Posts Tagged ‘golden eagle

09
Nov
18

Scottish Government dismisses SGA’s attempt to discredit Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review

Last week we blogged about the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s (SGA) feeble attempt to undermine and discredit the findings of the damning Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review by commissioning an opinion from a lawyer who, as far as we can tell, has no scientific expertise or qualifications (see here).

This is the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review that demonstrated, with “exemplary and thorough” scientific rigour according to actual scientists, that almost one third of satellite-tagged golden eagles had ‘disappeared’ (almost certainly illegally killed) on a number of Scottish grouse moors over a number of years, in the same areas that had contemporaneous records of illegal raptor persecution (i.e. known wildlife crime hotspots).

[Satellite-tagged golden eagle ‘Alma’ who was found poisoned on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens. Photo by Scottish Raptor Study Group]

In response to the SGA’s attempt to erode confidence in the Sat Tag Review, Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Green Party) lodged the following parliamentary question:

S5W-19641 (date lodged 26/10/18)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response [is] to the legal opinion that has been published by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, which disputes some of the conclusions of the Scottish Natural Heritage-commissioned report, Analyses of the Fates of Satellite Tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland, and, in light of this, whether it plans to review the report’s conclusion that the disappearances of some satellite-tracked golden eagles and other birds of prey were “suspicious”.

This question was answered by Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham on 7/11/18 as follows:

The Scottish Government is satisfied that the Scottish Natural Heritage report, “Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland”, was produced and peer-reviewed in line with accepted scientific standards. The Scottish Government has no plans to review any aspects of the report.

That’s a parliamentary equivalent of sticking up two metaphorical fingers.

Nice try, SGA, but no cigar.

Well done and thanks, Mark Ruskell MSP.

They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“ (Dr Hugh Webster).

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04
Nov
18

Golden eagle satellite tag review “exemplary” and “thorough”

A new scientific peer-reviewed paper, authored by a group of highly-respected award-winning ecologists, commends the “exemplary” and “thorough” scientific approach of the golden eagle satellite tag review.

The paper has just been accepted for publication but due to publishing restrictions we’re unable to publish it here (although we’ve read it in full). When it finally becomes available it’ll be a must-read for researchers involved in animal satellite-tracking projects where being able to distinguish between actual death and transmitter failure is important to understanding threats to that species.

Sergio, F., Tanferna, A., Blas, J., Blanco, G. and Hiraldo, F. (2018). Reliable methods for identifying animal deaths in GPS – and satellite-tracking data: review, testing and calibration. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.13294.

The authors have devised a system, based on the interpretation of various tag data, which correctly distinguished between actual death and transmitter failure in their sample. They found this system worked perfectly for their GPS tags but was not so reliable for tags using only Doppler locations.

[Fig. 3 from the paper]

Using this system, the authors suggest that the highly suspicious disappearance of golden eagles in Scotland as identified in the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Reviewwould be most likely confirmed as deaths by our method, thus strengthening the suspicion of illegal killings (Branch 3b, Fig 3)”.

For the reader with a limited understanding of different tag types and the quality of technical data associated with different tags, this paper probably won’t make much sense at all. However, we’ve highlighted it here for good reason.

A couple of weeks ago some extraordinary claims were made about the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review. Ronnie Clancy QC, a senior lawyer, claimed that the review contained “significant shortcomings” and that there was evidence of “unconcious bias“. His rationale for these comments is apparently contained in a report he was commissioned to write by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), although this report has not been released in the public domain and the story was only run on the BBC News website (here), so we’ve been unable to see the context of these selective quotes.

However, when you look at the quotes that were published by the BBC, it’s not difficult to tear them apart. On the allegation of supposed “unconcious bias”, the BBC reports that Mr Clancy QC said the report authors (Drs Whitfield and Fielding) looked like they had “manipulated” the study “to obtain a desirable result“. This opinion was further fuelled in the BBC report by the SGA’s Chairman Alex Hogg, who claimed that the report’s findings were initially insignificant “until the authors (Whitfield & Fielding) shifted the parameters and extended the boundaries of the moors by up to 4km“.

Dear oh dear. Had they paid attention to the Sat Tag Review they would have read the discussion about why the parameters were extended – which is a perfectly acceptable scientific method known as hypothesis testing – to 4km. Initially, Drs Whitfield & Fielding had used the presence of strip muirburn as a simple way of mapping the location of grouse moors. However, as they explained in the review, grouse moor management extends beyond the boundaries of strip muirburn, often to a considerable distance (e.g. predator control to benefit red grouse takes place in forestry and woodland beyond the actual moors) so to capture the full extent (and impact) of grouse moor management requires extending the search boundary beyond the actual moor. They illustrated this point with this map (we have added the yellow arrow for clarity) showing the last known locations of three satellite-tagged golden eagles. One of these (yellow arrow) ‘disappeared’ on land that wasn’t a grouse moor, per se, but was surrounded by grouse moor. Had they stuck rigidly to using strip muirburn as the grouse moor proxy, this eagle, and several others that ‘disappeared’ when roosting in forestry close to a grouse moor, would not have been classified even though it’s blindingly obvious that the location was associated with grouse moor management.

Quite why the SGA asked a lawyer to opine on a piece of scientific research is anyone’s guess. No doubt, Mr Clancy is a skilled lawyer – you don’t gain QC status without demonstrating legal excellence. But is Mr Clancy a scientist? Does he have experience and expertise in assessing scientific rigour? Is he familiar with satellite tag technology? Is he an expert in golden eagle ecology? Does he have a detailed understanding of the ~100 scientific references cited in the review? Has he authored any scientific papers himself? Why didn’t the SGA commission a review by a qualified scientist? Couldn’t they find one who’d say what they wanted to say? And why has this opinion piece only just emerged, some 17 months after the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review was published?

The more you think about this, the more intriguing it becomes. Our guess is that the SGA, realising how comprehensively damning were the findings of the Sat Tag Review, sought advice on making a legal challenge against the Scottish Government for accepting the review’s findings. Why else consult a lawyer? However, although the Cabinet Secretary commissioned the current grouse moor management (Werritty) review on the back of the Sat Tag Review’s findings, there have been no legislative changes based explicitly on the Sat Tag Review, which makes a legal challenge untenable. And even if legislative change (e.g. licensing) does occur after the Werritty Review, the Sat Tag Review will only have played a small role – it just happened to be the final straw in a giant haystack of evidence against the unsustainable and environmentally damaging aspects of grouse moor management.

If this is what happened, then rather than waste the money they spent seeking legal advice (unless Mr Clancy worked pro bono), perhaps the SGA thought they’d make the best of a bad job and simply present the advice as legal opinion in an attempt to undermine the evidence being presented to the ongoing Werritty Review.

Sadly, the SGA hasn’t published Mr Clancy QC’s report – and that is their perogative, as it is, after all, a privately-commissioned piece of work – but it’s a real shame because we would have been very interested in reading Mr Clancy’s opinion on the contemporaneous records of illegal raptor persecution associated with the various geographic clusters of ‘disappearing’ eagles on or close to grouse moors, and the ever-increasing pile of peer-reviewed scientific research that has linked grouse moor management to illegal raptor persecution, all documented and referenced in the Sat Tag Review. Oh, and not to mention the long list of golden eagles whose bodies have previously been found shot and poisoned on, er, grouse moors.

[Golden eagle ‘Fearnan’ found illegally poisoned on an Angus Glens grouse moor. Photo by RSPB]

We understand Mr Clancy’s report has been submitted to the Werritty Review as ‘evidence’. We welcome this. Professor Werritty, as a senior academic of some repute, will no doubt treat it with all the regard deserving of a non-scientific opinion commissioned by an organisation that has repeatedly sought to deny the link between grouse moor management and golden eagle persecution.

 

23
Oct
18

Werritty Review: evidence of raptor persecution on some grouse moors ‘compelling & shocking’

The Scottish Government-commissioned review of grouse moor management continues, with the Review Group, chaired by Professor Alan Werritty, taking evidence from a variety of individuals and organisations.

For new blog readers, this review was ordered in May 2017 by Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham after the publication of another review, ‘Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland‘, which showed clear evidence of deliberate and sustained illegal raptor persecution in some areas managed intensively for driven grouse shooting.

The Werritty Review is due to report next year.

[Golden eagle ‘Fearnan‘, found poisoned on an Angus Glens grouse moor. Nobody was ever prosecuted for killing this eagle. In fact nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for killing a golden eagle in Scotland. Photo by RSPB]

A number of general updates about the Review Group’s activities have been published by Professor Werritty and we were especially pleased to read his comments about the evidence presented to the group on illegal raptor persecution. It’s not very detailed but there’s little ambiguity in his words:

“Whilst we noted that many raptor species in Britain have recovered in terms of their post-war population sizes and distributions (with some strikingly successful reintroduction/reinforcement conservation programmes for sea eagles, red kite and osprey) the evidence linking raptor persecution to some areas managed as grouse moors appears both compelling and shocking”.

Professor Werritty’s full report on that meeting, which also included evidence on legal predator control and mountain hare culls, can be read here.

There have been further evidence sessions, and also a ‘consultation’, of sorts, that took place over the summer. We’ll be blogging about that ‘consultation’ separately.

10
Oct
18

Armed criminals running amok in the Pentland Hills nr Edinburgh

The northern edge of the Pentland Hills is a familiar sight to residents of Edinburgh and can be seen from the Scottish Parliament building.

[View of the Pentlands from Edinburgh, photo by Ruth Tingay]

Designated as “a place for the peaceful enjoyment of the countryside“, the Pentland Hills Regional Park hosts over 600,000 visitors per year.

We suspect many of those visitors looking for a bit of ‘peaceful enjoyment’ would be outraged to discover that this area is actually a wildlife crime hotspot and the armed criminals involved are running amok without being brought to justice.

In the last two years, a raven was found shot dead on its nest, a merlin’s nest was shot out, a golden eagle ‘disappeared‘ in highly suspicious circumstances and a peregrine has been poisoned with a deadly toxin so powerful that it could kill a human.

These are blatant wildlife crimes and nobody has been charged, let alone prosecuted or convicted. That’s not a criticism of the police – collecting sufficient evidence to charge an individual is almost impossible without the help of witnesses and/or camera footage – but it is a criticism of the Scottish Government’s continuing failure to deal with this issue.

It’s interesting to note that the majority of these crimes occured very close to land managed for driven grouse shooting. The tell-tale rectangular strips of burned heather on this map are quite striking:

Large areas of the Pentland Hills Regional Park are privately owned estates and are managed for grouse shooting and farming. The wildlife crimes have been committed across several estate boundaries and we understand that at least until recently, some estates ‘shared’ gamekeepers.

It is not unusual for the police to be unable to identify the individual(s) committing crimes on driven grouse moors – and again, that’s not a criticism of the police, although withholding information from the public for months on end, especially when there is a risk to public safety, certainly doesn’t help. In fact escaping prosecution was such a common problem that in 2013 the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP introduced another sanction – he instructed Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to withdraw the use of the General Licence on shooting estates where there was sufficient evidence to indicate a raptor persecution crime but insufficient evidence to identify the individual culprit(s).

This power has been available to SNH since 1 January 2014 but so far only four restrictions have been imposed: one on Raeshaw Estate/Corsehope Estate in the Scottish Borders; one on Burnfoot Estate/Wester Cringate Estate in Stirlingshire; one on Edradynate Estate in Perthshire; and one on an unnamed individual who had worked on the Tillypronie Estate in Aberdeenshire. We’ve blogged a lot about this sanction and particularly SNH’s failure to impose General Licence restrictions in at least nine other cases where raptor persecution has been detected. When asked about these failures, SNH responded that it “wasn’t in the public interest” to explain (see here).

We’d like to know whether SNH is considering withdrawing the use of the General Licence on any of the shooting/farming estates in the Pentland Hills where raptor persecution crimes have been confirmed. And if not, why not?

Without sanctions being imposed, and importantly, being seen to be imposed, the armed criminals, whoever they may be, running around the Pentland Hills laying poisoned baits and shooting out nests and killing protected birds are going to think they’re untouchable and the wildlife-loving general public is going to know that the Scottish Government has lost all control over this disgraceful issue, happening right on its doorstep.

Ps. Great to see the BBC News website is running with the peregrine poisoning news today (see here).

UPDATE 11 Oct 2018: Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills (here)

09
Oct
18

Peregrine found poisoned in Pentlands, not far from Fred’s last known location

We were recently informed that a peregrine had been found dead in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh way back in May this year (five months ago). We were also advised that toxicology results had shown it had been poisoned with a banned poison.

[RPUK map: Pentland Hills, just south of the Edinburgh City ByPass]

Given the location, a few miles from where golden eagle Fred had ‘disappeared’ in highly suspicious circumstances in January (see here), we were obviously very interested in this case.

[RPUK map showing golden eagle Fred’s last known fix in the Pentlands in January 2018 and the location of the poisoned peregrine found in May 2018]

We hadn’t seen any media from Police Scotland about this poisoned peregrine – no appeals for information, no warnings to the public about the use of a banned poison in a regional park popular with the visiting public, nothing.

So last week we started asking questions and this morning Police Scotland advised us that the following statement had just been issued:

Police Scotland Official Statement

Police Scotland received a report of a dead peregrine falcon on Thursday 25 May 2018 in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh.

The dead bird was recovered from the Green Cleuch area of the hills in Midlothian.

Detective Constable Andrew Loughlin said: “After extensive inquiries were carried out in collaboration with partner organisations, the bird was found to have been poisoned.

Our investigation has concluded that this appears to have been deliberate as we do not believe that under the circumstances the poison could have been used legitimately.

The investigation has now concluded and no further Police action is being taken at this time.

We take wildlife crime like this very seriously and would urge anyone who has information about crime involving birds of prey to contact Police Scotland on 101 or make a report anonymously to the charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

ENDS

[Aerial photo of Green Cleugh, at the edge of the grouse moor at Black Hill – photo from Eastside Cottages website]

According to local Raptor Study Group fieldworkers, this peregrine was an adult male and was raising a brood of chicks in the area in May 2018. Three days after his body was found, the adult female and all the chicks had ‘disappeared’.

This case raises a number of questions and we’ll be returning to some of those shortly.

For now though, why the hell wasn’t this case publicised? If we hadn’t chased it up, would it ever have come to light?

This was a banned poison. We don’t know which one because that’s a secret apparently, but we do know it’s one of eight poisons listed on The Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order 2005 which are so dangerous that it’s an offence to even possess the stuff, let alone use it.

And to use it in the Pentland Hills Regional Park – an area that attracts approximately 600,000 visitors a year, including families walking with children and pets. Why weren’t those visitors warned that a banned poison had been used that could have potentially fatal consequences if even touched?

Here’s the poisoned peregrine, right next to the public footpath:

Who knew about this case and who made the decision to keep it quiet?

Was it a politically-motivated decision? We know there is huge sensitivity about illegal raptor persecution in south Scotland just now, with the start of the Government-backed translocation of golden eagles in to the region this year and SNH pretending that “persecution is not an issue” [in south Scotland] (see here).

It clearly bloody is an issue and we’ll be asking several politicians to look in to the handling of this case.

More on this, and other questions, shortly.

UPDATE 10 Oct 2018: Lothian MSP Alison Johnstone speaks out on Pentlands poisoned peregrine (here)

UPDATE 10 Oct 2018: BBC News has picked up on this blog  – Police criticised over bird of prey poisoning in Pentland Hills (here)

UPDATE 10 Oct 2018: Armed criminals running amok in the Pentland Hills nr Edinburgh (here)

UPDATE 11 Oct 2018: Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills (here)

21
Aug
18

SNH wilfully blind to threat of persecution of golden eagles in south Scotland

The project to translocate golden eagles from the Scottish Highlands to south Scotland has finally got underway this year, with news out today that three eagles have been successfully released this year.

There’s an article about it on BBC Scotland (here) including some video footage.

Unbelievably, Professor Des Thompson, Principal Advisor for Biodiversity and Science at SNH, is quoted in both in the video and in the article as follows:

This is the icon of wild Scotland. We are on the threshold of giving something very exciting back to the south of Scotland. Scotland has just over 500 pairs, just two to four breeding pairs in the south of Scotland where they are really struggling.

Young golden eagles are heavily persecuted. A third of them have been killed either through shooting or poisoning.

Down here in the south of Scotland we’ve been able to reassure ourselves persecution is not an issue. It’s just a small fragmented population that needs this helping hand from us. We have been overwhelmed by the support we are getting from landowners and we are reassured these birds are going to be welcome“.

Did he actually just say that? “We’ve been able to reassure ourselves persecution is not an issue“. What, you mean in the same way that SNH reassured itself that the scientific justification for the Strahbraan raven cull was sound?

You couldn’t make this up. Has he switched jobs and is now representing Scottish Land & Estates? He might as well be as this is exactly the line they were trying to spin several years ago (see here).

The south of Scotland is well known for the illegal persecution of raptors, including golden eagles. Only this year a young satellite-tagged golden eagle (Fred) ‘disappeared’ in the Pentland Hills in highly suspicious circumstances (here) in an area where previously a merlin nest had been shot out and breeding ravens had also ‘disappeared’.

[Golden eagle Fred, by Ruth Tingay]

Then there’s Raeshaw Estate, currently operating under a General Licence restriction and an Individual Licence restriction, due to evidence of alleged ongoing raptor persecution (here); there’s a forthcoming prosecution of a gamekeeper in the Borders for a long list of alleged wildlife crime (here); there’s the land managed for driven grouse shooting in South Lanarkshire (close to the golden eagle translocation area) where over 50 confirmed reported incidents of dead raptors and poisoned baits have been recorded since 2003, including a shot golden eagle in 2012 (it didn’t survive, here), the reported shooting of a short-eared owl in 2017 (here), the reported shooting of a hen harrier in 2017 (here), and the reported shooting of a buzzard in 2018 (here); and then there’s been at least four raptor poisonings in south Scotland this year alone (here).

But don’t worry, folks, despite all evidence to the contrary, Professor Thompson is “reassured” that raptor persecution won’t be an issue for these young golden eagles.

Here’s a map from the 2008 Golden Eagle Conservation Framework showing the conservation status of golden eagles in Scotland (red = unfavourable conservation status), overlaid with ten years of raptor persecution data (all species, 2005-2015) gleaned from ‘official’ persecution maps. It doesn’t include data from the last three years. Does it look to you like raptor persecution isn’t an issue in southern Scotland?

We’ve blogged about the South Scotland Golden Eagle Project several times over the years (e.g. here, here, here) and we still have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand the south Scotland golden eagle population is in dire straits, and has been for some time, and urgently needs a boost. Translocating eagles from other parts of the Scottish range seems a decent strategy.

However, fundamental to translocation and reintroduction projects is the need to identify and resolve the underlying cause(s) of the species’ decline in that area. The authorities have not come anywhere near to resolving this issue, either in south Scotland or beyond. The chances remain high that these young eagles will be killed. Having said that, they’re just as likely to be illegally killed further north in Scotland so in that sense, moving them a few hundred km south probably won’t make much difference to their chance of being illegally killed.

At least these three young eagles have been satellite-tagged so their movements can be followed. The question is, if/when each eagle goes off the radar in suspicious circumstances, who will decide whether this news is suppressed or publicised?

We’ll be taking a close interest.

13
Aug
18

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.




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