A national disgrace

by Bob McMillan

My childhood in the 1950s had been spent in a rural village near Dunblane in south Perthshire surrounded by sporting estates. To see a Buzzard or a Kestrel was a rarity, let alone a Hen Harrier. An early interest in birds was cultivated by older friends, one of whom had found breeding Harriers on a moor on the nearby Cromlix estate. He subsequently studied and photographed the birds much to the consternation of the local estate which eventually took out a civil action and interdicted him from the ground. Twice prosecuted for breach of interdict, the case remains unique amongst individuals who have put themselves on the line to protect birds of prey from the illegal actions of gamekeepers and sporting estates. Eddie Blake from Dunblane died recently. Somewhat eccentric, he received little support for his actions from the ornithological establishment who shunned him. In 1952 Blake had recorded the first breeding record of Montagu’s Harrier in Scotland on Braco Moor. Though the pair returned the following year, the female was shot. There have only been five recorded breeding attempts in Scotland and the last of these was in 1955. Montagu’s Harriers might still be breeding in Scotland today were it not for persecution, but rarely merit a mention alongside formerly extinct species such as Osprey, Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle.

When I joined the police service in 1963 my final interview was by the Chief Constable at Callander Police Station. Bedecked in tweeds and with two spaniels at his heels, George Glendinning was every inch the country squire. Any discussion about Blake’s interdict was strictly off limits but I later learned that Glendinning was a regular shooting guest on Cromlix estate. The influence of landowners on local policing was profound in the 1960/70s and vestiges of it remain today. Rural police officers had access to free fishing and shooting, which invariably meant an immediate response to suspected poachers, or for that matter, to ‘suspicious trespassers’ who were simply enjoying their Scottish right to roam. Many gamekeepers were Special Constables. Rural shoots in Perthshire would have been unsustainable had it not been for the many police officers who acted as ‘beaters’ at pheasant shoots on their days off. Though trained and aware of wildlife crime, such cultural influences would make them strongly anti-poaching, and more likely than not to turn a blind eye if an occasional Sparrowhawk was accidentally ‘taken out’ during a Pheasant drive. The police response to reports of illegal trapping or poisoning of birds of prey, up until the end of the 1980s, was likely to be ambivalent. Some raptor enthusiasts would argue it remains fairly unpredictable to this day.

Despite most raptors having legal protection since 1954, persecution by gamekeepers and those with sporting interests in grouse moors and lowland estates remains a major problem. In 1998 Scottish Raptor Study Groups carried out an assessment of the extent of the illegal killing of raptors in Scotland. Published by the Scottish Office, it was launched at the Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Fair at Kinross, where the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, expounded the view that persecution of birds of prey was a national disgrace. As a retiring Assistant Chief Constable in Tayside Police, who took the lead on wildlife crime in Scotland, my last public duty was to meet Donald Dewar at the event. In the context of the persecution of raptors, this was a major political statement, and the expression “a national disgrace” was used by many others subsequently. The reality was that the expression had been conjured up by a senior civil servant and Donald Dewar posed the question as to whether he could actually say it. The fact that he decided to say it represented a major politicisation of the issue, though not necessarily a turning point.

Having found my first poisoned Golden Eagle at an eyrie in Perthshire 40 years ago these problems were not new to me, as was the case for other raptor enthusiasts. What was new, however, was that senior politicians and officials of agencies such as Scottish Natural Heritage were, for the first time, prepared to speak out against the problem. Raptor persecution was by no means rare, and the killing of adult birds and destruction of nests continued or even increased during the 1990s. Donald Dewar also said that the Government, and the soon to be Scottish Parliament, “will take all possible steps to eliminate persecution.” Fifteen years on from this statement, perhaps finally, some progress is being made.

The Partnership for Action on Wildlife Crime (PAW) brings together the Police, HM Revenue and Customs, and representatives of Government Departments and voluntary bodies with an interest in wildlife law enforcement. It provides a strategic overview of enforcement activity, considers and develops responses to strategic problems, and looks at issues of strategic concern. Its main objective is to support the networks of Police Wildlife Crime Officers (PWCO). As part of the overall UK-wide structure, PAW Scotland has existed for at least 20 years. Although it has been responsible for many preventive initiatives post-devolution, and despite Donald Dewar’s commitment, it lacked strategic support from a number of the key agencies. Since the SNP administration came to power that has significantly changed, initially under the leadership of the then Minister for Environment Michael Russell and, since then, through subsequent ministers. A major turning point was the Borders Golden Eagle poisoning incident in 2007 which led to two parliamentary debates on Wildlife Crime and the police thematic inspection ‘Natural Justice’. This led to the publication in September 2008 of the Scottish Wildlife Crime Reduction Strategy which is being implemented through a PAW Scotland plenary and executive group, and a number of sub-groups. The persecution of raptors had been a major factor in influencing this new strategic commitment, and although a Raptor Persecution Priority Group was established, it has been slow to make progress and is still to report. The pro-shooting lobby has been extremely influential within PAW Scotland and within this group. In terms of the protection of raptors, much of this has muddied the waters and not been particularly constructive. Whilst it is important to have a partnership approach to deal with these problems, some question whether it is appropriate that the perpetrators, in the main gamekeepers and the sporting estates which condone these crimes, should be part of it.

The accurate recording of wildlife crime incidents involving raptors is a major challenge and most will be aware that the RSPB in Scotland produce an annual report. Annual maps of incidents (‘maps of shame’) can also be found on the website above. A major challenge is to make sure that all wildlife crime incidents are reported to the police, preferably to Wildlife Crime Officers who are known locally. It is equally important to make sure that RSPB Investigations staff are also aware of any incidents reported to the police. Wildlife crimes such as suspected shooting or poisoning of birds, destruction of nests or eggs, or reckless disturbance should be reported at the time and without delay. The remains of dead birds of prey, irrespective of age or condition, may be important evidence and require forensic examination. Advice on what to do if you find a suspected incident is available on the PAW Scotland website.

Recently-published research showed that illegal persecution remained particularly prevalent on grouse moors, and for raptor workers and those who visit wild land this is perhaps nothing new. The recent recovery of a poisoned Golden Eagle in Morar and a shot White-tailed Eagle on Skye confirms that birds are at risk throughout the Highlands, not just on sporting estates. Some local populations face the prospect of significant decline unless action is taken. In areas of Scotland such as the Black Isle the re-establishment of the Red Kite continues to be jeopardised by illegal persecution, and each year brings further reports of the destruction of Hen Harriers and Peregrines. Satellite telemetry is now being used extensively on several species of birds of prey, primarily intended to trace the movements of young birds to gather information which assists their long-term conservation. An unintended outcome from this new science is that when signals indicate a bird has stopped moving, follow-ups have established that birds have been trapped, shot and poisoned. Without satellite telemetry these crimes would never be known about. The Golden Eagle ‘Alma’, poisoned in 2009, is one such example. Unfortunately a significant number of recent persecution casualties involving our large raptors have been found in this way, supporting the argument that reported incidents represent the tip of the iceberg.

The ‘Natural Justice’ thematic inspection recommended dedicated Wildlife Crime Officers in every force. The reality is there are now fewer WCOs than existed when the inspection was carried out. Strathclyde, the largest force in Scotland, have had no full-time post for some years. With a single National police force just months away there is little evidence that there is any genuine commitment on the part of the police service to meet many of the earlier recommendations. Whilst we can work in partnership, increase awareness, improve legislation and ensure landowners and employers accept vicarious responsibility, we can achieve nothing without a properly trained and professional police service which can rise to the challenge. Regrettably, the number of successful prosecutions remains extremely low, and there is a need to ensure that, in terms of enforcement and investigation, the limited resources dedicated to this field of work are properly supported so that much of the political and public relations rhetoric can be converted into tangible results.

I was part of a delegation from Scottish Raptor Study Groups which met Roseanna Cunningham when she was Minister for Environment in November 2010, and we recommended that a dedicated investigative unit be established, comprising trained WCOs and specialists from the RSPB, SSPCA and SNH, with a remit to cover the whole of Scotland, untrammelled by force boundaries. Many will argue, politicians amongst them, that only a few rogue estates and gamekeepers are involved, but any review of the so-called ‘maps of shame’ and the RSPB maps which preceded them, would find that hundreds of estates have been involved in incidents during the last ten years. Uniquely, there are also several estates with histories of persecution going back 30 years. As long as the police have responsibility to investigate such crimes, there is a need for them to develop a cutting edge and target the perpetrators. There would never be a better time to establish a specialist unit than now.

Some fifty years on from my childhood days in south Perthshire I will certainly be able to see Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and even Red Kites when I visit. Unfortunately Hen Harriers remain absent from the moors of Cromlix and Braco. Golden Eagles show little sign of expanding their range, and there is a real risk that fifteen years on from the branding of the problem ‘a national disgrace’, the fate of some of the iconic species which occupy our wild land remains in the balance.