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New study reveals shocking decline of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors

[Photo shows shot mountain hares, dumped and left to rot on Glenogil Estate in the Angus Glens. Photo by OneKind]

Press release from RSPB Scotland (14 August 2018):


New study shows mammals at less than one per cent of original levels

Mountain hare numbers on moorlands in the eastern Highlands have declined to less than one per cent of their initial levels, according to a newly published long-term scientific study.

Counts of mountain hares from six decades of consistent spring counts on moorland managed for red grouse shooting and on neighbouring mountain land were analysed in the research by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB.

From 1954 to 1999 the mountain hare population on moorland sites decreased by nearly 5% every year. This long-term moorland decline is likely to be due to land use changes such as the loss of grouse moors to conifer forests, and is reflective of wider population declines that mountain hares are facing across their range.

However, from 1999 to 2017 the scale of the moorland declines increased dramatically to over 30% every year, leading to counts in 2017 of less than one per cent of original levels in 1954.

[Graphs from the study give a vivid illustration of the dramatic decline of mountain hares on the study’s grouse moors from 1999 onwards]

The dominant land use in these sites was intensive grouse moor management.  Here, the unregulated practice of hare culling as a form of disease control, ostensibly to benefit red grouse, has become part of the management of many estates since the 1990s, despite the absence of evidence that it has any beneficial impact on total numbers of grouse shot.

On higher, alpine sites numbers of mountain hares fluctuated greatly, but increased overall until 2007, and then declined, although not to the unprecedented lows seen on moorland sites.

The Mountain hare is the UK’s only native hare and was listed as Near Threatened in a recent review by the Mammal Society indicating that the species is of conservation concern in the UK.

[Photo of a blood-soaked mountain hare dumped on Glenogil Estate, Angus Glens. Photo by OneKind]

Dr Adam Watson, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who was lead author of the work, comments:  “Having reached the age of 88 I am both delighted and relieved to see this paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.  Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern.  We need the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill – I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research

Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB’s Head of Conservation Science in Scotland who assisted in analysis of the data, said: “It has been an honour to support Dr Watson in the analysis of his extraordinary long-term data set.  These data reveal severe recent declines on grouse moors that are strongly correlated with the start of mountain hare culls for which there is no clear scientific justification.  Urgent action is needed if the future conservation status of mountain hares is to be secure.”

Duncan Orr Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland said: “The mountain hare is a keystone native species of the Scottish uplands. This authoritative research suggests that we should be very concerned about its population status in its former strongholds. We consider that large-scale population reduction culls are both illegal under EU law and unwarranted as a method for controlling grouse disease.

Management of this species should now be more tightly controlled by Scottish Natural Heritage to safeguard mountain hare populations. We expect this subject to be given thorough consideration by the current independent grouse moor enquiry, which is looking at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law.”


The full paper citation: Watson, A. and Wilson, J. (2018). Seven decades of mountain hare counts show severe declines where high-yield recreational game bird hunting is practised. Journal of Applied Ecology. [UPDATE 8am: Now available to read in full here]

Unfortunately we’re not allowed to publish the paper in full but here’s the abstract:

Amusingly, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s response to these damning results is a pathetic attempt to discredit the study by claiming, “Many of the gamekeepers in the survey area didn’t see the author undertake counts, even when they were working in these areas daily“.

The response from Scottish Land & Estates (issued via Media House!) isn’t much better: “We are perplexed that the author of this report did not seek to get data from moorland managers“. Er, that’s probably because Dr Watson knows that gamekeepers’ data aren’t exactly reliable and besides, he was collecting his own data, using a consistent method, for 70 years.

SLE’s press statement continues: “It will, however, come as little surprise that RSPB Scotland has chosen to release this paper, continuing its political campaigning against grouse moor management, on the day that the season gets underway and it is obviously an attempt to influence the ongoing independent review of grouse shooting which includes mountain hare management“. They’re such hypocrites, given what they published on Monday, blatantly timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season!

Anyway, back to more important and relevant matters…..

Under the European Union’s Habitats Directive the Scottish Government has a legal duty to maintain mountain hare populations in a state of good health. In 2014 SNH called for a period of voluntary restraint on hare culls. Data from this study shows that declines continued in many areas despite this period of “restraint”.

In 2015 and 2017 ten environmental NGOs, led by RSPB Scotland, called for a moratorium on mountain hare culls until further information could be obtained to prove that populations were healthy and sustainable. The Scottish Government did not enact this moratorium with the reasoning that there was a lack of evidence to prove that populations were declining.

In 2016, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, in answer to a Parliamentary Question from Alison Johnstone MSP, stated:

If evidence emerges that large-scale culls are continuing, the Scottish Government will consider the case for tightening regulation of this issue.

Also in 2016, Roseanna addressed a OneKind rally outside the Scottish Parliament and said the Scottish Government opposes mass culls, that legislation to protect mountain hares has not been ruled out, but that the Government needs evidence before it can act.

Earlier this year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in Parliament that the brutal, military style mass culling of mountain hares on grouse moors was “not acceptableafter seeing video footage from OneKind, League Against Cruel Sports and Lush.

The time for talking has ended. The shocking results of this new scientific study cannot be ignored.

Please join 15,000 people and sign OneKind’s open letter to the Scottish Government and SNH calling for an end to this barbaric unregulated slaughter.

UPDATE 20.30hrs: Scottish Land & Estates admits it needs help to interpret scientific data (here)


More shameless Hen Harrier propaganda from Scottish Land & Estates

It’s no coincidence that on the opening day of the grouse shooting season, and the day after Hen Harrier Day, Scottish Land & Estates (SLE, the landowners’ lobby group) has come out with more fake news about how shooting estates are “committed” to hen harrier conservation.

You might have seen a couple of articles about this in the press today, including in The Times (here, but behind a paywall) and in The Express (here, not behind a paywall and virtually identical to the article in The Times so you might as well read this one).

Fortunately, the journalists writing these articles didn’t rely solely on the press release from SLE (see below) but instead did their own research and included information about the illegal persecution of hen harriers on grouse moors, the long-term population decline in hen harriers, and also added a bit about the Scottish Government’s commissioned review on grouse moor management following the damning findings of the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review, which demonstrated 31 of 141 sat-tagged golden eagles had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on driven grouse moors.

It is indeed fortunate that the journalists did their own homework instead of simply cutting & pasting SLE’s press release, because if they hadn’t, this tosh is what would have appeared in today’s papers. Thanks to the journalist who sent us a copy:

Either SLE hasn’t read/understood the scientific papers and reports on this issue, or it has read/understood them but has chosen to ignore the findings and instead publish a load of made-up nonsense in a desperate attempt to mislead the public about how great grouse moors are for raptor conservation. Actually, we know that SLE has read/understood the papers because Tim (Kim) Baynes of SLE is quoted in this BBC article last year as saying the most recent population decline in hen harriers was ‘disappointing’.

Hen harrier numbers in Scotland HAVE NOTremained static“, as SLE claims. The last national survey (2016) revealed the Scottish hen harrier population has suffered a decline of 27% since the 2004 national survey. That’s over a quarter of the population gone in twelve years. In what way can that possibly be described as “remaining static“?

There is also no evidence whatsoever that “raptor crime of all types has been dropping steadily” and that “real progress has been made“, as SLE claims. What we do have is evidence of the continued suppression of various raptor species on land managed for driven grouse shooting as revealed by national and regional surveys (e.g. red kitehen harrier, golden eagle, peregrine), and evidence that the raptor killers have changed their tactics, no longer relying so much on the use of illegal poisoned baits (which are easy to detect) but instead preferring to shoot these raptors and then quickly remove the evidence, although if the shot raptor is carrying a satellite tag, the associated data evidence is impossible for the criminals to hide. Does this recent tally of ‘missing’ sat tagged raptors, just in the space of the last year, look like “real progress has been made“?

And as for SLE’s claim that golden eagles “thrive” on grouse moors – it’s a well-rehearsed claim that was rightly condemned by the RSPB as “risible, make-believe tosh” the last time it was made in 2016 (see here). And of course since then the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review has shown that golden eagles are 25 times more likely to suddenly and inexplicably ‘disappear’ in highly suspicious circumstances on some driven grouse moors than anywhere else in the world.

How on earth does SLE (and it’s associated bodies such as the Scottish Moorland Group and the Gift of Grouse) keep getting away with publishing such drivel?

The Heads up for Hen Harriers project is supposedly a partnership – do the rest of the partners (PAW Scotland Raptor Group and all its members, and SNH) support these false claims? If not, why aren’t those partner organisations saying something about this? Why hasn’t SLE been booted off this ‘partnership’?

And speaking of the Heads up for Hen Harriers project, you may remember we’ve blogged extensively about this partnership sham, and it was slammed in Parliament by Andy Wightman MSP as “a greenwashing exercise” (see here).

We blogged last December about some of our concerns about the claims being made about this project (see here) but we needed to do a bit more research to confirm our suspicions. We haven’t forgotten about this; we’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get some information out of SNH via a series of FoIs but SNH has consistently refused to provide the requested information. So we’ve had to do some fact checking via various different routes, which has been time-consuming, but we’re just about there. We intend to blog about our findings shortly, and it doesn’t look good for either SLE or SNH.


Michael Gove accused of letting grouse moor owners off the hook

There’s a fascinating article in The Guardian today about how the UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, appears to have held a secret meeting with wealthy grouse moor owners to encourage them to voluntarily end controversial heather burning to head off a threat of a compulsory ban by the European Commission.

Have a read of the Guardian article (here) and then have a look at this blog on the website Who Owns England, written by environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole, whose painstaking research is revealing quite a lot about grouse moor ownership in England, including the detail behind today’s headline story.

Aside from the newsworthiness of Michael Gove’s apparent interest in protecting grouse moor owners from the potential constraints of European environmental protection regulation, there’s something else very interesting about this story, as referenced by Mark Avery this morning.

Earlier this year (March), Mark submitted several FoIs to DEFRA to ask whether Michael Gove had met with Teresa Dent (GWCT), Ian Coghill (GWCT), Nick Downshire (Jervaulx Moor) and Amanda Anderson (Moorland Association). DEFRA’s response was a bit odd – agreeing that a meeting had taken place with Teresa Dent but apparently not with the other three (see Mark’s blog here for details).

Now, have a look at the redacted list of attendees at this meeting with Michael Gove to discuss a voluntary end to heather burning, which took place on 1 February 2018 (i.e. BEFORE Mark submitted his FoI):

It’s not very helpful, is it? What is helpful though, is that whoever undertook this redaction exercise didn’t do a very good job because if you cut and paste the text in to a WORD doc, the redacted names can be seen:

Ian Coghill’s name isn’t on the list of attendees, but Nick Downshire’s name is there, as is Amanda Anderson’s. Imagine that! Mark Avery says he’s going back to DEFRA to ask for an explanation about their ‘forgetfulness’.

Another interesting angle to today’s headline story is this notion of ‘voluntary’ action. This is becoming quite a theme for grouse moor management, isn’t it? We’ve seen the so-called ‘voluntary restraint’ on the mass slaughter of mountain hares on grouse moors in Scotland (not working), the so-called voluntary regulation of game shoot management in the form of the British Game Alliance (not fit for purpose, see here and here), the recent ‘voluntary suspension’ by Strathbraan gamekeepers on killing ravens (pointless, as the waders whose chicks they were supposedly protecting have finished breeding for this year anyway), and now a ‘voluntary end’ to environmentally damaging heather burning on grouse moors.

The common demoninator in all this ‘voluntary’ action is that none of it is legally binding. So if any of these practices were to continue (and we know some of them are), the enforcement authorities wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it. Meanwhile, the grouse shooting industry and the Westminster & Scottish Governments can all pretend that grouse moor managers are truly responsible curators of the countryside, as evidenced by their ‘voluntary self-regulation’, so there’s no need to bring in any legislation to control their clearly unsustainable practices.

Great, isn’t it?


A Hen Harrier Day poem

This poem was delivered at the Hen Harrier Day event at the RSPB’s superb Rainham Marshes reserve yesterday and a number of people have suggested it should be posted on this blog.

[Photo by Alan Shearman from his blog about Rainham Hen Harrier Day 2018]


by Ruth Tingay

2014 is when it all began

Amidst Hurricane Bertha at the Derwent Dam

There was a bloke called Avery and a bloke called Packham

And the Sodden 570, united in passion.


We arrived as strangers but left as friends

Determined to bring the killing to end

To protect our skydancer from the guns and the traps

And the murderous intent of the men in tweed caps


There were only four nests in England that year

The grouse shooters toasting success with a sneer

But to underestimate us was their biggest mistake

We are defiant and strong and we’ll do what it takes


These rallies and banners are just the beginning

There’s a long way to go but we know about winning

They can hurl their abuse and call us all liars

We don’t give a damn ‘cos our bellies have fire


We’ve come a long way since that very first rally

Westminster, the papers, all over the telly

We’ve changed the narrative and people are listening

Grouse shooting no longer all shiny and glistening


We’re exposing their fiction, their greed and their crimes

Their friends in high places all wilfully blind

Nine nests this year and we’re supposed to be pleased

Our hen harrier population, brought to its knees


You can keep your fake partnerships and your grouse-shooting peers

Your Gilruths, Amandas and your crocodile tears

Stuff your brood meddling right up your arse

We know what you’re up to and we know it’s a farce


There’s progress in Scotland and the grousers are fearful

That’s reason enough for us to be cheerful

So raise up your banners, keep singing our song

By standing together we won’t go wrong



The event was superbly organised by Lisa Mobley and her team of volunteers. Other speakers included Mark Avery, Natalie Bennett, Martin Harper, Chris Packham and Barry Gardiner MP. The presentations were filmed by PJS Films and can be viewed HERE.

Other Hen Harrier Day events took place on Saturday and there are more being held today, the Inglorious 12th. Find the one closest to you HERE.

[Photo from Hen Harrier Day 2018 at RSPB Rainham Marshes by @RSPBUrban]


Case against grouse moor gamekeeper Timothy Cowin: part 4

Criminal proceedings continued last Monday (6 August 2018) against grouse moor gamekeeper Timothy Cowin, who is accused of a series of alleged wildlife crimes, including the shooting of two short-eared owls in April 2017 at Whernside, Cumbria in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is further alleged he was in possession of items (a shotgun and an electronic calling device) capable of being used to kill wild birds.

Since court proceedings against Mr Cowin began six months ago, this case has been dragged around a number of magistrates courts in the NW of England. It’s been quite astonishing:

The first court hearing took place at Lancaster Magistrates Court on 27 February 2018.

[Lancaster Magistrates Court, photo by Ruth Tingay]

Mr Cowin’s solicitor, Michael Kenyon, requested an adjournment and no plea was entered. The defence also requested that the case be heard by a District Judge instead of a panel of magistrates (a District Judge is legally-qualified, usually a former solicitor or barrister, whereas magistrates are non-legally qualified volunteers who depend on a qualified legal advisor in the court to direct them on the relevant law). The defence’s request was granted.

The next court hearing took place at Preston Magistrates Court on 16 March 2018 for a case management hearing in front of District Judge Goodwin (the same judge who presided over the Bleasdale peregrine case).

[Preston Magistrates Court, photo by Ruth Tingay]

This was a farcical hearing that we blogged about at the time (see here). No plea was entered by the defendant and his solicitor argued that the case should be thrown out on legal technicalities because he claimed some of the witness statements were incorrectly dated and some of the procedural paperwork was “defective in its wording”.

The case was adjourned and District Judge Goodwin suggested the case be moved to Blackpool to be heard by another District Judge (DJ Chalk) as DJ Goodwin thought she might be away and didn’t want to delay future proceedings.

The case duly moved to Blackpool Magistrates Court and was due to be heard there on 11 May 2018. However, the case was adjourned again.

[Blackpool Magistrates Court, photo by Ruth Tingay]

The case was scheduled to continue at Blackpool Magistrates Court on 16 July 2018. However, the DJ was unwell so the hearing was cancelled a few days earlier. The court admin managed to get this information to the defence team in time but failed to notify the prosecution team, who all duly turned up in Blackpool only to be told the case wasn’t running that day after all!

Later in July, according to a court clerk, District Judge Chalk appears to have reviewed the legal arguments in private chambers at Carlisle Magistrates Court.

[Carlisle Magistrates Court, photographer unknown]

A further case hearing was scheduled for 6 August 2018, this time at Barrow-in-Furness Magistrates Court. This hearing did go ahead and legal argument was finally heard. District Judge Chalk apparently ruled in favour of the Crown Prosecution Service.

[Barrow-in-Furness Magistrates Court, photo by Alamy]

After the District Judge’s ruling in favour of the CPS, the defendant entered a not guilty plea. The next court hearing is expected to take place later this month, possibly back in Blackpool.


Police investigate suspicious death of breeding peregrine pair

Irish police, in conjunction with the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) are appealing for information following the discovery of two dead adult peregrines found on their nest ledge in Co Louth in the Irish Republic.

Staff from the NPWS recovered the two dead peregrines, along with three eggs, from a remote nest site in the Cooley Mountains.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said the adult falcons were killed while trying to incubate their eggs and that ‘forensic and other evidence was being gathered in the expectation that a successful prosecution will take place’.

In the expectation that a successful prosecution will take place‘? That’s a strange and optimistic claim but perhaps they already know more than they’re letting on – the cause of death, if it’s been established, has not been revealed in any media reports about this case.

Anyone with information can contact gardaí (police) in Dundalk on 042-9388400 or the local conservation ranger on 076-1002637.

The appeal for information appeared in the Irish Times on Wednesday 8 August 2018 (see here)


Moorland Association’s response to peregrine persecution on Bleasdale grouse moor

The Moorland Association’s response to the RSPB video published on Wednesday is an interesting read.

For new blog readers, the Moorland Association is a lobby group representing the interests of grouse moor owners in England.

Here’s the video again, for those who might have missed it, showing an unidentified individual attending a peregrine nest site where an adult male peregrine had been caught in a spring trap on the nest ledge, and where it thrashed around for over ten hours in a desperate attempt to escape before finally being removed by the unidentified individual. We believe this nest site to have been located on a grouse moor on the Bleasdale Estate in Bowland in April 2016 and that the video footage published by the RSPB related to the prosecution of a Bleasdale Estate gamekeeper – a case that collapsed in April this year due to a series of legal technicalities.

Here’s the Moorland Association’s statement in response to the publication of this video nasty:

The opening line is astonishing: “The suffering of the Peregrine in the RSPB blog is barbaric and abhorrent“.

The peregrine didn’t suffer “in the RSPB blog”, it suffered at its nest site on a driven grouse moor.

A more sincere and accurate Moorland Association statement might have looked like this: “The suffering of the Peregrine in the illegally-set trap that was positioned at the Peregrine’s nest site on a grouse moor on the Bleasdale Estate, a Moorland Association member, is barbaric and abhorrent“.

The rest of the Moorland Association’s statement deflects attention away from the peregrine’s suffering as a result of this crime and instead focuses on trying to undermine the integrity and credibility of the RSPB, as we’ve come to expect.

Not only did the Moorland Association ignore the fact this peregrine suffered on a driven grouse moor (the words ‘grouse moor’ don’t appear anywhere in the MA’s statement!), but it also carefully sidestepped the fact that the grouse moor in question was, at least at the time this footage (and the peregrine) was captured, a Moorland Association member.

How do we know that? Well, as we blogged back in April 2018 when the court case collapsed (see here), in April 2016 when the alleged offences took place, the owner of the Bleasdale Estate was one Jeremy Duckworth, who also happened to be a Director and Regional Representative of the Moorland Association. Here’s a screengrab from the Moorland Association website in 2016:

Strangely, according to documents lodged at Companies House, Mr Duckworth resigned his Directorship of the Moorland Association in September 2016. There are many different reasons why people resign from Directorships but it’s interesting to note that the timing of Jeremy Duckworth’s resignation coincided with the early stages of the police investigation in to the alleged offences on his grouse moor – obviously nothing to do with damage limitation and purely and simply coincidental, of course:

We wonder whether the Bleasdale Estate is a still a member of the Moorland Association?

We wonder whether the Moorland Association is concerned that an unidentified camouflaged individual was able to repeatedly visit this peregrine nest site on the grouse moor of a Moorland Association member and inflict what looks like unimaginable cruelty to this peregrine?

We wonder whether the Moorland Association is concerned that an unidentified armed individual was able to visit this peregrine nest site and fire four shots as another adult peregrine flew from the nest?

We wonder whether the Moorland Association is concerned about the widespread, systematic persecution of peregrines on driven grouse moors in England, as evidenced by an increasing number of scientific papers (here, here, here)? Incidentally, this last paper, ‘Raptor Persecution in the Peak District National Park’ by Melling et al was published by British Birds in May 2018 but the full paper was only available to BB subscribers. British Birds has now kindly published this paper in full so everyone can read it – see here).

We wonder whether the Moorland Association still expects to be considered a genuine partner in the fight against the illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors when it seems to take every opportunity to attack the RSPB’s Investigations Team instead of those responsible for enabling and carrying out these barbaric crimes?

[Photo of an illegally-killed peregrine found next to a driven grouse moor, photo by RSPB]

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