In our second guest blog from Logan Steele, of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, he covers the hopes amongst voluntary raptor workers from across Scotland for the outcome of the independent review of grouse moor management in Scotland, the so called “Werritty Review”, which is due to report in July 2019. Read part one here.
SRSG say that licensing of grouse moors is essential to better protect Scotland’s persecuted raptors
Recording birds of prey on driven grouse moors, and working with (and sometimes despite) the land managers
It takes a certain masochist to monitor raptors, especially on the intensively managed “driven” grouse moors, as most often it leads to an inevitable and negative outcome for the protected birds concerned. We fool ourselves that ‘this year will be different’, ‘better’; ‘maybe a change in attitude’; ‘maybe they will let one site go’. So why do we bother? Primarily, we enjoy being out on the moor absorbing the hill experience and enjoying the fresh air and exercise, however above all we all have a passion for raptor conservation and are concerned about the appalling way in which these special birds have been treated by many grouse moor owners and their gamekeeper employees over many decades. Many of us have scientific and professional backgrounds and understand the importance of collecting and publishing biological data sets to in turn improve the conservation prospects of the birds that we enjoy studying.
As local people, we typically know, and have been monitoring, our various study areas for years, and in some cases decades. We have built up large data sets that have become more precious over time. These are vitally important to inform science and our understanding of local and national population sizes of the various raptor species. We work closely with bodies like RSPB Scotland, BTO Scotland, and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to help inform raptor conservation programmes and meet our international commitments.
Spring gradually dawns over the moors, and the early season checks begin, but often it soon becomes apparent that things are not off to a great start. The heather bank that had hen harriers attending last year has been totally burned out, and a cliff face where golden eagles traditionally breed has also been torched. These incidents are both likely deliberate actions to deter these birds from nesting this year, and in flagrant breach of the Scottish Government’s Muirburn Code. There is no other logical explanation as to why these particular areas have been targeted for burning.
Relationships with gamekeepers on driven grouse moors tend to fall into two categories. On one side you have the ‘charm offensive’ of those who try and persuade you that there are no issues on their ground and all is well. The other sort refuse to speak with you; drive past; ignore you; or even worse, follow you around on the moor and watch your activity from a distance from their vehicle. Some estates bring young keepers in from outside and are deliberately instructed not to engage with the locals least they open themselves up to being influenced by others. Almost all raptor workers visiting driven grouse moors can describe some kind of direct intimidation that they have experienced.
Depending on the species, the head gamekeeper, and the intensity of the grouse moor management activity focused on producing large grouse bags to shoot, some raptors may be allowed to settle, pair up, and a breeding attempt may be tolerated. Occasionally this may also occur perhaps by accident in that they ‘missed’ the birds, or sometimes in that they wish to create a benevolent impression to deflect criticism. However, when the breeding attempt invariably fails it is rarely precisely clear as to the cause, but various reasons are usually offered up by the local gamekeepers; the heavy rain and cold; and fox or badger predation (despite their own heavy predator control)! Never do we hear that the adult birds have been killed in the dark using thermal imaging or night vision equipment; or by deliberate nest disturbance during the egg incubation phase using of gas guns or bangers, could be the cause… funny that. These explanations run contrary to all of the evidence that has been gathered by raptor workers and scientists over decades; and for a number of species of native raptor; where direct human persecution and interference are identified as the main causes of adult disappearance and nest failures on land managed for “driven” grouse shooting1. We accept that some nests will fail due to bad weather, and sometimes predation, however routine nest failures should not be the norm, especially in places where most ground predators, such as foxes and stoats, are systematically removed. Traditional and previously productive nest sites should equally not fall vacant, simply when a sporting estate comes under new ownership or management. We have the facility to compare raptor productivity data, both annually and often over a very long term, between sporting estates and nearby areas with no gamekeeping effort, and which can highlight these discrepancies.
Some estates are ‘happy’ to leave merlins and kestrels as they are not seen as a threat to grouse stocks. Red kites are sometimes left alone as they are primarily scavengers, but on some grouse moor estates even they are killed because they are perceived to disturb the red grouse. What arrogance to decide what fully protected bird species will be allowed to survive and which will not!
The diversity of wildlife to be found on the ground in the heather monocultures of grouse moors is generally pretty thin. Lots of red grouse, some meadow pipits and skylarks, but precious little else. Yes, sometimes a few breeding waders and black grouse, but at what costs to the population of stoats, weasels, deer, mountain hares and, of course, raptors? All set in a sterile and semi industrial habitat criss-crossed with hill tracks, grouse butts and ringed by metal traps to prevent the ingress of so called “vermin”. Most upland habitats which have a greater diversity of native trees and scrub are generally better places for a wider variety of typical bird and mammal species, as well as attendant raptors.
Ultimately, many gamekeepers we meet on grouse moors would be delighted to be rid of raptor workers, who effectively provide an independent set of eyes on their activities, in otherwise remote areas. We believe that our data is essential in terms of informing much required new conservation and legislative responses by the Scottish Government and its agencies. It is high time that our compelling evidence is turned into concrete action to address the particular illegalities and unsustainable management excesses of grouse moors.
Our hopes for the “Werritty Review”
We would like to see licensing arrangements introduced for the most extreme forms of gamebird hunting, especially “driven” grouse shooting, and this regulation administered by SNH. Piecemeal changes to legislation, and various voluntary codes of practice, have been tried, and found to be inadequate in terms of a deterrent to illegal activity. In our view, what is now needed is a step change to reinforce the public interests in the way grouse moors are managed, and to act as a real deterrent to wildlife crime. We recommend a licensing system, with the facility to remove licences to shoot gamebirds for a defined period of time, and in circumstances where the public authorities are satisfied that illegal and unsustainable land management practices are occurring. This is what happens in most other European countries, so why not here? We would like to see conditions attached to licensing set out in a statutory Code of Sustainable Grouse Moor Management Practice. This should have the input of all public stakeholders to ensure that it represents genuine standards, as well as respecting the wider public interest in how such areas of land are managed. This Code would cover such things as the use of medicated grit; muirburn and protection of peatlands and other fire sensitive habitats; moorland drainage; the development of hill tracks; the mass culling of mountain hares; and a tightening up of the definition of ‘agricultural use’ to prevent sheep being used as “tick mops” to reduce tick-borne grouse diseases. As any breaches of the Code are likely happen in remote rural locations, facility should be given to unannounced spot checks carried out by the statutory bodies (likely to be SNH, SEPA and the Police). A Scottish Government/Police fund should be set aside for the purchase of satellite tags to monitor the movements and dispersal of young raptors close to established persecution hotspots, and in the event of incidents, to help guide enforcement action.
Serious infringements could be dealt with by the ultimate sanction of the withdrawal of shooting rights for a specific period of time as a genuine and meaningful deterrent to criminal and unsustainable management behaviours. Proof would be based on a civil burden of proof; that is on the basis of the balance of probabilities and to the satisfaction of the public authorities; and not a criminal one. This acknowledges the proven difficulty of securing convictions for wildlife crimes which often take place in remote areas, and the fact that the perpetrators know that they can “get away with it”. We see this operating in a similar fashion to the Open General Licence, which SNH has the right to remove, and has been tested already through the Scottish courts as a legal tool.
We would like to see the entire process much more transparent. A link to the Scottish land registration process can help ensure that ownership of land is clear. A hotline should be set up for the public reporting of possible breaches of the proposed Grouse Moor Code, such as use of muirburn or medicated grit out of season.
Estates should be required to report bag numbers to SNH for red grouse and mountain hares shot each season to inform sustainable management practices. Burning plans and culling plans should be produced and agreed by SNH to inform future conservation actions, and protect important natural heritage assets.
Finally, and importantly, all these costs for SNH administration should be recoverable through the charge for the licensing regime, as happens routinely in other European countries.
In summary, the “Werrity Review” presents a huge opportunity for change. We do not think that the status quo, or more voluntary approaches, and piecemeal legislative changes are options. More radical change is urgently required, and we propose a grouse moor licensing system. True respect by grouse moor landowners and their employees for wildlife protection laws, alongside greater clarity over the public expectations for sustainable land use practices set out in a statutory Code of Grouse Moor Management, could result in a positive change in relationships between grouse moor estates; local communities sometimes surrounded by this form of land management; and also with SRSG members engaged in legitimate monitoring work and contributing to national conservation efforts for populations of native raptor species.
1. E.g. Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. 2011. A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.; North East Scotland Raptor Study Group (2015). Peregrines in North-East Scotland in 2014 – further decline in the uplands. Scottish Birds 35: 202-206;
A good thing to come out of the Werritty report, if it is ever put into action, would be to confirm that both Eagles, all Harriers, Goshawks and Red Kite would attract a maximum prison sentence of 5 years if a wildlife crime were proven. The consultation this year on increasing prison sentences for animal cruelty to 5 years gives a good precedent. This could realistically be achieved this year as the 2015 Poustie report from 2015 has still not made it to Parliament, but should do so shortly. The government are surely ready by now to do this, as are MSPs from all parties. This would give the police major additional powers to investigate these crimes, as well as reflect our national abhorrence that it continues unabated. These powers would be very useful if the vicarious liability sentence were increased, allowing the police more likely find out the true responsible person.
Let us all get lobbying hard for such sentences in Poustie, and for any sake, let's force the government to action it. 4 years is far too long.
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