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Conservation status of mountain hares: parliamentary questions lodged

As many of you will know, the mountain hare is listed on Annexe V of the EU Habitats Directive (1992), which requires member states to maintain this species in favourable conservation status.

As you’ll also know, the mountain hare is a legal quarry species in Scotland (during the open season of Aug-Feb) and is routinely culled on many grouse moors without any regulatory oversight. There have long been concerns about the sustainabilty of these large-scale culls and the grouse-shooting industry has been urged to undertake ‘voluntary restraint‘ – a pointless plea that so far seems to have been roundly ignored.

Dead mountain hares being transported on Farr Estate Feb 2017 (photo by Pete Walkden)

Earlier this year the charity OneKind published a summary report outlining many of the conservation and welfare concerns relating to the continued killing of this species (see here).

In May, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced that the issue of mountain hare culling would be addressed as part of her proposed review of grouse moor management (see here). We’ve yet to hear any more details about when this review might begin.

The Scottish Government has a legal obligation (under the Habitats Directive) to report to the EU on the health of the mountain hare population. Given that the Government has absolutely no idea what impact the mass culls have on the mountain hare population (because, unbelievably, there is no legal requirement for estates to provide cull return data to SNH outside the close season, and, there isn’t yet an agreed survey method for monitoring mountain hares), it would be interesting to know what SNH has been telling the EU.

Well, we’re about to find out thanks to a pertinent Parliamentary Question lodged by Alison Johnstone MSP:

Question S5W-11180: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scotish Green Party. Date lodged: 8/9/2017.

To ask the Scottish Government what reports it has made to the EU Commission in the last 10 years regarding the population status of mountain hares, and what summary conclusions these included regarding the species’ health.

Expected answer date: 26/9/2017.

We’ve previously blogged about this issue and have argued that we consider the current unregulated mass culling of mountain hares to be in breach of EU regulations (see here), mainly because in the absence of decent population data, it is impossible for SNH to assess whether the species is in favourable or unfavourable conservation status. So we’re very much looking forward to finding out if SNH has been telling the EU that Scotland’s mountain hare population is in favourable conservation status, and if so, on what evidence this claim has been made.

Alison has lodged two more related questions, also due to be answered on 26 Sept 2017:


To ask the Scottish Government, when it will publish its standardised counting method for mountain hare populations.


To ask the Scottish Government when Scotland’s Moorland Forum will publish its best practice guidance on the sustainable management of mountain hares, as part of the Principles of Moorland Management project.

Well done, and thanks, Alison.


Imagine that! Satellite tags continue to function after non-suspicious deaths of two hen harriers

This morning the RSPB announced that two of this year’s satellite-tagged hen harriers, Mannin & Grayse, had died in non-suspicious circumstances.

Both had been tagged at a nest on the Isle of Man in July 2017. Grayse was discovered dead on the island on 9th August. Her brother Mannin left the island on 14th August and made a failed attempt to cross the sea to the Galloway coast in SW Scotland. After ten days at sea, his body was found washed up on the Scottish shoreline on 24th August 2017.

Photo of Mannin & Grayse before they fledged (photo by James Leonard).

The bodies of both birds were submitted for post mortems, neither of which indicated their deaths were suspicious.

Although the deaths of these two harriers is disappointing, natural mortality is, well, natural and not unexpected.

What’s unusual about these two harriers is that their satellite tags continued to transmit data after the birds had died. That shouldn’t be a surprise, because that’s how these tags are designed to work and in most countries, that is how they work. Researchers are routinely able to use the data from the still-transmitting tags to locate the dead body and work out what happened to cause the animal’s death.

It seems it’s only in the UK, and particularly on grouse moors, where satellite tags on dead raptors routinely and abruptly stop transmitting, and vanish off the radar, along with the raptor’s corpse.

Funny, that.

The recent Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review found that this happened much more often in Scotland than in any other countries where the same tags are deployed (England was not included in the analysis because Natural England is still sitting on the tag data – probably because NE knows just how devastatingly embarrassing a data analysis of tagged hen harriers will be).


Raptor persecution highlighted as key concern in Yorkshire Dales National Park

Earlier this year the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority opened a public consultation to inform its next five-year Management Plan (2018-2023).

Residents and visitors were invited to submit comments on three open-ended questions:

  1. What do you love about the National Park?
  2. How do you think the National Park can be improved?
  3. What do you think are the three most important issues for the National Park Management Plan to tackle over the next five years?

Yesterday, the initial consultation results were published. Download the report:


Grouse moor in Yorkshire Dales National Park (photo by Ruth Tingay)

As you’d expect, a variety of concerns were raised relating to access, public transport, planning, farming, affordable housing and community services/sustainability. Two other concerns featured high on the agenda of residents and visitors alike – illegal raptor persecution and land management (with a particular focus on grouse moor management).

It’s no surprise. North Yorkshire (which includes the raptor persecution hotspots of the Yorkshire Dales National Park & the neighbouring Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) is consistently rated as one of the worst counties in the UK for reported raptor persecution crimes (e.g. see here).

Separate to this consultation, we were recently provided with an interesting bit of news from a local resident. Following the 2016 case of the Mossdale pole traps, where a gamekeeper employed on the Mossdale Estate in the National Park was filmed by the RSPB setting three illegal pole traps on a grouse moor (here) and who was erroneously let off with a police caution (here), the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority apparently received around 2,000 emails of complaint/concern. Not only that, but many local traders also contacted the Park Authority to express their concern about how the Park’s persistent reputation for illegal raptor persecution may damage their businesses.

It’s clear that people have had enough and are looking to the Park Authority to lead on this issue.

Is the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority up for the challenge? Well, we’ll see. The results of the public consultation will be used by the Park’s Management Plan Steering Committee to draft specific objectives for the new Management Plan, which should be published early next year.


GWCT twisting the truth about hen harrier persecution, again

A few days ago we blogged about a series of letters published in The Times (Scotland) relating to the disappearance of a young satellite-tagged hen harrier Calluna, who recently vanished after visiting a Deeside grouse moor.

Scottish Land & Estates used the incident as an opportunity to falsely accuse the RSPB of not following agreed protocols, presumably in a pathetic attempt to detract attention from the ongoing criminality associated with the driven grouse shooting industry. We’ve come to expect no better from this organisation.

As a follow on from those letters, another industry figure, Andrew Gilruth from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), decided to join in and spew out some more fakery, this time in The Times (London edition). Here’s what he wrote, published 7 Sept 2017:



The RSPB are right to say an organisation must not “ignore facts to suit its narrow agenda” (letter, Sep 5). The most productive location for hen harrier nests, 47 fledged young from 12 nests, was achieved by gamekeepers on Langholm Moor just three years ago. However, their improvement of the moorland habitat and protection of these ground nesting birds from foxes has now ended, because conservationists could not agree on how to also recover grouse numbers. Should hen harrier numbers drop to the two pairs there were before these gamekeepers arrived in 2008, the birds might ask who has the narrowest agenda.

Andrew Gilruth
Director of Communications
Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

You’ll notice how Andrew’s distraction technique has cleverly moved the story away from the news of Calluna’s suspicious disappearance from a grouse moor and has instead tried to re-focus the story on to how great grouse moors are for hen harriers. Unfortunately for Andrew, choosing the Langholm Moor study as an example to support this theory was not the brightest idea.

Here’s why, succinctly explained in a letter published in The Times (London) today:



Andrew Gilruth’s letter (September 7) brings to mind Kipling’s poem ‘If’ for the manner in which it twists the truth to make a trap for fools.

The single and only reason Langholm Moor supported 12 harrier nests that fledged 47 young was that the gamekeepers working on this collaborative demonstration project were under strict instructions not to kill them and operate within the law. It is very telling that no other driven grouse moors in Scotland (or the rest of the UK) can equal this hen harrier population or productivity. What this statistic actually suggests, therefore, is the rampant scale of illegal killing of this majestic bird, given its landscape-wide absence and the lack of breeding success on all other driven grouse moors and which our members, (who are licenced by Scottish Natural Heritage), monitor across Scotland every year.

Logan Steele

Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG)

Logan hits the nail on the head. If driven grouse moors are so great for breeding hen harriers, why are we seeing an almost total absence of breeding hen harriers on these moors, year after year after year? Of course, the disgusting truth is already well known.

Andrew Gilruth’s letter has been widely shared on social media by the criminal apologists and has been followed up with other examples of supposedly typical driven grouse moors that have good hen harrier breeding figures this year. Unfortunately, these people are as scientifically illiterate as Andrew Gilruth and have used wholly inappropriate examples to illustrate their (fake) claims, e.g. Leadhills Estate, which had nine hen harrier nests this year, but this estate hasn’t seen any driven grouse shooting for a number of years (see here). There are other claims of “an estate in Perthshire” with 12-15 hen harrier nests this year – the estate hasn’t been named (natch) but they might be referring to Atholl Estate, which these days is a pretty good estate with a sympathetic management approach to breeding raptors, but only offers walked-up grouse shooting, not driven grouse shooting, so any successfull hen harrier nests there this year cannot be attributed to driven grouse moor management. Sorry, trolls, you must try harder.

Anyway, getting back to the actual news, that hen harrier Calluna is the latest in a long, long, long, long line of satellite-tagged raptors that ‘disappear’ after visiting certain driven grouse moors, it’s been a week since the RSPB appealed for information.

We’ve been looking at the social media accounts of various shooting industry organisations to see how much effort these ‘leaders’ have put in to encouraging their members to pass on information to the police. You can probably guess what we found (or didn’t find). That tells its own story about the sincerity and commitment of the industry to rid itself of its dirty criminals. Mark Avery has a pretty good explanation about the industry’s refusal to reform (see here) and Andrew Gilruth’s chronic propaganda patter gives Mark’s theory much credence.


Hawk & Owl Trust still refusing to admit Hen Harrier Rowan was shot

This is hilarious.

In the latest edition of the Hawk & Owl Trust’s members magazine (Peregrine, No 106, Spring/Summer 2017) there’s an article entitled ‘The Hen Harrier – A Controversial Bird‘.

There’s a bit about their 2016 satellite-tagged hen harrier, Rowan:

“Three months after being tagged, Rowan’s satellite data indicated that something was awry. Stephen Murphy, Natural England’s authorised investigator, headed out to ascertain what was wrong. Rowan was dead and in circumstances that justified an autopsy. The findings were passed on to the police. The Hawk & Owl Trust has refrained from any further comment for fear of prejudicing the ongoing investigation”.

What nonsense.

As you’ll recall, Rowan was satellite-tagged by the Hawk & Owl Trust / Natural England at Langholm in 2016. His corpse was discovered, in suspicious circumstances, in Cumbria /Yorkshire Dales National Park in October 2016, shortly before the Westminster debate on banning driven grouse shooting.

press release issued by Cumbria Police (after consultation with Natural England and possibly the Hawk & Owl Trust) stated he was ‘likely to have been shot‘. We questioned that phrasing and a series of FoIs revealed that Cumbria Police had changed their statement from ‘was shot‘ to ‘was likely to have been shot‘. Why did they introduce an element of doubt? Was this a political move?

We asked Cumbria Police and Natural England to publish the post mortem report and the x-ray of Rowan’s corpse – they refused, saying it ‘might affect the course of justice‘. This made us even more suspicious as police forces routinely publish x-rays of shot birds as part of their appeals for information. By not publishing Rowan’s x-ray, it was almost as though they had something to hide.

Then on 3 February 2017, the RSPB published an image of Rowan’s x-ray on their blog. The image was clear: Rowan had suffered gun shot injuries to the leg and metal shot fragments were visible at the fracture site.

Later that day, the Hawk & Owl Trust issued a statement saying ‘the initial post mortem results were not wholly conclusive and further metallurgical tests were required‘.

We asked the Hawk & Owl Trust, several times, who had decided the post mortem results were inconclusive, who had decided that further metallurgical tests were required, had those tests been done, and if so, what were the findings?

The Hawk & Owl Trust did not respond.

So we submitted an FoI to Natural England, who confirmed that further metallurgical tests were not being undertaken.

Meanwhile, in the March edition of the RSPB’s Legal Eagle newsletter, it was stated that ‘the Zoological Society of London post mortem examination, including a radiograph of its fractured left leg, showed the bird’s injuries were entirely consistent with it having been shot‘.

You got that, Hawk & Owl Trust? Rowan was shot and this has been well publicised. This information will in no way ‘prejudice the ongoing investigation‘ because the investigation into this shot raptor, just like pretty much every other investigation in to a shot raptor, is going nowhere, thanks to a wall of silence from the grouse-shooting industry and organisations like the Hawk & Owl Trust propping up that industry with unwarranted encouragement.


Impromptu demo outside Scottish Parliament, Friday 1pm

In response to last week’s news about missing hen harrier Calluna, who disappeared from a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park just a few weeks after fledging, there will be a peaceful protest this Friday outside the Scottish Parliament against the continued persecution of hen harriers.

This demo is a spontaneous response, hastily organised by two ordinary members of the public who have had enough. They don’t have a large campaign fund behind them, nor the resources or experience of a campaigning charity – it’s just them, wanting to make their voices heard at the door of power.

It’s very short notice, but if you’ve had enough of hen harrier persecution and you’re able to support these two people they’ll be outside Holyrood between 1-2pm on Friday 8 September.




Scottish Land & Estates and their indefensible distortion of the truth

So, following RSPB Scotland’s recent appeal for information relating to the suspicious disappearance of hen harrier Calluna on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park, we’ve blogged a bit about the response given by landowners’ lobby group Scottish Land & Estates (SLE).

First of all we had SLE’s Chairman Lord David Johnstone (Dumfriesshire Dave) quoted in various newspapers on Friday 1 Sept as follows:

“Estates in the area have welcomed a number of hen harriers to the area during August and only today one moor reported three harriers. Local land managers reject the inference that the loss of signal from this tag is connected to grouse moor management and are now offering every assistance in searching the area where the last transmission was recordedThey are dismayed that they were not informed earlier that the tag had stopped transmitting nearly three weeks ago, as this would have assisted the search”.

Then on Saturday 2 Sept we had SLE Board member and Chairman of SLE’s north-east branch, David Fyffe, quoted in a Press & Journal article claiming that RSPB Scotland had not followed the agreed protocol as defined by the Partnership for Action on Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland) – a claim we exposed as being patently untrue. We argued that David Fyffe owed RSPB Scotland an apology.

Also on Saturday 2 September, the following letter appeared in The Times (Scotland edition) from Dumfriesshire Dave:


Sir, readers might well infer that the fate of Calluna, the missing satellite-tagged hen harrier, is linked to the management of grouse moors (report, Sept 1). Estates in the Deeside area are appalled at this idea. At this stage, no one knows what has happened to the bird. The problem with the “guilty until proven innocent” attitude taken by the RSPB is that it may be successful in smearing shooting estates but it fails to involve the very people who are best placed to help: land managers and gamekeepers.

The possibility of any species being killed deliberately or accidentally cannot be discounted, and we do not seek to deny that this happened on shooting estates previously. Equally, there have been various instances where sat-tags have stopped working and birds have reappeared later, as the RSPB itself has demonstrated at the Langholm project this year. The search would have been assisted greatly had land managers been informed around the time of Calluna’s disappearance.

David Johnstone, Chairman, Scottish Land & Estates

A response letter from RSPB Scotland has today been published in The Times:


Sir, David Johnstone of Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) is wrong to infer that our public appeal for information to find out the fate of a missing satellite tagged hen harrier “Calluna” is an attempt to smear the reputation of local shooting estates (Letter, Sept 2). The satellite tags used are extremely reliable, highlighted recently in a Scottish Government report on missing satellite tagged golden eagles. It is exceptionally rare for a tagged bird, whose tag was working perfectly normally, to simply disappear. When this happens it is rightly treated by the public authorities as highly suspicious, and PAWS (Partnership for Action on Wildlife Crime Scotland) protocols then dictate that local land managers should not be informed.

It is an indisputable fact that the vast majority of other missing satellite tagged raptors that have disappeared in suspicious circumstances have done so on land that is managed for driven grouse shooting. Despite overwhelming evidence to support this assertion, of which SLE is fully aware, they instead choose to ignore facts to suit its narrow agenda and “shoot the messenger”.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management, RSPB Scotland.

So far, so predictable. SLE using every opportunity to slag off the RSPB and by doing so, shift attention from the actual issue – that yet another sat-tagged raptor has disappeared on another grouse shooting estate.

But then this morning, the following statement appeared on SLE’s website, again attributed to Dumfriesshire Dave:

The statement looks basically to be the same one reported in the press last Friday, but there is an important additional sentence right at the end. Referring to the fact that local land managers were not informed at the time the tag had stopped working, Dumfriesshire Dave says:

All members of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime, including ourselves, agree that this is the recommended way of dealing with such incidents“.

Sorry, Dave, but there’s no sugar-coating this – that is a blatant lie. And a demonstrably blatant lie at that. Given that RSPB Scotland is also a member of the PAW partnership, and they clearly disagree with your statement, your claim is an indefensible distortion of the truth.

As we’ve pointed out several times on this blog, the PAW protocol is clear and RSPB Scotland has followed it to the letter.

The behaviour of Scottish Land & Estates is inexcusable and they owe RSPB Scotland a full apology. They also owe the other members of PAW Scotland an apology for misrepresenting the PAW position.

If a full apology is not forthcoming, the PAW Scotland Secretariat should reconsider SLE’s continued membership of this so-called partnership with a view to an immediate suspension, followed by a hearing to consider whether there are sufficient grounds for SLE’s removal from the group.

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