Yesterday (11 June 2019) a satellite tag training seminar was held in North Yorkshire to demonstrate the incredible value this technology can provide for both conservation and law enforcement.
For many years, satellite tags have been used to monitor birds like hen harriers and golden eagles. These lightweight GPS tags are fitted to the birds as chicks, to help us follow their movements and identify the risks they come up against after they fledge.
The seminar was initiated by Superintendent Nick Lyall, chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Group (RPPDG) for England and Wales. Formed nearly ten years ago, the RPPDG has come under considerable, often justified, criticism for lack of progress. Since taking over as chair in 2018, Nick has made determined efforts to inject some life into the group. There was a slight setback in January when five organisations representing shooting interests boycotted his first RPPDG meeting, but all but one has since returned to the table and Nick has pressed on with a range of initiatives including the national launch of Operation Owl.
The satellite tag seminar took place at North Yorkshire Police Headquarters in Northallerton, and followed a similar event in Scotland back in February. Over 100 delegates attended, and it was great that so many police forces had allowed Wildlife Crime Officers (WCOs) to attend the event. There were also delegates from the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), Natural England (NE), Defra, Raptor Workers, National Parks and the RSPCA (apologies to anyone I've missed). The RSPB was well represented with 12 staff from Investigations and the Hen Harrier LIFE project reflecting the RSPB’s huge investment of time and resources into fitting and monitoring the movements of satellite tagged birds.
DCC Phil Cain of North Yorkshire Police opened the seminar. He emphasised in particular the chaos caused in communities by Organised Crime Groups. He considered North Yorkshire a ‘family force’ and wanted to ensure they left a legacy for future generations.
DCC Phil Cain opening the Satellite Tag Training day (RSPB)
However this positive opening address was hugely upstaged by young Alexander Goodwin, a ‘Mini Wildlife Crime Officer’. Alex has Ewing Sarcoma, a childhood bone cancer, and was given just months to live back in October 2016. His father is a serving officer in Warwickshire, and thanks to financial support from friends and family, plus police in the UK, US and Canada he was able to travel to the USA for pioneering surgery.
In February this year Lincolnshire Police made him an honorary Wildlife Crime Officer. More about the life of this brave young man can be seen at www.alexsjourney.co.uk/home. You could have heard a pin drop as Alex gave a short presentation about his love of birds and why tackling raptor persecution is so important.
WCO Sgt Grainger, Ch Insp Lou Hubble NWCU, Mini WCO Alex Goodwin and Supt Nick Lyall (RSPB)
Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations Scotland, gave a general introduction to raptors then a fascinating insight into how satellite tag data is in interpreted, what signs may suggest a bird may have been subject to illegal persecution and how birds and/or tags can sometimes be recovered. Evidence strongly suggests that the use of satellite tags on golden eagles has provided a deterrent against the illegal use of poison baits in Scotland. Perpetrators putting out poison baits cannot easily control a crime scene and victims fitted with satellite tags may be recovered before there is a chance for offenders to dispose of them.
Dr Cathleen Thomas, Project Manager for the RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE project, provided an overview of the project and details of the satellite tagging work. Over 20 of the birds tagged since the project began in 2015 had experienced a ‘sudden stop’, where a tag with no sign of malfunction suddenly stopped providing data. These tags are highly reliable, so this is usually a strong indication of human interference.
On the subject of satellite tag data, Richard Saunders from NE, who has a long involvement with hen harriers, presented the results of the recent paper analysing the Natural England satellite tag data. The key messages were loud and clear – ‘Hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or disappear in areas dominated by grouse moors’ and the study provided ‘Compelling evidence that hen harriers are being killed on grouse moors’. Stephen Murphy of NE provided further information about fitting satellite tags and movements of the birds.
Supt. Nick Lyall, chair of the RPPDG, addressing over 100 delegates (RSPB)
Andy McWilliam of the NWCU outlined the relevant legislation and Nigel Butcher, RSPB Senior Technical Officer, our very own 'Q', provided more detail on analysis of sat tag data. Helen Mason, RSPB Intelligence Manager, provided a great overview of the RSPB’s unique wildlife crime database, the added value it could give investigations by the statutory agencies and how the data can be put to best use, including the excellent new RSPB Raptor Persecution Map Hub.
The seminar ended with a double header on the use of forensics in the investigation of raptor persecution and other wildlife crime. This was delivered by Chris Gannicliffe, Lead Forensic Scientist at the Scottish Police Authority, on behalf of the PAW Forensic Working Group, and CSI PC Mike Crockford.
Chief Inspector Lou Hubble, Head of NWCU, closed the conference saying that a protocol was being developed to assist with the investigation of potential wildlife crime incidents involving satellite tagged raptors.
The satellite tag work over the last ten years or so, particularly on golden eagles and hen harriers, has shone a clear light into the murky world of criminality on driven grouse moors. However, it seems abundantly clear that self regulation by the shooting industry has failed. The Scottish Government has already added some further regulation (notably vicarious liability), and after setting up the Grouse Moor Management Group on November 2017 we await the upcoming ‘Werritty Review’ which will hopefully lead to further tightening of regulation, including measures like licensing of driven grouse shooting. The RSPB recently outlined some of its thoughts on this pending review.
'Alma' the first Scottish satellite tagged golden eagle to be found poisoned in 2009 (Ewan Weston)
Not long after satellite tag work started there were some high-profile recoveries of illegally killed golden eagles in Scotland, followed by hen harriers in Scotland and England. Unsurprisingly, some organisations and individuals within the shooting world - in some cases connected to, or with members within the very Organised Crime Groups that DCC Cain mentioned - started to voice their displeasure. They have attacked the reliability of the technology and the work of those running the projects. This has gone on for many years despite two damming scientific papers on satellite tagged golden eagles and hen harriers which reveal that illegal killing is really happening. Only recently a regional director for BASC voiced these types of concerns.
Hopefully, somewhere in the background the likes of Supt Nick Lyall and Ch Insp Lou Hubble are having a quiet but firm word with certain organisations, confirming the reliability of the technology and providing a vote of confidence in the people and organisations running these projects. All members of the RPPDG need to support this technology as part of a wider process to help identify and root out the criminal element within the shooting industry.
The future still looks grim for hen harriers. How bad will things have to get before the various UK governments take meaningful action to increase regulation of driven grouse shooting? Meanwhile, the RSPB, scientists and raptor workers will continue to fit and monitor satellite tags to assist with conservation efforts for a range of raptors and to continue to expose some of the serious problems that cast a shadow over our uplands.
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