Scotland’s laws are failing to adequately protect birds of prey, as a new report highlights. Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, explains why those in power must act now to end illegal persecution.

Scotland’s birds of prey are an integral part of our national heritage. Our country is a key stronghold for many species like hen harriers, ospreys and golden eagles, attracting tourism and bringing our landscapes to life. But behind the scenes, despite full legal protection, our birds of prey are under criminal attack, leading to restricted and declining populations and fears for the future of these birds, in Scotland and throughout the UK.

Today, RSPB Scotland published a new report, The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland 2015-17, looking at the ongoing problem of raptor persecution, set against a context of increasing new scientific evidence and the response of our politicians to this issue.

The report takes up where the previous review, covering 1994-2014, left off.

We purposely don’t give emphasis to the “annual body count” of victims of raptor persecution crimes, since such numbers only represent those victims, traps and/or baits that were discovered in the vast open spaces of our uplands. It is impossible for anyone to say what the number of actual incidents is, but the evidence makes clear that the crimes being recorded are a fraction of what is actually taking place.

What the confirmed, detected incidents do show, however, is that raptor persecution continues, and it is widespread.

Between 2015-17:

  • 15 birds of prey were confirmed as the victims of illegal poisoning (as well as 4 Hooded Crows and 2 Ravens)
  • 3 poison baits were found
  • 4 bird of prey nests were shot out or burnt and destroyed
  • 3 birds of prey (and a common gull) were caught in illegally-set spring traps, and other illegal traps, set to catch birds of prey, were found on 4 occasions
  • 8 birds of prey (and a short-eared owl) were found shot.

Apart from one of the poisoning incidents, all of these occurred on or adjacent to land managed for gamebird shooting.

In addition to the confirmed incidents above, five satellite-tagged hen harriers and eight satellite-tagged golden eagles ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances during the period. 11 of these 13 disappearances (84%) also occurred on land managed for driven grouse shooting.

Since only a tiny proportion of Scotland’s raptors are fitted with satellite tags, the true extent of birds being killed must be enormous. 


What is being done?

The report goes on to look at some of the investigations arising from these cases, discusses the reasons for the very small number of prosecutions that arose, and questions whether the legislation designed to protect birds of prey are fit for purpose.

The report also presents evidence – from police investigations, from scientific research and from eye-witness accounts – that further links the majority of raptor persecution incidents to management practices carried out for intensive driven grouse shooting in parts of Scotland’s uplands, and shows that such crime is continuing to adversely impact the populations and ranges of several bird of prey species.

While the introduction of new legislation, such as vicarious liability, and increasing use of satellite transmitters fitted to birds of prey have contributed to a reduction in the use of illegal poisons, raptor population surveys have repeatedly shown no evidence of an overall decline in persecution levels.

We question the motives of those individuals and organisations who represent the grouse shooting industry and who try to discredit those undertaking licensed monitoring of birds of prey or those who publicise or uncover evidence of raptor persecution, while at the same time claiming, without any evidence, that crimes against birds of prey are on the wane. It is abundantly clear, however, that this is the same industry that has utterly failed to address the criminality that seems to be systemic over the huge area of our uplands in which it operates.

Although Scotland has seen a number of welcome and well-documented improvements in legislation since devolution, we still have had only two vicarious liability convictions in six years; only four general licence restrictions have been imposed since the beginning of 2014; and, no gamekeepers have been successfully prosecuted for raptor persecution crimes since August 2015.

The reality is that those killing raptors are difficult to catch, and a lack of regulation of the gamebird shooting industry, a lack of accountability and the difficulty in anyone securing sufficient admissible evidence to allow a prosecution has led to a culture where grouse moor managers feel (and act) as if they are untouchable.


Moving forward

Things are changing, however. As we show in the report, since the enactment of vicarious liability legislation and the increased use of satellite tags to monitor raptors, there has been a reduction in poisoning incidents, presumably because such crimes and their victims were becoming increasingly detectable. However, there is no evidence to suggest that shooting, trapping or nest destruction is declining.

Instead, there is increasing evidence that species such as hen harriers and golden eagles are being targeted at overnight roosts, with the criminals undoubtedly making use of sophisticated thermal imaging and night-vision technology. This is supported by witnesses, evidence and intelligence, video footage and satellite transmitter data. Indeed, it was the highly suspicious disappearance of a growing number of tagged golden eagles that led the Scottish Government to commission a review of the fates of these birds.

The findings of that study, published in a peer-reviewed report, found that the final known locations of many of the tags were associated with grouse moors. It identified six ‘black spots’ where birds were disappearing, with four particular concentrations of suspicious final fixes of tags in the central and eastern Highlands. Nothing, other than human interference, could account for these clusters. It was also found that identical satellite tags fitted to eagles were 25 times more likely to “fail” in Scotland than in the USA. In short, it confirmed what the RSPB has long been expressing: that large numbers of Scotland’s protected birds of prey continue to be illegally killed on grouse moors.

In 2017, in response to the findings of the satellite-tagging review, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, announced the setting up of an independent group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices and recommend options for regulation, including licensing.

This panel, to which RSPB Scotland has provided a comprehensive package of evidence, is due to report back to the Cabinet Secretary in spring 2019. The evidence we submitted to this panel, much of it discussed in our new report, concludes that there will be no improvement in the conservation status of birds like hen harriers and golden eagles until land management in our uplands is carried out wholly within the law. Self-regulation has patently failed and our birds of prey continue to be killed on driven grouse moors in significant numbers.

It is long overdue that driven grouse shooting was made more publicly accountable and effectively regulated through a licensing scheme, with sanctions to remove licences where wildlife laws are not respected.

Something needs to change. 

You can read the report here: The illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland 2015-17 Report.pdf