Posts Tagged ‘golden eagle

30
May
21

Game-shooting industry called out on raptor persecution by one of its own

It’s been almost four weeks since we learned that a deliberately poisoned golden eagle was found on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park (see here).

This abhorrent wildlife crime is just about as serious and high profile as it gets.

[The poisoned golden eagle and the poisoned bait. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

The golden eagle (along with the white-tailed eagle) has the highest level of protection of any bird species in Scotland (not just the bog standard protection given to all bird species, but the gold standard that includes protection of its nest site and protection from harassment all year round).

It’s an iconic species, loved by millions and on most wildlife lovers’ list of ‘must-sees’ when they visit Scotland.

The Cairngorms National Park is supposed to be the UK’s jewel in the crown and again is on the list of ‘must-sees’ for many visitors to Scotland.

It’s no wonder then, that when one of those wild golden eagles is found slumped and cold in the heather on a prestigious estate in the Cairngorms National Park, right next to a poisoned mountain hare bait deliberately placed to kill wildlife, the news is going to be both shocking and prominent.

And it was.

So how come the game-shooting industry has, on the whole, remained silent about this disgraceful crime? The only statement from a shooting organisation that I could find was from Scottish Land & Estates, the landowner’s lobby group. The statement was vague and short on detail (no mention that the golden eagle had been illegally poisoned and no mention that the eagle’s corpse and the poisoned bait had been discovered on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate, an SLE member, no less, and that this isn’t the first time the estate has been under investigation).

Still, at least SLE published something. As far as I can tell, almost four weeks on there is no statement of condemnation on the websites of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, BASC, GWCT, Countryside Alliance, or Scottish Association for Country Sports.

Doesn’t that silence speak volumes?

I’ve thought a lot about why these organisations, with their vociferous claims of having ‘zero tolerance’ for raptor persecution, should remain silent on such a high profile crime when all eyes are upon them. I haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable explanation because there simply isn’t one. There’s no reasonable explanation, or excuse, for not condemning this crime. None at all.

But where there is ground to benefit is in plausible deniability. In that, if nobody acknowledges that this crime even happened, then the constant denials that there’s even an issue, let alone that it’s an out of control issue, can continue. Think about it. The denials can’t continue if the organisations have previously acknowledged and condemned a recent raptor persecution crime. So the strategy seems to be, shut up, say nothing and it’ll all blow over soon and then we can get back to pretending how much we love raptors whilst simultaneously campaigning for licences to kill them and turning a blind eye every time another one gets taken out on land managed for gamebird shooting.

I’m not the only one to notice the silence and the denial.

The following letter was published in this week’s Shooting Times:

The recent disturbing news of a police raid on Invercauld estate after the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle next to a bait should disgust and anger all in the shooting community. Sadly, for quite a few members of that community, these feelings of revulsion will not be felt.

If any readers can steel themselves to check out the Raptor Persecution UK blog they will find a sickening list [here] of illegally killed raptors from all around the Cairngorms.

If, as shooting’s representative organisations keep telling us, “it’s a few bad apples”, I would suggest that this area of Scotland could well contain the orchard.

Invercauld is one of the most prominent sporting estates in Scotland, with a reputation to uphold around the world, yet this is not the first time it has been investigated in recent years.

This begs the question, how many similar crimes go undiscovered? More pertinently, when they are discovered, how often is the burden of proof insufficient to bring a prosecution?

This fact is well known to the perpetrators, and should be borne in mind when the relative scarcity of successful prosecutions is used by the industry’s representatives to deny the scale of the problem.

Paul Tooley, by email.

I don’t know who Paul Tooley is, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this Paul Tooley (above) is the same as this Paul Tooley or this Paul Tooley (scroll down to comments section).

Whoever he is, bloody well done for calling out these organisations.

Although as a campaigner I shouldn’t really mind the industry’s silence. In my view it’s indicative of complicity / covering up / shielding the guilty and that just means we’re another step closer to toppling this filthy ‘sport’.

28
May
21

Hysteria from Scottish gamekeepers as SNP and Greens formalise talks to cooperate

Earlier this week it was announced that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in formal talks with the Scottish Greens over a ‘co-operation agreement’ designed to seal a pro-independence majority at Holyrood. Falling short of a formal coalition, the agreement could in future lead to Green MSPs becoming Ministers as part of the current Scottish Government (see Scottish Greens statement here, BBC news article here and an analysis from the Guardian’s Scotland Editor Sev Carrell here).

This proposed agreement is of huge interest to many environmentalists and although the specific policy areas of potential cooperation have not yet been agreed (see here), tackling the climate emergency (and by default, surely, the nature emergency) should be a prominent feature.

The news of these talks has triggered the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) to publish a typically over-the-top scaremongering response about perceived job losses, presumably as a ploy to keep its less well-informed members ready to join a protest at short notice: [Update 16.30hrs – see foot of blog!]

Job losses are of concern to everyone, of course, but as I’ve written previously, the SGA is once again accusing the Scottish Greens of doing something they haven’t done.

The Scottish Greens have made it an aspiration to abolish our members’ jobs‘, says the SGA.

Actually, the Greens have done no such thing. In fact in their election manifesto the Scottish Greens have committed to creating jobs in the countryside, promising ‘at least £895M over the next five years in restoring nature whilst investing in rural communities, creating over 6,000 green jobs’.

The Greens are also committed to ensuring that the licencing of grouse moors ‘is properly resourced and well enforced’ – how does that equate to rural job losses if grouse moor managers are abiding by the law?

A spokesperson from the Scottish Greens is cited today in another article about the proposed cooperative agreement amid concerns from fish farmers and National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS):

A spokesman for Scottish Green MSPs responded that it was too early to say which issues would arise in talks with the SNP.

He said that environmental harm and fish welfare was a higher priority than phasing out caged fish farms altogether.

He explained that the party’s intention was to support industries in finding alternatives to harmful and polluting activities, and not to force sudden change‘.

Perhaps if the SGA had spent less time and money sponsoring adverts against the Scottish Greens (that went well – great use of members’ funds, not), less time complaining to the electoral commission (how did that go?) and more time reading and engaging with the Greens instead of excluding them from hustings, they’d have a better grasp of what was going on and be in a stronger position to contribute to discussions instead of constantly throwing their toys out of the pram and howling, ‘It’s so unfair’.

Actually, if they’d got any sense at all they’d realise that these talks are not their greatest immediate threat – it’s the continued illegal killing of birds of prey on land managed for gamebird shooting that’s pushing them further and further in to the corner and away from public support.

That poisoned golden eagle, found dead next to a poisoned bait on Invercauld Estate, sent shockwaves through the public, many of whom had no idea this sort of barbarity still goes on.

The SGA’s response? Well I can’t see any statement of condemnation on their website, can you?

[The poisoned golden eagle found lying on a grouse moor next to a poisoned bait on Invercauld Estate. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

UPDATE 16.30hrs:

Right on cue, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has just published this:

26
May
21

Golden eagles breeding again in Orkney after almost 40 years

RSPB press release (26 May 2021)

Golden eagles breeding again in Orkney after almost 40 years

Golden eagles have returned to Orkney and are breeding here once again after an absence of almost 40 years. Earlier this year local RSPB Scotland staff were delighted to spot a pair nesting at the organisation’s nature reserve in Hoy, and can confirm that they now have chicks. The pair have been seen flying about as they forage.

[One of the breeding pair. Photo by Christine Hall]

These majestic birds used to be a common sight and breed across Orkney but persecution by humans meant just a single pair was left by 1848 in Hoy. Orkney had to wait 116 years until 1966 to see the return of breeding golden eagles. This pair had a long and successful partnership in Hoy raising many chicks together until one of the adults died in the winter of 1982. As these birds pair for life the surviving eagle continued to return to Hoy for three years but there were no further nesting attempts.

The RSPB Scotland staff have been keeping a watchful eye on the new pair to see how they are faring. As golden eagles are very sensitive to disturbance the location of the nest is not being disclosed, and the number of chicks isn’t known as those watching it having been keeping a safe distance away. The species typically has one or two chicks at a time, so the local team are looking forward to when the young fledge to see how many emerge.

Lee Shields, RSPB Scotland’s Hoy warden, said “It is wonderful to see these magnificent eagles return to Orkney and we’re delighted that they are nesting in Hoy. Golden eagles are one of the most iconic birds in Scotland and they have been missing here for too long.

We want to give these birds the best chance of success which is why it’s so important to not reveal where the nest is. It is an inspiring sight to see the male and female soaring over the Hoy hills, and we’re eagerly awaiting finding out how many chicks they have.”

Hoy appears to be the go to place for returning eagles to breed in Orkney, likely due to the terrain in uninhabited areas of the island being well suited for them. Back in 2018 Orkney’s first white-tailed eagle chicks for over 140 years hatched in Hoy. Then RSPB Scotland ran “Eaglewatch” events to allow people to catch a glimpse of the birds but given the heightened sensitivity of golden eagles and as the white-tailed eagles have not bred this year is not doing so here.

Golden eagles are one of the largest birds in Scotland. They are more than twice the size of a buzzard, with a wingspan of 1.8 – 2.3m. Their lifespan is typically over 20 years. All of the UK’s breeding golden eagles are found in Scotland, with the most recent national survey in 2015 putting their numbers at 508 pairs.  

Lee added: “This golden eagle pair are at an early stage of their breeding life and as they are long-lived birds we hope not only that they will be as successful as their predecessors, but that they are the beginning of this species re-establishing itself in Orkney. These birds are an integral part of Orkney’s history and with this pair and their young we’re keeping our fingers crossed we can look forward to them being part of its future once again.” 

ENDS

19
May
21

Fergus Ewing out, Mairi Gougeon in – Scottish Cabinet reshuffle revealed

Well this is very very very good news indeed.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced her reshuffled Cabinet team; former Rural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing is no longer in the Cabinet at all and former junior Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon has been promoted to the position of Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.

There is likely to be some cross-over with Mairi’s role and that of Michael Matheson who is the new Cab Sec for Net Zero, Energy & Transport, which will include working on the climate emergency (think muirburn).

I’m absolutely delighted and judging by the number of texts I’ve received this morning, I’m not alone.

I don’t intend to comment on the departure of Fergus ‘friend of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association‘ Ewing other than to say, goodbye.

Mairi Gougeon is a brilliant choice for Cab Sec. She is an intelligent, dynamic and often thoughtful politician who has not been afraid to speak out against the persecution of the hen harrier in her role as a junior Minister and Hen Harrier Species Champion. She has taken an active role, even prior to her appointment as a junior Minister, asking questions about the Government’s commitment to tackling raptor persecution (here), attending and speaking at Hen Harrier Day events (e.g. here), taking the time to accompany raptor fieldworkers in to the field to understand more about this species’ ecology and its perilous conservation status (e.g. here and here), has initiated Parliamentary debates on hen harrier conservation (e.g. here) and has supported the Scottish Raptor Study Group at Holyrood gatherings (e.g. here).

[Mairi Gougeon beaming after a visit to watch hen harriers with members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group a couple of years ago in her role as Hen Harrier Species Champion]

I haven’t always agreed with her earlier thinking on how raptor persecution should be tackled (e.g. see here, and here) and I have criticised her for her silence in response to some brutal, sadistic crimes against birds of prey on Scottish grouse moors (here) but her delivery of the Government’s response to the Werritty Review back in November 2020 revealed an increased understanding of the issues and a sign of a genuine commitment to changing the status quo (here).

Last week, author Jim Crumley wrote an excellent piece about the need for a new Environment Secretary ‘who will act’ (here). I have high hopes that Mairi Gougeon will be that Cab Sec (albeit under a new title).

Congratulations, Mairi, there are many of us looking forward to supporting your efforts.

The new junior Ministerial team, working in support of the Cabinet Secretaries, is expected to be unveiled shortly.

18
May
21

Poisoned golden eagle: will a General Licence restriction now be imposed on Invercauld Estate?

Earlier this month it was reported that police had conducted a raid, under warrant, on several properties on the Invercauld Estate following the discovery in March of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and some poisoned bait (see here).

I’ve since blogged about why I think the golden eagle killer will evade criminal prosecution (see here) and a little bit about NatureScot making noises about considering a potential General Licence restriction on this estate (see here). A General Licence restriction is nowhere near as serious as a criminal prosecution but it is, in the words of former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse who worked hard to get this apparent sanction introduced, a ‘reputational driver’ (see here).

It’s my view that a General Licence restriction is long overdue here, given the history of alleged wildlife crime offences, and a blog that was published yesterday has further strengthened that view, of which more in a minute.

This area around Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park has been at the centre of a number of alleged wildlife crime offences over many years.

[Estate boundaries based on data from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]

There was the discovery of three poisoned buzzards on Invercauld Estate in 2005 (here), the discovery of an illegally shot peregrine at the Pass of Ballater in 2011, the reported coordinated hunt and subsequent shooting of an adult hen harrier at Glen Gairn on the border of Invercauld and Dinnet Estates in 2013, the illegally-set traps that were found near Geallaig Hill on Invercauld Estate in 2016, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Calluna ‘on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater’ on 12 August 2017, the opening day of the grouse shooting season (here) although it’s not clear whether this was on Invercauld Estate or neighbouring Dinnet Estate, the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged white-tailed eagle ‘Blue T’ on Invercauld Estate in May 2018 (see here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier Stelmaria ‘last recorded on grouse moor a few miles north west of Ballater, Aberdeenshire on 3rd September 2018 (see here), the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged hen harrier (Wildland 2) on Invercauld Estate on 24 September 2019 (here) and now the discovery of a deliberately poisoned golden eagle and poisonous baits on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in March 2021 (see here).

The suspicious disappearance of three satellite-tagged hen harriers and one white-tailed eagle in one small area managed for driven grouse shooting should raise lots of eyebrows given the unequivocal scientific pattern that has been identified for such occurrences (e.g. see here and here) and especially in an area where the alleged hunting and subsequent shooting of a hen harrier was witnessed and reported several years earlier.

However, according to NatureScot’s current Framework for how it makes decisions on whether to impose a General Licence restriction, the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged raptor is not, in itself, considered sufficient evidence, even when there’s an emerging pattern in one particular area:

Unexplained ‘stopped no-malfunction’ satellite tags may be considered by NatureScot as supporting information in making a decision, particularly where multiple losses have occurred on the same land. However such instances will not be considered as evidence under the terms of this Framework unless recorded as a crime by Police Scotland‘.

The most significant, and indeed tangible, wildlife crime incident that could be linked to Invercauld Estate was the discovery of illegally-set traps on the estate in 2016, which led to the horrific suffering of a Common Gull whose legs were caught in two of the traps (see here).

[Photo of the Common Gull after being released from the traps. Photo by Graeme Rose]

Long-term blog readers may recall this incident and the farcical non-existent enforcement measures that ensued. The SSPCA attended in the first instance and had to euthanise the gull due to the extent of its injuries but because of their ridiculously restricted investigatory powers, they were not permitted to search the area for more traps – this had to be done by the police, who conducted a search several days later where it was discovered that other traps (i.e. evidence of potential crime) had been recently removed prior to the police search (here).

Then there was an odd statement of denial from Invercauld Estate, bizarrely issued by the GWCT on behalf of the estate (a strange activity for a so-called independent wildlife conservation charity, see here) and incidentally, this denial is not that dissimilar to the one we saw recently from the estate in relation to the deliberately poisoned golden eagle – see here.

I challenged the estate’s claim that Police Scotland had not found any evidence of illegal activity back in 2016 and Police Scotland issued a statement in response (see here).

I then submitted a series of FoIs that revealed what looked like some very odd goings on between the estate, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Scottish Government, which resulted in ‘secret action‘ apparently being taken against a gamekeeper but no prosecution followed, and nor did NatureScot impose a General Licence restriction for this incident (and NatureScot has refused to discuss its decision saying ‘it’s not in the public interest‘ to tell us).

I did wonder whether NatureScot had not imposed a General Licence restriction due to a technical issue – the fact that the SSPCA, not the police, attended the scene and found the evidence of the illegally-trapped gull. If you look again at NatureScot’s Framework for decision-making on restrictions, it says that evidence must be provided by the police. It doesn’t say anything about evidence from the SSPCA being acceptable. I hope I’m wrong on that because as a statutory reporting agency, the SSPCA’s evidence should be considered just as robust as any evidence put forward by Police Scotland – I’ll check with NatureScot about it.

However, yesterday a blog was published on the excellent ParksWatchScotland blog, written by Graeme Rose, one of the guys who had actually found the critically-injured gull on Invercauld Estate in 2016. It’s a harrowing tale, but it’s incredibly enlightening in that he pursued the enforcement authorities for several years after the incident and by doing so uncovered all sorts of shenanigans. He says he received a text in July 2020 from the former Convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority who told him that a gamekeeper had indeed ‘been let go’ after the gull incident in 2016, despite the estate’s protestations at the time that any offence had even taken place. I believe this is the information that was deliberately redacted by the CNPA and the Scottish Government when I’d asked them about it in those FoIs.

What a pitiful state of affairs.

Will we see anything different in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle? Well, we’ve already seen that Invercauld Estate has ‘left’ the Eastern Cairngorms Moorland Partnership, although there was absolutely zero indication whether the estate was expelled or left of its own accord (see here) so it looks like the Cairngorms National Park Authority is staying true to form and not wanting to be explicit about any action that may or may not have been taken. Why is that, do you think? Could it be anything to do with who sits on the CNPA’s Board? There are some interesting characters with some interesting connections to the grouse-shooting world, and even to Invercauld Estate itself.

And what about NatureScot and its deliberations about whether there is sufficient justification for a General Licence restriction on Invercauld Estate? That’s going to be VERY interesting and is something I’ll definitely be tracking. Watch this space.

13
May
21

“Another poisoned golden eagle? If the SNP are serious about protecting wildlife we need an Environment Secretary who will act” – Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley has written a brilliant opinion piece for the Courier (published 10th May 2021) in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle found on Invercauld Estate in March.

The article is reproduced below:

THERE is a job of some urgency for the new Environment Secretary at Holyrood.

You may have read about the golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld estate in the Cairngorms National Park.

The guiding principles for a national park should centre around the wellbeing of the landscape and its ecology. Nothing else. Otherwise, why bother to have a national park at all?

But what Scotland has instead is two national parks obsessed by tourism and the rural economy.

As it happens, I have just been reading a book called “A Life in Nature”, a collection of writings by Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He wrote this:

“For conserving wildlife and wilderness there are three categories of reason: ethical, aesthetic, and economic, with the last one (at belly level) lagging far behind the other two.”

And this:

“Conservationists today are involved in a gigantic holding operation – a modern Noah’s Ark to save what is left of the wildlife and wild places, until the tide of new thinking begins to flow all over the world.”

Long wait for tide to turn

He wrote that 60 years ago.

But because I read it at the same time as Nicola Sturgeon’s astonishing election achievement was playing out, I began to think that there is an opportunity right here, right now.

If we are on a tide of new thinking, it has never been more important that the Scottish Government appoints an Environment Secretary with a radical agenda.

And please don’t let Fergus Ewing anywhere near it, because he is far too chummy with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

The golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld this spring is the latest in a breathtaking catalogue of around 80 crimes against wildlife in the national park’s young life

The first thing I think the new Environment Secretary should do is to familiarise himself or herself with the track record of the Cairngorms National Park in conserving wildness and wildlife, and then to consider how the land within the park is managed.

The result of that familiarising process should be cause for a great deal of concern for the new Environment Secretary.

If it isn’t, the Scottish Government will have appointed the wrong person, because the golden eagle found poisoned at Invercauld this spring is but the latest in a breath-taking catalogue of around 80 crimes against wildlife in the national park’s young life (it was established in 2003).

Twelve golden and white-tailed eagles have been killed in that time along with 24 buzzards; and 10 hen harriers in the last five years alone.

A sea eagle nest tree was deliberately felled and nests of peregrine and goshawk were destroyed.

All that inside the national park, in the last 18 years, and all of these birds have the highest level of legal protection.

Victorian values

That alone should be enough to persuade the new Environment Secretary that the situation calls for new thinking.

The estates’ attitudes towards birds of prey are symptomatic of a far wider contempt for those species of nature which they judge to be inconvenient for what remains a depressingly Victorian attitude to land and wildlife.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority’s response to the eagle-killing was dismal. A statement on its website says: “The CPNA condemns this senseless and irresponsible behaviour and condemns it in the strongest possible terms. Raptor persecution has no place in 21st century Scotland and no place in this national park.”

How can you revere a landscape when the principal management tools of its private owners are fire and guns and poisons, burning the land, killing the wildlife?

No, it doesn’t condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

If it had done, the park authority would be screaming down the phone to the Scottish Parliament that grouse moor and deer forest should have no place in 21st century Scotland or inside the national park.

They are completely incompatible with thoughtful conservation of a landscape that should be revered for its wildlife and wild landscape.

How can you revere a landscape when the principal management tools of its private owners are fire and guns and poisons, burning the land, killing the wildlife. And why aren’t national parks owned by the nation?

That might have amounted to something like the strongest possible terms.

The other problem with the park authority’s statement is that, alas, there IS a place for raptor persecution in 21st century Scotland, in many places, and one is the Cairngorms National Park.

Reality doesn’t match ambition

The first words you read on the home page of the Cairngorms National Park Authority website are these: “An outstanding national park, where people and nature thrive together.”

It is a very worthwhile ambition, but it is a long way from the reality on the ground.

The new Environment Secretary might also like to consider that one of the reasons for such a toll of wildlife is that as things stand, the estates know they will almost certainly get away with it, for there are hardly ever prosecutions.

If our newly-elected government wants to project the image of a forward-thinking independent Scotland on the European stage – and I sincerely hope it does given my lilac and yellow votes for the SNP – then the tide of new thinking should perhaps begin by blowing away that embarrassing Victorian stain from the face of the land.

ENDS

12
May
21

Poisoned golden eagle: statement from NatureScot

NatureScot, formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has published a statement in response to the discovery of the deliberately poisoned golden eagle found on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park in March.

[Poisoned golden eagle laying next to a poisoned mountain hare bait on Invercauld Estate, March 2021. Photo RSPB]

Here’s what it says:

7 May 2021

NatureScot statement: Poisoned golden eagle found on Invercauld Estate

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s Director of Sustainable Growth, said:

This incident is appalling and, without doubt, is an act of animal cruelty. We encourage anyone with information to report it to the police immediately.  The indiscriminate use of poisons – as this incident demonstrates – is lethal to our iconic Scottish wildlife, but it can also pose a serious health risk to people and domestic animals that come into contact with it. NatureScot will await a full report of the circumstances from Police Scotland and consider this case in line with our framework for restricting the use of General Licences.

We are committed to working with Police Scotland and other members of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland) to tackle continuing raptor persecution and other wildlife crime in Scotland“.

ENDS

It’s unusual to see a formal statement from the statutory conservation agency in response to an individual wildlife crime, but perhaps the audacity and brazenness of this latest atrocity, and the widespread public revulsion that this still goes on with impunity, let alone inside the Cairngorms National Park, has pushed NatureScot to publish a statement.

The concept of NatureScot condemning the poisoning is solid, of course. Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind condemn it, vociferously? They should also be highlighting and condemning every single wildlife crime that gets uncovered in Scotland, not just the big high profile cases.

But I wonder, having read their statement, whether NatureScot thought they’d better say something early because the inevitable question is heading their way – the General Licence restriction.

They must know that I, as well as others, will be asking about that and they might also have guessed that I’d be arguing strongly that a General Licence restriction is in fact long overdue on Invercauld Estate, given some of the other alleged offences reported from there.

I’ll be writing a separate blog about that though, because there may well be a technical loophole that has allowed NatureScot to ignore previous grounds to revoke the General Licence on this particular estate – I’ll come back to it because it’s worth it’s own blog and I don’t have the time to write it today.

10
May
21

Why the Invercauld golden eagle killer will evade prosecution

Last week we learned that Police Scotland had conducted a raid, under warrant, of several properties on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park following the discovery of a deliberately-poisoned golden eagle and a number of poisoned baits (see here).

This was headline news on social and mainstream media. For some, judging by the responses I read, the news was shocking. Some people were clearly previously unaware that deliberately laying out poisoned baits to kill birds of prey was even a thing in 21st Century Britain, and that a golden eagle had been killed this way, inside the Cairngorms National Park, the supposed jewel of the UK’s protected areas, was incomprehensible to many.

For those of us all-too familiar with the issue of ongoing illegal raptor persecution on driven grouse moors, the news wasn’t shocking at all. Not one tiny bit. Not even the brazen, blatant criminality involved in this case. We’ve seen it over and over and over again.

And the worst thing about that inevitability is the knowledge that the eagle killer will not be brought to justice. Despite the police’s ability to narrow down the likely perpetrator to one of just a handful of individuals, and despite a shiny new law ramping up the sentence for those convicted, the certainty that justice will not prevail is just about as depressing as knowing that yet another eagle was killed before it even reached its first birthday.

The victim this time was a young male golden eagle who hatched on a nearby estate in 2020. We know this because just prior to fledging last June, researchers at the Scottish Raptor Study Group had ringed him and his sister with a leg band each containing a unique identification code.

[The male golden eagle (on the right) with his sister after being ringed on the nest in June 2020. Photo by SRSG]

His poisoned corpse was found by a member of the public on Friday 19th March 2021. Ironically, this is the day that Scottish gamekeepers were holding an online protest about progress and modernisation (see here).

However, the discovery of this eagle’s corpse wasn’t the first indication of someone committing wildlife crime on Invercauld Estate during the third period of lockdown. A few days earlier a member of the public had stumbled across another poisoned bait nearby and, not knowing what it was, posted a photograph on social media asking if anyone knew what it might be. It was a classic image of a bait totally covered in dead insects – an indication of the toxicity of the poison used.

Fortunately the photo was immediately identified as being worthy of a report to the RSPB, who notified the police, and the bait was collected and sent for analysis. A search of the immediate area didn’t reveal any victims of the poisoned bait.

Several days later the eagle’s corpse was discovered, laying face down on the grouse moor close to an obvious poisoned bait (mountain hare).

[Poisoned golden eagle with poisoned mountain hare bait. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Wildlife crime officers from Police Scotland responded immediately and the eagle’s corpse and the poisoned bait were sent for toxicology tests.

For some reason yet to be explained, Police Scotland did not immediately apply for a warrant to search properties at Invercauld Estate. Given the physical evidence from the scene, and the history of raptor persecution in this area, I would argue that the police had sufficient evidence to apply for a warrant without delay.

But they didn’t.

Instead, they waited for almost seven weeks before conducting a search under warrant, and they conducted this search when there was snow on the ground. It was an utterly pointless exercise because by then the news of this poisoned eagle was out, and had been out for weeks, certainly in game-keepering circles (as evidenced by posts on social media) and shooting industry circles (as evidenced by this post from Scottish Land & Estates, here). The perpetrator(s) had been given all the time in the world to ensure every scrap of evidence was removed before the search party arrived.

Now, it could be that Police Scotland was waiting for the toxicology results to be confirmed prior to applying for a warrant. A positive result would certainly increase the justification for a warrant to be issued, although looking at the crime scene photograph it should have been pretty bloody obvious what had happened and thus sufficiently evidenced to secure a warrant.

Whatever. Hopefully the police’s decision-making process in this case will be reviewed and lessons will be learned because a seven week delay is simply not good enough.

However, we shouldn’t fall in to the trap of believing that had a search been conducted immediately after the discovery of the poisoned eagle, that the perpetrator(s) would have been discovered, charged and prosecuted. It just doesn’t work like that.

Where these crimes are uncovered on massive, privately-owned estates where multiple people are employed, it is virtually impossible for the police to identify the perpetrator with sufficient evidence to charge them. In all the years that golden eagles have been illegally killed in Scotland, there has never once been a successful prosecution. Not one.

Even though large driven grouse shooting estates generally operate with a clear hierarchical structure, where a named person is hired as a ‘beatkeeper’ for a particular part of the estate, and he/she is answerable to the head keeper, when it comes to police interviews we know that ALL the keepers from across the whole estate will either (a) deny that one person has responsibility for a given area or (b) will give ‘no comment’ interviews. This leaves the police with nowhere to go with their investigation.

It’s not the police’s fault – although they suffer the brunt of the public’s frustration when these crimes go unpunished time and time again – it is the fault of ‘the system’, and that is the fault of the politicians for failing to effectively address it. And to some degree, it is our fault for not doing enough to pressurise the politicians to act.

Last November the Scottish Government took its biggest step yet and announced it was to introduce a licensing scheme for grouse shooting, partly to address ongoing environmental concerns about certain aspects of grouse moor management (particularly muirburn and the use of medicated grit) but also to address the issue of the ongoing killing of birds of prey. The discovery of this poisoned golden eagle goes some way to justify the Government’s decision to ignore Werritty’s recommendation to wait for yet another five years before doing anything.

The preparatory work for this licensing scheme should now begin in earnest as the SNP was re-elected last week. It remains to be seen exactly how a licensing scheme will be used to sanction estates where raptor persecution continues – if it’s anything like the Government’s previous attempts to address it (e.g. vicarious liability and General Licence restrictions) then we can expect more of the same atrocities and injustices which will lead campaigners to push for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting as the inevitable next step.

Many of us believe the time for a ban is now, particularly because enforcement of a licensing scheme will be so very difficult unless the Government introduces radical new measures such as unannounced spot checks with specialist detection dogs and the widespread use of covert surveillance equipment by an elite team of specialist investigators, paid for by hefty licence registration fees. It is up to us to push for stringent enforcement powers, increased investigatory powers for the SSPCA and a commitment from Government that if raptor persecution crimes are still evident under the new licensing regime that it will be scrapped and a ban on driven grouse shooting will be introduced with immediate effect. I look forward to seeing who is appointed as the new Environment Cabinet Secretary.

The question is, how any more golden eagles (or white-tailed eagles, buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, goshawks, peregrines, short-eared owls, tawny owls, kestrels, merlins, ospreys, marsh harriers, sparrowhawks etc) will suffer excruciating and savage deaths before the Government finally accepts that enough is enough?

For additional reading, I recommend this latest post from Nick Kempe on the ParkswatchScotland blog (Eagle persecution, land management and the Cairngorms National Park, here).

06
May
21

Poisoned golden eagle: confirmation it was found dead on a grouse moor at Invercauld Estate

Earlier today I blogged about how Invercauld Estate Manager Angus McNicol had been quoted in the press saying that the area where the poisoned golden eagle had been found on Invercauld Estate near Crathie was “not managed for driven grouse shooting” (see here).

Shurely shome mishtake?

I’d commented that this seemed an odd claim to make given the amount of strip muirburn (a classic indication of grouse moor management) in the area:

This evening, a comment has been posted on this blog from someone directly involved in the investigation, Ian Thomson from RSPB Scotland:

For anyone struggling to read the small print, it says:

For the avoidance of doubt, the eagle was found poisoned next to a mountain hare bait, in an area of strip muirburn within 200m of a line of grouse butts and a landrover track‘.

That’s that, then.

Thanks, Ian.

06
May
21

Poisoned golden eagle: examining the statement from Invercauld Estate

Further to the news that a poisoned golden eagle was found dead on Invercauld Estate in March 2021 and the subsequent police raid that took place on the estate earlier this week (Tues 4th May – see here), I want to examine a statement that subsequently appeared in the press (e.g. here), attributed to Invercauld Estate Manager, Angus McNicol.

[The poisoned golden eagle, lying dead next to a poisoned mountain hare bait, on heather moorland on Invercauld Estate. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

The statement was interesting because it appeared in the late afternoon just a few hours after the raids had taken place and importantly, prior to ANY media output from the Police, even though the estate’s statement alluded to a ‘police appeal’. What police appeal? It could be argued that this was a damage limitation exercise by Invercauld Estate.

The statement went as follows:

Angus McNicol, estate manager at Invercauld, said: “We have been informed by the police that the bird that was found contained pesticide. We are very disturbed indeed to learn that a bird of prey has been found on Invercauld in these circumstances.

We wholeheartedly support the appeal about this bird and anyone with information should contact Police Scotland on 101 urgently. Naturally we are offering our cooperation to the police as they conduct their inquiries and hope they are able to identify anyone who is involved.

The area where the bird was found is on a let farm in an area which is managed for sheep farming and is on the edge of an area of native woodland regeneration. It is not managed for driven grouse shooting. Within the last two weeks, we have had to call the police to report an incident of damage to gamekeeping equipment and another of anti-social behaviour on a wetland habitat and this more recent report is a further serious concern for us.

Given the relative proximity of the location to houses and the A93 main road, we are hopeful that a member of the public may have seen something which might help the investigation.

Mr McNicol continued: “So much of what we do at Invercauld is about conservation so this news is particularly distressing. Staff and contractors are actively involved in activities that help conserve many species in the Estate’s valleys, woodlands, moorland and montane habitats. We pride ourselves in the biodiversity this creates and this news is therefore especially disheartening.

We are committed to our conservation work on the Estate and would like to see this incident investigated as thoroughly and quickly as possible.”

I want to look closely at Mr McNicol’s claim that the area where the poisoned golden eagle was found “Is not managed for driven grouse shooting“.

The precise location on Invercauld Estate where the poisoned eagle (and the poisoned bait that killed it) has not been revealed, but the RSPB photograph of the poisoned eagle clearly shows heather and Mr McNicol does give away some information about the proximity of houses and the A93 main road and an area of native woodland regeneration.

We also know, from the official police statement published the following day, that the area was ‘near to Crathie’. That narrows it down considerably.

Here are a couple of Google Earth maps showing Crathie and an area of Invercauld Estate to the NE of Crathie (north of the A93 main road) that I understand to be a woodland regeneration area, and then oh, look, right next to that is a vast area of muirburn strips. You know, the tell-tale burned scars of a moorland managed for, er, driven grouse shooting:

Or have I got that wrong? Is this not a vast area managed for driven grouse shooting at all, but just a large area of moorland that is routinely set alight to create so-called ‘wildfire breaks’? I’m sure I saw some lines of grouse butts when I zoomed in, too. Probably historical, kept for nostalgic purposes, eh?

You can draw your own conclusions about the accuracy of Mr McNicol’s claim that ‘the area is not managed for driven grouse shooting‘.

I also just want to comment about something I’ve read on social media about the timing of the publicity surrounding this crime, and how ‘convenient’ it is that it coincides with the Scottish Parliamentary elections. The clear accusation has been made that ‘anti-grouse moor campaigners’ have somehow conspired to get this in the news this week.

This is absolute nonsense, of course. It was the statement from Invercauld Estate that triggered news coverage of this crime – at that time (Tuesday afternoon, the day of the police raids), nobody had said anything about it. Not campaigners, not the police, just Invercauld Estate. Had the estate kept quiet, I would bet that this news wouldn’t have seen the light of day until at least next week, well after the elections. Indeed, I’m told by my media contacts that Police Scotland was forced to issue an official statement the day after Invercauld Estate’s statement, simply because of the media interest generated by Invercauld’s statement. The police received so many enquiries their hand was forced early and they had to issue a statement.

I’ll be writing about Police Scotland’s response to the crime in a forthcoming blog. I’ll also be returning to the claimed conservation credentials of Invercauld Estate.

UPDATE 6th May 2021: Poisoned golden eagle: confirmation it was found dead on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate (here)




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