on bird prey species than Magpies.

Mistaken assumptions about corvid predation were possibly explained by the birds’ diurnal nature and the fact that they are conspicuous nest predators: “Their importance in prey population regulation is often assumed prior to any assessment of the evidence,” the study warned.

Chrissie Madden, the lead author on the paper, hoped that the review would challenge the perception that all corvids were bad, thereby preventing needless killing: “Our results suggest that this is a mistaken belief and that generally speaking people would be wasting their time killing corvids to increase bird numbers”.

“Overall therefore, our study points to the fact that we are often too quick to jump to the conclusion that crows and magpies may be the cause of bird population declines,” she said.

END

SNH logo 2The paper itself is an interesting bit of science, but of more interest (to us at least) is the potential application of the research results. Basically, this review paper has shown that in the vast majority of cases, corvids (including crows and ravens) have little effect on their prey populations, and thus this raises an important question about the validity (and legality) of Government-issued General Licences which allow the mass killing of corvids, supposedly for the purposes of ‘conserving wild birds’.

General Licences have long been an issue of concern to conservationists, and we have blogged about this a lot (e.g. see here & scroll down through the posts and links). General Licences are routinely used by gamekeepers and land managers for the largely unregulated practice of killing so-called ‘pest’ species, especially corvids, in Larsen traps, clam traps and crow cage traps, or by shooting them. However, General Licences are not permitted to be used to kill ‘pest’ species for the purposes of protecting surplus stocks of gamebirds, even though that is exactly what gamekeepers have been doing, although they don’t admit to that – they simply claim they are ‘controlling vermin’ to protect wild birds such as waders.

How will SNH deal with the results of this latest study, given the overwhelming evidence that corvid predation isn’t having a significant impact on wild bird species in the majority of cases?

Don’t expect a quick response from SNH. We are still waiting for them to deal with other concerns that have been raised about the use of General Licences, some of which were raised in a publication dating back 15 years:

dick-stronach-1999-use-abuse-misuse-of-crow-traps

Interestingly, SNH has recently announced that their suite of 2015 General Licences will shortly (this week) be published on their website, WITHOUT conducting a public consultation and WITHOUT any substantive changes to their 2014 licences. Robbie Kernahan (SNH licensing dept) said:

From our previous consultations and discussions on the GL suite, I think we have a good understanding of the key issues and your outstanding concerns relating to General Licences“.

So that’s ok then. SNH understands the key issues and concerns but has decided not to address them. Brilliant.

Although, they are apparently addressing one aspect of trap use and have been conducting a questionnaire survey of trap-users (see here). As we blogged at the time, asking trap-users for a truthful account of their activities is, frankly, ridiculous. We all saw quite graphically last week, with the conviction of gamekeeper George Mutch, how some of these trap-users are operating.

We’ll be re-visiting this topic in the New Year.

Photo of trapped corvids by Walter Baxter

15
Dec
14

News round up

news 2There’s been a lot of interesting articles in the news media over the last few days. Unfortunately we’ve been too busy to blog about these in details so here’s a quick round up:

Balmoral’s nature award dismissed as a PR stunt

Balmoral, the Queen’s estate in Aberdeenshire, has won a “coveted award” (according to SLE) that recognises ‘exceptional work on game and wildlife management’. The estate has received accreditation under the Wildlife Estates Scotland’ (WES) banner – a scheme that was set up by Scottish landowners’ representative body Scottish Land & Estates in 2010, suspiciously timed to coincide with the Scottish Government’s then consideration of introducing estate licensing under the WANE Act (we blogged about it here).

However, WES has been described by environmentalists as “a mutual admiration society” and “little more than a public relations campaign that lacks credibility”. Balmoral’s award is difficult to understand given that five natural features on the estate (ancient Caledonian pine forest, bog woodland, blanket bog, dry heaths and wet heathland) have been categorised as being in ‘unfavourable condition’ by SNH.

Full story on Rob Edward’s website here.

If Prince William wants to be a conservationist then he must stop shooting

Simon Barnes has written an excellent piece in the Independent about Prince William’s recent statement on his visit to the US about zero tolerance on international wildlife crime, particularly elephant & rhino poaching. Barnes puts in to words what many of us are thinking – that if Prince William wants to be a credible ambassador for wildlife conservation (which would obviously be a good thing) then he must first address the criminality associated with driven grouse shooting in the UK (a pursuit in which he and other Royals participate). Full story in the Independent here.

Sporting estates criticised for failing wildlife in the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms National Park Authority has been reviewing moorland management practices within the Park and has highlighted many issues with which it’s unhappy. These issues are largely associated with the type of intensive management implemented by landowners to increase the number of grouse that can be shot each season. They include the illegal killing of birds of prey (an issue on which the CNPA spoke out against earlier this year, see here), the mass culling of mountain hares, bulldozing too many hill tracks, erecting fences across hillsides, and poorly managed heather burning.

The CNPA is concerned about the cumulative effects of these practices and their effect on wildlife within the Park. Grouse moor management is a dominant land use within the park, currently covering 44% of the land area. The CNPA suggests that this figure may need to be reduced in order to protect wildlife.

Full story, including a link to the CNPA’s report, on Rob Edward’s website here.

Britain would be big enough for the hen harrier and the grouse if it weren’t for politics

Charles Moore (not to be confused with Charlie Moores from Birders Against Wildlife Crime) has written a dull piece in the Telegraph which is basically just him slating the RSPB (yawn) and essentially claiming that hen harriers would be doing just fine if only the RSPB would leave the discussion re: brood management / shut up / go away. Interestingly, he cites some comments from a former RSPB employee (Alex Stoddart) to try and justify his criticism of the RSPB. He ‘forgot’ to mention that said former RSPB employee just happens to now work as the Ass Director of the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) and who seems to have a bag of chips and a bottle of ketchup on his shoulder when it comes to the RSPB and other conservation charities – see here.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Charles Moore likes a spot of grouse shooting – another fact he ‘forgot’ to mention in his article.

For anyone interested, Martin Harper (Conservation Director RSPB) has responded to Moore’s criticisms here.

Hare coursers’ cars are crushed after being seized by a court

An article on the Cambridge News website informs us that police seized two cars that were being used by hare coursers and that the vehicles have now been crushed after being confiscated by the court. Wouldn’t it be great if this tactic was applied to the vehicles of raptor killers….there’d be a few Landrovers and quad bikes heading for the crusher…

11
Dec
14

Scottish gamekeeper George Mutch: guilty on all 4 counts

George MutchThis is an historic day in the battle against the raptor killers.

Scottish gamekeeper George Mutch, 48, of Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire, has been found guilty on all four charges, including the illegal killing of a trapped goshawk, which he clubbed to death, and the taking of two other birds, a goshawk and a buzzard.

No-one will be surprised to learn that yet another gamekeeper has been convicted of illegally killing raptors; Mutch is the 28th gamekeeper to be convicted of wildlife crime in the last three years alone (see here). The big surprise in this case has been the Sheriff’s ruling that the covert video footage, filmed by RSPB Scotland, was admissible evidence. This alone was a significant ‘win’ for those of us who have been exasperated, for years, that this type of evidence has been consistently rejected by the Crown Office, thus allowing The Untouchables to be, well, untouchable. Especially when covert video surveillance has been consistently used in England to secure convictions in similar cases.

So what prompted the change of heart? Undoubtedly, the efforts of former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, who said in July 2013 that he would be urging the Crown Office to consider the use of video footage in cases against those committing wildlife crime.

According to our journalist contacts, COPFS prosecutor Tom Dysart’s performance in court was dynamite, pressing for the admissibility of the video footage and then later shredding the evidence of defence witness Hugo Straker from the GWCT. He also then shredded the evidence of Mutch, resulting in the Sheriff saying that Mutch’s evidence was ‘not credible’ and that his explanation for killing the goshawk (because it was injured) was “a convenient lie”. We never thought we’d say this but Tom Dysart apparently played a blinder. Long may it continue.

The video nasty in this case, showing Mutch trapping and then clubbing the goshawk to death, can be viewed here. WARNING – CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES.

Sheriff McPartlin will pass sentence in January and has already said he is considering a custodial sentence. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the SGA has put out a fascinating press statement. It turns out that Mutch was an SGA member and apparently “his membership of the SGA has been in suspension for some time, until the outcome of the case was known. Now that it is, he will no longer be a member of the SGA“.

That’s interesting. Mutch committed his crimes in 2012, but according to the SGA’s 2013 silent auction booklet, the SGA accepted a fundraising donation from Kildrummy Estate, with George Mutch listed as the contact:

SGA Silent Auction Booklet 2013 (see Lot #17)

So not only was the SGA still accepting donations from this estate the year after the crimes were committed, but it’s also apparent that Mutch was still employed by Kildrummy Estate after he’d committed those crimes. Fascinating.

The SGA’s statement continues:

On the separate, theoretical, issue of the use of covert video evidence, it is clear to us that it should not be acceptable for individuals from one particular profession to be under surveillance in their place of work, without their knowledge, and to have their right to liberty and privacy from such encroachment, removed.

If this is to be the direction of travel, it is not right for Scottish Government to deny people whose livelihoods come under pressure due to the activity of certain species or animals, recourse to a legal solution to solve that conflict.

Currently, there are no legal or scientific means by which people can protect their investments or jobs in situations exacerbated by conflicts with species. Scottish Government has never granted anyone from the game industry a licence to protect investments, which they have the power to do, although it does grant licences routinely to other industries. This, in our view, is a barrier to justice and does nothing to prevent wildlife crime.

In a society supposedly enlightened when it comes to tackling this issue, we believe this is untenable and we will be seeking talks with Scottish Government so that this anomaly is finally closed, removing once and for all the rationale for people to commit wildlife crime.”

So, the SGA doesn’t agree with the use of covert video footage to convict those within the gamekeeping industry of wildlife crime. Why ever not? Surely, they’d be thrilled to root out those individuals who are causing so much damage to the industry’s reputation? By their reaction, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s not the case at all. And as Mutch was an SGA member when he committed his crimes, what does that tell us about the SGA’s ability to provide adequate training for its members? They even admit that Mutch is the 5th SGA member in three years to have been convicted!

And then they go into the usual whine about how wildlife crime would stop if only the Government would issue licences to allow the killing of protected species, (although they don’t actually mention the word ‘killing’ – instead they say “licence to protect investments”). The bottom line is, if the leisure industry of killing millions of gamebirds is reliant on the killing of protected species then that industry has had its day.

This case has taken over two years to conclude. We had thought that because the crimes were committed in 2012, before the vicarious legislation was enacted (1st Jan 2013), that there wouldn’t be a vicarious liability prosecution because we didn’t think it could be applied retrospectively. However, one of our legal friends has since advised us that there still may be a vicarious liability prosecution as long as it’s lodged within the three-year time frame from the date the offence was committed (August 2012). So potentially then, if the Crown deems it appropriate and they get it in before August 2015, we could have another vicarious liability prosecution on the cards.

For now though, let’s just enjoy the successful conviction of another raptor-killing gamekeeper, and acknowledge the work of the people who got it to this stage. Huge congratulations to the RSPB Scotland Investigations Team, the SSPCA, Police Scotland, COPFS, Sheriff McPartlin and former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse. Real partnership working at its best.

Media coverage:

RSPB press release and video here

BBC news here

STV news here (this one is amusing!)

Reporting Scotland here [6.25 – 8.40] (this film only available for 24 hrs)

Herald here

11
Dec
14

George Mutch trial: sheriff rules video evidence admissible

scales of justiceSheriff Noel McPartlin, presiding over the trial of gamekeeper George Mutch (Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire) yesterday ruled that the RSPB’s video footage is admissible.

His ruling was based on his view that the footage in question was a by-product of a legitimate survey (in to the use of crow cage traps) rather than the camera being placed with the sole intention of filming someone committing a criminal act.

This ruling doesn’t mean that covert video footage will be acceptable evidence in all criminal proceedings; each case will have to be considered based on its specific circumstances. But in this trial at least, the video evidence has been ruled lawful.

That is a big result. More often than not, this sort of evidence has not been accepted in Scotland, although it is routinely accepted in England. Credit is due to the Fiscal, Tom Dysart, and especially to former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse for all the political pressure he piled on to the Crown regarding the use of video evidence in wildlife crime prosecutions.

After two days of legal wrangling and following Sheriff McPartlin’s decision, Mutch’s trial got underway ‘properly’ yesterday, i.e. the evidence (video) was shown in court.

One recording filmed on August 14th 2012 showed a goshawk being caught inside a Larsen trap, which had been set inside a pheasant pen. A live Jay was being used as the decoy bird [illegally – the General Licences do not allow a Jay to be used as a decoy species in a Larsen trap]. Mutch was filmed approaching the trap the next morning at around 6am.

Prosecution expert witness David Anderson, a Conservation Manager for the Forestry Commission, was asked to tell the court what he could see in the footage, which was filmed in misty conditions. He said the man appeared to pick up an object to pin down the bird. “Then I saw the man got the bird, pulled it out and dispatched it with a stick or whatever they had in their hand”.

Another recording showed Mutch walking in to a crow cage trap (also set inside a pheasant pen) and catching a goshawk that had been caught in the trap. The bird was placed (alive) inside a white sack and removed from the cage.

Mutch has denied all the charges against him.

The trial continues at Aberdeen Sheriff Court and hopefully it’ll conclude today.




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