RSPB’s 2017 Birdcrime report documents ongoing illegal raptor persecution

The RSPB published its 2017 Birdcrime Report yesterday. It didn’t contain any surprises – we all know that crimes against birds of prey continued in 2017, and that these were largely associated with game-shooting estates.

The online report can be read here

The very useful appendices (actual data) can be accessed here

The RSPB’s interactive map hub (showing the spatial pattern of raptor crime) can be accessed here

We were particularly interested in the Scotland data, which amounted to just five confirmed, detected raptor persecution crimes. Quite obviously, this is just the tip of a large iceberg and is an indication of just how good the raptor killers have become at hiding the evidence of their crimes rather than an accurate reflection of the extent of ongoing raptor persecution – a fact recently acknowledged by Police Scotland (see here).

We know from the recent national survey results for three iconic species (golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine) that illegal persecution continues to suppress the populations of all three species in areas where the land is dominated for driven grouse shooting. We also know from the ongoing studies of satellite-tagged golden eagles, white-tailed eagles and hen harriers that these birds continue to ‘vanish’ in the same grouse moor areas. Unfortunately these cases don’t make it in to the official wildlife crime stats although both the police and the Scottish Government have acknowledged that they are indicative of criminality, hence the current Government-commissioned Werritty review in to grouse moor management.

Of the five confirmed cases of illegal raptor persecution in Scotland last year, two were linked to the Leadhills (Hopetoun) Estate in South Lanarkshire – the witnessed shooting of a hen harrier in May 2017 (here) and then a few weeks later the witnessed shooting of a short-eared owl (here). The crumpled body of the shot short-eared owl was retrieved from a ditch the following day and the RSPB sent it off for post mortem, which confirmed it had been shot, causing multiple fractures to its wing, leg, foot, ribs and skull.

[The short-eared owl shot on Leadhills Estate, photo by RSPB]

The police investigated both cases but no prosecutions followed. Earlier this year, a dead buzzard was found at Leadhills and it too had been shot but yet again, nobody was prosecuted (here).

For those familiar with the Leadhills (Hopetoun) Estate this will come as no surprise – there have been over 50 reported cases of raptor persecution crimes on or close to this estate since 2003 and of those, only two have resulted in a conviction (gamekeeper convicted in 2004 for shooting a short-eared owl; gamekeeper convicted in 2009 for laying out a poisoned bait).

This appalling failure to enforce the law was addressed by the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP, who instructed SNH to withdraw the use of the General Licence on estates where there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate raptor persecution crimes had occurred but insufficient evidence to progress a prosecution against a named individual. We’ve waited and waited and waited for SNH to impose a General Licence restriction on the Leadhills (Hopetoun) Estate for these recent shootings but so far, nothing. When we’ve asked SNH for an explanation, it has refused to comment, saying it’s not in the public interest for SNH to explain its decisions.

Meanwhile, Lord Hopetoun continues to serve as the Chair of the Scottish Moorland Group (a sub-group of Scottish Land & Estates) and whose Director, Tim (Kim) Baynes continues to serve on the PAW Scotland Raptor Group – you know the one – the pretend ‘partnership’, chaired by the Scottish Government, set up to tackle the illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors.

7 Responses to “RSPB’s 2017 Birdcrime report documents ongoing illegal raptor persecution”

  1. September 26, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    If people are wondering what “not in the public interest ” means can I suggest a meaning: The public would be horrified if we ever met them find this out.
    I particularly like that the data from last year is now on the map hub. I did wonder if it would appear. Well done RSPB.

  2. 2 Iain Gibson
    September 26, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    SNH seems to admit that much of their work is “not in the public interest.” Either they’re implying that they don’t do their jobs properly, or they’re attempting to conceal facts from the public. I’d say it’s in the public interest to pressure them into telling us what they mean by “not in the public interest.” They’ll probably use the excuse that they don’t reveal the meaning, because it isn’t in the public interest! Aren’t they supposed to be public servants?

  3. 3 Loki
    September 26, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Shouldn’t the public decide if it’s in the public interest or not? Can this be raised as a petition or a crowdfund for legal investigation? How convenient for SNH to decide what is or isn’t in the public interest to keep avoiding having to explain it itself.

  4. 4 Dave Dick
    September 26, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Just a suggestion..perhaps “not in the public interest” on this occasion means that SNH are afraid of the estates expensive lawyers and the cost of any action taken against them.?….welcome back to mediaeval Scotland.

  5. September 27, 2018 at 11:51 am

    I have looked at the data for Scotland again. There is an undoubted large reduction since 2015. To try to decide which are the major factors is not possible yet. However, these could be important:
    1.Even if there is no chance of a prosecution, the word may finally be getting through to the perpetrators, and more importantly, their bosses. They are more susceptible to concerns over prosecution and likely worried that their get out of jail free cards may perhaps not be so easily played as at present.
    2. There may be a recognition of the huge importance of not being detected being reflected in the data.
    3. Nest destruction (and likely not on the graphs raptor disturbance) may now be more preferred.
    It will be interesting to see the proportion of tagged birds “vanish no trace” in Scotland is also reducing which should give an indication as to whether the reduction is real. More easily viewed public data needed.
    If indeed the reduction in Scotland, where there is more willingness to effect legislation change, is real, it shows the necessity to act in the other home nations. The unwillingness of the present UK government even to accept that there is an issue makes that unlikely in England and Wales. As there is no NI government, no action is even possible at present.
    I’m not suggesting the present position in Scotland is acceptable, far from it, but it may hint that with more powerful legislation to remove “get out of jail free cards”, there is hope that the perpetrators and their bosses will call a halt at some point.

  6. 6 Iain Gibson
    September 28, 2018 at 4:54 am

    Alex, a few comments:

    1. This smacks slightly of “blame the workers, not the bosses.” I don’t mean this in a political sense, but in my experience the workers in most cases, i.e. the gamekeepers, are under strict instruction from their bosses, especially grouse moor managers, to eradicate all harriers without being caught. Not that they require any encouragement! The managers generally seem quite content to accept the casualty figures presented to them (in confidence, of course) on the keeper’s word alone. Also, there is a deep-rooted anti-harrier culture installed in the vast majority of gamekeepers (though they try to pretend not when challenged), which inspires a strong desire to “take care of” any harriers which establish territory on their patch.

    2. I agree, but this almost goes without saying.

    3. I don’t know the extent of your experience, but I really can’t imagine a gamekeeper visiting a nest to destroy it, and not shooting the incubating female. Harrier workers are experienced in finding feathers close to a disturbed nest, and have ways of detecting whether the feathers had been detached by a fox or by the bird being shot.

    The current situation on Scottish grouse moors is not significantly better than on English and Welsh grouse moors. We do have the advantage that a decent proportion of our harriers breed on moors and similar habitats which are not grouse moors.

    • September 28, 2018 at 10:51 am

      Iain, I agree with your analysis of my post, although not your assessment, which I cannot support as I don’t have data. There may well be other factors at play.
      The birdcrime report, although I do like the presentation, does make it more difficult to get actual numbers.
      Here are approximate figures for Scotland only totals
      2012 33 2013 34 2014 28 2015 28 2016 10 2017 5 The drop in the last 2 years is huge.
      The drops in 2016 and 2017 are more than significant, and are completely out of line with the figures for the other home nations, which do not show a dramatic fall. The drop in numbers cannot be denied.
      You state “The current situation on Scottish grouse moors is not significantly better than on English and Welsh grouse moors. We do have the advantage that a decent proportion of our harriers breed on moors and similar habitats which are not grouse moors.”
      Clearly this is not based on the RSPB figures, and is subjective in the extreme.
      We are used in Scotland to bodies such as SLE making claims which are not able to be substantiated. I hope I and others do not do the same.
      The Scottish Wildlife crime report for 2017 should be issued in early December.
      If it shows similar drops in detected raptor crime levels to those in the RSPB birdcrime report, I believe it would be a mistake to issue statements which fly in the face of data. It is reasonable, however, to give reasons why the figures show such great improvement. It might even be appropriate, if we cannot fully explain the drop in numbers, to congratulate the government and even the previous suspected supporters of criminals.
      My call for an annual figure for missing tagged bird no trace versus total number of tagged birds may resolve this. The proportion of tagged birds disappearing in Scotland versus the total number of live tagged birds everywhere is a valid number I believe on which to base an assessment. I would suggest either that the Scottish Government efforts are already bearing fruit, or it may be that the criminals are getting better at concealment or the other possible reasons I suggested. I don’t have the figures for tagged birds, but I’d like to have them before December, so that a fully reasoned response may be given. I don’t mind people congratulating SLE, the Scottish Government and others if congratulations are due, but I don’t have access to evidence at the moment to be happy to do that.

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