Archive for July, 2018

31
Jul
18

No successful breeding hen harriers on privately owned grouse moors in England, again

Natural England has today published a press release announcing a pathetic total of nine successful hen harrier nests in England this year, an increase from three nests last year and heralded by NE Chairman Andrew Sells as “truly remarkable” (see here).

No, what’s truly remarkable Andrew is that there are still a conservatively estimated 290 breeding pairs of hen harriers still missing from England, and many more still missing in Scotland!

[Photo from a nest camera, part of the Heads Up for Harriers Project in Scotland]

According to the convoluted NE press statement, which appears to have been written by someone determined to protect the reputation of the hen harrier-killing criminals, four of the successful nests were on National Nature Reserves (i.e. not grouse moors), and five were on grouse moors, although it then says that one of these five wasn’t actually on a grouse moor at all, but was on farmland next door, so that makes four successful nests on grouse moors.

The farmland nest is quite interesting – this is the one that the gamekeeper’s group Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group recently declared as being on a grouse moor, as did the National Gamekeepers Organisation. Not quite accurate, eh chaps? And isn’t the next-door grouse moor at the centre of a prosecution case just now, with a gamekeeper charged with the alleged shooting of raptors on that grouse moor? Ah yes, so it is.

When you look more closely at those four successful nests that were actually located on grouse moors, three of them were on United Utilities-owned land in Bowland, and the other one was on National Trust-owned land in the Peak District (the estate where the previous tenant was recently booted off after a gamekeeper was filmed there poised with his gun next to a hen harrier decoy). New tenants moved in earlier this year and hey presto! A pair of hen harriers is allowed to settle.

So, not a single successful hen harrier nest on a single privately owned grouse moor anywhere in northern England, again.

And yet, incredibly, in a joint press statement today The Moorland Association and the GWCT (the ‘scientists’ behind the ‘completely inadequate’ and ‘seriously flawed’ raven cull ‘study’) are ‘celebrating’ these results and claiming that this ‘success’ is largely down to DEFRA’s ‘revolutionary’ brood meddling licence ‘beginning to work’ (see here).

Eh? Beginning to work? It hasn’t even started as, for yet another year, there haven’t been enough (any!) successfully breeding hen harriers on privately owned grouse moors so no chicks have been available to be brood meddled.

With any luck, there won’t be any brood meddling next year either, as Mark Avery and the RSPB have both been given permission to proceed with their legal challenges in the High Court against brood meddling via a judicial review. Interestingly, Moorland Association Chair Amanda Anderson refers to these legal challenges in the joint press statement as “wasting court time and tax payers money“.

We wonder if she felt the same way about the judicial review brought by the game shooting industry a couple of years ago, challenging Natural England’s decision not to issue buzzard-killing licences to gamekeepers to protect pheasant stocks?

Anyway, we’ll remind her of this quote the next time a prosecution is brought to a thundering halt after a handsomely paid QC has wasted court time arguing about minor legal technicalities to ensure the case collapses against the latest gamekeeper accused of illegal raptor persecution on a grouse moor. We predict we won’t have long to wait….

Meanwhile, many of this year’s hen harrier chicks have been satellite-tagged. A handful by Natural England (so we’ll only have another 15 years to wait for find out their fates) but most of the tagging has been completed by the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project, so as we approach the start of the grouse-shooting season and head in to September, we can expect a steady stream of reports of the suspicious disappearance of many of this year’s cohort, predominantly on privately owned driven grouse moors.

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30
Jul
18

Voluntary suspension of raven cull is meaningless greenwash

Further to this morning’s news that the scientific justification behind SNH’s raven cull licence has been deemed ‘completely inadequate’ and that the gamekeepers have now undertaken a ‘voluntary suspension’ of the cull, this deserves more comment.

If you haven’t already done so, we urge you to read SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee’s (SAC) review of the science behind this raven cull licence. It is utterly and comprehensively damning of the so-called scientific justification and the methods employed.

It includes phrases such as ‘completely inadequate’, ‘will fail to provide any meaningful scientific evidence’, ‘the methodology cited has not been followed’ and ‘seriously flawed’. In fact, the word ‘flawed’ appears seven times in this report!

Read it HERE

Given that SNH issued this licence under the guise of it being ‘research’, the SAC’s condemnation of the ‘research’ methods and predicted ‘research’ outcomes should surely be enough for SNH to revoke this licence immediately.

But SNH hasn’t done this.

Instead, we learn that the gamekeepers have ‘voluntarily suspended’ the cull. That is quite a different beast to SNH suspending (or revoking) the licence.

In essence, the raven cull licence is still active, and will be until it expires on 31 December 2018 (unless SNH decides to revoke it). This means that the gamekeepers could abandon their voluntary suspension of the cull at any given time (because a voluntary suspension is not legally binding) and they could begin killing ravens again whenever they like and nobody could stop them because they’d still be operating under the terms of the licence.

Look at the contempt shown by the grouse shooting industry to calls for ‘voluntary restraint’ on mountain hare culling. The industry claimed it was cooperating but evidence on the ground suggested otherwise (e.g. see here).

SNH is not seriously asking us to trust the word of gamekeepers, surely?

What on earth is SNH playing at?

This ‘seriously flawed’ and ‘completely inadequate’ raven cull research licence needs to be revoked with immediate effect. SNH cannot possibly justify doing anything else.

30
Jul
18

Raven cull licence: scientific rigour ‘completely inadequate’ says SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee

There’s some welcome news this morning as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has been forced to admit its Strathbraan raven cull licence was ‘completely inadequate’ following a review by its own Scientific Advisory Committee.

[Raven photo by Dieter Schaeffer]

This controversial ‘research’ licence was issued earlier this spring to a bunch of predator-hating gamekeepers, on the pretence of ‘studying’ the impact of raven predation on wader populations. SNH argued that it was permitting the mass killing of ravens on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’ but this decision was widely condemned as having no scientific justification whatsoever. Many believed the licence had nothing to do with ‘protecting’ waders but everything to do with protecting red grouse stocks for the shooting season, especially as the cull area is dominated by driven grouse moors.

[Photos of Strathbraan, the heart of the raven cull area, taken in June 2018, by Ruth Tingay]

In the face of huge public anger (over 175,000 signatures on this petition) and criticism from various conservation organisations including the RSPB (here) and politicians (herehere, here), SNH asked its Scientific Advisory Committee to review the scientific justification of this licence. SNH was asked to suspend or revoke the licence while the review was underway but it refused to do so, and after several weeks of SNH consistently ducking and dodging legitimate questions, the Scottish Raptor Study Group was left with no option but to take the unprecedented step of launching a legal challenge in the form of a Judicial Review (see here) after a highly successful crowdfunding campaign helped raise sufficient funds.

This morning, SNH has published its Scientific Advisory Committee’s review (see link below) and has released an accompanying press release:

Update on Strathbraan licence to cull ravens

A report into Strathbraan Community work to support wader populations has been published today by Scottish Natural Heritage’s Scientific Advisory Committee.

Earlier this year, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) issued a licence to the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders (SCCW) to control ravens in order to reduce impacts on nesting waders, which are in marked decline nationally.

Following concerns, SNH commissioned its Scientific Advisory Committee to review the methodology of the study. The Committee has found it to be inadequate to provide robust scientific conclusions and advised on ways in which the scientific rigour of the study can be improved.

SNH has agreed to ensure these terms are part of any licenced raven control going forward and the SCCW have voluntarily suspended the cull until revised monitoring arrangements are in place.

A specific Scientific Advisory Group will now be created to assist the project and will include members from the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The group will advise on further methods and analytical work required including:

  • Monitoring the full range of factors which could be impacting wader bird numbers and productivity;
  • Developing the way data are collected and analysed – including using cameras to monitor nests;
  • Making sure that the work is linked to the wider conservation programme Working for Waders.

Professor Des Thompson, Principal Scientific Adviser on science and biodiversity at Scottish Natural Heritage, said:

Populations of curlew and lapwing in Scotland have more than halved over the past 20 years. We are rapidly reaching crisis point and we need to take action. After all, the Curlew is one of our most rapidly declining of all our breeding bird species in the UK.

Our Scientific Advisory Committee has provided us with a detailed assessment and very helpful pointers to further work at Strathbraan and more widely. In particular, the Committee notes that more needs to be done to understand the effects of predation by ravens and other factors in driving down wader numbers.

We need to learn from this trial, and the experience and knowledge gained, and move on to develop advice and support for action on the ground to benefit waders.  Having a Scientific Advisory Group will be a huge help in developing the work.

SNH welcomes the decision by the Strathbraan Community Group to suspend the cull for the rest of this year.”

ENDS

SNH Scientific Advisory Committee’s review of the raven cull licence can be downloaded here:

SAC Review of Strathbraan licenced raven killing trial

It’s perhaps no coincidence that SNH has published this today. Today just happens to be the deadline for SNH’s lawyers to respond to the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s application for judicial review.

We haven’t had time to read the Scientific Committee’s Review yet but we will be reading it in detail today. Here are just a few initial thoughts after reading SNH’s press release:

Gosh, who would have thought that issuing a licence to kill ravens on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’ would be considered ‘completely inadequate? Well, pretty much everybody except the so-called scientific experts at SNH, the so-called scientific experts at GWCT who designed this ‘study’, and members of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association who don’t really go in for science, just for killing stuff.

The Scientific Advisory Committee’s condemnation of this licence was fully expected. It’s good that SNH has now finally accepted this expert opinion but it could have avoided having to make this embarrassing climb down if it had consulted these experts BEFORE issuing the licence, instead of several weeks after the killing had begun. It beggars belief that the government’s statutory scientific conservation agency issued this licence based on the old wives tales spun by gamekeepers instead of seeking the opinions of well-respected professional scientists.

We note with interest that SNH will now form a specific scientific advisory group to oversee the ongoing cull, but that it will invite GWCT to serve on that group. Eh? GWCT ‘scientists’ designed this ‘completely inadequate’ study and yet they’ll now be playing a role on a scientific advisory group? That’s just plain bonkers.

We also note with interest that the Scottish Raptor Study Group remains excluded from this whole process, despite having a long-term interest and expertise in raven population monitoring in Strathbraan. Hmm.

We also note that the gamekeepers (masquerading under the name of the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders) have ‘voluntarily suspended’ the cull until adequate amendments are made. That’s a very interesting move. Of course they’ve agreed to voluntarily suspend the cull – they’ve already declared the cull ‘a success’ (and thought that waving a couple of wader chicks infront of a camera was evidence of this!). By ‘voluntarily’ suspending the killing the group probably seeks to portray itself as being cooperatively concerned – the question remains, however, why didn’t SNH formally revoke the licence after its own Scientific Advisory Committee pronounced the scientific justification for this licence as being ‘completely inadequate’?

It’s important to note here that although the gamekeepers have voluntarily suspended the cull, the licence itself is still legally active until 31 December 2018 because SNH has still not revoked it. This means that the gamekeepers could continue with their raven cull at any time (because a voluntary suspension is not legally enforceable) and none of us would be any the wiser.

So, where does this leave the application for a judicial review? No doubt the Scottish Raptor Study Group will be taking further legal advice in light of today’s announcement. It could be argued that the Scientific Advisory Committee’s findings completely vindicate the legal challenge, and this should be seen as a significant ‘win’. However, the legal challenge involved several areas of concern, not least the total exclusion of the Scottish Raptor Study Group in the decision-making process, and that issue does not appear to have been resolved by today’s announcement.

Watch this space.

To read all our previous blogs about the raven cull licence please click here

UPDATE 13.40hrs: Voluntary suspension of raven cull is meaningless greenwash (here)

27
Jul
18

Angus Glens Moorland Group downplays significance of missing satellite-tagged raptors

There was an article in yesterday’s Courier (here) highlighting the “impoverished” status of wildlife in the Angus Glens.

This claim was made by Ian Thomson (Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland) and an unnamed investigator from the SSPCA in relation to the number of vacant breeding territories for hen harrier, the number of satellite-tagged raptors that have ‘disappeared’ in the area, and the number of indiscriminate traps laid out to kill wildlife in order to protect red grouse for shooting parties.

Head gamekeeper’s wife Leanne MacLennan, coordinator of the Angus Glens Moorland Group (AGMG) dismissed the claims and made two extraordinary statements. Here’s the first:

There is a welcome sea change in these glens and members of the Angus Glens Moorland Group will continue to move on, if others can’t“.

By claiming that AGMG members (gamekeepers) have “moved on”, she’s surely not suggesting that they had anything to do with the long, long history of illegal raptor persecution for which the Angus Glens have become notorious, is she?

For as long as we can remember, gamekeepers have denied any involvement with any of these crimes (even though banned lethal poisons were found on game bags used by estate staff, according to this article) and nobody has ever been prosecuted for these offences so how can Lianne now claim a “sea change” if she doesn’t know who was responsible for those crimes? It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?

[Photo of golden eagle Fearnan, found poisoned on an Angus Glens grouse moor, photo by RSPB Scotland]

Lianne’s second extraordinary statement was this:

There have been no confirmed incidents of criminality towards protected species in this area for several years, despite attempts at speculation“.

What a fascinating claim.

If the claim is based on the number of raptor corpses found containing lead shot or lethal poison or having horrific injuries consistent with being caught in an illegally-set spring trap, then yes, you might argue that, superficially at least, things appear to have improved.

However, if you’ve got even a moderate understanding of the issue you’ll understand that across the UK, those mystery people who kill raptors on grouse moors have simply changed tactics to avoid detection (less poisoning and more shooting in the dead of night using military grade night vision and thermal imaging equipment) and they’re now much more savvy about hiding the physical evidence of their crimes, in which case you’d treat Lianne’s claim with the contempt it deserves.

What Lianne dismisses as “speculation”, the Scottish Government has accepted as strong evidence of continued raptor persecution. The so-called ‘speculative’ incidents are, of course, the findings of the Government-commissioned review on the fate of satellite-tagged golden eagles, published just last year, which identified the Angus Glens as one of six grouse moor hotspots where satellite-tagged golden eagles keep vanishing. Rather than refering to these findings as ‘speculation’, Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham refered to them as follows:

The findings of this research are deeply concerning and will give rise to legitimate concerns that high numbers of golden eagles, and other birds of prey, continue to be killed in Scotland each year” (see here).

Here’s a map based on the findings of that report showing the satellite-tagged golden eagles that have either been found illegally killed or have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in the Angus Glens. These include two golden eagles that were found poisoned, one that was caught in an illegally-set trap (and then transported and dumped elsewhere overnight), four eagles that have vanished, and one tag that had been cut from an eagle and ‘stabbed’ with a sharp instrument.

The map doesn’t include records of other satellite-tagged raptors that have also ‘disappeared’ in the Angus Glens in recent years, including two red kites and at least one hen harrier, Saorsa, who vanished in February this year.

We suspect that other satellite-tagged raptors may have also vanished in the Angus Glens in the last two years but strangely, nobody wants to talk about it. Our suspicions have been raised by SNH’s responses to various FoI questions about satellite-tagged raptors in the Angus Glens (basically they’re refusing to discuss the issue, even in very broad terms). We will continue to pursue other lines of enquiry to get to the bottom of who’s covering up what, and why.

And talking of a lack of transparency, there’s the recent news of a dead red kite that was found by a member of the public on an Angus Glens grouse moor and was reportedly collected by a gamekeeper. Recent questions about this red kite (see here) remain unanswered. Did the gamekeeper submit the corpse for a post mortem so that the cause of death could be established? If so, where was it submitted and what were the findings? If it wasn’t submitted, why not, and where is the corpse now?

But it’s not just disappearing satellite-tagged raptors that provide us with such a clear indication of on-going illegal persecution. You only have to look at the findings of recent regional and national surveys, particularly for golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines, to see these species continue to remain absent from large numbers of breeding territories on grouse moors in central, eastern and southern Scotland.

What’s that saying? ‘They can hide the bodies, they can hide the tags, but they can’t hide the pattern’ (Dr Hugh Webster).

[‘They’ being the unidentified mystery raptor killers, natch]

26
Jul
18

Scottish gamekeeper charged with wildlife crime offences

Over the last few days we’ve been hearing from various sources about a long list of charges made against a gamekeeper from an estate in the Scottish Borders, in relation to alleged wildlife crimes.

This afternoon we contacted Police Scotland for details and confirmation. A spokeswoman responded very quickly (thanks!) and told us this:

A 59-year-old man has been charged in connection with wildlife crime offences at a rural estate in the Scottish Borders. A report will be submitted to the Procurator Fiscal and he is expected to appear in court at a later date”.

Good. We look forward to the details being published in full.

25
Jul
18

Kestrel is latest victim of ‘vermin’ trap on grouse moor

We’ve blogged a bit recently about wildlife that has been caught/killed in traps set by gamekeepers on grouse moors (e.g. see here, here).

These traps are used to kill so-called ‘vermin’ (e.g. stoats and weasels) but we’ve seen plenty of evidence of non-target species also being trapped and killed (e.g. red squirrel, song thrush, mistle thrush, pied wagtail, red grouse, rabbits, ring ouzel).

Here’s another victim – a kestrel this time.

Thanks to the blog reader who sent us the following post from the Walkhighlands forum:

This incident took place on a grouse moor in south Scotland. We contacted the SSPCA for information on the fate of this kestrel. An SSPCA undercover inspector said:

We can confirm that we responded to a call from a member of the public regarding a kestrel that had been reportedly removed from a trap.

Unfortunately due to the severity of the injuries and to prevent further suffering the kestrel had to be put to sleep“.

We understand an investigation is underway to determine whether the trap was set legally or illegally.

24
Jul
18

Satellite-tagged hen harrier Lia found dead in suspicious circumstances

The RSPB has reported the suspicious death of yet another satellite-tagged hen harrier.

‘Lia’ was tagged at a nest in north Wales in 2017 and after fledging she spent a bit of time in the Brecon Beacons National Park before a brief sojourn to Somerset, and then had returned to settle in mid-Wales.

[Photo of Lia by Guy Anderson]

In May this year the engineering data from her tag indicated she was dead and the RSPB located her decomposed corpse in a sheep field near the village of Tylwch, south of Llanidloes, an area with an apparent history of illegal raptor persecution.

[Location map from RSPB]:

Lia’s corpse was sent to the Zoological Society of London for a post mortem. Unfortunately a cause of death couldn’t be established but the vets did detect a fractured tail feather.

[Photo of fractured tail feather, via RSPB]:

ZSL’s post mortem report stated that fractures of this type “have previously been found in a hen harrier proven to have been shot with ammunition (Hopkins et al 2015). No other signs of shooting were detected in this bird“.

The Hopkins et al (2015) paper related to a pioneering forensic examination of Bowland Betty (a hen harrier found shot on a Swinton Estate grouse moor in Yorkshire’s Nidderdale AONB in 2012) that detected a tiny fragment of lead which confirmed she had been shot, confounding the protests of the Countryside Alliance.

Although Lia’s cause of death was inconclusive, Dyfed Powys Police have been treating it as suspicious and are investigating.

For further details of Lia’s demise, please read the RSPB’s latest Skydancer blog here




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