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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The hunter hunted (The Guardian)

Kirsty ScottMonday August 28, 2006, The Guardian:
The hunter hunted ... but who is killing Scotland's birds of prey?
Wildlife groups blame gamekeepers - who in turn hint at 'mischief makers'

On the high slopes of a Perthshire glen, Dave Dick slows his car to point out the distinctive mottled patchwork of managed grouse moor, the tufts of heather burned and teased into differing lengths to suit both adult and juvenile birds."A pole trap, poisoned bait, a pigeon tied to a post ..." Mr Dick, the RSPB's senior investigations officer in Scotland, reels off a list of abuses he has dealt with in this one glen alone over the years: efforts aimed at killing raptors, among them the golden eagle, Scotland's iconic bird of prey.

"If we were in Berwickshire or Aberdeenshire I would be saying the same," he says. "It is widespread and it's a scandal."Further on, the slopes of a second glen steepen into giddy inclines crested with grey rock. Four pairs of golden eagles live in this area, but it is late afternoon and warm and they are not inclined to soar out in a wide circling sweep for a photo-opportunity. The birds are thriving here. "No grouse moors," says Mr Dick bluntly.

In June, he hiked some eight miles (12km) in the Cairngorms to retrieve the body of a golden eagle that had been killed with the illegal poison carbofuran. It was one of two found dead within a few weeks, a development which prompted the RSPB to offer a reward for the first time in its 102-year history for the arrest and conviction of those responsible. It says such a measure was necessary. Despite toughened legislation against wildlife crime, this year the number of confirmed poisoning incidents has soared, already exceeding last year's total.

Figures compiled by the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (Sasa) show that there have been 28 cases of confirmed pesticide abuse in Scotland this year so far, compared with 19 cases in all of 2005, with some of the cases involving several birds or other creatures at a time. The dead include buzzards, red kite, a tawny owl, the two golden eagles and ravens. A number of animals, including a dog and cat, were also affected. More than 20 poisoned baits were also found.

"It's clear there are a number of people out there who are prepared to go to all sorts of lengths to remove birds of prey," said Ken Hunter, Sasa's head of chemistry.

Separate figures from the RSPB show that last year there were 77 reports of persecution of raptors, other than poisoning. Twenty of these were confirmed, another 21 were classed as probable and 26 were considered possible.

Agencies such as the RSPB and the Scottish Raptor Study Groups lay the blame squarely at the door of gamekeepers and landowners, too many of whom, they say, allow the abuses to continue in the mistaken belief that raptors are the chief culprit in the decline of the grouse.

"It is primarily gamekeepers. Some shepherds, but primarily gamekeepers. But gamekeepers are doing it with the tacit permission of landowners," said Logan Steele of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups. "The public are becoming more and more concerned about it. Green tourism has really taken off in Scotland. We stand to get ourselves a bad name as the bad man in Europe because we have this terrible poisoning record.

"There are 440 pairs of golden eagles in Scotland, a population he says is being kept static by persecution. "The golden eagle population in Scotland is, at best, treading water and a lot of birds poisoned are not being replaced easily because the available pool of young birds isn't as great as it was."

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 did improve the scope for effective wildlife crime policing, but, say campaigners, most recent prosecutions have resulted in moderate fines, if those responsible are caught at all. "Until we see some sort of penalty passed that makes the eyes water I don't think it will be taken seriously," says Mr Steele.

Bert Burnett has been a gamekeeper for 40 years and is a committee member of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association. It's far too convenient, he says, to blame the profession. He doubts the claims that persecution is endemic and its impact as devastating as it is sometimes painted. "The death of the eagles could be anybody. It does not necessarily have to be a gamekeeper," he said."

As far as the continued persecution, we would say it has reduced drastically and the use of poison by the gamekeeper has definitely reduced drastically. There are more people involved in finding these carcasses ... You are finding maybe more where there is actually less.

"We find it very strange that most of these things are found near a track ... There are gamekeepers out there who need their arse kicked but there's something else going on here. I think there are mischief makers out there, whether it's anti-shooting or what. We had animal rights people setting gin traps."

The association, he says, condemns the illegal killing of raptors, a view echoed by the landowners' body the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, whose chairman, Keith Arbuthnott, said: "We cannot condone the illegal persecution of any species, golden eagles or otherwise, and as an organisation continue to work closely with other agencies and interests to put an end to these deplorable incidents."

But Mr Burnett said many gamekeepers were frustrated by the unwillingness of the Scottish executive to allow them licences to deal with birds such as ravens and buzzards. Figures from the Game Conservancy Trust, he said, show that raptors can take up to 40% of winter grouse stock.

"We have offered [the Scottish executive] solutions and they are refusing. So it's not surprising that on occasion someone just says, oh to hell with this ... It could be anybody, and they say to hell with this and take the law into their own hands ... The raptor situation is getting worse. People could go back to doing stupid things."


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