Posts Tagged ‘merlin

11
Oct
18

Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills

Following Tuesday’s news that a peregrine had been illegally killed with a highly toxic banned poison in the Pentland Hills Regional Park earlier this year (see here), we’d also blogged yesterday (here) about other recorded wildlife crime in this area, including the shooting out of a merlin’s nest in 2017:

We’ve been asked some questions about the merlin case so here are some background details about that crime.

A breeding pair had taken over an abandoned crow nest at the top of a tree on the edge of a small copse. The immediate land was being used for sheep farming but the site was close to an area being managed for driven grouse shooting (as you can see from the above map). The sheep-farming landowner (believed to be Alastair Cowan of Eastside Estate, according to Andy Wightman’s brilliant Who Owns Scotland website) was known to be very supportive of raptors having previously given permission to local Raptor Study Group members to erect nest boxes for kestrels and nest baskets for merlin.

[Merlin nest tree, photo SSPCA]

The merlins had laid four eggs and were at the incubation stage when a routine monitoring visit by licensed Raptor Study Group fieldworkers led to suspicions that the breeding attempt had failed. Climbing to the nest to investigate, they found smashed eggs and feathers from the adult female congealed together. They also found residual bits of bark in the nest cup and fresh damage marks on the surrounding tree branches that were suspected to have been caused by shotgun pellets. Given that the eggs were on the point of hatch, the fieldworkers were concerned the incubating female had been shot on the nest, although there was no sign of her body but had she been shot it’s possible her body had been scavenged by corvids.

[Merlin nest contents, photo SSPCA]

The incident was reported to the SSPCA who also notified the police. Typically in a case such as this that’s as far as things would have gone. It would have been recorded as a ‘probable’ wildlife crime but without witnesses or video evidence it would have been virtually impossible to progress the case.

However, although the prospects of solving the case were slim to zero, the SSPCA investigator wanted to do everything possible to at least demonstrate that this was a crime, so after securing the landowner’s permission, the top of the tree was cut off and sent for digital x-ray. The results were clear, the nest and the branches around the nest were peppered with shotgun pellets:

[X-rays from SSPCA]

It could be argued that the nest had been blasted by a shotgun prior to the merlins taking it over for their breeding attempt; if the nest had previously been occupied by corvids then destroying the nest, eggs and adults of specified corvid species is a legal activity under the terms of a General Licence. It’s a fairly barbaric thing to do but nevertheless it is a lawful activity, routinely undertaken by gamekeepers up and down the country who only require a shotgun certificate and the landowner’s permission.

However, in this case the fresh damage marks to the tree branches and the presence of pieces of bark in the nest cup were indicative that this nest had been blasted with a shotgun while the nest was being used by a protected species, the merlin.

The shooting of a nearby raven’s nest the previous year (see map above) where the corpse of a raven riddled with holes was found on the nest is also suggestive that someone with access to a shotgun is waging a determined campaign against protected species in this area. Perhaps the same person using a dangerous toxic poison to kill peregrines?

Full credit to the SSPCA for the extraordinary and creative lengths they were prepared to go to to secure the evidence that would see this incident recorded as a confirmed crime. We’re not aware of any other case where a tree top has been removed and x-rayed.

Although nobody has been charged, the details of this case, along with the other recorded wildlife crimes in the Pentlands, are all building a picture of yet another raptor persecution hotspot in south Scotland, right under the noses of the Scottish Government (who, incidentally, still haven’t responded to the news that a peregrine was illegally killed in this area with a highly toxic banned poison).

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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)

17
Aug
18

Gamekeeper cautioned after merlin killed in illegally-set trap on grouse moor

This merlin was found dead in a trap on an un-named driven grouse moor in Northumberland in July this year. A fell runner discovered the bird and reported it to the RSPB.

The RSPB went to the site the next day and realised that this trap had been illegally-set as no attempts had been made to restrict access to the tunnel entrance, meaning non-target species (such as this merlin) could easily access the tunnel, with the inevitable result.

The incident was reported to Northumbria Police and a wildlife crime officer visited the site with an RSPB investigator.

An ‘experienced’ gamekeeper was formally interviewed and admitted setting the trap. Unbelievably, the police decided to issue him with a police caution instead of seeking a prosecution via the Crown Prosecution Service.

Haven’t we been here before? Ah yes, here and here.

Once again, another gamekeeper gets let off for committing a wildlife crime on a driven grouse moor. And before anyone says, ‘A caution isn’t a let off’, it absolutely is if this gamekeeper is permitted to keep his firearms and shotgun certificates, and his job, despite now having a criminal record.

Sure, he probably didn’t intend to trap and kill this merlin but that’s not the point. If he’s employed as a professional gamekeeper he has a responsibility to operate his traps within the terms of the law. With this trap, he chose not to do that, knowing full well that a non-target species could be killed, which it was. That’s an offence and he should have been charged and prosecuted.

Further details about this merlin case can be read on the RSPB Investigations Team blog here

21
Sep
17

Where have all the merlins gone? A lament for the Lammermuirs

Earlier this year a peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in the journal British Birds, documenting the long-term decline of merlins on four driven grouse moors in the Lammermuirs, south east Scotland (see here).

In that paper the authors, all members of the Lothian & Borders Raptor Study Group, detailed the results of their 30-year study of merlins, brought to an abrupt halt at the end of the 2014 breeding season after several estate owners refused vehicular access for nest site monitoring.

The authors concluded that illegal persecution was NOT a contributory factor in the decline of the merlin population in this area, but suggested that the intensification of grouse moor management, particuarly an increase in heather burning, had probably had a detrimental impact.

This month the authors have another paper published, this time in the journal Scottish Birds:

This paper discusses many of the scientific results from their earlier paper, but is written in more of a commentary style and includes more information about the changes they observed during this long-term study.

This poignant paper is well worth a read: Where have all the Merlins gone

31
May
16

Gas gun in use on grouse moor in Peak District National Park

As regular blog readers will know, we have an interest in the use of propane gas guns on grouse moors in the English and Scottish uplands.

For those who don’t know, propane gas guns are routinely used for scaring birds (e.g. pigeons, geese) from agricultural crops – they are set up to deliver an intermittent booming noise and the audible bangs can apparently reach volumes in excess of 150 decibels. According to the Purdue University website, 150 decibels is the equivalent noise produced by a jet taking off from 25 metres away and can result in eardrum rupture. That’s quite loud!

The grouse-shooting industry has claimed these are used for scaring ravens, but we argue they are more likely to be used (illegally) to disturb hen harrier breeding attempts. We are interested in the deployment of these bird scarers in relation to (a) their proximity to Schedule 1 (and in Scotland, Schedule 1A bird species) and thus any potential disturbance to these specially protected species and (b) their use in designated Special Protection Areas and thus any potential disturbance caused.

We, and others, have previously blogged about specific instances of gas gun use on grouse moors (e.g. see here and here) and we’ve been pressing the statutory nature conservation organisations (Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage) to issue urgent guidelines on their use, so far without much success (see here, here, herehere and here).

Meanwhile, grouse moor managers are still using these gas guns. The following photographs were taken on Sunday 22 May 2016 in the Peak District National Park:

Gas gun 1 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 2 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 3 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 4 Broomhead - Copy

This gas gun is on the Barnside Moor, which is part of the Broomhead Estate, owned by Ben Rimington Wilson, a spokesman (see here) for the grouse-shooting industry’s lobby group the Moorland Association. The grouse moors of the Broomhead Estate are part of a regional Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA), designated as a site of importance for short-eared owl, merlin, and golden plover.

Now, what’s interesting about the placement of this particular gas gun is that it lies a few metres outside of the SPA boundary, although the gas gun is pointing towards the SPA:

SPA OS - Copy

SPA close up - google map - Copy

What’s interesting is whether this gas gun was deliberately placed outside of the SPA boundary, to avoid having to ask Natural England for deployment consent? Although we would argue that even though the gas gun isn’t placed directly within the SPA, it is placed directly adjacent to it and the noise from that gas gun will definitely resonate across the SPA boundary line, potentially disturbing ground-nesting species such as short-eared owl, merlin and golden plover, for which the site was designated. (Hen harrier is not on the site’s designation list, presumably because when the site was designated, there weren’t any hen harriers nesting there, even though this is prime hen harrier habitat!).

But even though the gun isn’t directly placed within the SPA, it does sit (just) within the SSSI boundary:

SSSI close up - google map - Copy

This leads us to believe that the deployment of this gas gun will require consent from Natural England as it falls under the list of ‘operations likely to damage the special interest of the site’, namely, ‘change in game management and hunting practice’.

Has Natural England given consent for the deployment of this gas gun at this site? If so, how has it justified that deployment? If Natural England hasn’t given consent, is the deployment of this gas gun contrary to section 28 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act?

We don’t know the answers to these questions because we’re still waiting for Natural England to publish its policy on gas gun use, even though this guidance document was promised before the start of the 2016 breeding season!

Natural England needs to pull its finger out, pronto, and publish clear guidelines for use. If you’d like to email Alan Law, Natural England’s Chief Strategy & Reform Officer (he’s the guy who last September told us the guidelines would be available by early 2016) and ask him where that guidance document is, here’s his email address: alan.law@naturalengland.org.uk

You may also remember that a couple of weeks ago, SNH gave their opinion of what we should do if we found a gas gun being deployed on a grouse moor (see here). It was a very confused statement, but part of their advice was that intentional or reckless disturbance of a Schedule 1 species (such as hen harrier or merlin) is an offence and any suspected incidents of this through gas gun use should be reported to the police.

In our view, this would be a big waste of time – we can’t see the police having any interest in investigating gas gun use, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t know where to start. But, just as a test case, why don’t we report this gas gun to South Yorkshire Police as a suspected wildlife crime (potential reckless or intentional disturbance of a Schedule 1 species) and let’s see what they do with it.

Here is the information you need:

Gas gun grid reference: SK233978, Barnside Moor, Peak District National Park

Date observed in use: 22 May 2016

Please report this to Chief Superintendent David Hartley, South Yorkshire Police’s lead on wildlife crime: david.hartley@southyorks.pnn.police.uk

We’d be very interested in any responses you receive!

And if you’re in email-sending mode, you might also want to sent one to Sarah Fowler, Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park Authority and ask her whether there is a policy for the deployment of bird scaring devices on sensitive moorlands within the National Park. Email: sarah.fowler@peakdistrict.gov.uk

16
Apr
14

A sad morons’ coalition

blah_blah_blahSome stuff:

1. The Moorland Association (representative body of grouse moor owners in England & Wales) has commissioned some ‘research’ which, they claim, shows that ‘merlin thrive on grouse moors’ (see here). The quality of this ‘research’ was ably shredded by a commentator called ‘Rich’ on Mark Avery’s blog a few weeks ago (see here). Now another blogger, Steve Mills, has written an excellent piece about the so-called ‘protection’ of raptor species on driven grouse moors. Read it here.

For anagram fans: Moorland Association / A sad morons coalition.

2. There’s an article just published in the Holyrood magazine about the illegal poisoning of raptors in Scotland, including an interview with RSPB Scotland’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who suggests that raptor persecution levels on Scottish grouse moors are at similar levels to those of the Victorian era. Read it here.

There have been various responses to the article on Twitter from the great and the good:

From Doug McAdam, CEO of Scottish Land & Estates (the landowners’ representative body):

Raptor crime unacceptable but article and assertions not supported by evidence“.

From Daye Tucker, Director at Scottish Land & Estates:

Without wishing to defend indefensible, that claim [that persecution is at Victorian levels] is so beyond exaggeration“.

From Adam Smith, Director GWCT (Scotland):

All condemn recent appalling non-moor raptor killing but most opinions in story not evidence led“.

These are all interesting responses/denials, especially in relation to item 3:

3. The PAW Scotland Raptor Group has today issued what it describes as a ‘united’ statement of condemnation over the recent mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards in Ross-shire. Also included in this statement is the following:

The Group recognised that more needs to be done to strengthen the message that all forms of raptor persecution are completely unacceptable. The Group will ensure that this message is heard throughout Scotland and is strongly and publicly supported by all bodies representing land use, field sports and conservation.  The Group agreed to set up a short life working group to make recommendations as to how to deliver a strong message that commands wide support and is focused on preventing raptor persecution. The aim is to encourage all those with any information about such illegal practices to report this to the police“. Read the full statement here.

Both Scottish Land & Estates and the GWCT are members of the PAW Raptor Group. Can’t wait to see how they’re going to reconcile their denials about the extent of raptor persecution and turn it in to “a strong message that commands wide support and is focused on preventing raptor persecution”.

It’ll also be fascinating to see how the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (also a PAW Raptor Group member) “encourages all those with any information about such illegal practices to report this to the police” when their own policy advice to their members is to say nothing to the police except to give their name, address and date of birth, if asked.

Interesting to note that the PAW Scotland Raptor Group failed to provide any condemnation about the poisoned peregrine found recently in the Leadhills area. Can’t think why.

13
Jun
12

Case against alleged wild-bird egg trader continues

The lengthy legal proceedings against Inverness man Keith Liddell (see here for background), who is accused on various counts including trading in wild-bird eggs, has continued at Inverness Sheriff Court today.

Liddell, who has denied all the charges against him, will now stand trial on 22 October 2012, with an intermediate diet on 25 September 2012.

According to an earlier STV report, the list of raptor species whose eggs he is alleged to have handled includes merlin, lesser kestrel, snowy owl, griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture, red kite, tawny owl, rough-legged buzzard, black kite and booted eagle. The report states that Liddell was alleged to have been found with 136 wild birds’ eggs at his Inverness home on Holm Dell Drive on June 24 2009 (see here).




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