For anyone who enjoys wildlife, there can be few sights more uplifting than seeing a golden eagle soaring over a high ridge, or watching a hen harrier quartering a moor, searching for prey.
Scotland’s birds of prey are integral to our natural heritage, drawing tourists from all over the country and further afield, and giving a significant boost to the rural economies of places like Mull and Strathspey.
However, despite these magnificent birds having had full legal protection for decades, there are still those who routinely, deliberately, and systematically do them harm, and largely for one objective – to promote driven grouse shooting.
This style of shooting, unique to the UK, entails large flocks of red grouse being flushed by a line of beaters, across a hill to a line of guns waiting for these flocks to fly overhead.
To provide plenty of targets, grouse moor managers seek to ensure as high a density of red grouse as possible on the moors for the season’s start on 12 August.
A significant proportion of Scotland’s uplands, particularly in the eastern Highlands and southern uplands, are managed with the sole aim of hugely inflating grouse populations beyond natural levels.
To achieve this, intensive management regimes are undertaken by gamekeepers employed by landowners, using techniques such as extensive heather burning to create fresh buds for the birds to eat; the annual culling of around 25,000 mountain hares designed to prevent the spread of tick-borne grouse diseases; and the systematic killing of many predators.
From the 1800s, the killing of any predators perceived to pose a threat to grouse contributed significantly to the regional eradication, or even national extinction, of many of Scotland’s native raptor species.
Hen harriers were lost as a breeding species on the Scottish mainland; red kites disappeared completely; and the golden eagle population became largely restricted to western areas.
Even since birds of prey became fully protected by law in the 1950s, raptor killing has continued illegally. It is this issue, coupled with the industry’s traditional and cultural intolerance towards birds of prey dating back 150 years, that is the cause of much present conflict.
But this is not a battle between shooting and conservation. It is a conflict between those who will not adapt in line with modern day public expectations and standards, and those who wish to see wildlife protection laws upheld, with Scotland’s reputation as a place which looks after our important wildlife heritage enhanced.
In 1998, the late Donald Dewar MSP, Scotland’s first First Minister, called the illegal killing of birds of prey, “a national disgrace”, in recognition of its reputational impact on our country.
These crimes have rightly become socially unacceptable, but in the last 20 years management of some moors has become even more intensive, with an apparent “zero-tolerance” approach to raptors.
Elsewhere, there has been a steady and welcome improvement in the fortunes of birds of prey in the lowlands and the western Highlands away from grouse moors over the last 20 to 30 years.
Most recently, scientific studies have illustrated the continued constraint human persecution exerts on our hen harriers, golden eagles, peregrines and red kites on grouse moors.
Recent technological advances, such as fitting of golden eagles and hen harriers with GPS tags have shown that many of these birds simply disappear in these areas. For decades, the gamebird shooting industry has been allowed to set its own rules – including the killing of increasing numbers of red grouse, mountain hares, and perceived “pest” species.
More muirburn is happening and veterinary medicines are being used on wild birds – all this with no requirement to report on these activities to public authorities.
We believe that change is now urgently required to deliver more accountability, in line with common practices in other similar countries.
There will be no improvement in the conservation status of some raptor species until land management in our uplands is carried out wholly within the law and with full regard given to the public interest. Self-regulation has failed.
The ongoing independent review of grouse moor management, commissioned in 2017 by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, is an opportunity for Scotland to have a system where our uplands are managed legally and sustainably. Such land management should be effectively regulated through a licensing scheme, with sanctions to remove licences where wildlife laws are not respected. Until that happens, illegal killing of raptors will continue.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management, RSPB Scotland.