Hen harriers: good news and bad news

Hen harriers can be easily shot when protecting their nest against human intrusion

Hen harriers can be easily shot when protecting their nest against human intrusion

So another satellite-tagged hen harrier has disappeared. This is extremely bad news, though hardly unexpected. I’ll come back to this later, but it is heartening to report some good news in the form of Heads up for Harriers. This is a PAW Scotland-driven initiative to encourage estates to work with conservationists to monitor nests on cameras to identify some of the threats to the eggs and chicks.

Last year was particularly successful, with 30 nests fledging in excess of 100 chicks in hen harrier SPAs. This year was less successful, probably due to the weather, with two nests on five of the estates involved failing for that reason and another losing one chick to fox predation.  Twelve young fledged in total, but with any nesting bird, especially those that nest on the ground, there are always good years and bad years.

None of the results are surprising. Extreme weather and predation are well-known factors in hen harrier breeding success, just as they are in grouse breeding success. Nesting grouse, of course, don’t have to contend with their eggs or chicks being destroyed through human interference or the parent bird or birds being shot. The cameras, unfortunately, won’t stop this, nevertheless it is a step in the right direction and full marks to participating estates. I wonder if any of the estates involved are Glenogil, Millden, Glenlochy, Raeshaw, North Glenbuchat, Leadhills.  I somehow doubt they’d have any harriers there to nest.

Returning to the missing harrier, this was a chick fledged this year in Perthshire and given the name Brian. Its signal stopped abruptly on 22nd August near to Kingussie, an area of grouse moors. Despite searches the bird was not traced.

This is the second of this year’s satellite-tagged harriers to ‘disappear’, with the previous one, given the name Elwood, disappearing on 27th July in the Monadhliaths, the area in which eight satellite-tagged golden eagles have also ‘disappeared.’  Professor Des Thompson, Scottish Natural Heritage, who is the Chair of PAW Scotland Heads up for Harriers group, said,

“The loss of Elwood is very worrying, particularly given the reported loss of eight satellite-tagged golden eagles in the same vicinity over the last five years. We are reviewing these incidents and will report our findings in due course”.

The ‘findings’ may be part of the report being prepared for Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, who requested a review of satellite-tracking data. In my own experience with satellite-tagged birds, if they die or are unwell, the instrument continues to transmit their location to within a few metres and they are easily recovered. Of course if they are deliberately killed the instrument would be destroyed by the criminal and immediately stop transmitting. If this is what happened it is unlikely to be proved but more and more identical incidents must help Ms Cunningham draw her own conclusions.


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Sheep worrying

One of the 7 sheep, still alive, savaged by a dog

One of the 7 sheep, still alive, savaged by a dog

I see regular reports, UK-wide, of dogs attacking and killing or injuring sheep. There have been some horrific attacks, with upwards of 30 sheep affected.  I note from North Wales Police that the most common dog involved is the husky or similar types. Over the years I have encountered a wide range of dogs sheep-worrying in Tayside, from lurchers to German shepherds. I once saw a yellow Labrador chase a blackfaced ewe for more than a mile across the hillside, pursued by its exasperated and exhausted owner. I was at the other side of a loch and was attracted to the incident by much shouting and swearing. The outcome was that the sheep jumped into the loch. I last saw it swimming out into much deeper water while the owner retrieved his dog and made off down the lochside. Whether the sheep turned around and made it back to the shore I don’t know. On another occasion I shot a lurcher that had come back for the third evening in succession to worry sheep on the other side of a river from a travellers’ encampment.

I was really shocked at one incident, when 7 sheep were found with their faces badly torn when the farmer checked the flock in the morning. Unbelievably they were still alive and a vet was called out to euthanise them. I sent photos of the sheep to an eminent veterinary pathologist, who was convinced the injuries had been caused by a dog similar to a pit bull terrier or Staffordshire terrier. He had learned from experience that these dogs normally grip a victim by the nose, which was proved to me a few weeks later when a pit bull terrier-type dog attacked a donkey. I grabbed the donkey by the nose and was pulling it along the ground when it was eventually beaten off. The dog that had attacked the sheep was unfortunately never traced.

Most of these attacks are completely avoidable if dog owners would keep their dogs under control. Below is the short section on dogs attacking livestock from my book Wildlife and the Law.

Dogs worrying livestock

A dog unaccompanied in a public place can still be seized and dealt with by police or dog wardens as a stray, but this is the most minor of the offences. Some dogs worry livestock, and while it is often legitimate for the livestock owner to shoot the dog, there are limits on this offence by dint of the definition of ‘worrying livestock.’  This term, within the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, means attacking cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, asses, mules, domestic fowls, turkeys, geese or ducks; chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock or, in the case of females, abortion, or loss or diminution in their produce, or being at large (not on a lead or otherwise under close control) in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep. The offence must have taken place on agricultural land, which means land used as arable, meadow or grazing land, or for the purpose of poultry farming, pig farming, market gardens, allotments, nursery grounds or orchards. These offences would be dealt with by the police.

The definition above would not extend to a garden.  A situation with a dog attacking poultry kept in a private garden would be excluded from the offence and would therefore require (in Scotland) to be dealt with by the Local Authority under the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, despite the fact that most calls reporting this type of incident would be made to the police.

See Wildlife and the Law and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Alleged theft of a fox snare – comment

Snare set for fox

Snare set for fox

In the Sunday Post yesterday there was a report of a 63 year-old woman being charged by police after releasing a fox from a snare. The circumstances reported were that earlier in the year she was walking in the Pentland Hills in West Lothian when she found the fox caught by the waist in a snare. She felt sorry for the fox and is quoted as saying,

“I had presumed these barbaric things were illegal and did what most people would have done”.

“I called the Scottish SPCA and they asked me to give the snare to them.”

It seems that SSPCA then investigated the legality of the snare’s use.

The police had learned of the incident, though it is not clear from the news report when this was or if they were aware another organisation was already involved in the investigation. Police officers called on the woman, allegedly at 10.30 pm, and charged her with theft of the snare.

From the details of the news report there is nothing to suggest that the snare was other than set legally, even though the victim was caught round the middle. The report states that ‘(the law) limits where (snares) can be placed and how animals are caught, with many experts interpreting the law to rule out foxes being trapped round the abdomen’. This wouldn’t be my interpretation of the law, though ultimately the decision would be up to the prosecutor and/or a court.

In any event neither the police nor SSPCA considered a report to the procurator fiscal for the illegal setting of the snare, though the police considered the offence of theft of the snare had taken place.

To prove a theft, there needs to be mens rea. The legal definition of mens rea is ‘an element of criminal responsibility, a guilty mind; a guilty or wrongful purpose; a criminal intent: guilty knowledge or wilfulness.’  In other words a suspect needs to be aware that his or her conduct is criminal. I doubt that this could be proved in this incident. The inclination of nearly everyone who walks in the country and finds an animal trapped would be to release it. There may be nothing illegal about the capture of the animal but human nature, in most cases, would be to feel pity for it and to try to relieve its suffering. It is highly likely that this was what was going through the woman’s mind, plus it is hardly likely that a person who is aware of her guilt would hand over the evidence most likely to prove that guilt.

Unless there is anything outwith the news report of which I am not aware, I think this was a flawed judgement by the police officer to charge the woman. I think it is also an unreasonable time of night to call on anyone, with a few exceptions such as by prior arrangement, to deliver an urgent message or if the person has committed a serious offence. The reaction seems to have been out of proportion to the incident. Thankfully the charge was withdrawn, though not before the woman had an extensive period of worry.

I was amazed, though, that a woman on her own managed to get a fox out of a snare.

I was also amazed at the quote attributed to the spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association. He said: “These devices are set by trained professionals for a legitimate legal purpose – to protect vulnerable ground-nesting species from abundant predators such as foxes”. Snares can only be legitimately set to catch foxes, brown hares and rabbits. Brown hares and rabbits are not predators. I leave the interpretation of ‘such as’ to the reader, though it may simply be a Freudian slip.


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More flytipping

A lorry load of rubbish dumped in a passing place on a quiet rural road

A lorry load of rubbish dumped in a passing place on a quiet rural road

Yet again there has been fly-tipping on the roadside near where I stay. Because this is a quiet road in a rural area it is a magnet for criminals dumping their rubbish.  This time there has been a small lorry-load of garden and building rubbish left in a passing place. A concrete slab, an old wheelbarrow, a bucket, clippings from a rowan tree and much more comprised the load, most likely dumped by a bogus workman with a small tipper lorry.

There is a small charge for ‘businesses’ depositing their rubbish at the local council refuse disposal amenities. There is no doubt that this is part of the reason for dumping in the countryside. Rather than pay like the rest of us, some people have no conscience in dumping at the roadside, in field gates or in woodland, giving work and expense to councils (and thus to the rest of us through council tax) or to the unfortunate owner of the land. The other possible reason may be that they don’t want to be identified as being employed while drawing various benefits.

The council removed the rubbish within a couple of days but I’d love to know what investigation was carried out to try to identify the culprit; probably none.  I’d like to see photos of large-scale fly-tipping like this appear in local newspapers. I bet the original owner of this rubbish paid dearly for it to be removed and could probably identify the combination of articles as theirs, thus leading to the culprits. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen and we are all left with cleaning up after inconsiderate and selfish criminals.

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The use of tunnel traps

Fenn trap set illegally in the open

Fenn trap set illegally in the open

A tunnel that restricts access to most mammals permitted to be caught

A tunnel that restricts access to most mammals permitted to be caught

Legally-set bridge trap with restricted access

Legally-set bridge trap with restricted access

Fenn trap set as bridge trap. Illegal - no effort to restrict entrance

Fenn trap set as bridge trap. Illegal – no effort to restrict entrance

Trap set illegally - entrance far larger than would allow access to mammals permitted to be caught

Trap set illegally – entrance far larger than would allow access to mammals permitted to be caught

Gin trap - illegal to set this trap

Gin trap – illegal to set this trap

There has recently been some discussion on Twitter in relation to tunnel traps. This blog may assist in understanding the law governing the use of these traps.

Tunnel traps, which include bridge traps (often referred to as rail traps), are efficient methods of controlling small mammalian pest species. The law permitting the use of these traps is the Spring Traps Approval (Scotland) Order 2011 (there are different Orders covering the rest of the UK but by and large the law is similar). Though a number of traps have been given government approval, those principally used are the Fenn Mk I, II, IV and VI; Solway Nos. 4 and 6 and Springer Nos. 4 and 6.  The smaller traps (I, II IV and No 4 can be used for grey squirrels, stoats, weasels, edible dormice, rats and mice. The inclusion of edible dormice (Glis glis) is most likely because they are non-native, as opposed to the native hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), which is on Schedule 2 of the Habitats Regulations as a European Protected Species.  The UK range of the edible dormouse, at least in the meantime, seems restricted to southern England. The larger traps (Mk VI and No 6) can additionally be used for rabbits and mink.

The traps must be set in a natural or artificial tunnel which is ‘suitable for minimising the chances of capturing, killing or injuring non-target species whilst not compromising the killing or taking of target species’. No guideline as to the maximum size of the access hole to the tunnel is given in the Order, but in the design of the tunnel, particularly the entrance, the operator must minimise (dictionary definition – reduce to the lowest possible degree or amount) the chance of catching non-target species. An unsuitable tunnel would be one which clearly permits access to species larger than the largest that may legally be caught: the grey squirrel (or the mink or rabbit in the case of the larger traps).

This is a difficult area in which to be prescriptive, especially with the larger though less commonly-used traps, but the tunnel should not, so far as is possible, allow access to non-target mammals such as hedgehogs, pine martens, etc. Even when a genuine attempt has been made to restrict tunnel entrances by stones or other natural items, there will always be an odd occasion when a non-target mammal will manage to squeeze in. It may be a young hedgehog, a young rabbit or a mink, but these should only be very occasional by-catch, otherwise the trap should be removed or the entrance altered. Gridweld mesh end(s), or a wooden end to the tunnel with a hole in the centre, are much better and much less likely to result in by-catch. If a genuine effort is made to comply with the law then, even if a red squirrel or pine marten is caught, the law may not necessarily be broken unless it would be reasonable to conclude that the operator should have known that he would be likely to trap such a protected animal.

The part of the description of what is permitted in the use of the traps is interesting with the new (2011) inclusion of the phrase ‘whilst not compromising the killing or taking of target species’. Does this now mean that if both grey squirrels and red squirrels are in the same woodland a trap (particularly a bridge or rail trap which is more likely to take red squirrels than those set in dark tunnels) can be used even though it may take an occasional red squirrel? Might this be in conflict with Section 11(2) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which states that it is an offence if any person sets in position any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and so placed as to be likely (this term only applies in Scotland) to cause bodily injury to any wild animal included in Schedule 6 which comes into contact therewith, that is to say, any trap or snare (etc)? Schedule 6 includes the badger, wildcat, hedgehog, and red squirrel. This is as yet untested in court but I see this as a possible argument by defence agents.

The most common method of abuse with tunnel traps is their use in tunnels where the access is considerably greater that the approved use allows. Examples are stone-built tunnels with no attempt to restrict access, wooden tunnels with no ends fitted and no attempt to restrict access, or simply a couple of twigs stuck in the ground at the tunnel entrance that a hedgehog, cat or other larger mammal could easily bulldoze aside.

For policing purposes the law is not straightforward, and I would much rather see a prescriptive maximum size for the tunnel entrance, depending on the trap involved. Where traps are suspected of being used illegally they should be reported to the police. Traps that appear to be used legally should not be interfered with. If tunnel traps are set legally there is no requirement for it to be checked at specified intervals.

There are no circumstances in which gin traps can legally be set, though it is not an offence to possess a gin trap, unless with intent to use it.



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‘Vermin’ – a rant.

Fox, most certainly not 'vermin'. Photo courtesy of Arkive.

Fox, most certainly not ‘vermin’. Photo courtesy of Arkive.

Stoat; a predator but not 'vermin' Photo courtesy of Arkive.

Stoat; a predator but not ‘vermin’ Photo courtesy of Arkive.

I read a letter to the local paper the other day. The content related to types of Land Rover and the closing down of grouse moors.  I am not discussing the content of the letter apart from the author’s use of the term ‘vermin’. The relevant sentences are:

There is no control of vermin so the hill farmer’s lambs are killed.

The grouse left will either die due to tic (sic) infestation or be killed by stoats and other vermin or some by raptors.

I see the term ‘vermin’ used frequently. It is one that I detest, unless used for infestations of head lice, bed bugs or similar. To me it signifies a complete lack of appreciation and a true lack of knowledge of wildlife. The author doesn’t specify the ‘vermin’ that need to be controlled to save farmers’ lambs, though they might be foxes, badgers, white-tailed eagles and maybe even golden eagles, the larger gulls, crows and ravens. Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he only means foxes, which can legally be controlled, they are hardly vermin. Foxes might be pests to part of the community if they take lambs or ground nesting birds, but the same foxes take many rabbits, rats and mice. The control of these pests is beneficial to farmers. The fox is an amazing creature, having lived on its wits for centuries to avoid being exterminated by homo sapiens. It is a beautiful animal and most certainly does not deserve to be referred to as ‘vermin’.

We are off on the ‘vermin’ trail again in the second sentence. Stoats are referred to as vermin, and by inference probably other mustelids such as weasels and maybe even pine martens and polecats, all of which might take young grouse. All are fascinating animals with their own charm and beauty. All are much more beneficial than harmful to farming and forestry and probably only adversely affect game rearing and poultry farming where there is insufficient protection for the hens or ducks. I’ve had stoats, weasels and pine martens in the garden and none has interfered with my ducks or hens since they are locked up outwith daylight hours. I have had visits from another mustelid – an otter – which has killed some ducks. I did call it names a bit stronger than ‘pest’ but I would never consider it to be vermin and I fully appreciate that it is a wild animal only doing what comes naturally to it.

Over the years I have heard most species of raptor referred to as vermin. I draw the conclusion that people who refer to birds of prey as vermin have no respect for them and I’d not be surprised if they would kill them when any opportunity arises.


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Of ospreys, balloons and a shot buzzard

Osprey. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

Osprey. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

The buzzard shot in North Yorkshire

The buzzard shot in North Yorkshire









I was interested in a story in the media that on the evening of Wednesday 17th August a Virgin hot air balloon flew low over a nest containing four osprey chicks at Balgavies Loch, Forfar.  As the balloon passed within what was reported as 50 feet from the nest the four chicks took flight in panic.

The various reports stated that the matter had been reported to the police and that it is an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 and/ or 6 months imprisonment to disturb nesting ospreys.

A few days later it was reported in the press that no report was to be sent by the police to the procurator fiscal regarding the incident.  This result was clearly of concern to many people, who were quite clear that the young ospreys would have been disturbed.  Indeed they were disturbed, so much so that they took off from the nest. Had they been younger they may even have jumped from the nest, which would have eventually resulted in their death, either from the fall or more likely from starvation through not being fed or as a result of predation.  It was indeed a serious matter.

But what not everyone is aware of is the wording of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in relation to birds included in Schedule 1 to the Act, which includes the osprey.  Section 1 (5) states:

Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly–

(a)        disturbs any wild bird included in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young; or

(b)        disturbs dependent young of such a bird,

he shall be guilty of an offence.

The crux of this offence is that there is evidence that it was committed intentionally or recklessly. Whatever the situation seemed to the witnesses I suspect that the investigating police officers were unable to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that the pilot (a) was aware of the nest, or (b) that he was aware but he was unable to dictate the route of the balloon. I know no more than what was in the media, though I suspect if the pilot was aware of the nest he may not have been able to steer away to the left or right but I suspect he could have changed elevation and risen well above the nest.

Raptor persecution continues in North Yorkshire, with another dead buzzard being found and containing shotgun pellets. It was interesting to see that this bird has at least 11 shotgun pellets in its body. One is in the head and three are in the area of the lungs and heart.  From the location of these pellets there is a good chance that the bird, if not killed instantly, would fall from the sky (or from wherever it was shot) at the point it was hit. That would give the most likely location for the offence being committed as opposed to the bird being wounded and flying off to die elsewhere. This should help to limit the list of suspects. Invariably these can be found by using the force’s shotgun registration system and postcodes relevant to the area.  It does pose the question, though, as to why the bird was not picked up by the person (the criminal) shooting it and disposed of.

I’m sure North Yorkshire Police will have the answer to these questions but yet again demonstrates that investigating wildlife crime is never simple.

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