The latest edition of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club journal, Scottish Birds, dropped through the letterbox the other day. It contains an interesting article from Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland:
Raptor Persecution in Scotland: July 2014 update
The last article on the illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland written for Scottish Birds (33:1) appeared at the beginning of 2013, a year designated “The Year of Natural Scotland” by the Scottish Government.
The year had dawned with some optimism. For the fourth consecutive year, we had seen detected cases of illegal poisoning decline, and although, again it is important to reiterate that these only represent what was actually found, the apparent reduction in these indiscriminate crimes was welcomed universally. In saying that, yet again, a Golden Eagle was one of the victims, with a satellite-tagged bird found dead in Lochaber in March. But, the year ended with the news that a young pair of White-tailed Eagles from the east Scotland re-introduction scheme had built a nest in an Angus glen, the first breeding attempt in the east of the country for a hundred years.
Within days of the New Year beginning, however, it was discovered that the tree had been deliberately felled, and the nest destroyed. Realism returned quickly. A police investigation was launched. The site was five miles from the nearest public vehicle access. The tree felled was the only one in the whole plantation. Full cooperation from the estate where the nest was felled was assured. Surely it would be easy to identify the culprit?
No. The police requests for information were met with “no comment” responses across the board, from all those employed in the area concerned. While the right to decline to answer questions is enshrined in Scots Law, few would agree that this amounts to “full cooperation”. But, with no suspect identified, that would ostensibly mean the end of the investigation.
Of course, this sad example was not the first time this has happened. Indeed, when it comes to the persecution of raptors, no-one ever seems prepared to say a word that may assist in the identification of the perpetrator.
In late May 2013, two members of the public witnessed the organised “hunt” of a pair of hen harriers that had just started nest-building on an Aberdeenshire estate. For almost three hours, two armed men stalked the protected raptors, guided to where they were perched or flying by a third man, communicating with those on the hill by radio. As darkness fell, four shots rang out, and the men were seen and heard celebrating the killing of the male harrier.
Of course, the killer did not leave the body lying around to be found, but at least there were the two other individuals he was with, fully aware that he had committed the crime. Again the police investigated; again, nobody was prepared to identify the criminal. Again, a raptor killer escaped justice.
This latest case was one of several, including the killing of another harrier, the poisoning of a red kite and shooting of another; and the shooting of four buzzards in other incidents, which led to the Scottish Government Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, to announce further measures to combat these crimes. This included a review of sentences given for convicted wildlife criminals, and instructing Scottish Natural Heritage to implement a means of restricting the use of General Licences (a legislative tool that allows an “authorised person” to kill certain species under specific circumstances eg. allows a gamekeeper to shoot a carrion crow, that would otherwise be protected).
It is perhaps ironic, that just a few weeks earlier, the SOC had been part of a delegation that met with the Minister to handover a petition, officially endorsed by the Club, that contained almost 23,000 names, collected in just over two weeks, calling on him to ensure that Buzzards continued to have full legal protection, and to resist calls made by some in the game-shooting sector to allow licences to control them.
Sadly, despite the Minister’s robust comments, this did not seem to deter those who seem intent on continuing to kill some of our rarest protected birds with further shootings of a red kite and several buzzards. But, on a positive note, a second pair of white-tailed eagles did manage to breed in the east of Scotland, successfully fledging a male chick.
Unfortunately, The Year of Natural Scotland ended, as inauspiciously as it had began, with the poisoning of yet another golden eagle in the Angus glens, just the latest incident of a litany of recent raptor persecution cases in this area.
2014 has been no better, with the massacre of birds of prey on the Black Isle grabbing a great deal of media attention. Twenty-two dead raptors – six buzzards and sixteen red kites – were found dead in a small area of farmland near Conon Bridge. Thus far, fifteen of these have been confirmed to have been the victims of poisoning as a result of consuming bait laced with a banned pesticide.
This incident, quite rightly, attracted universal condemnation, lead to the establishment of a reward fund and resulted in an unprecedented public demonstration in Inverness town centre. But, it is important to put this case into context. It was highly unusual in that it was on lowland farmland, close to a town and in an area frequently and easily accessed by members of the public.
The vast majority of raptor persecution incidents still happen away from the public gaze, in upland areas where visitors are few and where the chances of evidence of the crimes being found is very slim. These incidents may not be seen, the bodies may not be found, but the evidence is clear time and time again – large swathes of Scotland’s uplands managed intensively for driven grouse shooting continue to see virtually no raptors breeding successfully.
It is for this reason that RSPB Scotland is now calling for a robust system of licencing for grouse moors. The grouse-shooting industry has had decades to put its house in order, but has singularly failed to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with protected birds of prey. Licenses should have sanctions for wrongdoers, with repeat offenders losing their license and thus the right to shoot all gamebirds for set periods. Estates that do practise sustainable management, and obey the law should have nothing to fear.
The one light that had shone from the gloom of 2013 was that first white-tailed eagle chick to fly from a nest in east Scotland for 200 years. It thrived and survived the challenges of its first winter. But that light too was extinguished, when the satellite-tagged bird “disappeared” on a grouse moor in upper Donside. At the same location, four tagged golden eagles have similarly vanished. The only eagle body recovered confirmed it had died due to illegal poisoning.
Enough is enough.
Full reference: Thomson, I. (2014). Raptor persecution in Scotland: July 2014 update. Scottish Birds 34(3): 232-233.