Wildlife crime: Grouse shooting season put in the shade by illegal poisoning

The Glorious Twelfth and the start of the red grouse shooting season is drawing closer, but, finds Nick Drainey, there is something else exercising the minds of many in the Scottish countryside - the illegal poisoning of birds of prey

THE POISONING of birds of prey is a sickening crime that has hit the headlines with increasing frequency in the last year. But with a continuing war of words over who is responsible, is it possible to stop? In an extraordinary outburst RSPB Scotland has told estates and landowners it is time they "sorted out" the problem of birds of prey being killed.

After a number of high-profile court cases the organisation has said the persecution of birds could be stopped if landowners were more willing to address the problem. But gamekeepers say it is handful of "rogue estates" carrying out poisonings. And landowners say efforts are being made behind the scenes to put pressure on those estates.

Bob Elliot, head of investigations with RSPB Scotland says more needs to be done: "They (estates and landowners) have said they don't condone it time and time again – but what other industry do you know that wouldn't have sorted this out by now, internally? Evidence that there is anything changing is very difficult to judge. We need to concentrate on the fact that our species are being targeted illegally and being killed."

A total of 22 poisoning incidents were recorded in 2009, the latest figures available, resulting in 27 dead birds of prey, including 19 buzzards, four red kites and two golden eagles.

While Elliot is happy that vicarious responsibility has been included in laws covering wildlife crime, meaning landowners as well as gamekeepers have responsibility for what happens on estates, he says he would like them to be toughened further: "You can charge someone with possession of a banned chemical but there is no equivalent to a charge like 'going equipped' or 'concerned in the use of'."

RSPB Scotland – which holds regular meetings with landowners – rejects the idea suggested by some estates that licences should be given to kill some birds, such as buzzards and sparrowhawks, saying no other country in Europe kills birds of prey. "There is no justification for it; it is like saying, 'I know people who smoke dope, I don't condone it but would like to make it legal.'

"Society will not be held hostage to these ideas. These are European protected species and there is no requirement at all for any relaxation in the law to enable these birds to be killed."

In May, estate worker Dean Barr was fined 3,300 after admitting the possession of more than 10kg of a highly toxic banned pesticide – enough to poison the entire Scottish population of birds of prey six times over. Barr, 44, was caught with carbofuran – made illegal in the UK in 2001 – following a police investigation which led them to search the Skibo Estate in east Sutherland.

The Crown accepted Barr had no part in the deaths of two golden eagles and a sparrowhawk found on the estate in May 2010. A gamekeeper who was caught by police with a dead red kite bird in his car was fined 1,500. James Rolfe, 20, a gamekeeper at an estate in Moy, near Inverness, pled guilty to possessing the protected species, which was found in his vehicle during a police wildlife crime operation on 3 June last year.

Rolfe became the first person in Scotland to be convicted of possessing a dead red kite since the species was reintroduced to the country 22 years ago.

David Hendry, who runs the Cardney Estate, near Dunkeld, blames poisonings on a "handful of estates" for ruining the reputation of the majority of law-abiding landowners and workers.

He does think the numbers of buzzards and sparrowhawks are too high, threatening other birds as well as animals such as red squirrels, and that licences should be issued to shoot them, but that poisoning is not the answer. He says: "There are a number of estates using poison, still. I think if anybody can stop it, it is people within the industry."

Hendry said there is peer pressure on estates where poisoning is taking place, but there are no sanctions which are effective. "Most of us have got issue with it … people get frustrated and do things they shouldn't do (poisoning) but it doesn't help anything."

Scottish Natural Heritage also says the small group of estates on which wildlife crime is carried out have to be stopped.

Susan Davies, SNH's director of policy and advice, says: "Wildlife crime is deplorable and impacts on everyone who enjoys and relies on Scotland's countryside – farmers, land managers and stalkers to hill walkers, ramblers and families.

"We remain committed to stamping out wildlife crime. We believe that the majority of estates in Scotland are responsible and practice legal land management techniques. However, a minority continue to tarnish the country's reputation. And we are working with the conservation and land management sector to find ways to resolve species and land management conflicts.

"Many Scottish estates have designated sites of European importance on their grounds and it is therefore vital that all estates and land managers remain vigilant to wildlife crime. Wildlife crime has many forms, such as illegal fishing of freshwater pearl mussels, to illegal acts of hare coursing or poisoning our birds of prey."

Scottish Land & Estates, which represents landowners, set up a scheme earlier this year to promote biodiversity in Scotland.

Wildlife Estates Scotland includes a categorical rejection of the practice of poisoning birds of prey.

Douglas McAdam, chief executive and director of Scottish Land & Estates, said that "the vast majority of landowners are extremely vigilant in adhering to both the law and best practice moorland management.

"Last year we launched the Wildlife Estates Scotland initiative with the support of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

"The key aim of WES is to encourage landowners to sign up to official biodiversity and wildlife habitat management principles.

"Most land managers of course already fully adhere to high standards through significant investment and hard work but WES will, we hope, help these efforts be publicly recognised and appreciated at last.

"All wildlife crime is to be condemned, but caution should be exercised in placing blame."

The glorious twelth

• 12 August has been the start of the red grouse shooting season since 1831 when the Game Act came into force to protect game birds. The season runs until 10 December.

• The grouse are usually flushed from the moor by beaters who wave sticks and flags to try to direct the birds to a line of butts from where shotguns are fired. Dogs are often used to retrieve the carcasses.

• Red grouse are only present in the British Isles.

• The British Association for Shooting and Conservation says grouse need to be at a density of 60 per square kilometre on 12 August to ensure the moor is commercially viable for driven shooting.

• Irrespective of shooting, two-thirds of all grouse die within a year of hatching.

• Gamekeepers burn heather to promote new growth because grouse eat an estimated 50g of young heather a day.

• The shooting season for ptarmigan and common snipe also starts on 12 August.

• The season for partridge, duck, goose, woodcock, golden plover, coot and moorhen begins on 1 September, with the pheasant season starting on 1 October.

• The number of managed moorlands where shooting takes place had been in decline, from 485 managed moors in 1991 to below 200 in 2005. However, yhat figure is now rising.

• Work to help increase and improve grouse moors is being done at the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project where a grouse moor is being restored. It covers 7,600 hectares of land, about 5,000 of which are suitable for driving grouse, and is organised by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Buccleuch Estates, Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and Natural England.

• Sources: BASC, GWCT

Fears for shooting season after wet weather in May and June

URGENT counts of red grouse are taking place across Scotland amid fears the extremely wet weather in May and June could create a poor shooting season. Gamekeepers and landowners are anxiously awaiting the results of the surveys, being carried out by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, ahead of the Glorious Twelfth.

After spending a week on moorlands across the country, senior scientist at the trust, Dr Kathy Fletcher, warned the prospects were mixed.

She said: "We have only just started our grouse counts; we are expecting a mixed bag because a lot of areas have had some serious bad weather this year. During the spring, when the chicks have just hatched, they are very vulnerable to wet and cold weather. It is OK with showers because then they can be brooded by the hen and run out and get some insects, but when it is continuous rain they have to be brooded to keep warm, so that means they can't get enough food. Also, in bad weather the insects aren't as available."

The bad weather comes on top of warnings that heather beetle infestations at various locations are impacting on grouse, as well as infections from worms and ticks.

Dr Fletcher said: "As well as getting predator control right, you have also got to keep on top of the diseases to keep everything going in the right direction."

Whatever the results of the counts, some more northerly estates and those at higher altitude are likely to put off shooting for a few weeks after 12 August to allow the grouse chicks to properly develop.

Katrina Candy, head of education and PR at the trust, agreed it looked like being a "sporadic" year for grouse shooting. She added: "Early results indicate it will be patchy." According to Ms Candy, it was the rain rather than the earlier snows which had caused the problem: "Having such a harsh winter is not necessarily a bad thing for red grouse - quite often they thrive in those conditions, it is the hatching time (when they are vulnerable)."

Ms Candy said estates would monitor grouse numbers and would not shoot unless a healthy population of the bird can remain afterwards. Estates will also be prepared for a poor season, after good numbers were recorded last year.

Ms Candy said: "They will factor it in to their whole shooting programme. I am sure no estate owner or land manger will assume every year is going to be a great year for grouse because it just doesn't happen like that."

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