Flawed Natural England policies assume gamekeepers don’t illegally kill raptors

We’ve been blogging for over a year about the use of propane gas guns on grouse moors and about our concerns that these booming bird scaring devices are being used to discourage raptors (and particularly hen harriers) from settling to breed (e.g. see here, here, here, here).

In June this year, Natural England finally produced what they called ‘guidance’ for those wishing to deploy gas guns and published a decision flow chart. It looked like this:

Gas gun guidance NE - Copy

A spokesperson for Natural England said he hoped the guidance was helpful (it wasn’t, see here) and welcomed further questions if clarification was needed.

One of our blog readers did want further clarification and he asked Natural England to explain how ‘ensuring that gas guns are located so that they do not disturb breeding Schedule 1 birds’ would work in practice?

Here’s Natural England’s response:

In response to your query the onus is on the land manager or their representative not to cause disturbance as that would be unlawful. The use of gas guns aims to dissuade species such as corvids from causing damage to ground nesting birds or livestock. On large expanses of open moorland they should be able to be deployed away from Schedule 1 species. Most managers should know where these species are present but it would be best practice for Natural England and other interested groups, for example raptor study group members, to pass on information over the location of Schedule 1 species to the land manager so they are in a more informed position and then able to ensure that gas guns are deployed appropriately“.

Ah, of course. Because telling the grouse moor manager/gamekeeper where you’ve seen hen harriers will undoubtedly lead to those birds being protected and left undisturbed, right? Have you got that, raptor study group workers?

And here’s another ingenious policy strategy from Natural England. In response to the news that Natural England had issued a licence to a gamekeeper allowing him to kill up to ten buzzards in order to ‘protect his pheasants’ (see here), another blog reader (@exPWCO) asked Natural England how they would check that just ten buzzards had been killed? Here’s Natural England’s response:


Ah, of course. Because asking a gamekeeper to fill in a form stating how many buzzards he’d killed under licence is bound to result in a truthful response, right?

Both of these policy statements just beggar belief. They are both based on the assumption that gamekeepers don’t illegally kill raptors, which, as we all know (and so should Natural England), is a flawed assumption.

gamekeepers prosecuted - Copy


Northern England Raptor Forum: 2016 annual conference

nerf-logo3This year’s Northern England Raptor Forum conference will be held on Saturday 19 November at the Xcel Centre in Durham, co-hosted by the Durham Upland Bird Study Group and the Durham Bird Club.

The conference programme has just been announced (see here) and includes the following presentations:

Birds of the Durham uplands: current population trends & studies (John Strowger & David Raw)

Intensification of grouse moor management in Scotland: consequences for upland raptors (Ruth Tingay)

The breeding ecology of Little Owl in England: factors affecting breeding performance in two study areas (Emily Joachim)

Bod Tinwen, Hen harriers in Wales: are Hen harriers increasing in the Welsh uplands? (Stephen Bladwell)

The 2014 UK breeding Peregrine survey: the mixed fortunes of Peregrines with a focus on results in England (Mark Wilson)

Merlins in SE Scotland, 1984-2014: a 30 year study in the Lammermuir Hills ended abruptly in 2015 (Ian Poxton)

Driven grouse shooting, born in 19th Century, fit for the 21st? The impact of management practices and the need for change (Pat Thompson)

The downloadable booking form is available here or book online here


Buzzard shot dead in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire

shot bz nyorksAug16North Yorkshire Police are appealing for information after the discovery of a buzzard that had been shot dead.

On 4th August 2016 a member of the public reported that a buzzard had been found dead near Manfield, North Yorkshire. The buzzard was recovered by the RSPB and taken to a vet in Leeds. An x-ray showed ten fragments inside the bird, consistent with being shot. It is not known how long the buzzard had been dead before it was found.

PC Rob Davies, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, said: “Buzzards are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it a criminal offence to kill or injure them. The extent to which raptors are persecuted is completely unacceptable, so I am urging anyone with any information about this incident to get in touch with me without delay.”

Anyone who is aware of suspicious activity in the area, or has any information that could assist the investigation, is asked to contact PC Rob Davies at North Yorkshire Police by dialing 101 and selecting option 2, or via email rob.davies@northyorkshire.pnn.police.uk. Alternatively, contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. Please quote reference number 12160140036.

North Yorkshire maintains its status as one of the worst places in the UK for the illegal killing of birds of prey. It’s a county where much of the landscape is dominated by grouse moors, particularly in the two National Parks: the North York Moors NP and the Yorkshire Dales NP, as well as a large number of pheasant and partridge shoots.

This year, other raptor persecution crimes uncovered in North Yorkshire have included several illegally spring-trapped buzzards, several shot buzzards, at least ten shot red kites, and a gamekeeper filmed setting three illegal pole traps in the vicinity of a hen harrier.

There’s still time to sign the e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. Over 116,000 people have had enough – have you? Please sign here.


Obscure sea turtle tracking data from India used to explain ‘disappearing’ eagles in Monadhliaths

SCAlogoA couple of weeks ago we blogged about the ‘disappearance’ of eight young satellite-tagged golden eagles on grouse moors in the Monadhliath Mountains of Highland Scotland (see here).

Keen to deflect attention away from the most likely suspects, the grouse-shooting industry claimed that windfarms were probably to blame – a claim that was easily debunked when it became apparent those windfarms didn’t actually exist (see here). Still, it made a change from them suggesting that trees are the biggest threat to golden eagles in Scotland (see here).

Now they’ve come up with another excuse but once again, it’s poorly researched and relies upon their assumption that nobody will bother checking their claimed ‘facts’.

Have a read of this press statement from the Scottish Countryside Alliance (SCA). Hilariously, the SCA suggests that ‘finger pointing at the shooting community, based on no evidence, must be resisted‘.

No evidence? Good grief. Try this, thisthis, this, and, particularly pertinent to the Monadhliaths, try this (where a young gamekeeper on Moy Estate was found to have a jar containing four eagle leg rings that had previously been attached to young golden eagles)!

However, that’s not what this blog is about. What particularly interested us about this SCA statement was the following:

Contrary to claims that transmitters are reliable, research papers published in 2013 studied three decades of wildlife radio telemetry and concluded that failure rates could be as high as 49%“.

Gosh! A failure rate of 49% does seem high! That MUST be the most plausible explanation for the ‘disappearance’ of these eight golden eagles (and all the other satellite-tagged raptors that have ‘disappeared’ over grouse moors during the last ten years), right? These tags are failing left, right and centre and it’s nothing more sinister than that, right?

Naturally, we wanted to read these recently published research papers but tellingly, the SCA hadn’t provided any references. After a bit of digging, it becomes apparent why they were so reluctant to reveal their source. Fortunately (for us), those scientific heavyweights at Countryman’s Weekly helped us out and pointed us to this:

Three decades of wildlife radio telemetry in India A Review_2014

As the paper’s title suggests, this is a review of wildlife radio telemetry studies that have been undertaken in India between 1983-2013.

It’s an interesting paper (if you’re planning to use telemetry to study animal taxa in India) but what relevance it has to satellite-tag reliability on golden eagles in Highland Scotland is a bit of a mystery to us, especially when you realise that many of the studies refer to radio-tagging (as opposed to satellite-tagging) of mammals (including Asiatic elephants, Asiatic lions, tigers) and reptiles (gharials, turtles). Of 82 studies reviewed, only 14 involve birds.

If you look at Table 8 (showing the known cause of tag failures), of 72 (radio & satellite) tags (across all taxa) where ‘contact was lost’ or there was an ‘unknown failure’, the vast majority (68) appear to relate to tags that had been attached to Olive Ridley Turtles. If you then have a look at this paper (‘Why do Argos satellite tags deployed on marine animals stop transmitting?‘), you’ll see that the failure of the salt-water switch is an on-going issue. Quite how this issue can be the cause of ‘failing’ satellite tags on golden eagles in the Monadhliaths is beyond our comprehension. Perhaps the Scottish Government’s planned review of golden eagle satellite data will shed some light. But perhaps not.


Richard Evans: obituary

It was with enormous shock and great sadness that we learned of the recent passing of Richard Evans.

He was a friend of ours and a strong supporter of this blog.

We’ll miss you, mate.

richard evans

His obituary, reproduced below, was published in the Herald a couple of days ago:

Obituary – Richard Evans, naturalist and expert on eagles

Born: March 6, 1964;

Died: August 8, 2016

RICHARD Evans, who has died after a sudden cardiac arrest aged 52, was a senior conservation policy officer at RSPB Scotland, and played a pivotal role in the defence and conservation of some of Scotland’s rarest and most highly valued protected areas.

In a 26 year career at the bird and wildlife charity, he became a skilled all-round naturalist, but uniquely honed and combined three specific complementary skills – becoming an adept computer analyst of large and complex data sets, an expert adviser on EU and UK environmental case law, and a toponymist, now popularly known as “an expert on the names of landmarks” owing to the writings of Robert Macfarlane.

Born in the Welsh border town of Abergavenny in south Wales, he read English at University College, Durham. He enjoyed being part of the university’s oldest college, and contributed vigorously to the students’ revelries in the Castle Keep. Nicknamed “Hamlet”, in part due to his demeanour but mainly his scepticism and ability to quote Shakespeare, he delighted in reciting pithy one-liners.

At Durham he met Duncan Orr-Ewing, now Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, who remembers an adept rock climber spending most of his time birding with enthusiastic members of the university’s Wildlife Society.

On graduating in 1986 Mr Evans joined an expedition to North West Ecuador to survey rainforest birds as part of a work programme to designate an Important Bird Area, now one of 12,000 key global conservation areas. It was the making of him as a conservationist, and imbued in him the vital importance of protected areas for saving wildlife.

In 1988 he joined the RSPB as a research assistant, working with Roy Dennis based at Munlochy, north of Inverness. He surveyed Moray Firth seaduck in the winter and Caithness seabirds in the summer as part of North Sea oil industry related monitoring.

In 1994 he moved to Mull as the RSPB conservation officer, and over the ensuing eight years worked with Roger Broad in leading the endeavours to secure the white-tailed eagle population there. This experience of working on eagles was to prove vital later.

It was on Mull in 1996 that he met his wife to be, Solveigh, an isotope geochemist researching the geology and tectonics of the Loch Don area of Mull. He saw Solveigh with a friend in a field close to a sea eagle nest and, compelled by his duties to protect nesting birds from disturbance, promptly approached to tell them they were not permitted to be so close to the birds. To his chagrin he learnt that Solveigh’s parents were involved in sea eagle protection in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and that she knew a good deal about sea eagles herself. They married in October 2002.

In the same year the couple moved to Edinburgh, where he worked first as RSPB Scotland’s sites policy officer and, from 2009, as senior conservation policy officer, playing a central role in the conservation of protected areas in Scotland.

As a co-opted member of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) teams at public inquiries objecting to inappropriate large wind farms and industrial developments, his gift for spotting flaws in data and scientific and legal arguments became legendary. Hours of cross-examination of the opposing side would be punctuated by the provision of helpful slips to SNH’s counsel pointing to critical legal judgements or inconsistencies which holed the developer’s case.

Observing ill-informed and arrogant witnesses, his favourite intonation was: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool”. He was a master breech-loader of the salient brief, and ten minutes spent in his company preparing for a crucial meeting could be decisively or disastrously effective, depending on your standpoint.

A scholar of eagle place names, our understanding of the history of Britain and Ireland’s eagles owes much to his ingenious desk and field research. During a sabbatical foray to the National Library of Scotland, he made what proved to be an inspired discovery. He realised it should be possible to adduce the former British and Irish ranges and population sizes of white-tailed eagles and golden eagles through pouring over historical maps giving often obscure Germanic and Celtic references to locations bearing their names.

In 2012 he published a scholarly paper with Phil Whitfield and Lorcan O’Toole which traced the changing distribution of these raptors over three millennia. They were able to show that around 1500 years ago both eagles were widespread, occupying many lowland parts, with possibly up to 1400 pairs of sea eagles and 1500 pairs of golden eagles in the British Isles. The paper was commended as outstanding by the Watson Raptor Science Panel, which awards an annual prize for the best paper on raptors published in Europe.

Earlier this year, he led work on a major report on the current status and prospects for white-tailed eagles in Scotland. He represented RSPB Scotland on a stakeholder group formed to resolve conflicts around these birds, and commanded great respect for his expert knowledge and ability to see many sides of an argument.

Increasingly, given his combined legal and scientific expertise, he advised on the more contentious and complex development issues. He was a founder member of the Scottish Windfarm Bird Steering Group, working with the renewables industry to develop the evidence base on bird populations and wind farms.

Tragically, he died suddenly whilst cycling to work. Just days before he was immersed in supporting the beginnings of the Heritage Lottery funded project to boost South Scotland’s golden eagle population. A proponent of this ambitious work, he was guiding the project team to sites where eagles held dominion centuries ago. The sight of these great birds soaring under the gaze of excited eyes would be a wonderful legacy.

Softly spoken and understated, jovial, perceptive, tactically clever, and determinedly non-institutional, Richard Evans was admired and loved by colleagues and friends – as much for his humanity as for his deep intelligence.

He is survived by Solveigh, son Aneirin, and his parents John L. Evans and E. Mary Evans.


Petition calling for licensing of gamebird hunting in Scotland closes at midnight

ALMDThe petition calling for state regulated licensing of all gamebird hunting in Scotland closes at midnight tonight.

This petition was launched six weeks ago and currently has 6,601 electronic signatures and a few hundred more have signed a paper version at various events around the country.

We’ve blogged about this petition before but it’s worth repeating a few points:

The petition has been lodged by the Scottish Raptor Study Group and has the backing of RSPB Scotland (see here) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (see here).

Background information about the petition may be read here.

Information about previous action that has been taken to address this issue may be read here.

The petition itself may be read here.

To sign this petition, please go here.

This isn’t the first time the Scottish Raptor Study Group has called for licensing. In 2014, they, with support from RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, called for grouse-shooting licences to be introduced (see here); a request that was rejected by the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse (see here). That request was an informal one, put to the Minister in a letter. This time they’ve gone for a more formal approach and they need your support.

There is really no need to explain here why the regulation of gamebird hunting is long overdue. If you’re in any doubt whatsoever, just spend a few minutes looking through some of our blog posts and also have a look at the background information links above. The gamebird-shooting industry in the UK is the least-regulated in comparison with other European countries and, arguably, is responsible for more environmental destruction than any of its European counterparts. The UK shooting industry has had decades to get its act together and self-regulate, but has failed, comprehensively, and so enforced regulation is inevitable.

What’s interesting about this petition though, is how it differs from Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting (which so far has attracted over 116,000 signatures – see here).

The most obvious difference is that this new Scottish petition is calling for licensing rather than for a ban, and it is directed at ALL types of gamebird hunting in Scotland (e.g. grouse, pheasant, partridge) rather than just driven grouse shooting.

Some may argue that the licensing approach is futile, mainly due to enforcement issues, and we’d have to agree with that to some extent. Scotland already has some of the strongest wildlife protection legislation in Europe but enforcement problems continue to be of concern. Nevertheless, this new petition is still worthy of your support, and importantly, there’s nothing to stop you signing both petitions!

It seems the licensing approach in Scotland is considered to have more chance of acceptance by the Scottish Government than calling for an outright ban, largely due to the fact that the Scottish Government is, in relative terms, much more progressive and further down the road on this issue than the Westminster Government. This call for licensing is in line with the Scottish Government’s previously stated approach to the illegal persecution of raptors; they’ve been saying for years now that they are prepared to take further action if the persecution doesn’t stop, so this petition could nudge them in the direction they’re already travelling, because, despite the gamebird shooting industry’s claims to the contrary, the persecution has not stopped (see here).

It could be argued that licensing is just delaying the inevitable, in that if it fails to act as an effective deterrent, a ban must surely be on the cards, but we’d have to wait 10+ (?) years to get to that position because the Scottish Government will insist, quite rightly, that the licensing approach will need time before its success or failure can be measured. It does seem highly unlikely that the Scottish Government will support calls for a ban until all other options have been tried, so the licensing approach seems to be a necessary hurdle to be jumped, but if it does turn out to be effective then that’d be good, obviously.

If the Scottish Government does decide to accept a call for licensing, the next question will be, ‘What will that licensing look like?’. Who knows, and that’d be for the Scottish Government to decide in due course, but it might include restrictions on the intensification of land managed for gamebird shooting (i.e. restrictions on muirburn, restrictions on drainage, restrictions on medication) as well as new reporting requirements (i.e. How many gamebirds shot? How many predators legally killed? How many mountain hares killed?) etc. Crucially, whatever regime is introduced, it must be independently monitored if the public is to have any confidence in it.

But that’s for later discussion. At this stage, the most important thing is to apply pressure on the Scottish Government to accept that gamebird hunting in Scotland cannot continue in its current unregulated form. Whether you think a licensing scheme will work or not isn’t that important right now; the Scottish Government needs to hear from you that this issue is important to you and that you want to stimulate a discussion about it.

Please note: the Scottish petition may be signed by anybody, anywhere in the world.

The Scottish petition will close at midnight tonight. We’d encourage you to sign the petition (here), not only to support the views of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, but also to let the Scottish Government know that this issue is important to you and deserves Parliamentary time and attention.

Thank you.

The photograph shows conservationist Roy Dennis holding the poisoned corpse of golden eagle ‘Alma’, who was found poisoned on a Scottish grouse moor in 2009. There have been many more since (e.g. see here).


Young satellite-tagged hen harrier ‘Elwood’ disappears on Monadhliath grouse moor just weeks after fledging

ElwoodWith depressing predictability, news has emerged that one of this year’s young satellite-tagged hen harriers (a male called ‘Elwood’) has ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in the Monadhliath mountains just a few weeks after he fledged from his nest in Banffshire.

RSPB press release:

Another satellite-tagged bird of prey disappears in the Monadhliath Mountains

RSPB Scotland has today announced that a young male hen harrier, fitted with a satellite transmitter as part of the charity’s part EU funded Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, has gone missing on a grouse moor in the Monadhliath Mountains, south-east of Inverness.

The bird, named Elwood, was the only chick to fledge from a nest in Banffshire, which was being monitored under the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland) ‘Heads-up for Harriers scheme’.

The transmitter’s data, being monitored by RSPB Scotland staff, indicated that the young bird fledged from its nest in the first week of July, but stayed close to the site in the hills above the River Spey until the 20th, when he began to travel more widely. By the 27th, he had moved 20 miles to the south west, and had settled in the hills around Tomatin.

The bird remained in this area, with the transmitter providing detailed information about his daily travels until suddenly, transmissions ceased abruptly on August 3rd. The bird’s last recorded position was on an area of managed moorland a few miles from the Slochd summit on the A9.

Last week, news emerged that eight satellite-tagged golden eagles had also disappeared in the northern Monadhliaths in the last five years, with three of these birds, whose transmitters were also functioning normally, going ‘off the radar’ this spring [see here].

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, said: “This latest disappearance of a satellite-tagged bird is deeply concerning, and joins the long list of protected birds of prey that have been confirmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly in this area. The transmitters being fitted to these birds are exceedingly reliable, and illegal persecution is therefore the most likely explanation of the disappearance of these birds of prey. The absence of typical breeding raptor species from areas of suitable habitat, or at traditional nesting sites, in large parts of the Monadhliaths is further supporting evidence of a major problem with wildlife crime in this general area.

This case is all the more depressing as the nest from which Elwood successfully fledged was monitored as part of a partnership project between PAW Scotland and the local landowner. It proves, yet again, that despite there being a good number of enlightened estates who are happy to host and protect nesting birds of prey – as soon as they move away from these areas they are being illegally killed.

The denials and obfuscation from representatives of the land management sector, and their consistent failure to acknowledge and address this problem, is one of the main reasons why our bird of prey populations are struggling in the central and eastern Highlands. We repeat our call to the Scottish Government to introduce a robust system of licensing of game bird hunting, where the right to shoot is dependent on legal and sustainable management of the land, in line with approaches adopted in most other European countries.”


So what now, Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment? How are you going to react to this one? Are you going to tell us how ‘disappointed’ you are? Are you going to tell us that more research needs to be done to understand why driven grouse moors in Scotland are almost devoid of breeding hen harriers (and golden eagles and peregrines)? Are you going to tell us that the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime is effectively addressing this problem? Are you going to believe the lies of the organisations within the grouse-shooting industry that there is ‘no evidence’ that raptors are routinely and systematically killed on driven grouse moors? Are you going to tell us you’re still looking for ‘a pattern of suspicious activity’? Are you going to tell us that you will ‘not hesitate to take further action if deemed necessary’? Are you going to tell us we need to wait to see whether previous anti-persecution measures are working?

How about you tell us that you’ve had enough, that you believe that further action IS necessary and that you’ll be using your powers as Cabinet Secretary for the Environment to put an end to this shameful slaughter?

You could support the call for an introduction of licensing for all gamebird hunting in Scotland, so that these grouse-shooting estates can finally be held to account for their criminal acts. Well, assuming any licensing system is actually properly enforced, but that’s another matter.

And you really should pay attention to the strength of feeling against driven grouse shooting that has emerged south of the border (with considerable support from Scottish voters, too), which will now result in a parliamentary debate in Westminster later this autumn on the subject of banning driven grouse shooting.

Whatever you do, plenty of people here, and around the world, are watching.

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