Illegal Persecution: a national disgrace
Scotland has a long dark history of raptor persecution and it continues to this day.
The history of raptor-killing in Scotland has been traced back to the 15th century although it is not considered to have begun in earnest until the late 1700s with the rapid expansion of sheep farming (Lovegrove 2007). Alongside the popularity of game bird hunting in the 1800s (and particularly red grouse hunting, a sporting tradition peculiar to the UK), most raptor species were considered to be ‘vermin’ and a significant threat to sheep and game bird survival. As such, legal predator control was permitted during this period and landowners encouraged their shepherds and gamekeepers to eradicate as many raptors as possible (Anonymous 2000). Other groups were also involved in legal raptor persecution, either directly (e.g. skin collectors – during the Victorian era it was fashionable to display stuffed birds as decorative conversation pieces in drawing rooms and parlours; Mearns and Mearns 1998) or indirectly (e.g. egg collectors; Cole and Trobe 2000).
The most direct methods used for legal persecution included poisoning, trapping, shooting and nest destruction. Their combined effect resulted in dire consequences for many raptor populations. By the early 1900s, several species had become extinct in Scotland including the white-tailed eagle (Love 1983), goshawk (Marquiss and Newton 1982), red kite (Evans et al. 1997) and osprey (Brown and Waterston 1962). Other species in Scotland managed to avoid extinction but suffered severe range contraction as a direct result of persecution, including the hen harrier (Watson 1977), peregrine (Ratcliffe 1993), golden eagle (Watson 1997) and buzzard (Tubbs 1974).
Poisoning, specifically the setting of poison baits in the open, was first outlawed by the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act in 1912, although this legislation did not include legal protection for birds. The legal persecution of raptors (including poisoning, trapping and shooting) was not prohibited until the introduction of the Protection of Birds Act in 1954. Following a change in society’s perception of raptors over the following 50 years, several raptor recovery projects took place in Scotland, i.e. white-tailed sea eagle reintroduction (Love 1983) and red kite reintroduction (Evans et al. 1997). Further legislation to protect raptors was also introduced during this period, including a complex array of Scottish, UK and European-specific laws. These afforded raptor species the high level of legal protection they now have today, making it an offence to poison, shoot, trap, destroy nests or recklessly or deliberately interfere with a nesting raptor. However, such legal protection is only effective if it is properly policed and enforced with adequate resources. A suite of scientific peer-reviewed studies has demonstrated unequivocally that illegal persecution continues and that it occurs disproportionately on land managed as grouse moor (Whitfield et al. 2003). For example, populations of golden eagles (Whitfield et al. 2004a; 2004b; 2007; 2008; Watson 2013), hen harriers (Etheridge et al. 1997; Fielding et al. 2011), goshawks (Marquiss et al. 2003); peregrines (Hardey et al. 2003) and red kites (Smart et al. 2010) are all severely constrained in parts of Scotland as a direct result of illegal persecution. The most commonly used methods are still poisoning, shooting, trapping and nest destruction.
It is difficult to assess the actual number of persecution incidents that happen each year, mainly due to the remoteness of many of the areas as well as the cultural and social pressures that inhibit certain sectors of the rural community from speaking up about these crimes. Most of the victims are found by chance, e.g. by passing hill-walkers, and it is known that some perpetrators take extra measures to prevent the discovery of their criminal activities (e.g. by burying the corpses or dumping them far from the location where they were killed). The RSPB maintains a database of reported incidents which are classified under the headings ‘Unconfirmed’, ‘Probable’ and ‘Confirmed’. According to their most recent data (RSPB 2012), the number of confirmed victims of poison abuse in Scotland from 1989-2011 is 932. This figure includes 75 red kites, 29 golden eagles and 364 buzzards. The number of confirmed victims of shooting, trapping or nest destruction in Scotland from 1989-2011 is 334. This includes 7 red kites, 17 golden eagles, 145 buzzards, 63 peregrines, 51 hen harriers, 13 goshawks, 16 sparrowhawks and 28 kestrels. It’s a widely held view that these confirmed incidents represent just the tip of a large iceberg; a view supported by the findings of a recent study that compared unpublished ‘vermin’ destruction records from one estate in Perthshire with known persecution incidents throughout Scotland as recorded by the authorities. The results showed that over a period of years, the number of raptors illegally killed on just one estate far exceeded the number of ‘official’ incidents recorded across the whole of Scotland (McMillan 2011).
It has been recognised that many problems exist with the investigation, prosecution and sentencing of those involved in raptor persecution. Many government-led initiatives to address some of these issues have been set in place, including several partnership-working groups and most recently the introduction of legislation for vicarious liability, whereby a landowner or land manager could be prosecuted for the illegal actions of an employee or sub-contractor. However, despite these efforts the persecution continues, leading to disappointment and frustration.(e.g. Tingay 2012).
The Scottish Raptor Study Group remains resolute in the fight against illegal raptor persecution. We have a representative on the government-led Scottish Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group and we are a member of the Scottish Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland). We work closely with the police, RSPB and SSPCA in reporting suspected persecution incidents and we will continue to use our monitoring data to identify the problems. We’ll only be satisfied that criminal raptor persecution has ended when we see the return of healthy raptor populations throughout the country.
In 1998, the then Secretary of State, Donald Dewar, described the level of raptor persecution in Scotland as ‘a national disgrace’. Fifteen years later this still remains the case and further measures to prevent its continuation are long overdue.
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Etheridge, B., Summers, R.W. and Green, R.E. (1997). The effects of illegal killing and destruction of nests by humans on the population dynamics of the hen harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology 34: 1081-1105.
Evans, I.M., Dennis, R.H., Orr-Ewing, D.C., Kjellén, N., Andersson, P.O., Sylvén, M., Senosiain, A. and Carbo, F.C. (1997). The re-establishment of red kite breeding populations in Scotland and England. British Birds 90: 123-138.
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RSPB (2012). The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland in 2011. RSPB Scotland, Edinburgh.
Smart, J., Amar, A., Sim, I.M.W., Etheridge, B., Cameron, D., Christie, G. and Wilson, J.D. (2010). Illegal killing slows population recovery of a re-introduced raptor of high conservation concern – the red kite Milvus milvus. Biological Conservation 143: 1278-1286.
Tingay, R.E. (2012). The effect of carbofuran poisoning and other illegal persecution methods on raptor populations in Scotland. In Richards, N. (Ed.). Carbofuran and Wildlife Poisoning: Global Perspectives and Forensic Approaches. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford. Pp. 174-178.
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Whitfield, D.P., Fielding, A.H., McLeod, D.R.A. and Haworth, P.F. (2004a). The effects of persecution on age of breeding and territory occupation in golden eagles in Scotland. Biological Conservation 118: 249-259.
Whitfield, D.P., Fielding, A.H., McLeod, D.R. and Haworth, P.F. (2004b). Modelling the effects of persecution on the population dynamics of golden eagles in Scotland. Biological Conservation 118: 319-333.
Whitfield, D.P., Fielding, A.H., McLeod, D.R.A., Morton, K., Stirling-Aird, P. and Eaton, M.A. (2007). Factors constraining the distribution of golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos in Scotland. Bird Study 54: 199-211.
Whitfield, D.P., McLeod, D.R.A., Watson, J., Fielding, A.H. and Haworth, P.F. (2003). The association of grouse moor in Scotland with the illegal use of poisons to control predators. Biological Conservation 114: 157-163.