Why we satellite tag raptors and why the grouse shooting industry wants to stop us

A year ago today saw the publication of the Government-commissioned Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review, which showed how almost one-third of all satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland (41 of 131 eagles) had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances between 2004-2016, many of them vanishing in particular clusters on or close to driven grouse moors:

It seems timely then to undertake a review of how many more satellite-tagged raptors (not just golden eagles) have ‘disappeared’ since that damning analysis was undertaken (data cut off point 15 January 2017), a period of just 15 months between then and now.

An astonishing 14 sat-tagged raptors have vanished during this short period: 3 x golden eagles, 2 x white-tailed eagles, 8 x hen harriers, 1 x Montagu’s harrier. Eight of these ‘disappeared’ in Scotland, five in England and one in Wales. In addition to the missing 14, a further two satellite-tagged raptors (hen harriers) were found dead and post mortem results indicated illegal persecution.

Here’s the list:

January 2017: Hen harrier Carroll, Northumberland

March 2017: Golden eagle #338, Cairngorms National Park

August 2017: Hen harrier Calluna, Cairngorms National Park

August 2017: Montagu’s harrier Sally, Norfolk

October 2017: Hen harrier John, Yorkshire Dales National Park

October 2017: Hen harrier Manu, North Pennines

October 2017: Hen harrier Kathy, Argyll & Bute

December 2017: Golden eagle, Monadhliath Mountains

January 2018: Golden eagle Fred, Pentland Hills

February 2018: Hen harrier Aalin, Wales

February 2018: Hen harrier Marc, North Pennines

February 2018: Hen harrier Saorsa, Angus Glens

March 2018: White-tailed eagle Blue X, Strathbraan, Perthshire

March 2018: Hen harrier Finn, nr Moffat

March 2018: Hen harrier Blue, Cumbria

May 2018: White-tailed eagle Blue T, Cairngorms National Park

Of course, not one of these 14 recently ‘disappeared’ sat-tagged raptors will make it in to the ‘official’ wildlife crime stats (just as none of the 41 missing golden eagles and 60+ missing hen harriers have made it there) because, without a body, the police’s hands are tied. This suits the grouse-shooting industry because they can point to the ‘official’ crime stats and claim, disingenuously, that raptor persecution is in decline and argue that this is evidence that the industry has cleaned up its act.

Unfortunately for the shooting industry, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged raptors still makes headline news because, quite obviously, in the vast majority of these cases there is no other plausible explanation other than illegal persecution. The authoritative golden eagle satellite tag review demonstrated 98% tag reliability (supported by robust statistical analyses) and showed that sat-tagged golden eagles were 25 times more likely to ‘disappear’ in Scotland than anywhere else in the world where golden eagle tagging studies, using identical tags, have taken place.

As Dr Hugh Webster said: “They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“.

[Satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred, who disappeared in suspicious circumstances in January. Photo: Ruth Tingay]

As a result of this ongoing publicity, the game-shooting industry has spent considerable time and effort trying to undermine the satellite-tagging of raptors, either by launching disgusting personal & abusive attacks against those involved in the projects or by arguing that raptor satellite-tagging should be banned because it’s ‘cruel’ and the tag data serve no purpose other than to try and entrap gamekeepers. The industry knows how incriminating these sat tag data are and so is trying to do everything in its power to corrode public and political confidence in (a) the tag data and (b) the justification for fitting sat tags to raptors.

As ever though, the game shooting industry hasn’t done its homework.

One of the latest claims being made by some in the industry is that there’s no need to fit sat tags to species like golden eagles because ‘we know all we need to know’ and ‘fitting tags doesn’t stop illegal persecution so why bother fitting them’? There are also repeated claims that tag data are ‘not shared’.

Let’s just nip this in the bud, shall we? The main reason for fitting sat tags to golden eagles is not to entrap gamekeepers; it’s to provide information for conservation and scientific research. Sure, if a tagged eagle then ‘disappears’ in suspicious circumstances of course that’s going to be publicised – why shouldn’t it be? But that is NOT the main objective of satellite-tagging eagles. And tag data ARE shared, just not with armed criminals intent on killing eagles, and who have a long track record of doing exactly that.

For those still struggling to understand the simple rationale behind golden eagle sat-tagging, below is a summary list of research & conservation studies in Scotland that are benefitting from golden eagle satellite tag data. As you can see, it’s all collaborative, there’s plenty of open data-sharing amongst research groups, and far from ‘knowing all we need to know about golden eagles’, the sat tag data are showing us exactly how little we actually did know prior to the availability of this new technology:

Peer-reviewed scientific paper: Weston, E.D., Whitfield, D.P., Travis, J.M.J. & Lambin, X. 2013. When do young birds disperse? Tests from studies of golden eagles in Scotland. BMC Ecology 13, 42. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6785/13/42 [Co-authors: University of Aberdeen and Natural Research; tagging data from several institutions.]

Peer-reviewed scientific paper: Weston, E.D., Whitfield, D.P., Travis, J.M.J. & Lambin, X. 2018. The contribution of flight capability to the post-fledging dependence period of golden eagles. Journal of Avian Biology 49. [Co-authors: University of Aberdeen and Natural Research; funding contribution from SSE; tagging data from several institutions.]

Regional Eagle Conservation Management Plan (RECMP). A joint initiative to encourage the conservation of golden eagles in the Central Highlands Natural Heritage Zone (NHZ 10), involving SSE, The Highland Council, Natural Research, Haworth Conservation, RSPB, SNH, Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, and other contributors. Research funded by SSE. The RECMP research has produced data from 15 eagle nestlings tagged in or near to NHZ 10 which are pooled with other tagging research initiatives. Data from satellite tagged birds have also been contributed and are available as a resource for ongoing and future initiatives on education and community outreach also associated with RECMP.

Ongoing research projects under RECMP (projects involve several collaborators from different institutions; analyses involve tagging data shared by several institutions):

  • A simple topographic model to predict golden eagle space use [Golden Eagle Ridge Model: GERM]. Manuscript to be submitted shortly to ornithological journal.
  • Displacement of young golden eagles from wind farms in Scotland.
  • Age of first breeding and natal dispersal distance in Scottish golden eagles.
  • Use of settlement areas by dispersing golden eagles in Scotland.
  • Variation in dispersal behaviour of young golden eagles in Scotland.

Raptors and Forestry Joint Working Group. Current membership involves SNH, FCS, FES, RSPB, Haworth Conservation, CONFOR, Borders Forest Trust, Natural Research and Scottish Raptor Study Group. Evidence base for use of forestry by golden eagles is being supported by research derived from satellite tagged birds, to lead to guidance for practitioners. Preliminary research work, involving eagle satellite tagging data (including GERM: model development also supported by SNH and FCS), presented at a Sharing Good Practice event organised by FCS and SNH, 14 May 2018.

Scottish Natural Heritage, with assistance from Natural Research. Programme of tagging young eagles in National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to increase knowledge of connectivity with wider environment.

Scottish Raptor Study Group. Data used by several regional SRSG workers to identify ‘new’ territories if dispersing birds occupy a territory; and used to identify any gaps between known territories. Data improve efficiency of survey and monitoring.

Novel proposals for development and forestry. Data from satellite tagged eagles supplied and available to SNH, private/independent forestry consultants and Forestry Commission Scotland (forestry proposals); and SNH and ornithological consultants for EIA (e.g. wind farm or power line planning proposals). Data improve assessments of new proposals.

SNH Commissioned Report 982, funded by Scottish Government and SNH, included analyses which apart from the priority of analysing the ‘suddenly disappeared tags and birds with these tags’ also led to results on survival of dispersing young and lack of any evidence of tagging causing ‘harm’, for example.

As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot of scientific research going on to help inform conservation strategies for golden eagles in Scotland (some of which will also be applicable elsewhere in the world), and most of this research would be virtually impossible to achieve without satellite tag data. The gamekeepers, ridiculously, think it’s all about them; it clearly isn’t, although the criminal activities of some of them is certainly impacting on the conservation of golden eagles in some parts of Scotland, as has been well documented. For that reason, we, and others, will continue to highlight and publicise the illegal persecution of golden eagles (and other raptors) for as long as it takes to force the authorities to take meaningful action against the criminals responsible.


24 Responses to “Why we satellite tag raptors and why the grouse shooting industry wants to stop us”

  1. 1 Fight for Fairness
    May 31, 2018 at 6:01 am

    Satellite tagging is undertaken using sound s scientific methods and delivers valuable results. Pity those undertaking the Raven cull did not conform to these methods.

  2. May 31, 2018 at 7:25 am

    I dont understand the keepers concerns about well planned science, however if they cant understand it, we can always fall back on their most recently approved justification… “we are doing it just to see what happens”.

    End of argument.

  3. 3 Richard Fuller
    May 31, 2018 at 8:16 am

    The range of scientific studies is great, but no need to say any more than ‘tagging is to find out where they go and what happens to them’, no different from BTO’s cuckoos.

    • May 31, 2018 at 8:58 am

      Unfortunately, Richard, there is every need to detail these studies. Be under no illusion here – there’s a concerted effort going on behind the scenes right now to get sat tagging stopped (and it’s not hard to see why certain groups would want it stopped).

      Without providing evidence such as that detailed in this blog, gullible politicians might easily be fooled by the propaganda of the grouse-shooting industry.

  4. 5 Roderick Leslie
    May 31, 2018 at 8:32 am

    As any scientist knows, negatives are as important as positives. There is a great big hole in deaths over the area of the new collaboration between RSPB, Forest Enterprise and other partners based on Abernethy/ Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in the NW Cairngorms which covers a 60,000 hectare block of the Highlands – and has no recorded sat tag losses.

    • 6 Anon
      June 2, 2018 at 8:38 pm

      Rod, you mean Glenmore Forest Park. QEFP is is in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Best wishes.

  5. May 31, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Anyone who knowingly participates in raptor persecution would prefer not to have “removed” a bird carrying a satellite tag – “increased chance of being found out”, “bad publicity” etc., Clearly they have no way of knowing (in advance) which birds may be tagged. It follows that tagged birds illegally killed and / or disposed of are only the tip of the iceberg. Obviously the numbers of birds tagged is a constant variable, but if tagged birds known to have been killed is say 10% of the total – that would point towards frightening numbers. The fear of removing a tagged bird may be also be acting as a slight disincentive to persecution in certain areas where the owner or management fears the adverse publicity. You can see why self interests, with no real conservation ideals, argue the case for not tagging

  6. 8 Ian Robinson
    May 31, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Any parent knows that a child complaining about unfairness has done something bad. All this demonstrates is that, yet again, driven grouse shoots are incompatible with healthy populations of raptors and other predatory animals.

  7. 9 Alex Milne
    May 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Please keep banging away.
    The Scottish media will be well aware they should hang their heads in shame over their handling of the satellite tag data revelations.
    I still have not received a reply from the BBC over the article they published about Blue T. I note that they have at last altered the article to include quotations from In Thomson and Grant Moir. It does not include any negative aspects over the press release from the estate.
    This still makes a mockery of their claim to truthful journalism, and reveals an obvious bias I find most disturbing.

  8. 10 George M
    May 31, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Great post RPUK. Once again you are at the forefront of explaining to the public the exact nature of what it is all about. You are involved in a David and Goliath fight against those wildlife criminals who have many, many times the financial resources that are at your disposal. If it were not for the bias of most of the establishment media the fight to stop the illegal killing of our birds of prey would have been won some time ago. Thank you.

  9. 11 Merlin
    May 31, 2018 at 10:28 am

    It can not be far off when tags will transmit photos or video footage, will this be allowed in court, Scotland and Northern England must be the worst place in the world for raptor persecution

  10. May 31, 2018 at 10:49 am

    First of all, satellite tagging has confirmed what many of us suspected for a long time, and that is that illegal raptor persecution is widespread across “many” managed shoots (note I say many, not all). It is widespread orchestrated and organized wildlife crime, and a lot of people in the shooting industry must be in the know. Turning a blind-eye, turning a Nelsonian eye, wilful blindness, is not the same as being unaware. If anyone involved in the shooting industry is not aware what is going on, it’s because they don’t want to know, not that there’s a lack of evidence. However, on the estates and the communities where this regular illegal persecution is taking places, most must know what is going on, and who is doing it.

    To kill raptors with such regularity, requires a lot of dedicated time and effort, This is not just someone taking a pop shot at a raptor when they see it. The range of a shotgun is limited, about 50m – often much less, depending on the shot size and choke, Any birder knows that it is not a common event when a raptor flies within 50m of you, randomly or much closer (we are really talking about under 30m). The odds are even greater that it would happen when someone has a loaded shotgun at the ready. Even keepers do not have a loaded shotgun in their hand all the time when they are working. This is why a lot involved on the shoots where it is happening must be aware it is happening and who is doing it. It’s not something which could be done in a bit of spare time. Those employing these people will want an idea of what they are doing during the hours they are being paid to work.

    Let’s look at strength of the evidence. The killer fact which says that this is being caused by wildlife crime is very simple. Yes, there’s a possibility that the odd satellite tag may go missing. Yes, there is a chance a raptor can die suddenly through accident, predation etc. However, the odds of all these things happening in combination, are immensely improbable. What is more for it to happen time and time again, creates odds greater than winning the lottery jackpot several weeks running.

    1) If a satellite tag simply stopped working, then you’d expect the bird with the none working satellite tag to be eventually spotted. But this is the thing, they never are. It’s like these bird just vanish.

    2) If the bird just died naturally, had an accident, was predated, the satellite tag would carry on working.

    3) If the tag just fell off the bird, it would carry on transmitting.

    Overall, for both the tag to stop transmitting, and the bird to simultaneously disappear, means someone being aware of what a satellite tag is, and what they need to do to stop it transmitting immediately i.e. to either smash it, or to place it in a metal box, a Faraday cage. You could posit some sort of scenario where a raptor flew into an obstacle, it falling into some metal cover by accident. But this would be hugely improbable, and the odds of it happening repeatedly, are astronomical.

    Events this improbable do not just keep happening by chance. If there was a 1/1000 chance of something happening randomly, the odds of it happening 2, 3x or far more is 1/1000 x 1/1000 x 1/1000 and so on. Only 3 times in a row, and it is a billion to one. Yet if there was a common cause i.e. illegal persecution, and these were not random events, this would happen regularly, as it does.

    Anyone trying to deny that this is not the result of regular illegal persecution, and that those doing it are devoting a lot of time and effort to achieving this effect, cannot be taken seriously.

  11. May 31, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    As a ringer, we frequently get similar nonsense about there being no need for anymore ringing, even from experienced birders. I usually mention the House Sparrow and Starling declines; the terrible breeding seasons suffered by parts of the Blue Tit population in 2016 and 2017 and the change in migration patterns in Blackcap and Willow Warbler. Often they bring up the supposed paucity of recovery records. I have been accused of lying when I mentioned that my recovery rate is over 30% (over 50% in my CES site). They usually use the recovery rates from migration hot-spots as though every ringing site has thousands of migrants just passing through.

  12. 14 Secret Squirrel
    May 31, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    It’s not entrapment either, that’s encouraging someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. If gamekeepers have no intention to shoot raptors, tagging them won’t make a jot of difference

    • May 31, 2018 at 10:53 pm

      This is an excellent point. All knowingly false argument, and this is an egregious example, can be easily shown to be false. As you rightly point out, satellite tags do not encourage gamekeepers to shoot raptors. It’s just that when they do, it leaves a trace. For decades the shooting industry has been able to get away with killing raptors in secret, and then falsely blaming the lack of raptors on Fox predation of their nests, bad weather etc. The disappearance of satellite tagged birds leaves a trace, and reveals what is happening.

  13. 16 Iain Gibson
    June 1, 2018 at 1:38 am

    The logic in all of the comments above cannot be easily challenged, if at all. However something that is not readily admitted, “because it’s not politically correct” or deemed arrogant, is the fact that gamekeepers in general are not the sharpest pins in the box. Let’s be honest and realistic. In a real sense they exist on the fringes of society. They undertake their education at training colleges which specialise in a slanted interpretation of animal behaviour, and an over-simplified understanding of ecology. The role of certain predators within the ecosystem is taught in negative terms, and interpreted as a threat to both wildlife and human interests, often due to archaic prejudices based partly on fear of the unknown. Is it really essential to qualify as a wholly complete free human being by shooting fifty grouse in a day rather than a handful? Is it necessary to shoot any at all? The need to satisfy blood lust need not be the accepted norm in human behaviour. It is a simple fact that the millions of people who enjoy and appreciate nature and wildlife (viz the popularity of David Attenborough, Chris Packham et al), are offended by such arrogance as demonstrated by recreational killing, if not downright disgusted or suffering personal empathy or distress at the unnecessary death of so many animals. We can’t deny that it is in our genes to hunt animals for food, (modified into eccentric but harmless behaviour such as birdwatching), but especially since the advent of agriculture the way in which we survive has changed. We no longer live as hunter gatherer tribes in tropical rain forests, and those of us who like to eat meat can at least (in most cases) consume animals that have lived relatively comfortable lives and were humanely slaughtered. This might not be universal but hopefully can become more frequent as civilisation progresses. Blasting grouse or pheasants out of the sky in a strange competitive urge is about as far removed from civilisation than we can imagine, other than trophy killing of large African mammals. It’s high time that gamekeepers were rendered extinct, and wild animals allowed to exist unmolested by human beings. Living in harmony with nature is a desirable alternative to the current anarchic killing spree, which should be consigned to history.

    • 17 Les Wallace
      June 1, 2018 at 11:51 am

      Well said yet again Iain. To me a decent gamekeeper is someone who should have had the opportunity to do something far more rewarding with their lives – genuinely protecting wildlife and helping others to appreciate it. These young kids paraded in front of us in Pace Productions videos etc as the next generation of ‘game keepers’ following their fathers and grandfathers are tragic, they should be moving on to ecological restoration, field research, organising working conservation holidays for visitors, going into schools and welcoming school groups into the countryside to talk about real ecosystems and their wildlife. This is already happening of its own accord to a (so far) small extent with sons and daughters of gamies moving into wildlife photography and ecological surveying. So, so much more joy, appreciation and employment in real conservation rather than burning and twisting an environment into something that just serves to provide gun fodder. As it is the status quo is providing opportunities for those it really shouldn’t. Anybody else remember (know I’ve mentioned this before) the ONE year in which TWO apprentice keepers in Scotland were convicted of serious animal cruelty, one in Glasgow for kicking a hedgehog to death and another in Broxburn for being involved in badger baiting? With the number of keepers that have also been convicted for outright cruelty as well as illegal persecution this should set alarm bells ringing. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that grouse moor haven xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx is also a notorious black spot for badger baiting.

      [Ed: be careful, Les, as far as we’re aware there is no evidence to suggest gamekeepers in the area you mentioned have been or are involved in badger baiting crimes]

      • 18 Les Wallace
        June 1, 2018 at 1:29 pm

        Thanks – the comment was the result of a conversation with a friend who told me that area was a BB blackspot too. Cheers.

    • 19 Northern Diver
      June 1, 2018 at 12:46 pm

      You’ve reminded me about Borders College, Iain. One of their gamekeeping lecturers, Garry Dickson, in 2015 was quoted as saying on Facebook [ RPUK posted about this in 2015] :-

      “SNH should extract the digit and allow keepers to control raptors as well as badgers.”

      I complained about this to the Principal, David Killen, but he said it didn’t represent the views of the College. Garry Dickson is still employed as a lecturer there and even invited to SNH shindigs representing the Border College!! I wonder whose ears he is whispering in?
      I’ll say no more.

    • June 1, 2018 at 1:05 pm

      Your comments on gamekeepers, PC or not, is on the mark. It goes without saying though that as individuals they can be more influential in their position than most. They’re relied upon and trusted “to do the necessary” to provide a successful shoot for their employers who might themselves be at the sharp end of banking, business or politics.

      It’s no surprise that some consider themselves bomb-proof.

  14. 21 dave angel
    June 1, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    Off topic but is there any update on whether the RSPB intend to release the video footage from the Bleasdale case?

  15. 22 Alister J Clunas
    June 1, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    Can the figures for the loss of satellite tagged birds be expanded to calculate how many birds are lost to the total population? My understanding is that this was something that SNH was considering funding, post the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review. Is there any progress on this? This information seems to be essential to our full understanding of the impact of raptor persecution.

  16. 23 Al Woodcock
    June 1, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    With reference to the disgusting personal attacks from those in the shooting industry, I see that (to my personal great pleasure) one of the main perpetrators of this shameful behaviour seems to have imploded recently.

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