The satellite-tagged hen harrier ‘Annie’ originating from the Langholm Project and found shot in South Lanarkshire is yet another example of the ‘National Disgrace’ referred to by the then First Minister Donald Dewar more than a decade ago when he spoke on the killing of birds of prey. The bird went missing in March this year and the body was recovered on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire at the end of April after a search by RSPB investigations staff after reportedly liaising with Police Scotland.
This scenario is not uncommon in relation to birds of prey, particularly the much-persecuted hen harrier. What I do not understand in this case is the length of time taken before an announcement this week that the bird had been shot. It is likely that the carcass, when found, was in a desiccated state, thus making the cause of death more difficult to establish. I have been involved in many such investigations when with Tayside Police and my first action would have been to take the bird to a prison or airport in the area and have it x-rayed. If the bird had been shot with a shotgun, which is the most likely weapon, any pellet or pellets remaining in the body would be clearly seen and a provisional – or most likely – cause of death would be established within 24 hours.
It is most unusual for a person committing an illegal act such as shooting a protected species not to dispose of the evidence. This makes me think that the shooting of the harrier had not been immediately fatal. Birds or mammals that are shot can easily live with pellets in the body depending on whether or not they strike a vital organ. Certain injuries might mean that the bird will die within an hour, 24 hours or even a matter of days. If this was the case here the bird could have been shot a considerable distance from where the crime took place, and of course would not be able to be retrieved and disposed of by the perpetrator. It then makes the investigation extremely difficult for the police to solve, especially an investigation beginning three or four months after the commission of the crime and where it is unlikely that there was a witness to the shooting. At least a witness that was not in some way complicit.
I was disappointed to see on television that the news item majored on an interview with RSPB and not, as the statutory investigating authority, Police Scotland. I am well aware that in these cases reporters often seek out RSPB rather than the investigating police officer but more effort needs to be made to change this position. The police are rightly non-political and unbiased. What has happened, with RSPB having taken the lead, is that everyone and their granny now thinks that they held back this news until the day before the opening of the grouse shooting season…..
Without some evidence it cannot be said that this crime is linked to grouse shooting. However looking at past incidents of a similar nature, and also taking into account the highly suspicious disappearance of three male hen harriers in the north of England earlier this year the time must be getting closer to a serious – if not terminal – sanction being taken against grouse shooting in Scotland. If driven grouse shooting is banned or shoots are regulated by legislation then landowners and their gamekeepers have only themselves to blame.