Better Late Than Never

Once again we hear news from the uplands.  And again, the news comes from the Highlands. Rumour has it, that in the near future, Highland estates may have to apply for licenses in order to shoot grouse. Although the realisation that such measures are needed may have taken a while to sink in, it is a positive move, taken in order to crackdown on the illegal persecution of birds of prey.

These whispers reach us not long after the news that over a 20 year period, 779 birds of prey have been illegally killed in Scotland. The Scottish environment minister claimed that a review into the legal controls in many European countries has been ordered, to see how Scotland can better its raptor protection laws. Germany and Spain are two of the countries whose laws are being  looked into to. One of the main systems that is in effective in both countries are licenses for shooting estates. Under these licenses, if an estate is found to be guilty of persecution, then their license can be revoked. This serves as adequate punishment for such crimes and also a strong deterrent against persecution.

The RSPB has claimed that the 779 raptors killed are probably only a percentage of those raptors that have been persecuted in Scotland, with many other suspected poisoning, shooting and trapping cases. Included in the figure are 37 golden eagles and 104 red kites. In the UK, Scotland is considered one of the toughest when it comes to wildlife crime. This includes rulings such as ‘vicarious liability’ whereby the owner of an estate can be prosecuted for the actions of their employees or evidence of crime on their land.

However, so far, this has not proved enough to stop persecution. In 2014 alone, there were 8 cases of poisoning, including one single incident that killed 12 red kites and 4 buzzards. With 16 dead raptors, it is the largest number of birds of prey poisoned in one single incident. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. There were an additional 16 cases where traps, nest destruction, shootings and even attempted persecutions were proved. The birds involved included peregrines, hen harriers, golden eagles and buzzards.

Despite the clear success of licensing systems in Germany and Spain, Scottish ministers have not yet committed to a licensing system for Scotland. However, they are being and have been considered in the past. The head of investigation for RSPB Scotland confirmed what many of us already know. That not all estates commit such crimes, but the discover of dead raptors on those that do, is pure luck. After all, many of those committing these crimes when trying to protect their shoots, cover up their actions, disposing of raptor bodies.

The RSPB has also claimed that these crimes cannot be amassed to one or two individuals. Indeed, there have been 171 cases of poison baits, or non-target species including dogs and cats found dead. Not only does this prove the failure of such baits in some cases, but also the total irresponsibility of such an act. Despite endless attempts to stop them, if my dogs find a dead carcass, they will try to eat it. If one of them ended up poisoned, I would not let it go until I found out who was responsible. In addition to poisoned baits, there have been 134 incidences of illegal trap setting, or other persecution attempts.

Despite recent figures from the Scottish Gamekeeper Association claiming the success of their golden eagles, the numbers of this raptor and hen harriers are still all too low in shooting areas. As we know, the hen harrier is close to extinction, and although we have 440 golden eagle breeding pairs, these numbers should be much higher considering the vast extent of their natural habitats in Scotland. Indeed, 53% of golden eagle territories are currently occupied on grouse moorland, however, this number should be around 66%. In addition, even some of those occupied do not contain a breeding pair, but a lone bird. Of course, this is better than no birds.

However, the Scottish Moorland Group, a representative of shooting estates, has challenged the RSPB. After all, there has been no downward trend during the last 20 years and there have been a decline in incidents of persecution. The director of the group argued that the most ‘striking fact’ about persecution in Scotland was that it has declined over 20 years, particularly in the last 5 years. It is a fair point and of course, it is good news that such incidences have declined. However, that does not mean that the problem is disappearing, especially when we know that some cases will not have been discovered.

Although it may sound like raptor conservations will constantly find a window of complaint, it is the history of these birds and the current status of some (hen harrier) that cause constant concern. After all, the recovery of species in the UK has been the direct result of persistent and determined campaigning for raptor protection. Without such focus, persecution problems would continue to occur in full force. But there is one problem with this news. The word Scotland. It is good to see Scotland tightening their protection laws, but what of the rest of the UK? As ever, England is reluctant to act and as we continue to dither and avoid persecution problems, we fall further and further behind in race to protect birds of prey.


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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