Goshawk training young above Milton Den – an excerpt from ‘Walking with Wildlife’.

Milton Den, a mix of trees, shrubs, rough grass, a pond and a burn.

The pond in MIlton Den.

The roe doe appeared from the bushes and watched me.

My blogs have been scarce over the past year as I’ve been extremely busy with other writings. Now that things are a bit quieter I’ll try to make up some ground on the blog front.  My first is part of a chapter of my latest book Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish Estate. This book is selling well but mainly in Scotland. Though the book details a series of walks on a Scottish estate over the course of a year the estate could in fact have been anywhere in the UK. What I have tried to bring out in the book is that the estate has a fantastic mix of habitat – agricultural land, permanent grassland, mixed woodland, some mature coniferous woodland, ponds, marshes, lochs and a river. The mix of habitat is what allows the estate to have such a quantity and variety of wildlife. Most importantly it is well-run and, with my previous background in policing, I was confident that I was not going to encounter any illegal activity.


I walked through a field of quietly-grazing sheep towards Milton Den, following the line of yet another new hawthorn hedge. Behind the hedge and running along its length was a strip of game/wild bird crop about 30 yards wide. I scanned the crop for small birds but only saw a small group of goldfinches feeding on some teazels near the hedge. The mix of flowers, grains and vegetables is a real source of winter food for a variety of birds but as yet, in this year of unusual bounty, there is an abundance of seeds, berries and insects for birds everywhere.

Seven or eight rooks were feeding near the bottom of the grass field, no doubt gorging on invertebrates attracted by the sheep dung. They were joined by a further three which flew over from a harvested barley field at the other side of the den. When looking at the crow family from a distance a rough guide is that a large number of black birds are normally rooks, while pairs and single black birds are normally carrion crows. Far better though is to look at the wing beats if the birds are in flight. Carrion crows have a much slower, almost lazy, wingbeat as if there is no rush to reach their destination, while rooks are more business-like and beat their wings faster. While I was meditating these differences a pair of carrion crows flew into the west end of Mlilton Den and landed on a tree near a small pond. When they landed they flicked their wings a couple of times, which is typical of carrion crows and is yet another identifying feature. I’m surprised this was my first sighting of these ubiquitous corvids.

I sat on the edge of a water trough to view the scene and to have a drink of water – no, not from the trough! There is a great mix of trees, bushes, rushes and rough grass in the den, plus the pond and the burn which feeds into it, all of which create an exceptional habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. The hawthorn hedge and game/wild bird crop provide a wildlife corridor from the south, a strip of trees provides a corridor to the woodland to the north, and similarly a strip of trees does likewise to the west. I’d forgotten what a fantastic estate Dupplin is, and of course it’s even better now with the various new hedgerows and trees. As I sat there I thought I heard a single prukk from a raven. I listened for further sounds to confirm but all was quiet. Frustrating.

I walked along the south side of the den which, like almost all the woodlands, is now netted. The short grass which I remembered inside the fence has now been replaced by much longer and courser grass and yet again I lamented the absence of rabbits. As a farmer would do while studying his relaxed and ruminating beef cattle, the growth on his Texel cross lambs or the readiness of a field of barley to harvest, I leaned over a gate that led to a track cutting across the den giving access to farm vehicles. Almost immediately a roe doe, in resplendent summer coat of foxy red stepped daintily out of some bushes and surveyed her surroundings. I doubted that she would see me as I was motionless and to a degree blended in with the gate. There was little wind but it blew from the south east from me towards the deer. She lifted her head, looked in my direction, clearly got my scent and retreated, albeit without panic, back into the bushes. She looked a yearling, which is possibly why there was no fawn or fawns alongside.

Suddenly three young pheasants about 100 yards from me jumped in the air and began to cuck, cuck, cuck in alarm. I thought they’d been spooked by a fox but seconds later a female sparrowhawk landed in a small rowan tree just in front of me. She had lovely slate-grey and white bars on her breast and leg feathers and was close enough that I could see her yellow, piercing, eye. She had most likely flown low over the pheasants, as hunting sparrowhawks do, and was unseen by me until she landed. I slowly reached into my pocket for the camera but the sparrowhawk, much persecuted for centuries and in fact the last of the raptors to be protected by law, was having none of it and flew off to the other side of the den. The pheasants, still alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stealthy predator, continued to cuck cuck cuck for some time after it had gone. Even the much smaller male sparrowhawk has the same effect on my domestic ducks at home: they often dive into the pond if a sparrowhawk flies over and quack in alarm, often for a good 15 minutes afterwards.

Amazingly the next birds I saw were much bigger versions of the sparrowhawk: goshawks. I had walked further westwards along the den and was sitting on a stile having a sandwich when three birds appeared in the air above the den and a quarter of a mile further west. I thought of the oft-quoted tale about buses: you wait for ages for one and then three come along at the same time. So it was with the goshawks, with the last one I’d seen being around seven years earlier. They are normally pretty secretive birds, mostly keeping to woodlands where they hunt small mammals and birds up to the size of an adult pheasant. In the springtime they display with an undulating skydance above their woodland nest site but what I was being treated to today was, I am sure, a form of training.

Of the three, one was much larger and clearly a female. The other two were male. I suspected they may have been this year’s youngsters though – maybe less likely – could have been the female’s partner plus one youngster. Unfortunately they were just out of the range needed to make this differentiation. The three were diving at each other in mock aggression, with the main player being the female. They were probably about 150 yards high and at one point the female closed her wings and plummeted towards the ground in a stoop that would have done credit to a peregrine. She rose again and this mock sky battle continued for at least five minutes until they were lost to my view behind trees. It was interesting to note their underwing colour, which was much lighter and much more even than that of buzzards – birds of a similar size, and which normally have dark and light patches under their wings. The goshawks’ wings were broad and short, which facilitates their fantastic manoeuvrability through the narrowest gaps in trees in their more usual environment: woodlands.

This was a fantastic display by top avian predators. I thought of the prey species in the den underneath the trio of raptors and wondered how they were reacting. All was quiet and I suspect the pheasants had hidden out of sight. Rabbits would have been perfect prey for the goshawk family but I doubt they would have any better luck than me in locating one. I spoke later to Stewart the keeper, who told me that the goshawks had ‘knocked hell’ out of 100 young mallard ducks he had released on to a pond in the den. There were no ducks on the pond when I had passed it but I saw the survivors of the 100 later bathing in a large puddle on one of the farm tracks near the den. Only around 25 remained. The difficulty of course with having supermarket-scale numbers of prey species is that they attract higher than normal predator numbers.

Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Book review – Mongooses of the World by Andrew Jennings and Geraldine Veron

Book review - Mongooses of the World by Andrew Jennings and Geraldine VeronMongooses of the World by Andrew Jennings and Geraldine Veron is the latest animal-related book published by Whittles. I must admit when I got the book I had not thought deeply about mongooses and in fact never considered that there was any more than the one species. Considering the number of taxonic groups in almost every type of animal I was surprised I hadn’t applied this rule to mongooses.

In fact the book details the 34 species of mongoose, the best known of which is probably the meerkat. Mongooses are found mostly in the continents of Africa and Asia but with some extending into southern Europe and parts of the Middle East. It is clear from the book that little is known of some of the mongoose species, with confusion over the identification of some species and some being reclassified into a different family or sub-family as field studies reveal more information.

The book is pleasantly easy to read and gives the reader information on the evolution of the mongoose, their lifestyle and behaviour including whether they are diurnal or nocturnal, are solitary or live in social groups, their diet, breeding and principal predators.

An extensive section towards the end of the book deals with one species at a time and gives a map showing the distribution of that species, in each case beginning with the size of the animal and its red list status. Unsurprisingly, of the threats facing many of the species, forest destruction is at the forefront, with other main threats listed as being killed as bushmeat, to protect poultry, for their hair to be used as paintbrushes or shaving brushes, by domestic dogs or taken alive for the pet trade. As has been the case with many species throughout the world, mongooses, particularly the small Indian mongoose, has been captured and released on some Oceanic islands, where they have helped cause extinction to several species of rare and endemic birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The book is well laid out and amply supplied with lovely colour photographs, maps and tables. For someone who hadn’t given much consideration to mongooses I must admit to having thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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Book launches – Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish Estate.

I am having a book launch for Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate at two different venues. The first is in the lecture theatre of the AK Bell Library in York Place, Perth, at 7 pm on Tuesday 26th November.  The second is in The Crannie, 9 Cranston Street, Edinburgh, EH8 8BE, at 7 pm on Thursday 5th December. I would be pleased to see anyone who may be interested at either of these venues.

The estate featured is Dupplin estate, which lies just to the west of Perth.  I have a long association with the Dupplin Estate in Perthshire, as a schoolboy, as a farm worker and as a rabbit controller. To be able to write this book I revisited and walked over the whole estate over the course of a year to observe and record what changes there have been in farming practice, the environment and wildlife in the intervening years. My written record is hopefully a culmination of a lifetime’s knowledge of wildlife and the country environment.

During the book launch I will give an illustrated presentation of around 40 minutes in which I will try to take the reader to share the many magical and precious moments during my many walks. A nature watcher has to sit or walk quietly, make best use of eyes, ears and nose, looking up and looking down depending on the habitat. Tracks and droppings are great evidence of what has passed that way, possibly overnight, and being able to interpret these signs adds to the excitement of the walks.

Examples of wildlife seen and of nearly 150 photos in the book are whooper swans arriving from Iceland, red squirrels stocking up for winter, a goosander with her newly-hatched brood and a female goshawk teaching her two recently fledged offspring to hunt. Brown hares, deer and pink-footed geese feature on many of the walks, and with patience I got close enough in some cases to take intimate photographs.

I listened to the lovely songs of a wide range of avian summer visitors to the estate, including whitethroat, sedge warbler, garden warbler, willow warbler, redstart, spotted flycatcher and chiffchaff. By the banks of some of the watercourses I watched pairs of sand martins excavating their nest burrows, observed that nuthatches have extended their range north and discovered a pair of rare visitors to Scotland: little ringed plovers.

In all I thoroughly enjoyed the research for this book. In addition I am delighted to showcase Dupplin Estate as an incredibly wildlife-friendly estate with great diversity of habitat that enables a huge range of mammals, birds and plants to thrive. I doubt there will be too many estates in the whole of the UK that come up to this standard.

With regard to my background I spent all of my early years in the countryside, mostly on Dupplin Estate. From the age of eight until I started work at eighteen I spent nearly every available day at East Lamberkin Farm, which lies at the east end of the estate, cycling out from Perth about 0700 and returning home in the late evening. Along with Jimmy, Alex and David Robb, whose father Bill was tenant farmer, we took part in every task that needed to be done on the farm. This included working with the cattle, sheep or pigs, bringing in loads of turnips from the fields, planting and picking tatties, a variety of tractor work and of course the different jobs associated with the harvest.

The black and white photograph shows farmer Bill and I forking oat sheaves to the farm workers building the stacks. I was forking to Bob Clark and farmer Bill was forking to Jim Ogg. It is important to ensure that the sheaves land beside the men building in the manner that gives them least work. They then just have to put the sheaf into place with minimal manoeuvring.  Jimmy Robb is in the foreground, probably tidying up sheaves that had fallen off the trailer.  The tractor is a Fordson Dexta, the registration number of which I remember as SES 37. The year would be around 1962 and the month was most likely to be September.

On Dupplin Estate and elsewhere I learned about farming, fishing, gamekeeping and, most importantly, the wildlife that surrounded me every day. A police career, beginning in 1965 as a cadet, took me to Perth, Dunblane, Dundee, CID, Drug Squad, Kinross and Crieff and I took a special interest in dealing with poaching offences, particularly salmon and deer. From 1993 I was given the additional responsibility as the force wildlife crime officer and in the three years before my retirement in 2015 I was an intelligence officer with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit.

I am now the author of seven books on wildlife and wildlife crime. Signed copies of all of these books can be obtained by contacted me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

My most recent books have been published by Thirsty Books, Edinburgh.

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Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate by Alan Stewart

Brown hare in relaxed pose

Whitethroat singing on a hawthorn

Snipe on the edge of a bog

Smaller back footprint of badger on top of larger front footprint

Goosander with brood on the River Earn

Grey wagtail feeding chick at the side of the River Earn

In the early summer of 2018 I was relaxing in the evening with a glass of red wine along with my wife, Jan, and daughter Janet. Janet asked if I had any more books planned, but I had considered myself retired from writing. As it turned out she persuaded me to write a further two books since that conversation, of which this is the second.

Janet in particular had enjoyed my book that related to wildlife encounters on my walks on a Highland Perthshire estate and thought I should write a similar one relating to another estate. We discussed possible estates but one was most definitely at the head of the list: Dupplin Estate, which lies just to the west of Peth.

Dupplin Estate was ideal for a number of reasons, not least that its boundary to the north is just over a mile from house. I had spent many years of my life on Dupplin Estate: my early years with my lifelong friends Jimmy Robb at East Lamberkin Farm and Gerry Oliphant at Cairnie Toll Cottages, plus about ten years trapping rabbits over the whole estate in the 1970s and early 1980s. I also attended a few times as a beater on pheasant shooting days with a variety of headkeepers. I knew the 13,000 acres of the estate intimately and, even though I had probably seen very little of the estate since the mid-1990s, Dupplin was ideal for the purpose of book, giving me the chance to compare the farming, forestry and wildlife of the estate over the course of nearly 60 years. Crucially, given my background of policing, I knew that the estate was run within the law and that I would certainly not be coming across poisoned raptors or illegally-set traps.

In late July 2018 I met with the factor, Alexander Dewar, who is the son of the estate owner, Lord Forteviot, and outlined my plans to him. He was immediately supportive and gave me the run of the estate for the purposes of gathering material for the proposed book. Over the course of the year I liaised on a regular basis with Stewart, the sole gamekeeper for the estate, with Bill, the retired gamekeeper and with John, the farm manager.

My series of walks over the estate began in mid-August, each visit covering approximately five miles, and normally running from about 8.00 am until midday. The estate is exceptionally varied, comprising ancient woodlands, new woodland areas of native trees, mature conifer forests, farmland with crops and livestock, a river, two lochs, several ponds, some wild boggy areas and dozens of game/wild bird crops including about ten acres of quinoa, which songbirds just love. The contrasting habitats support a magnificent variety of birds and mammals.

During my walks I like to stop regularly and sit quietly, allowing wildlife to come to me. This is unfortunately not so practical when everything is wet and I often found myself standing rather than sitting, with my back against the trunk of a tree. It is amazing how often animals accept a lone person sitting down quietly or even walking slowly. I regularly got close to wildlife that in most circumstances are very wary of humans, especially roe deer and brown hares. In return, when I saw them and they did not see me, I tried when I was finished observing them, to sneak off and leave them undisturbed.

I thoroughly enjoyed my year of walking with wildlife. I would like to think that you, if reading the book, can imagine to some degree that you are walking with me. For a welcome change this is a real good news story from an estate. Though the estate is in Scotland I am sure there will be some estates elsewhere in the British Isles that are equally good for habitat and wildlife. For the owners or managers of the many that fail to come up to Dupplin’s standards they may become enlightened by reading this book.

Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate. (Thirsty Books, Edinburgh. £15 plus £2.35 p&p).  Signed copies available from me now.   Contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Horrendous killing spree by Borders gamekeeper – some thoughts.

Buzzard, shot and buried by a gamekeeper in Perthshire who was later convicted.

Buzzard shot and buried by Perthshire gamekeeper, who was later convicted.

The x-ray of the buzzard (carried out at Dundee Airport).

Buzzard shot with a rifle by a Perthshire gamekeeper, who was later convicted.

Law abiding shooters and gamekeepers must be totally disgusted at the litany of wildlife crime reported in the media and on social media over the past month. The latest is a plea of guilty to a long list of wildlife crimes by Alan Wilson, the gamekeeper for Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders. The case has been ongoing in the court since 2017 and arose from the initial investigation in 2016 by the League against Cruel Sports, who had been tipped off by a walker of snares being set on the estate. The LACS research officer attended at the estate and found snares and a stink pit with dead animals. It is not clear at this stage where the snares were set and if they were illegal but they may well have been set on a fence around the stink pit, which would attract foxes. Snares set on a fence make it likely in most cases that any animal caught will be fully or partially suspended, which is an offence in Scotland.

The LACS research officer returned in 2017 and found the carcass of a badger and some birds, the species of which is not identified in the news report. Neither is it reported whether the dead badger was in the stink pit. It seems that around this point the police and SSPCA were informed of the situation.

In June 2017 Police Scotland led a multi-agency investigation into the incidents, along with SSPCA, RSPB Investigations staff and others. During the search, evidence was found that two goshawks had been shot and that three buzzards, three badgers and an otter had also been killed. Wilson pleaded guilty to killing them, and also to charges of using illegal snares and the possession of two bottles of carbofuran. He pleaded not guilty to other charges, these pleas being accepted by the Crown.

This is a horrendous killing spree. Further, these are the only protected species for which charges could be proved over the course of a year or so. The length of time that Wilson has been a gamekeeper is not stated in the report but considering that he is 60 years old, it is likely that he has been gamekeeping for some time. If these are the protected species found to have been killed over a year how many remain undiscovered that were killed illegally over that period. Multiply that by the years that Wilson has been a gamekeeper and it can be imagined how he has deprived the Scottish countryside of protected and sometimes rare species.

So what might the sheriff at Jedburgh Sheriff Court impose as a penalty. I doubt if he will be able to take into account a previous conviction. This was a conviction in 2018 under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 for keeping an eagle owl in filthy conditions. This conviction took place subsequent to the report by Police Scotland to the procurator fiscal for the 2017 wildlife crimes so is unlikely to be made known to the court.

Options are a fine, imprisonment or a community penalty as a direct alternative to imprisonment. I would doubt that the sheriff will consider a fine to be appropriate. This is one of the most serious wildlife crimes to come before a sheriff for sentencing that I can remember. It includes the killing of two Schedule 1 birds, goshawks; an otter, which is a mammal with the highest protection under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994; and not just a buzzard and a badger but three of each. In addition, in times when the use of deadly pesticides to kill wildlife is becoming less common, and after an amnesty period, Wilson had two containers of this banned substance. Lastly comes the snaring offences, though not just one but 23. There has been no more deserving case for a court to make an example of a convicted person by imposing a sentence of imprisonment. Wilson’s defence solicitor may well have had this in mind with advice to plead guilty and thus have the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment reduced for avoiding a trial.

Had this case been a few years hence the imprisonment available to courts under consideration by the Scottish Government might be 5 years. In 2015, in Scotland, an independent review conducted by Professor Mark Poustie found the current laws around wildlife crime may not be serving as a sufficient deterrent, while punishments fail to reflect the serious nature of some crimes. He recommended that for serious wildlife crimes – and they don’t come much more serious than this – penalties be increased to a maximum of 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine. This is being consulted on right now and hopefully the Scottish Government, taking account of Professor Poustie’s recommendations plus the recent upsurge in wildlife crime, will agree to these increased penalties.

To end on a note of fairness, since the snaring legislation in Scotland was improved substantially in 2010 under the Snares (Scotland) Order and in 2011 under the Wildlife and Environment (Scotland) Act, most of those who use snares have played by the rules. The level of wildlife crime discussed here, plus the recent golden eagles enigma and the trapping of a hen harrier may yet have disastrous consequences for those who participate in shooting. All of this could have been avoided if the criminal gamekeepers, sporting agents and landowners in their midst had been outed by law-abiding shooters and their respective organisations.

I am not aware of the full circumstances of the start of this investigation but reading the information that is available I can’t help thinking that LACS, instead of embarking on their own in what may well have been a wildlife crime investigation, had passed the information to the police at the outset and had a wildlife crime officer accompany the LACS staff member. Maybe lessons will be learnt from this.

We now await with interest the penalty handed out to Wilson and (hopefully) a report by Police Scotland to the procurator fiscal in regard to vicarious liability.

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Yet more criminal activity on driven grouse moors. Some options for change.

Hen harrier chicks about to be ringed

Bogland preserved for wildlife on Perthshire estate

In the past few weeks on driven grouse moors in Scotland we have had a satellite-tagged hen harrier caught in a Fenn trap, two satellite-tagged golden eagles on the same estate and on the same day where the signals from the sat-tags suddenly stopped despite having been working perfectly well up until then. Now we have news of a male hen harrier caught in a Fenn trap near to a harrier nest on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire, the female from the nest ‘missing’ and a Fenn trap set at the nest alongside two harrier eggs. Despite the harrier in this case being taken into the care of the SSPCA and some sterling treatment by specialist vet Romain Pizzi the bird in the end had to be euthanised.

Seven weeks after the discovery, Police Scotland investigating the crime led a multi-agency search. I’m not sure why the seven-week delay, unless a result on DNA tests on the traps was awaited, but I can’t criticise without knowing the full circumstances.

It is not surprising that no evidence was found to link the setting of the traps to any individual, but circumstantial evidence and a previous history of the discovery of up to 70 earlier wildlife crimes found on the estate over the past 20 years would suggest to any rational person that the incidents are linked to grouse production. Despite the attempts of a few individuals to deflect blame away from gamekeeping I personally have no doubt that this is where the blame lies. Intensively managed driven grouse moors like this may have up to seven or eight gamekeepers, probably a sporting manager and a sporting tenant. Will all or any of them be to blame or could it be some mystery person going around the countryside unseen, with a bag of Fenn traps, a hidden agenda and with the expertise to set a trap at any hen harrier nest encountered?

There is no doubt that those involved in driven grouse shooting are well aware that under present legislation the police are unlikely to get a case to court, especially against someone higher up the chain of command. So what can change to assist in convicting or at least deterring the criminals?

If we rely on convictions the police must have more scope under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 – RIP(S)A – to enter estate land to gather evidence. This would mean increasing the penalty for all or certain wildlife crimes to at least 3 years imprisonment so that incident like this come into the official category of serious crime.

To assist with the identification of those illegally setting traps, the traps could have a number or mark issued by the police or by SNH to the user of the trap, as is the case with snares. This is certainly not foolproof but it could be a step forward, especially if spot checks could be made.

Even with these changes detection and conviction rates would be low. The answer lies with a suite of sanctions.

Better use could be made of the removal of the right to use general licences, even though this is a minor sanction. I hope this is being considered as we speak in the case of this estate.

Better use could also be made of the clawback of single farm payments, though I’ve no idea if in this instance a payment is being made to the estate.

With only a few weeks to go (hopefully) to the submission to the Scottish Government of Professor Werritty’s report on grouse moors we are as well to have the patience to await its findings. I assume that the Scottish Government will already have a flavour of the report content, in particular the issue of the licensing of grouse moors. I cannot see the licensing of grouse moors being avoided. Poisoning of wildlife has maybe lessened but there has been no let-up in the illegal shooting or trapping of raptors; it has simply been a change of tactics. If the raptor persecution incidents being investigated by the police over the past few weeks have not already convinced the Scottish Government that nothing has changed and of the need to licence grouse moors (or something even stronger) then I feel the public has been betrayed.

It should be mandatory for each estate to nominate the person ultimately responsible for the estate so that there can be no escaping vicarious liability should the police and prosecutors require to go down that road.

In the case of an estate losing the licence to shoot grouse and to manage moorland for grouse shooting, if the estate is under the control of a sporting agent who is also sporting agent for another or other estates in Scotland, then these estates should also lose their licence.

Beyond these sanctions it should be mandatory for estates involved in shooting of any kind to demonstrate that they are improving the habitat for the wildlife that is, or should, be there. I’m working with an extensive low-ground estate just now that demonstrates this in no small measure.

I think that any reasonable person would now agree that the time for sitting round a table to reach a compromise has long past and decisive action by the Scottish Government is required. I have long been an advocate of SNP but if we are let down on this then they would no longer either have my confidence or vote.

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The disappearance of two sat-tagged golden eagles

Alan Stewart with the poisoned golden eagle Alma in 2009

For those who are unaware, it was announced today that on the morning of 18th April two satellite-tagged golden eagles vanished within hours of each other on a grouse moor in Perthshire. The estate on which they were last located through the sat-tagging data is named as Auchnafree Estate.

So what could have happened to them? Might they have died of natural causes. Two young and apparently healthy golden eagles don’t normally die on the same date and in the same place. But what if they did. Satellite tags keep transmitting after its host bird dies. The signal would indicate that the bird was on the ground and stationary and would give an accurate grid reference to within a few yards of the bird. The signal may even have given more information than this. In any case those responsible for monitoring the signal would know that something was wrong, especially if the signals suddenly stopped as so many have done in the recent past despite the tags having been working perfectly well up to that point. All of this follows a sinister pattern and those monitoring the signals (or lack thereof) would suspect that the birds had been removed. The police would then be contacted.

A thorough search for the birds was reported as having been carried out by Police Scotland, National Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Scotland Investigations. If the birds had still been at their last location as transmitted by the tag, the recovery would be straightforward. When I went to recover the poisoned golden eagle Alma from Millden Estate in Glenesk in Angus in 2009 the reference given by the tag led us straight to the bird. Since in this case the birds were no longer at their last reference point it was hardly surprising that no trace was found of either of the golden eagles. Had the two tags fallen from the birds by some remarkable coincidence the result would have been the same.

It was even more suspicious that the last reference point of one of the golden eagles was at a turning point of a hill track on the estate, and it is also known that at that time the eagle was at ‘ground level’ – in other words not in the air – for six minutes before the signal disappeared. Had it been put in a vehicle and removed? I doubt that taking all these circumstances into account anyone could argue that the disappearance of the two golden eagles was in any way through a natural death.

These circumstances suggest to me that this is a crime, indeed two crimes, and I am sure that the police will record it as such based on circumstantial and sat-tag evidence. But It is highly unlikely, given the complete absence of information coming forward from the game management community, that anyone will be convicted or even charged. Nevertheless the police will continue their investigation.

What lines might they follow? Looking at intelligence held on the Scottish Intelligence Database and by the NWCU is always the starting point. Is there intelligence showing that related incidents have taken place in that area, on that estate or by any named individual? Intelligence, of course, cannot convict anyone; it needs to be converted to evidence, but it is a good start and I bet that the officer in charge of the case already has one or maybe even two likely suspects.

Grouse moors are always well guarded by the gamekeepers and not much can move on the estate without them being aware. If a vehicle was involved in picking up or disposing of the birds who might have access with a vehicle? This is especially interesting in the case of Auchnafree Estate as it is ‘landlocked’ and not connected by any public road. Can any conclusions be drawn from that? Would an eagle-sized bird placed in a vehicle or any receptacle leave any DNA traces? That possibility will have been considered.

How did the birds die, always a difficult question to answer in the absence of the bodies, (yet people have been convicted of the murder of humans without the body being found). Options are shooting, trapping or poisoning. My guess, because there are two victims and their deaths are closely related in time and location, would be poisoning. There may have been evidence found of how the birds died during the search, but the police would be keeping that under their hat meantime.

It is early days but so far the only comment I have seen from the gamkeeping community is a press release from the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association. Did they roundly condemn the killing of two of Scotland’s golden eagles? Did they say that it looks highly suspicious and if it was the work of a gamekeeper he is a disgrace to the name of gamekeeping? Did they ask their members to report any suspected killing of birds of prey to the police? Did they say to their members please stop this as it will ultimately ruin all our occupations?

No, none of those.  They put out a mealy-mouthed statement that they will expel members who commit wildlife offences and state that ‘We understand, despite extensive and thorough searches by the Police, that no evidence of a wildlife crime was discovered on the land in question.’ Is that not a signal to criminals involved in raptor persecution to just keep doing more of the same? They also launched a Parliamentary petition calling for independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to birds of prey as they have doubts on the accuracy of sat-tag data. If they knew a bit more about the ownership of sat-tag data and if they had been at a recent conference on sat-tagging hosted by Scottish Natural Heritage at Battleby they would have no need to petition for independent monitoring and could put their efforts into putting an end to crime committed against protected species on grouse moors.  

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