Crowdfunding appeal for new raptor satellite tag project

The campaign group Birders Against Wildlife Crime has launched a crowdfunding appeal to help support a new project to fit satellite tags to raptors in northern England, set to begin later this year.

Satellite tagging has revolutionised efforts to detect raptor persecution crimes, and has also helped draw public attention to the illegal killing of raptors. The power of satellite-tagging was really first realised in 2009 when a young satellite-tagged golden eagle, ‘Alma’, was found dead on a grouse moor on the Millden Estate in the Angus Glens. She’d been poisoned. It’s highly unlikely her corpse would have been detected had she not been fitted with a satellite tag, which allowed investigators to pinpoint her body as she lay face down in a vast expanse of heather moorland. The resulting publicity about her death was phenomenal, and even though nobody was ever prosecuted, this crime turned the spotlight on to an industry that had escaped scrutiny for so long.


Since Alma, there have been many other illegally-killed raptors, including golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, hen harriers, Montagu’s harriers and red kites whose satellite tags have given the game away. These days, the raptor killers are wise to the game and now it’s far more common for a sat-tagged bird to simply ‘disappear’, with all the evidence (carcass, sat tag) simply destroyed to avoid detection, although occasionally there won’t be a ‘clean kill’ and the wounded bird is able to move some distance before succumbing to its injuries and investigators are able to collect the corpse, conduct a post mortem and record it as a confirmed persecution crime.

Some within the grouse-shooting industry have recently been trying to discredit the use of raptor satellite tags, and it’s not hard to see why. They’ve slurred the professional reputations of highly experienced and licensed raptor researchers and have used some photographs of a young golden eagle with what appears to have a ‘slipped’ tag harness as evidence that the tagging experts don’t know what they’re doing. Now, of course, it’s possible for a sat tag harness to slip, and it does happen on occasion, but it’s a rare occurrence. What the accusers don’t mention is the circumstantial evidence that suggests tagged raptors are being caught inside crow cage traps, providing an opportunity for the trap operator to cut one of the harness straps before releasing the bird, with its tag now dangling and looking like it has been badly fitted. There is also evidence of at least one tagged hen harrier being trapped, its harness removed and transferred to a free-ranging corvid, presumably with the intention of disguising the fact the hen harrier was illegally killed.

Strangely, the grouse shooting industry has not tried to vilify the satellite tagging of non-raptor species, such as woodcock (GWCT project) or cuckoos (BTO project); it’s only the tagging of raptors they seem to object to. Can’t think why.

Here’s a photo (taken by Stephen Murphy) of Bowland Betty, a sat-tagged hen harrier found dead on a grouse moor on the Swinton Estate in Yorkshire in 2012. A post mortem revealed she had been shot.


The new raptor satellite-tagging project in northern England is being undertaken by highly experienced and licensed experts in an independent research consortium (all voluntary – no salaries are being paid). The beauty of this independence is that sat tag data will be put in to the public domain very, very quickly. No more waiting for weeks/months/years to find out what happened, which will allow timely and targeted publicity every time one of these raptors ‘disappears’ or is found shot/trapped/poisoned. Greater public awareness of raptor persecution is key to bringing it to an end.

The crowdfunding target is to reach £10,000 by mid-March. It’s ambitious but it’s do-able. If you’d like to make a donation, however small or large, please visit BAWC’s crowdfunding page HERE

Thank you


Review of gamebird licensing systems due to be published ‘shortly’

Earlier this month we blogged about the long-overdue commissioned review of gamebird licensing systems (see here). This review was first commissioned by former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, way back in May 2014.

In January last year, in response to a Parliamentary Question from Claudia Beamish MSP (Scottish Labour), the then Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said it would be published in Autumn 2016.

In August 2016, in response to another Parliamentary Question from Claudia Beamish MSP, Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said it would be published in Autumn 2016.

In November 2016, in response to a Parliamentary Question from Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens), Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said, “We anticipate that it will be published shortly“.

In January 2017, Mark Ruskell MSP asked again in a further Parliamentary Question when this review would be published.

Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has now responded (on 17 Jan 2017):

Scottish Natural Heritage will publish the commissioned research on gamebird licensing systems in selected other countries shortly“.

This stretching of the definition of ‘shortly’ is not uncommon in politics. In December 2016, John Finnie MSP (Scottish Greens), exasperated at the use of this term in relation to another Parliamentary Question, asked the Scottish Government: ‘…..what its definition is of the term ‘shortly’ and whether it will confirm by what date the announcement will be made‘ (Question S5W-05839).

Humza Yousef, Minister for Transport and the Islands responded almost one month later:

I shall reply to the member as soon as possible‘.

Photo of gamebirds being transported to a release pen, by RPUK


Another question on withheld raptor persecution data

mark-ruskellWe’ve talked quite a bit on the issue of withheld raptor crime data from the Scottish Government’s 2015 annual Wildlife Crime report. We blogged about it when the report was published in November 2016 (here) and again earlier this month when Mark Ruskell MSP asked for an explanation from Police Scotland during the recent ECCLR Committee hearing on wildlife crime (see here).

This issue was raised again on Thursday during a general question session at Holyrood. The topic of ‘crime recording’ was being discussed and Mark Ruskell took the opportunity to ask a supplementary question:

“The cabinet secretary might be aware that “Wildlife Crime in Scotland—2015 Annual Report” came under scrutiny recently in the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. It was revealed that a number of bird of prey persecution incidents from two years ago were withheld from the report despite details from other sources being in the public domain. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to investigate why that information was withheld, and will he say what Police Scotland can do to ensure that wildlife crime reporting is transparent, accurate and has the confidence of the public?”

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, responded as follows:

“Classification and the way issues are recorded in the statistics are developed by statisticians, and the approach must comply with the code of practice that is applied to recording of crime statistics. I have no doubt that if the Scottish crime recording board believes that there is a need for any alterations, it can consider that issue, as we move forward with any changes that could take place. However, I will ensure that Mark Ruskell receives a full and detailed response on the specific nature of wildlife crimes”.

The withholding of the raptor persecution data probably wasn’t due to a faulty classification system developed by statisticians. The missing data included incidents that were very clearly crimes – there’s no ambiguity about whether 4 shot buzzards, a trap containing a live pigeon decoy, and spring traps set in the open, were crimes. They obviously were crimes, even though the police-led investigation didn’t identify the person(s) responsible for those crimes.

We await Police Scotland’s explanation for why these crimes were withheld from the Government’s annual report.

Thanks to Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens, Mid Scotland & Fife) for his persistence on this issue.


Satellite-tagged hen harrier ‘Bonny’ is missing, presumed dead

Another one of the preciously small group of hen harriers that managed to fledge in England last year has been reported as missing, presumed dead.

Read the news on the RSPB’s Skydancer blog here.

This time it’s Bonny. Bonny was particularly special. He was the first hen harrier to successfully fledge on the RSPB’s Geltsdale Reserve in ten years. He was mischievously named after Tim Bonner, head of the Countryside Alliance (watch the video here) by Chris Packham, as part of the Lush Skydancer Bathbomb campaign. Bonny was featured on the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme, which was a major coup because usually the BBC shies away from the ‘controversy’ of hen harrier persecution but by filming Bonny being fitted with his satellite tag, this allowed a ‘non-controversial’ way of introducing a massive BBC audience to the plight of hen harriers – hopefully his story will be covered in the BBC’s forthcoming Winterwatch, which airs next week, thus providing an opportunity to discuss what might have happened to this young harrier.

As the RSPB’s Skydancer project manager Blanaid Denman says on the Skydancer blog, we don’t know what happened to Bonny. His signal went dead on 14 December 2016 on a moor a few kilometres to the east of Geltsdale. It’s possible it’s a tag failure, but the probability of something more sinister is far greater, especially when you consider the history of raptor persecution in the Geltsdale area.

Over the years, the bodies of five shot hen harriers have been found (the killing of one of these was witnessed by RSPB investigators – see pages 38-40 in Mark Avery’s book Inglorious for a detailed description), there have been at least four attempted shootings of hen harriers, and another hen harrier was found poisoned. In addition, there have been poisoned ravens, poisoned buzzards and some shot peregrines.

Some of these crimes happened on the Geltsdale Reserve (safe to assume this wasn’t the handiwork of the RSPB wardens) and some of the crimes happened on nearby grouse moors. Take a look at the map and note those big brown smudges. When you look at the extent of the driven grouse moors here, and the long, long history of raptor persecution, it’s a miracle that Bonny even fledged in the first place.

The class of 2016 are not doing very well. In addition to Bonny, here are some of the others that didn’t make it to Xmas:

Hen harrier Elwood – ‘disappeared’ in the Monadhliaths just a few weeks after fledging.

Hen harrier Brian – ‘disappeared’ in the Cairngorms National Park just a few weeks after fledging.

Hen harrier Donald – missing in northern France, presumed dead.

Hen harrier Hermione – found dead on Mull, believed to have died from natural causes.

Hen harrier Rowan – found dead in Yorkshire Dales National Park. Cumbria Police said ‘likely to have been shot’. There is no ambiguity – this bird was shot (more on this soon).

Hen harrier Tarras – ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District National Park.

Hen harrier Beater – missing in Scottish Borders, presumed dead.

Eight down, seven to go (Aalin, Carroll, DeeCee, Finn, Harriet, Wendy, Sorrel).

Photograph of hen harrier Bonny by Mark Thomas


Kestrel found shot dead in Worcestershire

A kestrel has been found shot dead in the village of Broadwas in Worcestershire. It was discovered on 10 January 2017.

This information was sent to us by a blog reader (thank you). The kestrel had been ringed in Warwickshire in June 2016 and whoever found the body in Worcestershire reported the ring number to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who then sent a ‘ringing return’ note to the bird ringer, to inform him / her of the bird’s death.

According to this ringing return, the bird had been categorised as being ‘dead for more than a week, not fresh, found shot’.

What’s interesting about this, apart from the utter stupidity of the person who shot this bird (it’s a kestrel for god’s sake, what possible reason would there be for shooting it?), is what happens to the data after being reported to the BTO.

It’s our understanding that the BTO does not, as a matter of routine, forward data about suspected persecution incidents to the Police or the RSPB.

If our understanding is correct, this situation is quite astonishing. Surely there’s an ethical responsibility for the BTO to report suspected persecution incidents, to allow the Police or RSPB to undertake follow up investigations? Even if nothing comes of any investigation, these cases would still provide useful background intelligence and, importantly, would contribute to a better understanding of the extent of illegal raptor persecution in a given area. Reporting suspected crimes to the Police / RSPB would not affect the usefulness of the data to the BTO – the BTO could still use the data for trend analyses etc, it’s not as though the data point would be ‘lost’ if it was reported to the authorities.

How many of these suspected persecution incidents go unreported by the BTO every year? Is it the BTO’s responsibility to report suspect crimes, or is it the responsibility of the ringer (once notified of the circumstances of a bird’s death via the ringing return from the BTO), or is it nobody’s responsibility?

It’s all very strange.

Photo of a kestrel by Graham Catley

UPDATE 3.30pm: The BTO has responded to this post on Twitter as follows: ‘The finder has responsibility to report any suspicious deaths but we will review to see if there is more we can do’. Good for them.


Edward Mountain MSP – the fiercest critic of those committing wildlife crime?

Edward Mountain MSP is a new member of the Scottish Parliament (Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, Highlands & Islands).

Edward recently wrote a guest article for the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association’s quarterly rag, Scottish Gamekeeper (Issue 71, winter 2017, page 20). We’re going to reproduce part of that article:

I believe that challenging the ‘spectre’ [of land management reform] is vital, if the very countryside we all value and love is to be maintained. The way to do this is by standing tall and laying out a stall, for all to see the benefits positive management has to offer. The problem is that every time it looks like the right story is being delivered another case of wildlife crime comes to light. If there is any chance of moving forward we must stop these idiots, who believe illegally killing raptors is acceptable.

I therefore would urge all organisations that represent country folk to stand up and let people know all the good work that is being done for conservation. At the same time, they also need to vilify those that break the law.

Over the next 4.5 years I look forward to working with the SGA and I will do all I can to defend the values you and your members believe in. However, I must also say that I will be the fiercest critic of those that jeopardise these values by breaking the law‘.

Good strong words, but will he put them in to action?

His article for the SGA was probably written before he hosted a parliamentary reception at Holyrood for the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group in mid December 2016 (see here). The reception was to launch the ‘Game for Growth’ initiative that is using public funds to promote country sports providers in Scotland. Here’s a picture of him acting as host, with some of the others involved with this initiative (L-R Tim (Kim) Baynes from Gift of Grouse / Scottish Moorland Group / Scottish Land & Estates, Malcolm Roughead from VisitScotland, Edward Mountain MSP, and Sarah Troughton from the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group).

We now know that these public funds are being used to promote a sporting agent with a conviction for raptor persecution (see here) and two estates where illegally-set traps have been discovered (see here).

Now’s your chance, Edward – it’s been put on a plate for you. As you’re so publicly supportive of this Game for Growth scandal, are you going to stand up and be “the fiercest critic” of the associated wildlife crimes?

We’ll see.


Public funds being used to promote Glendye grouse moor

Yesterday we blogged about the illegally-set traps that had been photographed on a grouse moor at Glendye Estate in Aberdeenshire (here). We await the result of a police investigation to determine who was responsible for setting those traps (but we’re not holding our breath).

Meanwhile, as taxpayers, you’ll all be thrilled to learn that your money is being used to promote grouse shooting on Glendye Estate. This estate is listed on the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group’s website, which is part-funded with a grant from VisitScotland.

We already knew that the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group is promoting a sporting agent with a criminal conviction for raptor persecution (see here), so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to find them also promoting a grouse moor where illegally-set traps have been discovered. In fact the SCSTG was already doing this because Invercauld Estate is also being promoted as a ‘sporting provider’ on the SCSTG website – you’ll recall that illegally-set traps were discovered on an Invercauld Estate grouse moor last summer and this resulted in what we believe to be a ‘cover-up’ by the authorities (see here).

Why is public funding being used to promote a ‘sport’ that is mired in illegal activity? It’s bad enough that public funds are being used to promote such an environmentally damaging ‘sport’ but to promote estates where criminal activities have been uncovered is scandalous. Why is the Scottish Government still turning a blind eye to what’s going on on some of these estates, despite incident after incident after incident after incident after incident after incident being uncovered? Scottish Ministers are being made to look like fools.

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