RSPB Scotland Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson, has this latest blog on the disappearance of birds of prey in Scotland.

Stories about Scotland’s birds of prey, and the threats that they face, have featured in the media a great deal in recent months. A couple of weeks ago the results of the 2016 National Hen Harrier survey were published. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, these results did not bring good news, with a 9% decline in Scotland since the last survey in 2010, and that can be added to a 22% decline between 2004 and 2010.

It’s news like this that persuaded me to join with the many hundreds of people who attended “Hen Harrier Day” events across the UK last weekend, to celebrate this fantastic bird, but also to protest against its continued persecution.

Anyone who has worked with hen harriers in Scotland over the last 25 years will be acutely aware that the population in the east and south of the country is in freefall. Despite a huge acreage of suitable moorland habitat and an abundance of potential prey, places like Deeside, the Angus Glens, the Monadhliaths, and the Lammermuir Hills have rarely had successful breeding pairs during the last decade, despite a previous history of this. Sometimes birds are seen early in the spring in these areas, but they seem to “disappear” fairly quickly. As an example of just how critical the situation is, more pairs of hen harriers bred successfully on one RSPB reserve on Islay in 2017, than on the grouse moors of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus and the Scottish Borders put together. In fact, RSPB nature reserves hold 10% of Scotland’s breeding population of hen harriers, with 46 pairs in 2016.

My first involvement in monitoring hen harriers was in north east Scotland in the early 1980’s. In those days, there were up to 24 pairs breeding in this area, but this population, like so many others has steadily declined over the last 20-30 years, with illegal killing by humans the main driver behind this depressing situation. Several witnessed shooting incidents over the years is clear evidence of this, reinforced now by a huge weight of scientific evidence, including the JNCC’s Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers, identifying that over much of Scotland, illegal killing and deliberate destruction of nests is the main population constraint.

One of the 2017 cohort of satellite-tagged hen harriers, credit Brian Etheridge.

The shootings of a hen harrier and a short-eared owl on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire in May this year are indicative of the continuous and widespread problem faced by our protected raptors. But, these crimes were unusual in that they were witnessed by members of the public, who then reported these incidents to RSPB Scotland and the police. In most instances, the crimes are unseen. Sometimes a dead bird is found, later confirmed as shot, trapped or poisoned, but unfortunately no-one ever seems able or willing to identify the perpetrator. On other occasions nests fail with clear signs of human interference or, as is often the case, birds seemingly settled and breeding simply vanish, with subsequent licensed nest checks finding cold eggs or dead, starved chicks.

However, technology is increasingly providing evidence as to the fate of some of our birds of prey. The fitting of satellite tags is giving us incredible detail about the travels of these birds, where they are hunting, roosting or nesting. The data provided by these highly reliable bits of kit are also telling us where birds are dying, naturally through starvation, disease or predation, very occasionally as a result of collision with a wind turbine, but all too often as a result of illegal persecution.

A couple of months ago, the Scottish Government published a review of satellite-tagged golden eagles. This meticulous piece of independent research, conducted by experienced scientists, showed that a third of tagged young golden eagles are either being illegally killed or are “disappearing” in circumstances that strongly suggest they have been illegally killed. The review closely associated the suspicious disappearances of these birds with land managed intensively for driven grouse shooting, particularly in four areas of the central and eastern highlands.

But, it’s not just golden eagles. As technology has advanced, satellite-tags have been able to be manufactured smaller and smaller, allowing their fitting to an expanding range of other species. In recent years, a number have been fitted to Scottish red kites, and, as announced yesterday, increasingly to hen harriers, as part of the RSPB’s LIFE Hen Harrier project, and also through the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project.

Annie, a hen harrier tagged as part of the Langholm Moor Demonstration project was found shot on a grouse moor in SW Scotland in April 2015.

As with golden eagles some of these birds have died naturally and have been found as expected, with their tags intact. Sadly, however, several have been found illegally killed, the victims of poisoning or, like hen harrier “Annie”, shooting. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that a number of these birds are “disappearing” in identical circumstances to those of the golden eagles documented in the Scottish Government review: satellite-tags that were functioning normally, providing excellent location data over a long period, and with a good charge on their internal battery, suddenly, inexplicably, stopped. Follow-up searches find no trace of the birds, and the tags are never heard of again.

While Scotland’s golden eagles tend to live among our highest mountains, particularly in the eastern part of their range, red kites and harriers tend to be a bit “lower down the hill”. With this in mind, we thought it would be interesting to map where satellite-tagged harriers and kites are being illegally killed or are disappearing, to see if this showed the similar very stark pattern as that published in the review for tagged golden eagles.

It is clear from this map that, like golden eagles, the distribution of illegally killed or suspiciously disappeared satellite-tagged red kites and hen harriers is far from random, and shows clear clusters in some upland areas. As with the “hotspots” for eagles, these clusters are almost entirely coincident with land dominated by driven grouse shooting management, again including areas like the northern Monadhliaths and the Angus Glens. But, harriers and kites have clearly being targeted in other regions – notably, but not exclusively, upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and the Lowther Hills of S Lanarkshire.

A pretty compelling picture, and it’s worth remembering that these tagged birds represent a tiny fraction of the population. How many non-tagged birds are being killed, unseen and never found? In the future, as more birds are tagged, we will get an increasingly clear indication of the extent and impact of persecution on these birds’ populations.

We welcomed the announcements made by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, on 31st May, intimating the establishment of an independent panel to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and to recommend options for regulation of this industry.

Some intensively managed driven grouse moors are still seemingly using business models drawn up in the 19th century, a time when attitudes to protected birds of prey and the wider environment were somewhat less enlightened than they are now. All that has apparently changed in the subsequent hundred years is that the killing of predators has become more efficient, with increasing use of thermal imagery or night-vision equipment, and, the widespread use of medication for grouse has led to an end of the natural population cycles of that bird, with an ability, if the weather is favourable, to achieve a high “shootable surplus” year after year

It’s obvious that whatever the Scottish Government panel recommends, it will be too late for all the birds shown as illegally killed or “disappeared” on the map. We just hope that the immediate review of “all available legal measures” also announced by the Cabinet Secretary in her response to the tagging review, leads to robust sanctions being employed rapidly to target estates proven to be involved in wildlife crime. It’s clear that self-regulation of the driven grouse shooting industry has completely failed to prevent the killing of protected raptors, and over the longer term, it needs a robust system of licensing whereby the right to shoot is dependent on adherence to the law.

Time is rapidly running out if we are to secure a future for this species in eastern and southern Scotland.