Grouse moor criticism a flight of fancy

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The comments following Duncan Orr-Ewing’s article, “Killing native birds mars landscape” (Friends of The Scotsman, 27 February), shows the legitimate public interest in this topic, but also how feelings can be stoked up on thin evidence.

In the article, he tries to use the poisoning of a golden eagle nicknamed Fearnan as justification for a general criticism of grouse moors.

That is disingenuous because RSPB is involved in the police investigation into that crime which has reached no conclusion, and he will know from the discovery of a shot golden eagle on the RSPB’s own reserve on Oronsay in 2013 that the land manager is not necessarily responsible for such incidents.

He also knows that, far from killing eagles, some private estates are helping to supply surplus chicks to Ireland.

Another organisation which has used a similar argument is the Raptor Study Group, but its own Scottish Raptor Monitoring scheme 2011 report shows that the number of eagle chicks fledged per home range is actually 50 per cent higher on grouse shooting areas than on the eagle strongholds further north and west.

This is a complicated issue and many moorland owners are passionate about looking after golden eagles.

Duncan Orr-Ewing knows from the involvement of the RSPB in the Wildlife Estates Scotland initiative that self-regulation of sporting estates, far from having failed, is getting stronger all the time.

He also knows that managed grouse moors have a vital role to play in the conservation of rapidly declining red-listed birds such as curlew, lapwing and ring ouzel, and that the land management sector is looking to work with RSPB on this.

This is a mini-campaign being run by a specialist pro-bird of prey lobby in the hope that government will regulate against a land use which it doesn’t much like. That campaign is not justified by facts and the environment minister has made his position clear.

Of course, we would reiterate our repeated calls for any incidents of illegal persecution of birds of prey to be dealt with strongly by the courts in order to ensure that all illegal and cruel acts of wildlife crime are finally stamped out.

However, the RSPB and others need to be very careful that their efforts do not serve to undermine their own credibility and the practical conservation work being done every day by moorland managers, as well as vital investment in rural Scotland.

Tim Baynes

Scottish Land & Estates Moorland Group

Musselburgh

Hector Maclean (Letters, 27 February) makes several assertions that are factually incorrect. He claims that sea eagles were reintroduced without consultation. The recent east coast reintroduction of sea eagles involved an extensive public consultation over several years with elected representatives, landowning and farming interests.

This was a requirement of the licence issued by Scottish Government.

A formal presentation was given to the NFU Scotland Environment and Land Use Committee and feedback influenced the design of the reintroduction programme.

There have now been several scientific studies to assess levels of sea eagle predation of lambs on the west coast of Scotland, and these studies have all shown low levels of impact on sheep farming. Claims of lamb predation by farmers are thoroughly investigated and independent post-mortems are undertaken.

It is recognised, however, that a small number of viable lambs may be taken in certain circumstances. As a result, Scottish Natural Heritage ffers a Sea Eagle Management Scheme, involving payments to relevant farmers and crofters.

The decline in waders (and other farmland birds) is linked to land use change, particularly the intensification and simplification of modern farming systems, which have been encouraged by the Common Agricultural Policy.

The commercial afforestation and fragmentation of open habitats preferred by wading birds is also an issue in some parts of Scotland.

There is little scientific evidence to suggest that raptors are the cause of wading bird population declines, however studies do show that crows and ground predators, notably foxes, may have an impact on some ground nesting bird species.

Duncan Orr-Ewing

RSPB Scotland

Lochside View

Edinburgh

Irvine Inglis (Letters, 3 February) mistakenly asserts that I failed to address the central point of his original letter, namely, his claim that virtually no young have been produced over the last decade by the estimated 440 pairs of golden eagles resident in Scotland, due to a shortage of food obtained from dead deer and sheep.

There are two assumptions contained in this assertion, one of which I did indeed address.

Even if the first part of his statement was completely factual, his conclusion as to the cause would still be invalid, since the main diet of young golden eagles consists of small birds and mammals, as I said.

However, I would also question his unequivocal statement about the low breeding success of golden eagles. In the Western Isles, numbers have been increasing for several years, and the eagle territories occupied in the central and eastern Highlands are some of the most productive in Scotland, yet there is a lower overall density of eagles in these areas.

National surveys suggest the problem lies in the large number of unoccupied territories in these regions, which cannot be due to a shortage of fledged young eagles.

The obvious explanation must be the low survival rate of golden eagles in these regions. The available evidence for this situation indicates that human persecution is the main cause.

Hector Maclean (Letters, 3 February), on the other hand, believes there are too many golden eagles, and other protected raptors, to which he attributes the decline in curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers – a view also promoted by gamekeeper organisations.

As we know, the correlation of two factors does not imply causation: supporting evidence is required. Wader populations are also declining in areas unfrequented by major raptors like golden eagles.

Changes in land use, including the widespread practice of intensive farming, are believed to be the most influential driver of this decline.

Carolyn Taylor

Gagiebank

Dundee