Posts Tagged ‘golden eagle


National golden eagle survey 2015: low occupancy on Eastern Highland grouse moors remains a concern

Every year a proportion of the Scottsh golden eagle population is surveyed by licensed experts from the Scottish Raptor Study Group. This phenomenal voluntary effort (currently 373 home ranges [approx 53% of known ranges] monitored by 150 eagle experts) provides invaluable data that are submitted to the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme and are used to inform conservation policy at local, regional and national level.

In addition to this annual monitoring, a national survey is periodically undertaken with both paid and voluntary experts in an effort to visit every known home range throughout Scotland.

Photo by Mark Hamblin

The latest national golden eagle survey took place in 2015 and the interim results were announced in November 2016. The main headline was that overall, the national population had increased by 15%, rising from 442 pairs recorded during the last national survey in 2003, to 508 territorial pairs in 2015, and the species was now considered to be in favourable conservation status.

This was excellent and welcome news, but as we pointed out at the time, the headline masked a more sinister situation. Although the national population had surpassed 500 territorial pairs, the magic number needed to upgrade the species’ national conservation status from ‘unfavourable’ to ‘favouable’, it was still well below the estimated capacity of 700 pairs. This meant that approx 200 pairs of golden eagles were still ‘missing’.

Unsurprisingly, the national survey revealed that golden eagle populations in the driven grouse moor areas of eastern and southern Scotland were still being suppressed and had not shown any significant sign of recovery since the previous national survey in 2003. Illegal persecution has been identified time and time again as the main constraint on population growth in these regions.

The formal scientific peer-reviewed results of the 2015 national survey were published last week in the journal Bird Study [Hayhow, D., Benn, S., Stevenson, A., Stirling-Aird, P. and Eaton, M. (2017). Status of golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos in Britain in 2015. Bird Study].

Unfortunately publishing restrictions do not permit us to upload the full paper (you’ll have to subscribe to Bird Study for full access) but here is the abstract:

[UPDATE: This paper is now fully available online, free access, thanks to the BTO. Click here]

In additon to details about the continued low occupancy on grouse moors in the eastern Highlands, the paper also provides information that dispels a couple of myths that are frequently claimed as ‘facts’ by the SGA and co.

You might remember the SGA giving evidence to a parliamentary committee earlier this year where they claimed that “the Cairngorms National Park held the highest density of eagles in the world“. They might want to have a look at this map. This is the distribution of pairs of golden eagles in 2015 and shows the densities of occupied home ranges by 10 x 10 km squares. As you can see, the highest densities of golden eagles were recorded in the Outer Hebrides and on Mull (no grouse moors in these areas):

Another commonly-heard myth, usually trotted out to support calls for the ‘control’ of white-tailed eagles, is that re-introduced white-tailed eagles are displacing golden eagles and taking over their territories/nest sites, even though recent research has demonstrated that these two species partition their habitat and prey preferences in western Scotland. In this latest paper, the authors comment:

Although we have not assessed this in the current study, we report increases in golden eagles numbers in regions such as the Hebridean Islands in which there has been a rapid increase in white-tailed eagles (Holling 2016), which suggests that, at least at current population levels, there has been no major impact“.

The authors do acknowledge that the white-tailed eagle population is predicted to continue its expansion and this may, potentially, create competition between the two species in the future but right now, based on the currently available data, there is no evidence to suggest this is a population-level concern.

The main current threat to Scottish golden eagles is the same as it was following the previous national survey, fourteen years ago. And that is illegal persecution on some driven grouse moors in the eastern Highlands and south Scotland. The grouse-shooting representatives can continue to deny it, but this latest paper is yet another nail in the coffin of this filthy industry.


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).


Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing’s constituency a hotspot for ‘disappearing’ sat-tagged raptors

A few weeks ago we created a map for Mairi Gougeon MSP (Angus & Mearns, SNP) to show her the areas of her constituency where satellite-tagged raptors had either been found illegally killed or had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances. Unsurprisingly, the main hotspot area was centred on the grouse moors of the Angus Glens.

Mairi, as the Hen Harrier Species Champion, attended this year’s Hen Harrier Day at Loch Leven where she acknowledged the issues and spoke passionately about the need to address illegal raptor persecution. We welcomed her interest and enthusiasm and look forward to seeing her use her position to good effect.

We’ve now created another map, this time for MSP Fergus Ewing’s constituency of Inverness and Nairn. For new readers, Fergus also holds a senior position in the Scottish Government – he is Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity.

This latest map is based on data from the recent expert review of golden eagle satellite tag data and also from the RSPB’s recent map showing the locations of ‘disappeared’ or illegally killed satellite-tagged hen harriers and red kites. Here it is, showing the locations of 15 satellite-tagged raptors (8 x golden eagles, 6 x red kites, 1 x hen harrier) that were either illegally killed in Fergus’s constituency or ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in his constituency:

And just like the map we created for Mairi, the hotspot areas within Fergus Ewing’s constituency all just happen to be on land managed for driven grouse shooting. Imagine that!

Unlike Mairi Gougeon MSP, as far as we can tell, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing has never publicly spoken out about the illegal persecution of raptors on grouse moors, either within his own constituency or beyond (if anyone has any evidence to the contrary we’ll be happy to post it here).

He did, sort of, hint at it in a statement he made about grouse shooting in 2015 when he was Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism:

I am very pleased to be able to extend support to all of those who make a success of fields sports in a professional and responsible fashion. Their efforts bring to Scotland a number of visitors who are very welcome and make a significant financial contribution to the sector”

but you’ll note that he very carefully avoided mentioning raptor persecution crimes or any of the other environmentally damaging effects of intensive grouse moor management.

And he can’t claim that he’s unaware of what’s going on – we’ve contacted him on social media many times about this issue, especially when persecution incidents have been detected in his constituency (most recently in July – see here). He has chosen to ignore us at every turn and has given his full public support to grouse moor management in well known raptor persecution hotspots including the Angus Glens and the Monadhliaths.

If you live in Fergus Ewing’s constituency of Inverness and Nairn, you might want to contact him to ask him what he’s doing about the illegal killing of raptors on grouse moors in this area. He has a responsibility to respond to the concerns of his constituents. Email:

If you don’t live in Inverness and Nairn but wish to raise concerns about the level of illegal raptor persecution on the grouse moors of this Cabinet Secretary’s constituency, please use this email address: [and mark it for the attention of Fergus Ewing].

For far too long we’ve allowed certain politicians to get away with wilful blindness about this ongoing criminality. It’s up to all of us to hold these elected representatives to account.


A shedload of golden eagles satellite tagged in new RPUK/Chris Packham project

At last weekend’s British Birdfair at Rutland Water we joined with Chris Packham to launch a new joint project.

Privately funded by a pair of extraordinarily generous and supportive philanthropists, this project has been in development since the New Year. We are grateful not only to our funders, but also to a number of people without whose help the project would have been a non-starter.

This year our project has focused on fitting satellite tags to young golden eagles across Scotland. At this stage we’re not announcing how many eagles have been tagged, or where, exactly, they’ve been tagged (the location of nest sites must remain confidential for obvious reasons), but let’s just say we’ve tagged a shedload. Here’s a small subset:

The tags were fitted in June and July by highly experienced & appropriately licensed fieldworkers, with the support of several landowners, some of whom came along on tagging days. All the tagged eagles have fledged successfully and they are all hanging out in their natal territories, as expected.

Researchers have been satellite-tagging golden eagles in Scotland since 2004. This new technology has revolutionised our ability to better understand golden eagle ecology, and particularly the birds’ early years of life when they leave their parents’ territory and wander around the country before they attempt to settle in a territory of their own and join the breeding population at between 3 to 5 years of age. For an excellent first-hand and simple explanation of how the technology works in practice, have a read of this blog written last week by Stuey Benn of the RSPB.

Understanding golden eagle juvenile dispersal behaviour has important conservation implications because at present, Special Protection Areas designated specifically for golden eagles are based on the number of breeding pairs present in a particular area, and not on the number of juvenile eagles present. Research on 36 satellite-tagged golden eagles, undertaken by Ewan Weston for his PhD (published in 2014), identified nine distinct areas, known as Temporary Settlement Areas (TSAs) where these young birds tended to spend a lot of time during certain months of the year. Here’s a map we’ve created, based on data published in Ewan’s PhD, of these nine TSAs.

The identification of these areas would have been virtually impossible without the use of satellite tags. The data collected from our tagged eagles will contribute to this ongoing scientific research to help determine the importance of these, and perhaps other yet-to-be-discovered TSAs, which may lead in future to some areas being newly designated / protected for golden eagle conservation purposes.

Of course, along with the invaluable scientific data generated by these satellite tags, showing us how golden eagles utilise different landscapes, we are also learning a lot about how one type of land-use, intensively managed driven grouse moors, is impacting negatively on the golden eagle population. This has been known for some time, but the recently published Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review clarified in which particular grouse moor areas satellite-tagged eagles are being illegally killed or are ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances.

When the Review was published in May this year, we created this map to show the significant clustering of satellite-tagged eagles that had either been confirmed as illegally killed or the tags had suddenly stopped working in suspicious circumstances and the tags and eagles had ‘disappeared’ off the face of the earth:

The clusters around the Cairngorms National Park, including the Monadhliaths to the NW and the Angus Glens to the SE, are all areas where the land is intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.

Interestingly, when you overlay these data of killed or ‘missing’ satellite tagged eagles on to the map showing the Temporary Settlement Areas utilised by juvenile golden eagles, this is what you get:

[Yellow stars = satellite-tagged eagles confirmed as illegally killed; red stars = satellite tags that suddenly stopped functioning in suspicious circumstances and the tag & eagle nowhere to be found].

It’s quite clear then, that in some driven grouse moor areas, particularly in the Angus Glens, the Monadhliaths, and the NE and SW areas of the Cairngorms National Park where young golden eagles are spending a lot of time, illegal persecution is an ongoing threat.

Obviously we don’t yet know where our tagged eagles will disperse to, and whether they might head for some of these dangerous TSAs, but we’re about to find out.

We’ll be providing updates on our eagles’ movements over the coming months and if the tag data indicate that any of our birds have come to any harm, we’ll first be reporting it through the proper channels to the Police and then we’ll be publishing appropriate details on this blog.

Stay tuned!


Species Champion Mairi Gougeon MSP speaks up for hen harriers

‘Species Champions’ are members of the Scottish Parliament who have agreed to provide political support and awareness for Scotland’s threatened wildlife, under a scheme organised by Scottish Environment LINK.

Mairi Gougeon (nee Evans) MSP is the Species Champion for the hen harrier, and it was fantastic to see her attend Hen Harrier Day at Loch Leven a couple of weeks ago. She wasn’t the only MSP present – also in attendance was Alexander Stewart MSP (Scottish Conservatives) and Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Greens) – Andy had cycled from Edinburgh and broke his pedal 5 miles away but still managed to make it on time – impressive!

It was gratifying to see all three of these politicians giving up their Saturday to come along. And they didn’t just turn up for the photo call and then clear off; they spent a considerable amount of time talking with the public, asking pertinent questions (and listening to the responses!) and they all stayed to hear the presentations throughout the afternoon. Mairi even gave a short but very encouraging presentation – you can watch it here (it’s only 4 mins long – well worth a listen, thanks to Guy Shorrock for recording it):

Perhaps of all three politicians in attendance, Mairi had the most cause to be there. Not just as the Hen Harrier Species Champion, but also because her SNP constituency is Angus North & Mearns, which includes the Angus Glens grouse moors, a notorious raptor persecution hotspot.

The history of illegal raptor persecution in this area is well known (see here for a long list of incidents), and it’s also known for its lack of breeding hen harriers – not a single recorded breeding attempt on these grouse moors for 11 years, although there was one breeding attempt in the area this year, but it wasn’t on a driven grouse moor. It’s clear from Mairi’s speech that she is well informed about the situation there.

Here’s a map we’ve created for Mairi to study. It’s a map of her constituency and includes data from the recent expert review of golden eagle satellite tag data and also from the RSPB’s recent map showing the locations of ‘disappeared’ or illegally killed satellite-tagged hen harriers and red kites. It’s quite clear that it’s the grouse moor areas of the Angus Glens that are bringing her constituency in to such disrepute.

Thanks to all three MSPs for their genuine interest in protecting the hen harrier and particular thanks and good luck to Mairi – we hope blog readers will support her endeavours to draw political attention to this species’ plight.


More illegal raptor persecution hotspots revealed in new map

Ian Thomson, Head of RSPB Investigations Scotland has written an interesting blog examining the ‘disappearance’ and/or illegal killing of satellite tagged red kites and hen harriers – see here.

It’s well worth a read. And take a close look at this map, illustrating the locations of suspicious disappearances as well as where the corpses have been found:

Here’s a direct quote from Ian:

It is clear from this map that, like golden eagles, the distribution of illegally killed or suspiciously disappeared satellite-tagged red kites and hen harriers is far from random, and shows clear clusters in some upland areas. As with the “hotspots” for eagles, these clusters are almost entirely coincident with land dominated by driven grouse shooting management, again including areas like the northern Monadhliaths and the Angus Glens. But, harriers and kites have clearly being targeted in other regions – notably, but not exclusively, upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and the Lowther Hills of S Lanarkshire‘.

Following the recent news that the RSPB, in partnership with LUSH, has satellite-tagged a record number of hen harriers this year, we can expect many more dots to appear on this map, most of them will be added before Xmas.

We’ll be undertaking some finer analyses of this map, probably next week, and we’ll be asking blog readers to get involved. More on that soon.

There’s one other point in Ian’s blog that is worth highlighting here, in response to the unsubstantiated yet repeated claims by some that raptors do better on driven grouse moors than they do on RSPB reserves:

More pairs of hen harriers bred successfully on one RSPB reserve on Islay in 2017, than on the grouse moors of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus and the Scottish Borders put together. In fact, RSPB nature reserves hold 10% of Scotland’s breeding population of hen harriers, with 46 pairs in 2016‘.

How many hen harriers do you think bred successfully on Scottish grouse moors in 2016 (where driven shooting took place – not on moors which are currently not being shot)?

Photo of hen harrier Annie, who was found shot on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire in 2015. (Image: RSPB Scotland).


“The hen harrier…..this is a nasty bird of evil habits. It must be got rid of at all costs”

The hen harrier….this is a nasty bird of evil habits. It quarters the moor a few feet above the ground and pounces on grouse or chicks it catches unawares. It must be got rid of at all cost”.

This is a quote. You might think it’s attributable to Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association). It’s not that far off her infamous quote last year:

If we let the harrier in, we will soon have nothing else. That is why we need this brood management plan“.

But our quote isn’t from Amanda. It’s from a book called Grouse: Shooting and Moor Management, first published in 1958 (er, four years after the Protection of Birds Act became law!) and written by Richard Waddington who had a grouse moor in what is now the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park.

Obviously stuck in a Victorian time warp, another quote from the chapter called ‘Vermin on the Moor’:

Eagles can very easily be trapped…..They can also sometimes be shot. However, since they are vigorously protected throughout Scotland it is perhaps wisest to say nothing on this subject. But if you want a successful grouse shoot you must find some means of ridding yourself of eagles“.

[Thanks to the blog reader who drew this book to our attention, also quoted in Mark Avery’s book Inglorious].

And here we are, well over half a century later, and not much has changed, has it? A number of grouse shooting estates are quite clearly still ‘ridding themselves of eagles’, including some on the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park (see here), while breeding hen harriers have been eradicated from many Scottish grouse moors (see here) and virtually every English grouse moor (we heard there was a pair this year on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales but apparently, we’re told, it ‘disappeared’. Presumably this will be confirmed by Natural England at some point. But then again…).

The fight back continues though. For the fourth successive year, Hen Harrier Day events will be happening throughout the UK over the weekend of 4-5 August (and an event on the Isle of Mull on 29 July 2017). Full details of each event can be found on the Hen Harrier Day website HERE

Find one near to you (or find a distant one and have a road trip) and turn up, join in and show your support. We’ll be at the Tayside event (along with other speakers) on Saturday 5 August and also at the Highland event on Sunday 6th. We look forward to seeing some of you.

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