Saving Scotland's Winged Beasts
As far as the official records are concerned, victory would seem to be close at hand in the fight to stamp out bird of prey poisonings occurring on Scottish land.
Fears that the populations have dwindled of iconic species like Golden Eagle in parts of the country have seen a concerted effort to tackle the issue.
Changes like new legislation have been brought forward to help it along.
And on the face of it, it would seem to have worked, with only a handful of cases reported this year of birds being found dead which can be linked to poisoning.
Since 2009, the Scottish Government, through Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), has released maps of where suspected poisoning incidents have occurred across the country.
Leaving poisoned bait, and indeed other illegal killing or trapping of birds of prey, has occurred on land in some cases as landowners or managers attempt to combat raptors killing their livestock such as grouse, or sheep.
The last full set of figures showed that the number of confirmed illegal killings fell by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2011. This is likely to drop even further this year.
The latest figures from SASA, which will be fed into a fuller report, show 38 incidents in total, ranging from a Sea Eagle, to dead honey bees. In the majority of cases, only low levels of toxins were discovered. There is an ongoing investigation into the death of a Golden Eagle in the Highlands in March.
But, at the same time, there is a feeling among many involved in fighting raptor persecution, not least the police, that there are many more incidences that go unreported.
DC Charlie Everett from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, says that the reduction in incidents is encouraging but admits it relies on what is reported. “Whether the recoveries that we have is 95 per cent of the full picture or only five per cent of the full picture, we simply do not know. We can take educated guesses but that’s all it is.”
Nevertheless the unit, part of the Raptor Prosecution Delivery Group – which includes organisations representing landowners, conservation and government – has seen some big successes in terms of stamping out persecution.
It has included the recovery of 4kg of poison from Sutherland two years ago, calculated to have been enough to poison all birds of prey in Scotland six times over.
“Poisoning, of course, because it’s so indiscriminate, is always considered a real danger out in the countryside because if you’re leaving poisons out in the open and on baits to attract birds of prey, well, it can attract anything that eats carrion. “If a child or a dog, comes along and investigates it, it can have catastrophic consequences.”
In January the new Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill saw the introduction of vicarious liability, meaning that landowners are now responsible for the actions of employees on their land. Many involved in stopping persecution have praised this piece of legislation. Everett said he felt it had helped to “spearhead the anti-poisoning message.”
Investigating incidences of poisoning is complex. They often occur in remote locations and require two eye witnesses to have seen the poisoning. But there are other powers open to police, who can use DNA evidence to trace a particular animal to an offender’s bag or vehicle. In addition, the police can apply for warrants to search properties on land where a poisoning, or other potential breaches have occurred.
Former Scotsman editor Magnus Linklater, writing in the Observer in August, looked at the frosty relationship between landowners and the RSPB over the issue of raptor persecution, claiming that many gamekeepers were very hostile towards the bird charity.
However, Ron Macdonald, in charge of Wildlife Crime Issues at SNH, said this was not the case in Scotland.
He said the creation of the Raptor Prosecution Delivery Group, part of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime, has brought all sides together. It sees SNH, government, the RSPB sharing a table with organisations like the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and Scottish Land and Estates and although there are still disagreements, the feeling of “them and us” between land managers and those charged with protection of wildlife was disappearing.
He told Holyrood: “I think we’re in a better place in Scotland. I think there’s huge challenges ahead and there’s still huge arguments going on within these groups, but I think we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet. We’re all saying, we must address this and stamp it out.”
The image of the Golden Eagle in particular is one that captures the imagination of many conservationists. Macdonald describes it as “iconic”. Over the last four or five years, the efforts to protect the bird has included satellite tagging; unlike other tagging schemes, it shows up not just where the birds go – but where those that have potentially been poisoned and killed are buried.
There are three particular species of birds of prey which are most often referred to as giving cause for concern: Red Kites, despite the success of their reintroduction in some parts of Scotland, Hen Harriers as well as the Golden Eagle.
Golden Eagles are, Macdonald says, “at best, holding their own” with 442 breeding pairs in Scotland – although this figure is based on the last survey carried out in 2003. Hen Harriers, some 500 breeding pairs, had a “desperately poor breeding season”, according to SNH.
But Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, said there were parts of the country where conditions were perfect for raptors to thrive – but there is no sign of them to be found.
In addition to the low numbers of poisonings, he said there had been anecdotal evidence such as shotgun cartridges being found and nests being disrupted. While he welcomes the drop in poisoning numbers, he believes it needs to be sustained for longer before the fight against persecution can be said to be won.
Thomson said: “Birds of prey in Scotland have been heavily persecuted for decades and it is only relatively recently, in the last three or four years, that perhaps we’ve seen the green shoots of recovery.
“It is too early to tell if the situation is improving. It is not until we have Red Kites, Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers returning to areas in the uplands that we can really say this has been successful.” However, Bert Burnett, a committee member of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, believes the declining figures are very positive news and the efforts of organisations like his should not be underestimated.
He said only two of the incidents in the SASA figures from the start of the year were linked to possible illegal poisoning – although he stressed that “one was too many”. “We have put a lot of work into this,” he said.
“The RSPB takes a lot of credit, but we have been working very hard with the police and all the government bodies, etc to get this problem solved.” Just because the estates and land managers are proactive in helping to stop poisonings, it does not mean that there are disagreements.
In contrast to claims that many persecutions went unreported, he added there was no real evidence that the poisoning incidents were the “tip of the iceberg” and although vicarious liability has been introduced, he pointed out that it had not been tested yet and the improvements were more down to groups like his working closely with the police.
Burnett warns that if more measures are not taken to prevent raptors causing damage or affecting livestock, it could mean a return to some landowners or managers taking matters into their own hands. While the focus may be on the birds in areas that are under threat, there are breeds of raptors which are thriving. He says that this is ten times the problem it was a decade ago.
Although other organisations may not agree, he says there is a place for licences being issued that would allow some raptors to be shot – just the same as for other birds which may impinge on landowners’ livelihood.
While he says the licences would need to be strict, they could be used to effectively control the land.
“There is no reason why SNH or anybody else shouldn’t be given out licences.
“But raptor groups see them as sacrosanct and don’t seem to care.
“All of the good that we have done up to now could very well be undone.”
Macdonald, though, said that while a licence could be applied for under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the “bar is very high”. Landowners would have to show that they had exhausted all alternative measures, such as redesigning a pheasant pent, or scaring the birds away.
Through the Scottish Rural Development Programme there is support available for measures which can include help to improve the habitat and to locate lambing parks, for example, away from nests.
“There’s a range of incentives,” he said: “But the ultimate sanction is the licence, we’ve never issued a licence because we’ve never felt the evidence supported it.”