RSPB Scotland's Head of Investigations Ian Thomson outlines our thoughts on claims made accompanying the launch of a petition regarding satellite tags fitted to raptor species.

Challenging misinformation about satellite tags

One of the greatest conservation tools to emerge in recent years has been satellite-tagging technology. Whether following the journeys of migrating cuckoos or shedding light on the dangers facing UK birds of prey, these tiny pieces of technology are becoming increasingly valuable in the conservationist’s mission to save nature.

As you read this, satellite tags are helping scientists monitor a handful of recently released captive-reared white-rumped vultures in Nepal after the species almost went extinct. It allowed the finding of a turtle dove nest in Suffolk this August, crucial for a species which has declined in the UK by 97% since 1970. Another tag’s data led us to the body of a hen harrier, Rannoch, lying in the heather, her leg caught in an illegal spring trap on a Perthshire grouse moor.


Rannoch, a young hen harrier, was fitted with a satellite tag at a nest in Perthshire in summer 2017

A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), lodged a petition “calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to raptor species, to assist the police and courts in potential wildlife crime cases and to provide data transparency.”

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) briefing about the petition gives a rounded picture of the context.

However, the supporting information provided by the SGA to support their petition contains misleading information which appears to be part of an ongoing and concerted attempt to undermine the credibility of these scientifically-approved tags and the integrity of those monitoring them.

In recent years, various statements the SGA have made in the media (eg. as discussed here) are symptomatic of an organisation in complete denial about the extent of raptor persecution and it’s association with grouse moor management. Indeed, every story about a dead or disappeared satellite-tagged bird of prey on a grouse moor is met with denials, obfuscation or conspiracy theories.


Rannoch was killed by an illegal trap on a grouse moor in Novemeber 2018. Had she not been tagged, this crime would have remained undiscovered

The RSPB has been involved in the fitting of satellite transmitters, using experienced, trained and licenced taggers, to a wide variety of birds of prey and other species, both in the UK and abroad, for the last 15 years. As a key adviser and contributor to a number of high-profile conservation research projects involving the tagging of bird species across the world, we thought it important to share our experience to put the SGA’s claims into context.

In the UK, all tagging projects require approval from the independent British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Special Methods Panel, who rigorously scrutinise all such proposals on behalf of the UK statutory conservation agencies, including SNH in Scotland, to check their scientific validity and that the welfare of the birds tagged is ensured. The BTO’s process also ensures all projects meet Home Office requirements.

All practitioners must demonstrate experience and capability to undertake this work and this is heavily scrutinised by the Special Methods Panel. Most of those involved with this technique are experienced bird ringers and handlers. An annual licence return is supplied to the BTO by all satellite practitioners for their records, and this is a condition of receiving further licences in the future.

The RSPB also has considerable experience in monitoring the data coming from our own transmitters and in working closely with other individuals and organisations involved in similar projects, notably with regard to development of tag technology, sharing good practice and the analysis of satellite tag data.

We lead on police training on the interpretation of tag data, recently attending key events in Perthshire and Yorkshire in 2019 to ensure that the police and officers from the National Wildlife Crime Unit are equipped to carry out independent scrutiny of tag data. We have also helped ensure that, where satellite-tagged birds of prey are suspected of being illegally killed, relevant tag data is provided to investigating officers as required.

We have assisted the police in numerous follow-up investigations where tagged birds have been illegally killed or have been suspected to have been victims of criminality – as with Rannoch, mentioned above.

In 2017, the government-commissioned review of the fates of satellite-tagged golden eagles concluded that almost a third of young tagged eagles “disappeared (presumably died) under suspicious circumstances” and that “areas managed as grouse moors were strongly associated with the disappearance of many of the tagged eagles”. This independently peer-reviewed study was underpinned by data from tags that researchers from RSPB and several other organisations and agencies had fitted to Scottish golden eagles, and is key evidence that scientifically highlights the ongoing problem of raptor persecution on Scotland’s grouse moors. 

Satellite transmitters, all fitted as part of projects licensed by the BTO, have revolutionised the study of bird ecology. They have proved invaluable research tools in understanding the movements of birds, from Asian vultures to English turtle doves, Welsh hen harriers and Scottish golden eagles. They have allowed us to identify important migration staging areas, key nest and roost site locations, allowing us to further protect these birds. They have also allowed recovery of dead birds, enabling post-mortem examinations to take place and identify causes of death which would otherwise remain a mystery. Indeed, they are shining a very bright light on those areas of upland Scotland where raptor persecution continues unabated.

It is unfortunate that the SGA, which has consistently attempted to undermine the veracity of tag data, has also refused to take part in meetings of the partnership for action against wildlife crime (PAW Scotland) since the government’s satellite-tag review was published. Had it done so, perhaps many of the inaccurate statements contained in the briefing document, or in their recent members’ magazine, prepared to accompany the petition would not have appeared.  One can only question their motives.

Anonymous
  • Ian, it is quite right to question their motives, for the obvious reason. The SGA has consistently denied reasonable scientific reasoning. That is unlikely to change. There will be people of the same mind of the SGA who are happy to believe and support their views. We live in an age when such persons can be assured of a hearing in the similarly biased media as well as persons who hold important positions. You can only keep plugging away the truth, and hope that your views based upon scientific fact can prevail.