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Wildlife crime when no one’s watching

RSPB Scotland

Wildlife crime when no one’s watching

Scotland’s size and sparse rural population make it relatively easy for someone who wants to hurt or kill a wild animal.

If hillwalkers and bird watchers are absent from the hills too, then it becomes easier still.

This absence of eyes and ears to monitor illegal activity has been the great fear of conservation groups like RSPB Scotland since lockdown began and now they say there is “clear evidence” of persecution continuing to take place.

RSPB Scotland reports that two satellite-tagged hen harriers disappeared in suspicious circumstances on grouse moors during the first couple of weeks of lockdown, one in Aberdeenshire and one in Strathspey. The Aberdeenshire bird vanished “almost a year to the day, and just a few hundred metres away” from where another tagged harrier disappeared in identical circumstances in 2019. In Strathspey, the other harrier disappeared close to where another tagged bird was previously found dead with injuries consistent with shooting.

“These are not isolated incidents,” says Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland. “These latest cases, and several others being investigated by Police Scotland, illustrate a clear pattern of offending occurring on multiple grouse shooting estates across Scotland. We are aware of multiple recent instances of illegal use of traps, shooting incidents and cases of nest interference.

“Very clearly, the criminals intent on causing harm to our birds of prey are continuing to do so, despite lockdown.”

The 300 members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, who monitor bird of prey populations at over 5,000 sites, are often the first to spot such activity, but they have been in lockdown with their movement restricted like everyone else.

Thomson says: “The really worrying thing is to have this level of activity uncovered when the Raptor Study Group are not out and about.”

He worries about how much undetected crime there could be: “How many birds of prey are being killed that haven’t got satellite tags and nests being destroyed that haven’t been monitored? It’s very worrying.”

Thomson notes that, given birds were targeted even when the moors were under closer scrutiny during the Werritty review process, the omens for lockdown are not good. With months of good weather and a high population of voles, the experts would expect raptors to have a good breeding season. If they don’t, Thomson will have little doubt as to why not.

He says: “We are in a period when the Scottish Government has commissioned a review of grouse moor management. The review has made a number of recommendations and we are awaiting the Scottish Government’s response to that review. 

“We would hope the Scottish Government would take careful note of what’s been going on on our moors. 

“We would like to see robust and legal management of estates. That’s not what we’re seeing at the moment.”

The Werritty review, published in December, called for Scottish estates to show a “measurable” reduction in illegal raptor killings within five years or face licensing. Ministers are considering their response to the recommendations, but the Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, has already responded that if licensing is required, it should be introduced sooner than the review suggests.

Robbie Kernahan, Scottish Natural Heritage’s acting director of sustainable growth, says that the organisation has received an increased number of reports of “all forms” of wildlife crime since the coronavirus movement restrictions began and is continuing to support Police Scotland’s work with information and advice.

“This apparent increase in wildlife crime is deeply concerning,” he says. “SNH is committed to working with our PAW (Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime) partners to eradicate wildlife crime in Scotland”.   

Efforts to tackle wildlife crime received a boost last week when MSPs voted to increase the maximum penalty for the most serious animal and wildlife crimes to five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

The Animals and Wildlife Bill also outlawed the mass culling of mountain hares by gamekeepers and grouse moor managers, making it an offence intentionally or recklessly to kill or injure a mountain hare without a licence (up to 25,000 are thought to be killed each year at present), and banning the shooting of seals by salmon farmers.

Greater protections for wildlife are coming in, then. But lockdown has not made the job of safeguarding animals easier.

That applies to both wild and domestic animals. Some 1,400 animals have been brought into the SSPCA’s wildlife centre during lockdown, which is fewer than usual, but this may be because there have been fewer people around to find injured or distressed wild creatures. 

Abandonments of pets have also gone down, which may – or may not – be due to restrictions on human movement: “No one abandons animals on their doorstep,” says Mike Flynn, the SSPCA’s superintendent. “Either it’s not happened as much or it’s not being reported or discovered.”

The SSPCA’s workload will now “inevitably” increase, he believes. The number of animals coming into the charity’s wildlife centre is already going up.

And perhaps surprisingly, some things have not changed much: “Road traffic accidents are not down as much as I would have thought,” says Flynn. He speculates that this may be because those who have been driving have been doing so more recklessly: “I’ve been out and about a few times on the roads and people have been using bypasses and dual carriageways like Silverstone.”

The SSPCA has not had reports of increased badger-baiting activity, but as with all types of wildlife crime, a lack of reporting does not necessarily mean a lack of crime. 

The full effect that lockdown has had on wildlife crime is likely to take some time to become clear

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