A week of mixed fortunes for raptors

Captive golden eagle

Young peregrine falcons (photo courtesy of Neil Macdonald)

I was delighted with the news earlier in the week that, following the report by SNH into the disappearance of satellite-tagged golden eagles which concluded that almost a third of the tagged birds have died in suspicious circumstances, mainly on intensively-managed grouse moors, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced a package of measures to combat this totally unacceptable situation. Over 40 sat-tagged golden eagles have disappeared in suspicious circumstances in a 12-year period. There must be a similar proportion of eagles that were not tagged met the same fate. That can also be extended to hen harriers, goshawks and several other birds of prey. Grouse management can no longer hide behind lame excuses and lies.

The measures, as listed in a Scottish Government press release, are to:

  • Set up an independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls, and to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation;
    • Immediately review all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern;
    • Increase resources for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime and work with Police Scotland to pilot the use of special constables in the Cairngorms National Park;
    • Rule out giving the Scottish SPCA more investigative powers, in light of legal advice;
    • Examine how best to protect the valuable role of gamekeepers in rural Scotland;
    • Commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity.

I think licensing – at least of grouse moors – will be inevitable. Withdrawing a licence from an individual would not work; the licence would need to be withdrawn in relation to land, for example a whole grouse moor. I think that simply withdrawing the right to shoot over the land would hit landowners hard in their deep pockets but I wonder if that would be enough. If they were still able to continue land ‘management’ for grouse they could still burn heather, including rank heather suitable for nesting hen harriers. They could also continue predator control, which on some moors would leave raptors and some protected mammals at risk. Whether a licence could be tailored to permit (or in the case of withdrawal, to ban) identified activities related to game management I don’t know.

The SNH report identified hotspots in which tagged eagles appeared to have been vaporised. I wonder if a licence could have the condition that spot checks on licensed estates could be carried out by the police. This would allow the police to ‘target geographical areas of concern’. Bearing in mind the need for corroboration, this would be an ideal use for special constables acting along with a regular officer, which I don’t think needs to be restricted to the Cairngorms National Park.

I don’t think that increasing the powers of the SSPCA was ever going to work. If a situation arises where a member of SSPCA staff is attending an incident that he or she thinks requires an extended search it could be passed to the police, with SSPCA guarding the evidence until the police arrive. SSPCA are simply not equipped to carry out a major investigation involving 5 or 6 suspects who need to be visited simultaneously, probably also in conjunction with a land search and maybe even the detention of suspects. These are difficult enough for the police with the considerable resources at their disposal. If SSPCA had the same powers of search as the police it would have been inevitable that incidents were reported to them that they would need to pass on to the police, in other words picking and choosing the cases they would undertake and with any associated delay in passing on the investigation. The SSPCA do an excellent job with animal welfare and not taking on additional work with wildlife crime will allow them to concentrate more on puppy farming in particular.

I know many gamekeepers who do indeed carry out a valuable role and I think that they deserve some credit and support. They have been operating in the dark shadow of the criminals in their midst for years and it is unfair to group them with the landowners, sporting agents and gamekeepers who have brought their occupation to the situation in which it is now immersed. This bullet point no doubt stems from Ms Cunningham’s comment,

“The continued killing of protected species of birds of prey damages the reputation of law-abiding gamekeepers, landowners and indeed the country as a whole. Those who carry out these crimes do so in defiance of the will of Parliament, the people, and their own peers. That must end”.

It is interesting that she has omitted ‘law-abiding sporting agents.’ Was that intentional or was it a mistake?

I don’t know how the Scottish Government would protect the gamekeepers’ role but many of them certainly do not warrant being lumped in with their criminal colleagues. The land on which they operate may be subject to licensing but apart from the necessities licensing may bring they should have nothing to fear from the police or any other authority.

The last bullet point is interesting in view of the many detriments (rather than benefits) some of the large shooting estates have foisted on Scotland. I’ll be interested to read, in due course, how much these estates cost the public purse in subsidies and how much better use may be made of some of the land and of the subsidies.

Despite the elation of Ms Cunningham’s announcement, the week has ended on a sad and frustrating note. RSPB revealed that they had recovered two dead peregrines at a nest site at Clee Hill in Shropshire. They also found a pigeon that had all the signs of a poisoned bait. The police, Natural England, a vet and a raptor rehabilitation centre are now involved.  Three half-grown chicks were recovered from the nest ledge and in due course will be fostered on to other broods.

I know nothing of this area but somehow suspect this could be the work of pigeon fanciers rather than gamekeepers. I hope that the publicity brings in some information that results in a conviction and a substantial sentence.

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