‘One or two estates’ may be persecuting hen harriers, says Environment Minister

The Scottish Government is persisting with its ‘Heads Up For Hen Harriers’ project – an initiative aimed at getting the general public involved with reporting sightings of hen harriers so the authorities can work out where they are and why they’re in decline. This ‘initiative’ was launched in April and now it’s back in the news.

The BBC has a film report from a hen harrier nest site in Perthshire (here)  – well done Wendy Mattingley from the Tayside Raptor Study Group for telling it how it is.

In addition to the film, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse was interviewed on Good Morning Scotland earlier today (audio clip available for 7 days here, starts at 2.13.40).

Here is a transcript of the radio interview:

GMS: Why do you need the public’s help here considering that the hen harrier is so intensively studied already?

PW: Well it’s because the hen harrier is an extremely sort of charismatic bird, I mean it’s not one that’s maybe well known and as well publicised but it’s a particularly wonderful species. The male is grey and white and black wing tips and it’s particularly sort of striking when people do see it. Many people regard the hen harrier as their favourite bird so we’re hoping to raise the profile of the species because it is under pressure from a number of problems and we know that there are only 505 sort of territorial pairs in Scotland as of three years ago and that had been a very significant decline since about six years prior to that so it is an important bird, it’s a very important bird for the landscape that it’s living in and we want to do all we can to protect it.

GMS: And what’s the problem, why is it in particular being targeted?

PW: Well one of the difficulties we have with the hen harrier is understanding exactly what it is that’s causing the numbers to decline. There certainly is a concern about illegal persecution of the bird, but there may be other possible changes in its climate and land-use issues such as forestry and grazing which might be impacting on their numbers, but it’s widely recognised that persecution has been a major factor, particularly where there’s been conflict with grouse management in the past.

GMS: Now there has been a clampdown legally on this, but is it working? It doesn’t seem to be.

PW: Well it’s certainly something we’re keen to find out. Certainly the work we’ve done through Heads Up for Hen Harriers, announced earlier in April, has indicated that the birds are present in places we didn’t know they were previously present so there’s some indication that the range is slightly bigger than we had thought, but we’re still evaluating the kind of sightings and going back checking whether they are accurate or not, but there’s certainly been, you know, pressure on numbers, we know that they’re not protected in England in the way they are in Scotland and so we’ve lost some, we believe, that have gone over the border and been persecuted there but the majority of problems are, I think, home grown ones and we need to sort of clamp down, as you say, on illegal persecution.

GMS: And do you think there is now a case to prosecute the landowners?

PW: Well certainly we have, through the WANE Act, the Wildlife & Natural Environment Act in 2011, put in place vicarious liability provisions which mean that no landowner can escape their responsibility of those that work for them. We’ve not yet seen a prosecution under vicarious liability but, you know, I imagine at some point in the future there probably will be one which will test the legal powers that we now have. But I think it’s already having an impact, that power, on the behaviour of landowners who are doing much more to train their staff, to ensure that they do not do anything to disturb or threaten species such as the hen harrier, so I hope that work does have a long-term benefit. But we’re always looking for, you know, the potential to prosecute a vicarious liability case just to test the waters.

GMS: And these organisations representing landowners, gamekeepers and field sports enthusiasts have condemned the illegal persecution but do you think, do you feel that they are on board here, that they are doing enough?

PW: I think the overwhelming majority of landowners are absolutely on side and are doing their best to try and tackle problems of illegal persecution. There are obviously, you know, suggestions of one or two estates which have had difficulties and the police authorities are sort of following those up and the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland, which I chair, is working with landowners who are members of that organisation to try and improve practices and ensure that we do everything we can to protect species like the hen harrier, but other species as well such as the golden eagle and sea eagles which have also had, unfortunately, persecution in recent years. We also announced recently a number of provisions which we’re taking to try and strengthen our action on illegal persecution of raptors and they are supported, I think, by a number of key organisations such as gamekeepers and indeed the landowners.

GMS: We’ll have to leave it there, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Environment Minister.

What wasn’t said in this interview was that there is the potential for an estimated 1467-1790 pairs of hen harriers to live in Scotland, according to the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework report, published by the government in 2011. However, the latest national survey results (from 2010) only found 505 pairs. And surprise surprise, the main areas where these birds are absent is on land managed as driven grouse moor in the Eastern Highlands and Southern Uplands. Sound familiar? Yep, exactly the same places where golden eagles are in trouble. What an amazing coincidence.

So, where are the 962-1,285 missing pairs of hen harriers? Wheelhouse is suggesting that the Heads Up for Hen Harriers initiative may have found some of them (although the results are still to be analysed and verified so his statement is rather premature to say the least). It’ll be fascinating to see those results in due course – perhaps they’ve found 1,000 pairs holed up in a crack den on a Glaswegian housing estate.

It is quite astonishing that still, more than 20 years after the alarm was first raised about the connection between driven grouse moors and hen harrier persecution, the authorities continue to play down the scale of the persecution issue and say, “One of the difficulties we have with the hen harrier is understanding what it is that’s causing the numbers to decline” and then pretend that the majority of the grouse-shooting industry is supportive of hen harriers. There are some who are on board, for sure, but the weight of evidence shows that those estates are in the minority – there must be a significant number of estates still ‘at it’ to have the population-level effect that we’re seeing.

We wrote a scathing critique of the Heads Up for Hen Harrier initiative when it was first launched in April. Rather than repeat it all here, it’s easier just to provide the link for those interested in reading it: see here. Our view hasn’t changed.

Hen Harriers will feature again on Reporting Scotland this evening.

The photo below is a reminder of what happens to hen harriers on grouse moors. This one was caught in an illegally-set trap on Moy Estate – he was lucky, he was found in time by raptor workers and he survived…for that day anyway.



9 Responses to “‘One or two estates’ may be persecuting hen harriers, says Environment Minister”

  1. 1 michael gill
    July 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    In the light of a letter I received from his department, his statement, “But we’re always looking for, you know, the potential to prosecute a vicarious liability case just to test the waters.” is contradictory.

    My letter to him asked why there haven’t been any prosecutions under the vicarious liability law and his reply was, “The provisions introducing vicarious liability for offences involving the unlawful killing of wild
    birds came into effect in January 2012. These have not yet been tested in the courts. Now
    that these provisions are on the statute book, Ministers and officials have no role whatsoever
    in deciding in what cases they will be used. These decisions are solely the responsibility of
    the Procurator Fiscal in each case.”

    • 2 Dougie
      July 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      Usual slippery reply. The PF does decide what cases to prosecute or not prosecute and whilst Ministers and officials cannot decide what individual cases to prosecute they can certainly ask what is the reason why no use has been made of the VL legislation. The PF is subject to direction from the lord Advocate and the Crown Office and it is simply a nonsensical situation when a Government can create legislation which is then ignored by PF’s withpout explanation.

  2. July 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    You’ve left the word ‘dozen’ out of the headline.

  3. July 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Oh dear with a man as wishy washy as this there is very little hope. This is supposed to be a man in charge?
    ‘ We’ve not yet seen a prosecution under vicarious liability but, you know, I imagine at some point in the future there probably will be one’
    Is he stuck in the Zen poem.
    ‘Sitting silently doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself’

    ‘Sort of..you know…I mean’.

  4. 5 Stewart Love
    July 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Mr Wheelhouse does not exactly give any sense of urgency in dealing with this. You would almost think that he is using delaying tactics, or would dearly like this problem just to go away. How many chances does he want to test the waters, I may be wrong but this getting the public, hill walkers,bird watchers to help could go on and on for a very long time. Meanwhile Raptors still get killed.

  5. 6 Dave Dick
    July 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I have never yet known the Crown Office take a wildlife case just to “test the waters”, thats not how it works…they need a case with clear evidence of a wildlife crime and crucially, a clear link to the landowner [I imagine preferably a statement from the criminal, to the effect that its estate policy to kill protected predators] in which case the long established [on paper] charge of “causing or permitting” would kick in.

    Vicarious liability…?..hang on, a pig just flew past the window….

  6. July 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Richard, its a couple of noughts missing from the headline & Mr Wheelhouse knows it. But has he got the bottle to do anything about it, Ms Cunningham was certainly up for it!

  7. 8 Chris Roberts
    July 23, 2013 at 10:02 am

    There should most certainly be a couple of noughts on that figure. The ministers and judiciary are either in cahoots with these estates or are scared stiff of them.

    Even the RSPB, whom I have been a member of for more years than I care to remember, appear to run scared of them these days. Appeasement seems to be the order of the day.

  8. 9 michael gill
    July 23, 2013 at 10:31 am

    “a statement from the criminal, to the effect that it’s estate policy to kill protected predators”

    Such a statement is not needed under vicarious liability. If such a statement were to be procured, the estate owner could have been convicted under the old law.

    There are two defences to vicarious liability:
    1. they did not know the offender was commiting the offence, and
    2. they took all reasonable steps to and exercised all due dilligence to prevent the offence being committed.

    And both points have to be demonstrated in order to provide a successful defence.

    In other words, a statement from the criminal which went something like this: “The land owner never told me not to shoot raptors” should be enough for a conviction. In fact, to avoid conviction, the land owner must be seen to be publishing clear guidlines for his staff (whether directly employed or indirectly employed through any kind of third party service contract) or even be sending them on training courses designed to educate them on not only the illegality of persecuting raptors, but also the futility of it.

    What I want to see is some evidence of these “published guidelines”. And who’s running these courses? I bet it’s the Gamekeepers Association themselves.

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