Heads Up for Harriers Project condemned as “greenwashing exercise” in Parliamentary debate

Yesterday evening saw a Members Debate in the Scottish Parliament as a result of MSP Mairi Gougeon’s recent motion in support of the Heads Up for Harriers Project and the Role of Species Champions.

The archive video of this debate can be watched here and the official report of the meeting can be read here:

Heads up for Harriers debate 13Dec2017

The debate centred on two topics: the role of the species champions and the Heads Up for Harriers Project (HuHP). For the purpose of this blog, we’ll just be focusing on the HuHP – that’s not to say the role of the species champion isn’t important – as we’ve blogged before, it’s an incredibly worthwhile initiative and one that we very much support. We are especially pleased that Mairi Gougeon used her position as the Hen Harrier Species Champion to secure this debate – all credit to her, well done.

A number of MSPs spoke specifically about the HuHP and all except one acknowledged that illegal persecution continues to be a threat to the hen harrier and to several other raptor species. The only one who didn’t acknowledge this fact was John Scott MSP (Conservative), who gave a bizarre speech about the lack of fox and “vermin” control on FCS land and suggested that this played a part in the decline of the hen harrier population. He obviously hasn’t been told that just across the Scottish border at Kielder, the ONLY successful breeding pairs (x 3) of hen harriers in England this year were on, er, FC land.

He went on to say, “Notwithstanding the alleged predation of hen harriers by land managers, I still believe that the safest place for hen harriers to raise chicks is on well-managed grouse moors“.  Dear God.

John Scott’s parliamentary colleague Donald Cameron (Conservative) (and the Species Champion for the Merlin) was far better informed, although he did say, “There has been much criticism of people in the grouse industry who actively persecute birds of prey. I think that we all acknowledge that grouse shooting is an important industry for the rural economy of our country. The vast majority of land managers, whether they are owners or employees, use sustainable environmental management practices to a high standard and operate within the law. It is important to note that many estates carry out measures to conserve and preserve raptor populations“.

We agree that some estates do “employ sustainable environmental management practices to a high standard and operate within the law“. We heaped praise on one of them quite recently (see here). But it’s quite clear from the scientific data on several raptor species (e.g. hen harrier, golden eagle, peregrine, red kite) that there are still a large number of estates that do NOT operate within the law, and those landholdings just happen to coincide with areas intensively managed as driven grouse moors.

We’re not talking about the odd nest failure here and there due to predation or poor weather – these are natural causes of failure that you’d expect from time to time, and everybody acknowledges this. What we’re talking about here is the persistent, long-term absence of these species in areas where they should be, and would be, thriving if they weren’t being routinely and systematically persecuted.

The speeches of two Parliamentary members were the most interesting to us – those given by Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Greens) and Liam McArthur MSP (Lib Dem). You really do need to read them (and/or watch the video). Both of them pointed out that the HuHP does not address the fundamental issue of tackling illegal persecution because none of the participating estates that have had cameras deployed are known raptor persecution hotspots, nor are they operated as intensively managed driven grouse moors. Andy Wightman went further and said,

Indeed, I believe that the project is being used as a greenwashing exercise to hide the criminal activities that are undertaken by some in the driven grouse shooting industry and to promote the misleading impression that it is voluntarily cooperating to clean up its act“.


The claim that many of the estates with nest cameras on them are managed as driven grouse moors is an interesting one, and, we believe, is untrue.

According to the briefing paper from Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), provided to MSPs prior to the debate:

Up to two thirds of the estates where cameras were installed have been driven grouse moors, indicating a strong take-up where the issue of Hen Harrier decline is most relevant“.

See SLE’s briefing paper here: SLE briefing Heads Up for Harriers debate_13Dec2017

Why do we believe this statement to be untrue? Well, we could argue that any information from SLE on raptor conservation issues is quite likely to be misleading. We’ve seen many examples of outright propaganda from this organisation over the years (under it’s own name and also under the name of its subgroups, the Scottish Moorland Group and the Gift of Grouse), e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and as a result we don’t trust a word they say.

But in this case our suspicion is based on more than just a natural distrust of SLE; it’s based on some long-term and painstaking investigative research that we’ve been doing to identify the estates involved in this Heads Up for Harriers Project.

We are confident that we’ve identified the three estates that had cameras deployed in 2015, the three estates that had cameras deployed in 2016, and five of the six or seven estates (there seems to be uncertainty about the actual number) that had cameras deployed in 2017. We are also confident that NOT ONE of these areas where the actual cameras were deployed is a known raptor persecution hotspot and NOT ONE of them is managed for driven grouse shooting.

But before we can publish our findings, we need to verify our conclusions. So we submitted an FoI request to SNH and this is what we got back:

FoI request to SNH: In each year, how many estates had successful nests and of those, how many estates were managed for driven grouse shooting?

SNH response: 2015 – 2 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor. 1 additional successful nest 100m off the estate boundary of a driven grouse moor.

2016 – 3 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor.

2017 – 6 estates with successful nests, 3 of which were driven grouse moor.

FoI request to SNH: Please provide the name of each estate, in each year, that signed up to participate.

SNH response: We have considered this part of your request very carefully, and we are unable to provide the estate names. Estates enter into the Heads Up For Harriers project voluntarily. The estate name information in this case was provided voluntarily, there are no other circumstances that entitle SNH to disclose it, and the estates have not consented to disclosure. Making the information publicly available would be likely to prejudice the interests of the estates, for example via negative publicity in the event of harriers not nesting on the estate or in the event of nest/s failing on the estate. We are therefore withholding the estate name details under EIRs Regulation 10(5)(f) (Interests of the individual providing the information).

The Heads Up for Harriers project members’ position is that estate wishes must be respected. Further, members agree the most important aspect of the project is to encourage cooperation and a positive working relationship ‘on the ground’ between estates, Project Officers and other project members to promote survival of hen harriers and enable monitoring if and when hen harriers return to breed. We have therefore concluded that, in this case, the public interest is best served by not releasing the estate names.

Interesting, isn’t it? As Andy Wightman pointed out in his speech, this is a publicy funded project and yet the names of the participating estates are being kept secret. Why is that, do you think?

Given the serious nature of our concern that inaccurate and misleading information is being spewed out, not only by SLE but significantly by SNH, to portray this project as a genuine attempt by the driven grouse shooting industry to support hen harriers, we’ll be challenging SNH about its refusal to release information that would either support or refute our suspicions that the Heads Up for Harriers Project is just a greenwashing exercise.

Watch this space.


Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project: Parliamentary debate today at 5pm

Today in the Scottish Parliament there’ll be a Members’ Debate on the controversial Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project.

The debate has been secured by Mairi Gougeon MSP, the Species Champion for the hen harrier, following her recent motion congratulating the Project on its “intense” and “considerable efforts” to protect the hen harrier:

Heads Up for Harriers Project and the Role of Species Champions

That the Parliament commends the Heads Up for Harriers Project on what it sees as its intense efforts to protect the hen harrier from extinction; underlines what it considers the importance of the role of species champion, with currently over 90 Members signed up to be champions, in promoting and protecting many of the wildlife found across the country; believes that, with specific regard to the hen harrier, there is need for action to protect the species in light of 2016 national hen harrier survey, which suggested that there had been a 9% decline in the number of sightings in Scotland from the previous study in 2010, falling from 505 pairs to 460; understands that this national population decline is further highlighted in Angus North and Mearns and across North East Scotland, where the 2016 study found that the number of hen harrier pairs had plummeted from a peak of 28 in 1998 to just one in 2014; commends the considerable efforts of the Heads Up for Harriers Project in trying to reverse the declining population, with 2017 figures showing that 37 young birds successfully fledging from nests in seven of the 21 estates that have signed up to the project, and recognises both the specific challenges facing all species currently represented by a Member species champion and the pivotal role that it believes the champions play in promoting and preserving Scotland’s wildlife.

We congratulate Mairi on securing this Members’ Debate and thus keeping the issue in the political spotlight. Whilst we disagree with Mairi’s views about the purpose and value of this Project (we consider it nothing more than a greenwashing exercise), getting Parliamentary time to debate the subject will enable alternative opinions to be heard.

The debate will begin shortly after 5pm in the Debating Chamber and can be watched live on Scottish Parliament TV (here).

We’ll post an archive video and the official minutes as soon as they become available.

UPDATE 14th December 2017: Heads Up for Harriers Project condemned as “greenwashing exercise” in Parliamentary debate (here)


£500 fine for man who mistakenly shot buzzard on Ralia Estate pheasant shoot

From an article in today’s P&J:

A protected bird of prey died when an oil executive shot a buzzard he thought to be a pheasant when it flew out of woods on a Highland estate, a court heard yesterday.

Keith Riddoch, of Craigden in Aberdeen, was on a shoot on the Ralia Estate near Newtonmore last November when he made the fatal mistake.

[Ralia Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. Estate boundary details from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website. Map by RPUK]

Even after he fired the first shot of the day, the 65-year-old self-employed consultant was convinced he had bagged a hen pheasant.

But all but one of his fellow “guns” on the same shoot knew that the bird was a raptor. Riddoch was informed of his error at the end of the shoot, Inverness Sheriff Court was told.

[Photo from P&J]

They said it was the first time in their experience that a raptor had been shot by mistake.

The buzzard was so badly injured by the shotgun blast, it had to be destroyed.

Riddoch yesterday denied injuring the bird by recklessly shooting it on November 26 last year at a corporate shoot.

However after hearing evidence from the people accompanying him, including gamekeeper Alistair Lyon, Sheriff Margaret Neilson convicted the businessman of a contravention of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. She fined him £500.

Riddoch refused to comment after the trial, but told the court: “I made a genuine mistake. I didn’t misassess the situation.”

Defence solicitor David McKie accepted his client had made a mistake, but added: “It was negligent or perhaps careless, but not reckless.”

It was accepted by both prosecution and defence that a buzzard was of a similar size and colour as a brown female pheasant.

Mr Lyon was in charge of the outing where beaters scared the birds out of woods into the line of fire.

The 52-year-old gamekeeper told the court: “It was the first shot of the day and I glanced round. I saw the bird falling. It was a brief glimpse. But it didn’t look right. Buzzards fly differently to pheasants. But if it just came out of the trees it would look similar.”

Defence solicitor David McKie said the guilty verdict may have wider consequences for his client, saying he frequently travelled to the USA and the conviction could present problems for entry to the country.

He could also lose his shotgun licence.


Could lose his shotgun licence? Good grief! If he can’t differentiate between a pheasant and a buzzard he shouldn’t be let anywhere near a bloody shotgun!

This is an interesting case. We’re pleased to see a prosecution and even more pleased to see a conviction, which are all too rare, but we’re left wondering how this crime came to the attention of the Police. Did somebody from the shoot alert the Police? Good on them if they did.


South Scotland golden eagle project gets final go-ahead

The South Scotland Golden Eagle Project, which proposes to translocate eaglets from the Highlands to southern Scotland in an effort to boost the tiny remnant population in the Borders & Dumfries & Galloway, has finally been given the funds and licence to begin.

Earlier this year the project was awarded £1.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (see here) and has now received match funding of £158,024 from local LEADER programmes. SNH has also now granted the licence required to move the eagles, fit them with satellite tags and release them in the Moffat Hills.

[Photo of a young satellite-tagged golden eagle, by Ruth Tingay]

This additional funding has triggered the recruitment of four new project staff – an eagle officer, two community engagement officers, and one stakeholder engagement officer. Details of these positions and how to apply can be found on the Project website here (scroll to the bottom of the homepage). Closing date is 12 January 2018.

As an aside, can we just congratulate the Project team on their website – full of information & official reports, keeping the public informed about the proposed Project. Take note, Natural England!

A press release (unfortunately with far too many naff metaphors) from the Project has been picked up by various media outlets (e.g. BBC News here, Scotsman here) although the Guardian has taken a different angle and focuses on the threat these birds might face if they fly south of the border in to northern England (here).

We’ve blogged about this Project before (see here, here) and have mixed feelings. Unsurprisingly our biggest concern is the on-going threat of illegal persecution, both north and south of the border. To date, nobody has EVER been successfully prosecuted for the illegal killing of golden eagles, despite plenty of opportunities (e.g. see here and here).

Dr Cat Barlow, the South Scotland Golden Eagle Project Manager, has been questioned about the threat of illegal persecution at several conferences where she has delivered an otherwise strong presentation about the Project. On each occasion she has acknowledged the threat and has recognised that not all estates in southern Scotland are supportive of this translocation. She recently told a conference in Edinburgh that she “will be talking to the estates not yet on board“.

It’s going to take more than a chat to stop these deranged raptor killers in their tracks.

[Photo of an adult golden eagle found shot & critically injured on a grouse moor in south Scotland in 2012. He didn’t make it]


2018 start date for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England?

Further to yesterday’s blog (here), Natural England has released more information in response to our FoI requests in relation to the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England.

NE has established a new ‘internal’ group to advise the wider Southern Reintroduction Project Team on various technical aspects. This new internal group held its first meeting on 21st September 2017 and here is the agenda:

Also released through FoI is a copy of the draft Project Brief (see below).

From this draft Project Brief, it looks like Natural England is much further ahead with this proposed ‘reintroduction’ than we had imagined. The last we’d heard was that the first release of donated (French) hen harriers in to southern England was planned for 2020. It now looks like 2018 is the favoured start date, as directed by Natural England’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT), although this will depend on securing the necessary permissions from the French statutory agencies.

It also looks like Natural England has agreed to underwrite the costs for this whacko scheme, which means that us taxpayers will be footing the bill of at least £1 million if NE can’t attract any external funders.

The draft Project Brief also reveals that Natural England intends to approach Roy Dennis (and his newly named Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation) to ask if he’ll serve as a consultant to the project. Given Roy’s long track record on managing successful reintroduction projects it’s easy to see why NE would want him on board, not just for his expertise but perhaps also to allow Natural England to use Roy’s good name and reputation to give the impression that this project has a genuine conservation purpose, rather than the purpose we all know is behind it – that is, to draw attention away from the on-going persecution of this species on the upland grouse moors.

We’ve recently spoken to Roy about his potential involvement and how that might backfire on his reputation, in the same way the Hawk & Owl Trust’s former good reputation has now been tarnished by its wilful blindness to the criminal activities of the grouse shooting industry. Roy told us he had indeed been approached and had so far only agreed to visit Salisbury Plain (the proposed release site) in late January 2018. He said he hadn’t yet committed to anything more and would make a decision after meeting with NE on Salisbury Plain.

The draft Project Brief also discusses the importance of gaining RSPB support for this proposed ‘reintroduction’. As we discussed yesterday, the RSPB has so far stated that it does NOT support the project because it didn’t believe the proposed reintroduction complied with IUCN reintroduction guidelines, although this decision was based on pretty sketchy outline feasibility plans and the RSPB was waiting to see more detailed proposals. It’ll be interesting to see what the RSPB makes of this more detailed draft Project Brief.

Here it is:


Hen harrier reintro to southern England: report of fieldtrip to France (potential donor country)

As many of you know, one of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England.

As you’ll also know, over the last 12 months we’ve been trying to prise details out of Natural England about this ‘let’s divert attention from illegal persecution on driven grouse moors’ plan, and that has proved challenging to say the least.

[Hen harrier photo by Robin Newlin]

Here’s what we’ve learned so far from a year’s worth of FoI requests:

28 Nov 2016: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: an update (here)

3 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report (here)

8 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the project group and their timeline (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: who’s funding it? (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: a bonkers proposal for Exmoor National Park (here)

12 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Wiltshire (here)

14 Feb 2017: Leaked email reveals Natural England’s views on Hen Harrier Action Plan (here)

23 Feb 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: donor countries (here)

19 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: new project manager appointed (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Dartmoor as potential new release site (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: revised costs (here)

21 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: project team visits France (here)

27 July 2017: RSPB statement on Hen Harrier reintroduction to southern England (here)

15 Aug 2017: Natural England Board making up justification for hen harrier southern reintroduction (here)

In early October 2017 we submitted another FoI request and Natural England asked for more time due to the “complexity and voluminous nature of the request” (it was neither complex nor voluminous, this was just another delaying tactic from NE).

That extra time has now expired and Natural England has released a limited amount of further information (although some has been withheld, for various reasons).

Part of the information NE released was a report from a fieldtrip to France (a potential hen harrier donor country) undertaken in June 2017 by two members of the Southern Reintroduction Project Team (Simon Lees from Natural England and Jemima Parry-Jones from the International Centre for Birds of Prey). Here’s the [redacted] report:

The two French researchers whose names are redacted from the above report are Dr Alexandre Millon and Dr Vincent Bretagnolle. Both of these guys have had long and productive careers studying various harrier species and both are highly respected within scientific conservation circles. Which kind of begs the question why they might be supportive of a plan to remove French hen harriers and take them to England where the species is on the verge of breeding extinction due to the continued & rampant illegal persecution of this species by gamekeepers?

What they should have told Natural England is, ‘Get the grouse moor managers to stop illegally killing English hen harriers and all your problems will be solved. Harriers will recolonise the southern lowlands all by themselves if they weren’t being illegally shot, poisoned, trapped and bludgeoned to death on the upland grouse moors’. Or words to that effect.

But anyway, it’s not their decision to make; that’s for the French statutory authorities to decide and you’ll note that Natural England recognises it could really do with support from the RSPB to present a ‘unified conservation case’. However, according to a statement issued by the RSPB in July this year:

The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is NOT supporting the project“.

We’ll come back to Natural England’s need to get the RSPB on board for this project in another blog post (due shortly). Cooperation and support from the RSPB is something that Natural England has identified as a potential hurdle in getting this project off the ground.

More soon….

UPDATE 12 December 2017: 2018 start date for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England? (here)


Scottish Government publishes 5th annual wildlife crime report

The Scottish Government has today published its latest Annual Wildlife Crime Report – the 5th one since it became a statutory obligation under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. The current report is entitled the ‘2016’ report, but it actually refers to wildlife crimes recorded from April 2015 to March 2016.

Download the latest report here: Wildlife Crime in Scotland 2016 Report

In previous years we’ve been critical of the report’s findings, mainly due to the use of misleading headlines and Police Scotland’s on-going practice of withholding information about raptor persecution crimes (e.g. see here, here).

We haven’t had a chance to scrutinise this latest report but will probably have a closer look at it over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here is the Scottish Government’s press statement about the 2016 report:

Offence numbers down on previous year.

Recorded wildlife crime has fallen by 8%, according to the latest official figures.

The annual wildlife crime report, published today, shows reported offences have dropped from 284 in 2014/15 to 261 the following year.

Fish poaching, which remains the most prolific wildlife crime, was down by 26% on the year before.

The report shows an increase in hunting with dogs offences to 44 – up 24 offences on the previous year and the highest number over the five-year recording period.

The report brings together data from the Scottish Government, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Police Scotland and other sources – all members of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland).

The data in the report refers to recorded wildlife crime. It does not, for example, include satellite-tagged tagged birds which may have disappeared in suspicious circumstances, as without a carcass or other hard evidence of criminal activity, Police Scotland are not able to record these incidents as crimes.

Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham said:

This fifth wildlife crime annual report provides useful data on the issues we face trying to protect Scotland’s wildlife from illegal activity.

It shows a decrease in overall recorded wildlife crime which is welcome.

However there is no room for complacency. We know from the report published earlier this year, that it is very likely that golden eagles and other raptors are being illegally killed every year, but where there is no body or tag to be found, these losses do not make it into the recorded crime figures.

I have set out some measures to tackle the issue of missing raptors, including setting up an independent group to examine grouse moor management practices and a new pilot scheme to use special constables to tackle wildlife crime in the Cairngorms Park. I am determined to put an end to raptor killing and all other types of wildlife crime”.

Scottish SPCA Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn said: “Although we are pleased to see the 8% decrease in wildlife crime reports, wildlife crime continues to cause us great concern.

The increase in hunting with dogs is very worrying and we will work with Police Scotland in any way to tackle wildlife crime in Scotland.”


And here is RSPB Scotland’s press statement:

RSPB Scotland welcomes wildlife crime report

The Scottish Government has today released its annual wildlife crime report. In response, Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, said: “We welcome the publication of the Wildlife Crime in Scotland Report for 2016, and the continued scrutiny by the Scottish Government of this issue. Sadly, wildlife crime, including the illegal killing of our of native birds of prey, remains a blight on the international reputation of Scotland, and in our view stronger sanctions are urgently required to act as a deterrent.

At the end of May 2017, an official report into the fate of satellite tagged golden eagles showed that many of these birds were disappearing in suspicious circumstances, primarily on land managed for driven grouse shooting. As a result, an independent enquiry has now been launched by the Scottish Government into how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law, including consideration of options for a licensing system.

We believe that an effective licensing system for driven grouse shooting, including sanctions to remove licences to operate where illegal activity is confirmed, could help tackle persistent criminality, and promote the required culture change in this sector. It would of course also provide safeguards for those land managers who operate responsibly. We look forward to giving evidence to this independent enquiry in due course.

The disappearing satellite tagged golden eagles, along with other similar occurrences to hen harriers, give a strong indication that the wildlife criminals have not stopped their activities, and instead may have changed their methods in order to avoid detection. This context needs to be taken into account when interpreting the data presented in the Wildlife Crime in Scotland Report.


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