04
Dec
16

Scottish landowners pretend that raptors are ‘thriving’ on driven grouse moors

Gift of GrouseWe’ve come to expect outlandish propaganda from the Gift of Grouse campaign group, designed to portray driven grouse moors as models of excellence for raptor conservation. But this time they’ve exceeded all expectation. Forget their usual unsubstantiated post-truth drivel, wholly disconnected to reality, because that’s got nothing on their latest effort, which takes the stretching of credibility to new depths.

The following press release from the Gift of Grouse is set to hit the headlines tomorrow:

ENCOURAGING NUMBERS OF BIRDS OF PREY SIGHTED ON SCOTTISH MOORLANDS

An increasing number of birds of prey are thriving on Scottish grouse moors due to gamekeepers’ conservation efforts.

More than 10 different raptor species including golden eagles, red kites and hen harriers have been identified on prominent grouse moors this year. They are among the 86 bird species that have been recorded on estates in the Angus Glens.

A snap shot from a range of estates across the Angus Glens Moorland Group highlighted encouraging evidence with gamekeepers on Invermark Estate in particular sighting nine raptor species including buzzards and golden eagles. Some of these are nesting and successfully breeding on the estate.

A number of other estates also reported healthy numbers with Ballogie Estate, Royal Deeside, revealing a total of 15 buzzards regularly hunting on the moor. Figures from the Speyside Moorland Group were equally as strong with 12 species of birds of prey recorded on Strathspey Estate alone. Atholl Estate in Perthshire are also monitoring 12 different raptor species.

Garry MacLennan, head gamekeeper on Invermark Estate, said: “Scottish grouse moors are far from being raptor deserts, as some opponents of shooting claim. We have monitored a growing number of buzzards, kestrels, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles. Keepers and estate managers do recognise there are some areas of the country where there are fewer raptor species but there is plenty of hard evidence to show that raptors are successfully nesting on grouse moors.”

The findings from Invermark are part of annual surveys undertaken using SNH guidelines.  These surveys were conducted by Taylor Wildlife, an ecological consultancy specialising in upland environments.

Richard Cooke, manager of Invermark Estate, said: “The survey is an extremely helpful way for us to monitor the biodiversity of the estate and which species are benefitting the most from our habitat management practices. Throughout the year we carry out rotational muirburn and control predation under the general licence, including foxes, stoats and other mustelids in particular.  This is to the benefit of many ground nesting birds and is reflected in the rich birdlife recorded by the annual audit.

The Tayside Moorland Group has also carried out species monitoring at a number of estates throughout the region with Glenturret Estate in Perthshire recording no less than 12 different raptor species hunting and nesting on the moorland this year. The estate tally included several breeding pairs of hen harriers, a nesting pair of peregrine fledging four chicks, short eared owls and numerous red kites.

Conservation training, conscientious moorland management and favourable weather conditions can all impact positively upon species numbers found on Scottish moorland.

Figures revealed in Wildlife Estates Scotland’s latest annual report show that 11 accredited estates reported the presence of golden eagles, with seven of these reporting 19 pairs. Eleven estates also recorded sightings of hen harriers with four reporting 18 breeding pairs. Buzzards were also reported on 20 estates, with a total estimated population of over 920 birds.

It was also recently revealed in a national survey that golden eagle numbers have surpassed 500 pairs giving them a ‘favourable conservation status’ in the UK. Eagles have made a home on several moorland estates across Scotland with Millden Estate, a member of the Angus Glens Moorland Group, recording a particularly high number of sightings.

Jason Clamp, head gamekeeper on Millden Estate, commented: “We are fortunate enough at Millden to have regular sightings of golden eagles. Seeing several of these magnificent birds on a daily basis has to be one of the highlights of my job. We are also very careful to leave a sustainable population of mountain hares for birds of prey, such as golden eagles, to hunt.

At Millden our team of gamekeepers has taken a proactive role in ensuring that we have a suitable breeding habitat for various birds of prey such the merlin, of which we currently have four nesting pairs. This has been brought about through controlled heather burning ‘muirburn’, which creates micro habitats suited to ground-nesting birds like the merlin.

We are delighted that the golden eagle, a species of conservation concern, amongst many other species, has found a safe and suitable environment in which to flourish in such impressive numbers, where careful moorland management has been imperative.”

ENDS

Wow! Where to start with this? It’s such ludicrously far-fetched bollocks it could have come straight from the mouths of gamekeepers and grouse moor managers. Oh, hang on…

Perhaps the idiots behind the Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t see the results of the latest national golden eagle survey, published just a few short weeks ago. You know, the survey that showed breeding golden eagles are still largely absent from driven grouse moors in the Eastern Highlands, just as they were in the last national survey conducted in 2003. Only 30% of known territories were occupied in this area – that’s a pathetic 34 out of 91 territories.

Perhaps the idiots behind the Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t see the results of the recent study on northern red kites, showing that illegal persecution on driven grouse moors in this region is just as bad now as it was in 1989.

Perhaps the idiots behind the Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t read the recent scientific paper showing hen harriers have suffered a ‘catastrophic decline’ on the driven grouse moors of NE Scotland.

Perhaps the idiots behind the Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t read the scientific paper showing peregrines continue to suffer a ‘long-term decline’ on the driven grouse moors of NE Scotland.

It’s all very well saying that raptors have been ‘sighted’ on grouse moors – of course they’ve been seen there – they are drawn to those areas precisely because of the absence of territorial breeding adults (as well as an abundant food supply). Nobody disputes that you can see raptors over these moors – the crucial distinction, which the Gift of Grouse idiots have carefully avoided, is how many raptors are breeding there? Remember, no breeding hen harriers in the Angus Glens for ten years!

It’s interesting that this press release refers to the grouse moors of the Angus Glens – a well known hotbed of illegal raptor persecution for over a decade. Here’s a map to illustrate the point:

Four grouse moor estates are highlighted in red (Invermark, Millden, Hunthill, Glenogil [with thanks to Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website for estate boundaries]). You see those purple dots? They represent confirmed illegal raptor persecution crimes. Are we seriously being asked to believe that raptors are ‘thriving’ in this region?

It’s also interesting to note that the ‘data’ behind the Gift of Grouse propaganda come from an ‘annual audit’ carried out by Taylor Wildlife consultancy. We’ve blogged about this group before – these are the ‘experts’ who claimed to have recorded 81 species of birds ‘feeding or breeding’ on an Angus Glens grouse moor last year. The problem is, their survey methods didn’t adhere to the usual industry standard – rather than conduct their breeding bird survey between March and June, when you’re supposed to do it, they conducted their survey between June and August, which is, er, after the breeding season!

Will we get to see this year’s report to scrutinise the methods and results? Highly unlikely – we’re still waiting to see their 2015 report but apparently it’s a secret and we’re not allowed to read it. Can’t think why.

Also of note in this latest press release is the reference to Glenturret Estate in Perthshire, another well-known driven grouse moor. We’ve blogged about this estate before, when it was claimed that Hen Harrier Day protesters might ‘disturb’ hen harriers – a species that has consistently failed to breed successfully on this moor. This year, they are claiming to have ‘several breeding pairs of hen harriers’ amongst other species. That’s interesting, because according to monitoring data from the Scottish Raptor Study Group, there was only one hen harrier breeding attempt on Glenturret this year, and, as has so often happened here in recent years, the nest failed for ‘unknown reasons’. Unfortunately it’s not possible to work out why hen harriers keep failing here because the estate has apparently refused to allow nest cameras to be installed.

Glenturret used to have lots of successfully breeding raptors, but these days, not so much. They certainly don’t have breeding golden eagles anymore because the eagle’s eyrie was burnt out last year. Here’s a photograph of the cliff face, taken in April 2015 – note the blackened hillside. Spontaneously combusting eagle eyries are a common problem on some Scottish grouse moors. Either that or golden eagles need to learn to discard their fag butts with more care.

We’ll add updates to this blog tomorrow when we see which newspapers have swallowed the Gift of Grouse guff hook, line and sinker. We’ll be particularly interested to see whether SNH issues a statement to rebutt the claims being made – SNH has access to the actual raptor breeding data via the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme – let’s see them put it good use.

02
Dec
16

Case against gamekeeper Stanley Gordon re: shot hen harrier, part 7

scales-of-justiceCriminal proceedings continued at Elgin Sheriff Court today against Scottish gamekeeper Stanley Gordon.

Mr Gordon, 60, of Cabrach, Moray, is facing a charge in connection with the alleged shooting of a hen harrier in June 2013.

Here’s a summary of what’s happened so far in this case:

Hearing #1 (19 May 2016): Case continued without plea until 16 June 2016.

Hearing #2 (16 June 2016): Case continued without plea until 14 July 2016.

Hearing #3 (14 July 2016): Case continued without plea until 11 August 2016.

Hearing #4 (11 August 2016): Case continued without plea until 1 September 2016.

Hearing #5 (1 September 2016): Mr Gordon enters a not guilty plea. A provisional trial date is set for 19 December 2016, with an intermediate diet set for 18 November 2016.

Hearing #6 (18 November 2016): Case adjourned for another intermediate diet on 2 December 2016.

Hearing #7 (2 December 2016). Provisional trial date of 19 December is dumped. Case adjourned for another intermediate diet on 10 February 2017.

01
Dec
16

Illegally-set traps on Invercauld Estate: not another cover up?

Cairngorms Invercauld - CopyIn July we blogged about the discovery in June of a critically-injured Common gull that had been found caught in two illegally-set spring traps on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park (see here).

We also blogged about a bizarre press statement from Invercauld Estate (issued via the GWCT’s twitter feed) in which they denied any illegal activity had taken place or if it had, it was perhaps a set-up ‘intended to discredit the grouse industry‘ (see here).

We also blogged about the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association’s response, which was an announcement that they would conduct their own enquiry before commenting further (see here).

We also blogged about Police Scotland’s view that a Common gull had been found caught in an illegally-set trap but ‘despite a thorough investigation‘, Police enquiries had failed to find further evidence to proceed with a potential prosecution and ‘there are at present no further investigative opportunities available‘ (see here).

In September, through a series of FoIs, we uncovered a very interesting letter, dated 27 July 2016 and written by Angus McNicol, who identified himself as the Estate Manager for Invercauld Estate. The letter was addressed to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. A copy of the letter was also sent to the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA). It was written, in our view, to reassure the Cabinet Secretary and the CNPA that Invercauld Estate takes wildlife crime very seriously and that they’d ‘taken action’ in this case. The specific action taken was unknown (to us) because that part of the letter had been redacted. We’ll come back to this.

Since then, it all went quiet, apart from a persistent rumour (we’ve been told this by five separate, well-informed sources) that a gamekeeper had been sacked as a result of this incident. This claim has also been made on the ParksWatchScotland blog (here), which says: ‘Unusually, the gamekeeper in this case has been dismissed, although he apparently has not been charged‘.

Hmm. Naturally, we wanted to find out if this rumour had any basis.

We knew that Grant Moir (CNPA Chief Executive) had asked for a meeting with Invercauld Estate and the sporting partner ‘to discuss the issue’ of the illegally-set traps – he had said so in a press statement in July (here). Perhaps the minutes from that meeting would reveal whether a gamekeeper had been sacked, so we asked, via FoI, for a copy of those minutes.

We received a response from the CNPA in mid-November which confirmed that two meetings had indeed taken place:

Meeting 1 (22 August 2016) with the following people present: Peter Argyle (CNPA Convener), Grant Moir (CNPA Chief Executive), Hamish Trench (CNPA Director of Conservation & Visitor Experience) and Invercauld Estate’s sporting partner from the Micras beat (his name was not given).

Meeting 2 (25 August 2016) with the following people present: Peter Argyle (CNPA Convener), Grant Moir (CNPA Chief Executive), Hamish Trench (CNPA Director of Conservation & Visitor Experience), the Chair of Trustees for Invercauld Estate (name not given) and the Manager for Invercauld Estate (name not given but presumably this was Angus McNicol, the author of the letter from Invercauld Estate to the Environment Cabinet Secretary).

According to the CNPA’s response to our FoI, ‘The purpose of both meetings was to discuss the recent incident and understand the actions taken by the estate and sporting partner. As a result of the meetings we will now be meeting with the other sporting partners on Invercauld Estate‘.

Interestingly, according to the CNPA, there isn’t a record of the minutes from either of these meetings.

So, we’re still none the wiser about whether a gamekeeper was sacked by Invercauld Estate, which brings us back to that redacted letter from Invercauld Estate to the Cabinet Secretary. Was the readacted part of that letter a statement from Invercauld Estate, saying that they’d sacked a gamekeeper as a result of this incident?

If so, that’s incredible. A wildlife crime took place on Invercauld Estate in June 2016 (that’s undeniable). Has Invercauld Estate identified a suspect and sacked him/her? And if so, does the Scottish Government know about it, does the Cairngorms National Park Authority know about it, and does the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association know about it (given they were conducting their ‘own enquiry’ in to this incident back in July)?

The question then becomes, does Police Scotland know about it, and if so, will they be prosecuting? If not, why not?

Some transparency about this case wouldn’t go amiss.

30
Nov
16

‘More evidence required’ before mountain hare culls are regulated, says Cabinet Secretary

More parliamentary questions about the mass slaughter of mountain hares have been asked recently, thanks to Alison Johnstone MSP (Scottish Green Party).

We were particularly interested in this one:

Question S5W-04501: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party. Date lodged: 4/11/2016.

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is taking to ensure that estates adhere to voluntary restraint on large culls of mountain hare, as called for by the joint position taken by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Scottish Land and Estates on large-scale culls of mountain hare to reduce louping ill, and what measures it is taking to monitor compliance with this policy.

Answered by Roseanna Cunningham (22/11/2016)

Scottish Natural Heritage is working with key stakeholders to improve transparency and understanding about the reasons why some moorland managers continue to wish to cull mountain hares and the numbers involved.

If evidence emerges that large-scale culls are continuing, the Scottish Government will consider the case for tightening regulation of this issue.

Dear god. ‘Working with stakeholders to improve transparency‘? Who’s she kidding, when the Convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s Planning Committee, Eleanor Mackintosh, is advising gamekeepers to hide the evidence of mountain hare culls, even though she denies it (see here) and the CNPA Convenor Peter Arygle denies it too (see here). How is hiding evidence improving transparency?!

We’ve been asking for transparency about the mass slaughter of mountain hares for some time. We asked some pretty simple questions back in March (see here) but so far, no response.

And why does the Scottish Government need more evidence anyway? Why isn’t the already-available evidence sufficient to show that large-scale culls are indeed continuing? And what type of evidence does the Scottish Government require before action is taken? Perhaps we should try the ‘I’ve seen it from my kitchen window‘ approach – seems to work in Westminster.

We’ve heard similar excuses about needing more evidence so many times before, usually in relation to an illegal raptor persecution case: e.g. ‘We won’t hesitate to take further action if deemed necessary’, but then when more evidence is produced, i.e. the corpse of yet another illegally-killed raptor, it’s never quite enough for the Government to deem that promised further action ‘necessary’. It’s just a never-ending cycle of ‘Next time we’ll do something’, until the next time comes and then the line is repeated, and then the next time and then the next time after that ad nauseam.

On the subject of what constitutes sufficient evidence, we’d recommend reading the latest article on the always thought-provoking ParksWatchScotland blog (see here). They’ve written an excellent piece called ‘What counts as evidence in our National Parks?’ in which they compare the frankly low grade ‘evidence’ recently used by the Scottish Government to introduce restrictive camping byelaws in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, with the high grade evidence of large-scale mountain hare culling that is seemingly insufficient to trigger the introduction of byelaws to prevent these mass culls in the Cairngorms National Park. The disproportionality is striking, as are the probable reasons behind it.

30
Nov
16

Birders’ Choice Awards 2016

Birdwatch magazine is once again hosting the annual Birders’ Choice Awards, now in its third year. These awards are designed to ‘celebrate the best – and condemn the worst – in birding and conservation’.

We were genuinely surprised, and flattered, to find ourselves nominated in the Conservation Hero of the Year category. Looking at the calibre of the four other nominees, it’s even more perplexing to figure out why we’re in there, and although we don’t expect to win we’re nevertheless grateful for the nomination because let’s be honest, who doesn’t like having their efforts recognised? So thank you, Birdwatch, for your support – it is much appreciated.

For us, although all are deserving, there is a clear stand-out nominee in this category (cough, Mark Avery, cough), as there is in the Campaign of the Year category (cough, Petition to ban driven grouse shooting, cough) and the Birds in the News category (cough, hen harrier, cough). The Guano Award for Environmental Harm is less clear cut but the badger cull probably edges it.

Whether you agree or disagree with our choices, you too can cast your vote because Birdwatch has made it very easy to participate. You can vote online here, but you’ll have to be quick as voting closes at midnight tonight. Winners will be announced in the January edition of Birdwatch magazine (on sale 22 December).

29
Nov
16

SSPCA powers: revisiting the role and powers of the water bailiffs

sspca logoMany of you will know that we’ve been following the glacial progress of the Scottish Government’s decision on whether the SSPCA should be given increased investigatory powers to help tackle wildlife crime, and particularly, illegal raptor persecution. Here’s an overview of how this ‘key priority’ has been (mis)handled so far.

Following the consultation, which ended over two years ago, we analysed some of the reasons that landowners and Police Scotland had put forward about why they thought the SSPCA should not receive increased powers. These included a lack of accountability, lack of training and competence, and a claim that increased powers would amount to ‘quasi-policing’. It turned out that the landowners and the police were being pretty hypocritical, given the substantial powers enjoyed by water bailiffs (employed by landowners to work in the landowners’ interests). These powers include the power of arrest, and yet water bailiffs have no public accountability and undergo minimal training (it’s important you read this to understand what we mean).

Malcolm Graham 2This hypocrisy was then picked up on by MSPs, who, during a Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee hearing in November 2014, questioned the police about the role and powers of the water bailiff. During that session, Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham made the following statement:

The powers that water bailiffs have and which were used in the past are no longer used routinely. We do not have experience of water bailiffs who think that they are in a position to apprehend people. They understand that both public perceptions and legal perspectives on people being brought into custody and detained have changed dramatically, and rightly so. The scrutiny that needs to be brought to bear when someone is going to be apprehended and not allowed to go about their business is far more rigorous than it was in the past. Our experience is that water bailiffs no longer use those powers; indeed, I can give no example from recent times of such use of powers coming to my attention“. (Full transcript available here).

Just read ACC Graham’s statement again, and remember this is a senior police officer giving evidence to a Parliamentary Committee.

And then head over to BBC iPlayer and watch episode 4 of The River, which was broadcast last night (available on iPlayer for 29 days). You’ll see a team of water bailiffs working on the River Tweed, looking for salmon poachers. And you’ll never guess what happens when they find some.

28
Nov
16

Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: an update

One of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England:

hh-reintro

DEFRA’s HH Inaction Plan has been widely criticised by conservationists, with the main focus being on the brood meddling part. The proposed southern ‘reintroduction’ hasn’t received much attention, largely because the scoping project on which it is based is still unpublished – it’s hard to scrutinise something that’s being kept secret.

There had been concerns that chicks removed from the northern uplands as part of the brood meddling scheme would be used as the source birds for the southern ‘reintroduction’. This would have been unacceptable on a number of fronts, not least because it would be in breach of IUCN guidelines – you can’t source birds from a donor population if their removal would negatively affect the donor population. However, our recent FoI to Natural England has shown that those brood-meddled birds will be released back to the northern uplands, and not in to southern England (see here).

We’re now in a position to shed a bit more light on the proposed southern ‘reintroduction’ (it’s not actually a reintroduction because hen harriers are not extinct in southern England). Revealed through another FoI, the following update was provided by Adrian Jowitt (Natural England) to Paul Ballinger (DEFRA) on 23 September 2016:

Southern reintroduction: the main work undertaken over the last few months has been setting up and starting early conversations with stakeholders in the areas proposed. We have had discussions with landowners on Exmoor and in early October are going to meet with some key farmers and landowners in southern Wiltshire. The discussions have in the main been cautiously positive although there is still a way to go. We have also been exploring different funding routes and are starting to explore possible sources for chicks. We will also be considering whether we need to do any further habitat suitability checks beyond what was done for the original feasibility study and to that end will be carrying out some basic field visits with our hen harrier ecologist‘.

So, it looks like Exmoor may be a potential ‘reintroduction’ site, as well as somewhere in southern Wiltshire. That’s interesting.

exmoor

There has been at least one hen harrier breeding attempt in Wiltshire since 2002, although we don’t know the outcome. Here’s an image from a recent talk given by Natural England’s Stephen Murphy showing hen harrier breeding records between 2002-2015 (apologies for the poor quality photo – a reflection on us, not on the quality of Stephen’s slides):

hh-breeding-distribution

Wintering hen harriers are seen around Exmoor, albeit relatively infrequently – indeed, a satellite-tagged hen harrier from Bowland (2014 – ‘Burt’) is known to have visited Exmoor, because that’s where his last sat tag transmission came from, although in Burt’s case his ‘disappearance’ was thought to be as a result of a genuine tag failure rather than anything more sinister.

Exmoor, including Exmoor National Park, is well known for game shooting. This report from 2004 demonstrates just how much driven game shooting takes place there (predominantly pheasant & partridge) and how many gamekeepers work there. Perhaps that’s why Natural England’s discussions with landowners are described as being only ‘cautiously positive although there is still a way to go‘. If this ‘reintroduction’ is to go ahead, as Natural England appears to expect, these landowners MUST be on-side before any birds are released. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop on that score.

There are still huge question marks about this proposed ‘reintroduction’. Many of us are not entirely supportive because we believe the grouse shooting lobby and Natural England/DEFRA are using it as a way of diverting attention from the ongoing criminal persecution of hen harriers in the northern uplands. Releasing some birds in to southern England (assuming a source population can be found) will not stop the grouse moor managers from killing hen harriers in the northern uplands, the fundamental cause of this species’ decline in the first place.

You could argue that, theoretically at least, the southern England ‘reintroduction’, if successful, would increase the range and conservation status of English hen harriers, and it would also bolster the English population, increasing its resilience from population decline. That’s true. However, it’s also true that if hen harriers were not still being routinely killed in the north, their breeding range would increase naturally, their conservation status would improve, and the population’s resilience to decline would increase.

You could also argue that the estimated half-a-million quid (and the rest!) of taxpayers’ money that’ll be spent on this attention-diverting scheme would be better spent on improving enforcement measures so the hen harrier killers can finally be brought to justice.




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