The shocking extent to which Scotland’s totemic birds of prey are being routinely killed by landowners to protect their sporting estates – and how they have tried to cover up evidence of their crimes – are exposed today by a Sunday Herald investigation.
An authoritative new report for government advisers shows that thousands of hen harriers are being illegally persecuted across huge swathes of the country. But publication of the report has been blocked by the landowning lobby, prompting a copy to be leaked to the Sunday Herald.
At the same time another expert study, due to be unveiled in the next few weeks, suggests that as many as 50 golden eagles are being illegally poisoned, shot or trapped every year in Scotland. This is far higher than previously suspected.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, large numbers of these birds are being persecuted throughout Scotland,” said Mark Rafferty, a former police officer who now investigates wildlife crime for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“To suppress a whole population takes a huge amount of organised effort, and that’s what’s happening. It is the grouse industry that is responsible. They simply won’t tolerate birds of prey on grouse moors.”
Arguments over birds of prey have raged for decades, but they are now coming to a head. A new wildlife law is being finalised by the Scottish Parliament, with fierce accusations and counter-accusations about what it should, or should not, do.
The owners of sporting estates are keen to control the numbers of birds of prey, because they can eat or scare grouse. This leaves fewer available to be shot by paying visitors, many of whom come from abroad.
But environmentalists argue that the birds can happily coexist with thriving grouse moors, as long as the land is well managed. Successive governments have tried to crack down on illegal persecution, introducing tougher penalties and further-reaching laws.
Despite this, however, the killing has continued, and, some would say, increased. Official figures show that the number of confirmed incidents in which animals have been reported poisoned - mostly birds of prey by bait laced with pesticides - has risen from 35 in 2001 to 84 in 2010 (see table below).
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because poison is relatively easy to detect in carcasses found on the hill. Instances in which nests and eggs have been destroyed, chicks killed, or birds trapped and shot, are much harder to track - especially if they happened in the dark, there were no witnesses and evidence has been removed.
So scientists have come up with other ways of quantifying the destruction. They work out how many birds should naturally live in different parts of Scotland. Then they compare this with the numbers that are actually there, and eliminate other possible causes of death.
In the leaked report on hen harriers, this has resulted in some startling conclusions. Across large parts of the Highlands and the Borders “illegal persecution is causing the failure of a majority of breeding attempts,” it says.
The Scottish population of hen harriers is reckoned to be about a third of what it should be. That means that up to 2,300 birds are missing because they are being killed, or otherwise prevented from breeding.
As a result, Scotland has failed to achieve “favourable conservation status” for hen harriers, the report concludes. If persecution were halted, it points out, more areas “would achieve a favourable status, as would Scotland as a whole.”
Areas where the birds are illegally killed include the Central Highlands, the Cairngorms, the Northeast Glens, the Western Southern Uplands and the Border Hills. The report highlights the fact that the killings nearly all take place on or near grouse moors belonging to sporting estates.
Entitled ‘A conservation framework for hen harriers in the UK’, it was written by scientists for government wildlife advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and was meant to have been published on 17 December. But this was halted at the eleventh hour after the landowning lobby lodged a formal complaint, claiming they hadn’t been properly consulted.
Landowners were accused of “a deliberate sabotage attempt” by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups, which monitor birds of prey. “It is disgraceful that publication of this expertly compiled report has been delayed for so long,” said the groups’ secretary, Patrick Stirling-Aird.
According to the Labour MSP, Peter Peacock, landowners were deliberately delaying the report to prevent it from influencing the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill. “It is further damning evidence of what appears to be a group of serial offenders in the shooting fraternity, persisting in destroying iconic species,” he said.
“This is why we need to toughen further still the wildlife bill going through parliament, to give powers to remove from landowners the right to run shooting estates where there are persistent problems. That is probably why some folks don't want this report to surface right now.”
Landowning groups agreed that they had caused publication of the hen harrier report to be delayed, but denied that this amounted to sabotage. They disputed its methodology and conclusions, and said they were only given eight working days to comment.
“Our organisations have raised directly with SNH the issue of why the consultation process was delayed for a year and there was then an attempt to rush it through at the last minute,” said Tim Baynes, on behalf of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association.
SNH accepted that it had mishandled the consultation. “We do not believe that any organisation is willfully trying to delay the publication of this report,” claimed SNH’s policy director, Susan Davies.
“The final consultation stages were inadequate and we are very willing to address these by meeting again with key stakeholders to consider their concerns. The document shall be published in early 2011.”
The Sunday Herald can reveal that SNH is also about to publish another expert study that will conclude that up to 50 golden eagles are illegally killed every year in Scotland. This is the view of more than 20 expert ornithologists, backed up by scientific calculations.
This compares to an estimated population of about 880 birds, and is by far the highest number ever alleged to be victims of persecution. There are only ever two or three prosecutions a year over the deaths of golden eagles.
Along with the hen harrier report, the eagle report is bound to inflame deep-rooted disagreements over the use of the countryside and attitudes to wildlife. Landowners will insist that wildlife crime is not as widespread as is claimed, and that only a few rogue estates are to blame.
They will highlight the difficulties of proving who is responsible for persecution, and continue to urge their peers not to break the law. They will also point out the many economic benefits that sporting estates bring to rural areas.
But raptor enthusiasts like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will keep attacking landowners and gamekeepers for persisting with illegal persecution. They will argue that eagles and hen harriers are magnificent sights that themselves attract thousands of visitors to the Highlands.
Gamekeepers, meanwhile, will insist that they are just doing their job protecting game, which is made more difficult if there are more birds of prey. And they will keep lobbying for legal ways of controlling them.
The statistics will be disputed, the best methods of enforcement debated and in the end probably not much will change. The problem is that the modern voices of conservation are coming right up against the age-old traditions of the countryside.
At root, as the land reform campaigner, Andy Wightman, argues below, is the historic, overweening, power of the landowners. This is an issue that no Scottish government - this one or the next – seems keen to confront.
The Scottish Nationalist environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, has enthusiastically cracked down on wildlife crime, and is thought to share frustrations about the postponement of the hen harrier report. But as a minister she is unlikely to champion greater public control of sporting estates.
“Despite increased awareness and condemnation, official levels of raptor poisoning remain unacceptably high,” her spokeswoman told the Sunday Herald. “That's why we're proposing to introduce a new vicarious liability offence to target those who control or manage others involved in criminal bird persecution.”
The vicarious liability law was last week backed by MSPs in the hope of making landowners responsible for the wildlife crimes committed on their estates. But, like previous laws, there are doubts whether it will be possible to enforce.
Few believe that it will be enough to stem the unceasing killing. “We really need to bash the landowners,” said one insider. “But no-one seems to have the political courage to do that.”
Download a copy of the leaked hen harrier report here (3MB Word document).
The report was finally published on 16 February 2011.
Pesticide poisoning incidents
year / number of officially confirmed incidents
2001 / 35
2002 / 35
2003 / 37
2004 / 34
2005 / 32
2006 / 52
2007 / 85
2008 / 65
2009 / 74
2010 / 84
Total / 533
Animals poisoned by pesticides in 2010
20 red kites
2 peregrine falcons
total: 98 (in 84 incidents)
source: The Scottish Government’s Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture
The land reformer’s view
by Andy Wightman, campaigner and author
Historically, Scotland’s landed interests have secured their private interests because they in effect made the law. Even following the reform acts of the 19th century, they ruled in the House of Lords. Locally, they had exclusive control of county administration (police, roads, justice etc.) as the Commissioners of Supply up until 1890 and their role was not abolished until 1930.
So long as laws were being made in the corridors of Westminster, Scotland’s landowners remained adept at spiking unhelpful legislation and promoting causes advantageous to their vested interests. Devolution was a bit of a shock to the system, however, and caused some angst and worry as topics such as land reform, public access and wildlife crime were exposed to greater public scrutiny.
Suddenly representatives of the Scottish Landowners’ Federation were being invited to give evidence in front of MPSs and, like everyone else, make their case and defend their position. Their performance in this environment has not been particularly impressive.
Old habits die hard though, and so perhaps we should not be surprised that they have reverted to an old trick, which is to nobble the civil servants behind closed doors and try to suppress inconvenient truths about sensitive topics such as wildlife crime.
Last summer a roll call of hundreds of landowners signed a letter addressed to Roseanna Cunningham, the environment minister, stating their unequivocal condemnation of illegal poisoning and their utter dismay at the practice. The initiative was widely welcomed but the credibility and sincerity of those same signatories is now called into serious doubt by these latest revelations.
But this is not just a story about the power and influence of elites in Scotland. It is a story about how we manage wildlife and about the land laws that have been developed to vest so much of that power in the hands of a landowning elite that is so few in number that they can even manage to get most of their names on a few pages of a letter to the Minister.
With such vast tracts of Scotland given over to private hunting reserves, it is time to bring an end to the charade that our wildlife is best managed by this distorted pattern of landholding. The solution to rampant wildlife crime is to bring hunting and wildlife management under greater public control.
In August I visited Norway and saw how a community has been administering and managing hunting rights over a 197,000 hectare common for over 200 years. Land uses are all integrated, public access is free to all, the hunting is profitable and it is all regulated by national hunting laws. No-one dreams of committing wildlife crime and if they did so, the rest of the community would quickly stamp it out.
Scotland’s private game reserves and the dysfunctional relationship between gamekeepers, shooting clients and owners are the problem. We could do things very differently if we chose to.
Andy Wightman’s new book, ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’, is published by Birlinn.
The gamekeeper’s view
by Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association
Gamekeepers, like farmers and shepherds, spend months raising young livestock for a market and even though we know our stock will eventually be killed we do all we can to protect it from harm while the birds, animals or wildlife are in our care.
I rear pheasant poults on a small estate in the Borders. They’re only six weeks old when they arrive and my job is to guard them from the elements and from predators. That involves situating their pens carefully and creating as much shelter as possible with heavy undergrowth so they can hide when the aerial attacks start.
Because one of the biggest predation threats to young pheasants - and countless other wild birds - is the explosion in buzzard numbers in recent years: some 15-20,000 pairs in Scotland in 2003 according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and an equivalent number of immature single transients. Anecdotal evidence suggests these figures have doubled in the last eight years.
I patrol the pens most of my waking hours, seven days a week, using every technique in the book to deter the buzzards from coming near my stock. Possible vantage branches are cut down, scaring devices erected, a radio plays constantly and CDs which glint in the sunshine are hung, increasingly to no avail. The buzzard population is now so high that competition for food is intense.
It’s galling to return to the pens to find several dead, partly-eaten poults and the rest cowering or too terrified to venture to their feeders which means they subsequently starve to death. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand why a misguided minority are prepared to take the law into their own hands in an effort to deal with the problem after all the legal options have failed.
It’s utterly wrong and we condemn it unreservedly. Such actions remain the rare exception although even one case of raptor poisoning is a blight on the reputation of a sustainable and economically important rural industry.
We’re desperate to find a safety valve and continue to explore solutions with the Scottish Government. There is a legal provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for the issue of licences for selective culling of protected species in order to protect livestock but the government refuses to agree on the conditions under which such licences could be issued and even argues that issuing them would be rewarding wildlife crime.
It has turned into a frustrating Catch-22 situation which does nothing to resolve the conflicts. And it’s particularly ironic that Scotland’s raptor population is currently the highest in recorded history, largely as a result of sound land and wildlife management by keepers. A balanced approach to conservation would recognise that for the sake of all wildlife our predator populations need to be managed, not protected at all costs.
The landowner’s view
The Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill, which is currently on its way through the Scottish Parliament, has been well received by the land management community. But it has opened the door to some unprecedented amendments, perhaps the most prominent being a new offence of 'vicarious liability' for raptor persecution.
There has been no public consultation on the concept or the detail of this proposed change. Yet it assumes guilt on the part of an employer or manager unless the contrary can be proved. This is a serious worry for law-abiding land managers, particularly those who may not have the resources to put in place the internal audit trail to show “all due diligence”.
Not only is it unusual to bring in such a new law as a Stage 2 amendment, without time to consider its consequences, but there is doubt about the need for it and whether it can be effective. The new offence is based on an alleged increase in poisoning. But statistics from the government's Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) show that since 2005 confirmed cases of poison abuse have averaged of 25 birds in 15 separate incidents per year, and this remained static in 2010.
According to the police National Wildlife Crime Unit July 10 report, raptor persecution is in fact decreasing. The report states that all types of raptor persecution reduced by 76% in 2009-10. Very few of the recent investigations on sporting estates resulted in charges being brought and there is almost no evidence that employers have forced employees to break the law. In the two cases which have come to court over the last 18 months where poison was possessed, the employees were immediately dismissed and made no defence of coercion in court.
Landowners have been increasingly playing their part by handing in poisoned corpses found on their land to police. It is ironic that those incidents bulk up the same SASA statistics which are used to allege that landowners are responsible for a growing problem. Once a police investigation starts there is no information in the public domain and the employer has no opportunity to answer the allegations made in the media; this is now being perpetuated in Parliament. In what other field of the law could a new offence could be brought in on such limited evidence?
While the 25 poisoned birds per year show that there is an ongoing problem that needs to be dealt with, the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association believe it is in long term decline. Industry organizations have had awareness campaigns among their memberships and the open letter against poisoning from 250 landowners in 2010 demonstrates their commitment to stamping it out.
The essential problem is one of proving who actually committed the crime. The proposed new offence of vicarious liability may feel good to relieve Government frustration but is unlikely to be effective and risks alienating the very people capable of resolving this issue and of maintaining investment in Scotland’s countryside.