A few years ago I made a television programme about a long walk on the Isle of Skye and we camped for our first night at Rubha Hunish, at the northern tip of the Trotternish peninsula.
Before settling down for the night we had been watching minke whales surfacing just a couple of hundred metres offshore. We were thrilled, a hard-bitten, seen-it-all television crew, five grown men all experienced in the ways and sights of the outdoors, yet we were as excited as children, as delighted as puppies.
Later, I lay in my tent and pondered on this curious reaction to seeing nature in the raw. It seems that we are so removed nowadays from the sights and sounds of nature that any close encounter with wildlife gets us really excited.
In watching a whale arching into its dive, or wondering at the majestic flight of a sea-eagle we become aware of the simple magic of the moment, an instinctive recognition of the existence of order, a determined pattern behind the behaviour of things, and that can be both exciting and curiously comforting.
Such encounters of a natural kind have always given me a sense of beauty and magic, sensations that never fail to fill me with hope and optimism, feelings that can be curiously rare in a sometimes dreary world.
Encounters like this can have a lasting effect and bring a wide array of instincts into play. I’ve known sheer delight when watching a family of otters slipping and sliding into a river from a muddy bank. I’ve been stunned by the aerial speed of a peregrine falcon tearing the sky in two and I’ve sat, highly amused, below an ancient Caledonian pine from where a red squirrel has scolded me for invading its space.
It’s because of this awareness, this recognition, that I find it almost impossible to understand why certain people are so obsessed with killing wild things, particularly wild things of great beauty, like a sea eagle or a red kite.
Like many, I’m perplexed at the current massacre of birds of prey here in Scotland, frustrated that the police don’t seem to be able to identify the perpetrators and angry that the laws of the land are not strong enough to deter those offenders whose disdain for the law borders on anarchy.
But most of all I’m infuriated at the abysmal excuses emanating from Scottish Land and Estates, formerly the Scottish Landowners’ Association.
I’m sure the vast majority of their members don’t support this unlawful slaughter of raptors and there has been a fantastic opportunity for this rather elite organisation to show that they have grasped the mettle and join forces with the RSPB in condemning what has happened. Instead their CEO, Doug McAdam, has chosen to criticise the RSPB’s claim that persecution levels of raptors are now comparable to those of the Victorian era.
“…to suggest that wildlife crime is returning to Victorian levels is both irresponsible and untrue. Official statistics in recent years have seen, overall, a downward trend in raptor persecution – even at some points demonstrating record low levels of poisoning incidents,” he said.
But it would appear that Mr McAdam is being a little loose with the truth. According to Raptor Persecution Scotland, poisoning incidents actually doubled in 2013 and “had the ‘official statistics’ included the discovery of poisoned baits then the 36 pre-prepared Carbofuran baits found hidden on Leadhills Estate last year would have pushed the ‘official’ figure somewhat higher.“
Whether persecution levels have risen to those of Victorian times is neither here not there, the real problem is Scotland is the mono-culture of grouse moor management and its associated intensification of predator control practices.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, has suggested this type of management places an emphasis on an increased number of gamekeepers, frequent and extensive heather burning, veterinary medication of red grouse, and the killing of mountain hares and deer, ostensibly to prevent tick-born diseases like louping ill.
This type of grouse farming, for that’s what it is, puts an intolerable burden on gamekeepers, many of whom are put under pressure from landowners to return high numbers of grouse shooting bags. It may even be true that some keepers are under orders to keep so-called “vermin” under control, including buzzards, eagles and hen harriers.
Indeed, only recently the training and education officer of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association publicly agreed on his blog that sea eagles and pine martens should be eradicated. Such comments do little to convince the public that grouse estate owners and employees are not entirely innocent when it comes to killing raptors.
The SGA scored another own goal recently when their chairman Alex Hogg appeared to agree with some ecologists that some of Scotland’s wild land areas should be made ‘out of bounds’ to walkers to give animals, flora and fauna time to recover from overuse.
Now, to be fair to Hogg, he wasn’t advocating closure – he simply asked the question, but at such a sensitive time it probably wasn’t the wisest question to ask. There is certainly a strong lobby that would suggest Hogg and his colleagues might like to see access restricted – to everyone other than them of course – so that dodgy management practices can continue away from the public eye.
Indeed, a leader in the Scotsman newspaper suggested that there may be a case for restrictions, “but it does not look at all convincing, especially as it is not being mooted by a wildlife conservation body, but by a gamekeepers’ representative.
“Gamekeepers do not have a great conservation track record, and some within their ranks are occasionally found responsible for poisoning, trapping and destroying the nests of birds of prey.”
And quite correctly, the Scotsman didn’t limit their criticism to just gamekeepers but pointed an accusing finger at their bosses too…
“Landowners have some black sheep among their ranks as well. The concentrations of these kinds of wildlife crimes suggest that some landowners, anxious to preserve game bird populations, are complicit in this illegal slaughter.”
Another major problem is that we don’t always know who these bosses are. It can be incredibly difficult to ascertain who actually owns the odd twenty-or thirty thousand acre estate here and there, as land issues activist and author Andy Wightman has discovered.
Only recently the police raided the North Glenbuchat Estate in Aberdeenshire, where the first white-tailed sea eagle to be raised in the east of Scotland in 200 years went missing.
The bird had been fitted with a satellite tag, which was last recorded in the Glenbuchat area of Strathdon.
In recent years, several satellite tagged golden eagles have also disappeared in this vicinity and in 2011 the body of one of the birds was recovered at Glenbuchat. Tests showed it had been poisoned.
In 2006, the then head gamekeeper on the North Glenbuchat Estate, Hector McNeil, was fined £850 at Aberdeen Sheriff Court after being convicted of poisoning wild birds and possessing an illegal pesticide.
On his blog Andy Wightman has shown how difficult it can be in ascertaining who actually owns land in Scotland – in this case the North Glenbuchat Estate. It appears to be owned by a company registered offshore, which could raise problems in any potential prosecution on vicarious liability – where the owner of land can be held liable for any wildlife crime committed by an employee.
Andy has argued in the past that the Scottish Parliament could take action to improve transparency in the ownership of land by simply refusing to register any title held by a company in a tax haven, but the Scottish Government has rejected the idea.
That’s unfortunate, and the SNP Government could do itself a lot of good by strengthening Land Reform in Scotland. That could remove much of the criticism that the SNP frequently bows to pressure from land-owners and big business. The Donald Trump case is an example of that, although that particular relationship didn’t last very long.
Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has recently declared his enthusiasm to “bear down on the illegal persecution of raptors that continues to blight the Scottish countryside and tarnish Scotland’s reputation.”
Perhaps it’s time for him to put some pressure on gamekeepers, land-owners and the police. In the past seven years 31 eagles have been ‘lost’ or found dead, usually poisoned. There have been no prosecutions. None at all. Zero. Zilch. That is quite simply, unacceptable.
Apart from anything else, the prosecution of birds of prey to protect a grouse-farming industry for an elite and wealthy few is a despicable and shameful embarrassment for what many of us want to see as a modern and progressive independent nation.
No civilized nation worthy of its name would put up with such blatant disdain for the law, and, to misquote the great American writer Edward Abbey, any nation that did certainly couldn’t be described as ‘civilised’.
The massacre of our birds of prey has become a national embarrassment and it’s high time the Scottish Government took action.