Since our last issue, Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) and its lackeys, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), have continued to generate publicity as they ignore the law. On September 27th it was announced that SNH had taken action against the Edradynate estate and an unnamed individual, based on evidence supplied by Police Scotland. More recently, as reported on February 16th, the "guardians of the countryside" have been at it again. A tagged young golden eagle has vanished in "highly suspicious circumstances". Such criminal activity adds considerable weight to the call to license grouse shooting.
Visiting the Raptor Persecution Society website will show you a long list of illegal activity. The only way that this flagrant abuse is going to stop is by taking a tougher stance, i.e. by licensing grouse shooting.
In the meantime, Roseanna Cunningham has announced the details of the independent moorland management working group. It will be chaired by Professor Alan Werrity, who previously led the SNH review into sustainable moorland management and consists of
The shooting lobby are well represented but balanced by some independent people and advisers.
Alan Werrity knows the subject but disappointed us with his report on sustainable moorland management. He had obviously recently read a management textbook and came up with recommendations full of words like shared vision, leadership and strategy. The sort of thing that you would find recommended by any respectable management consultant, but not a lot of use on the moors. Using the excuse of so-called evidence gaps, he managed to kick the issue into the long grass. You don't need a shared vision to know that killing protected golden eagles is wrong, you don't need visible leadership to know that the managers are fully aware of what their gamekeepers are up to and you don't need a strategy to know that the illegal killing won't stop until we strengthen the law. Hopefully, he will do better this time!
They are due to report early next year, but you might remember that the publication of the SNH review report was much delayed.
You will recall that one of the problems of discussing mountain hares is that there is no agreed method of counting them. Prompted by NEMT and others challenging them about the evidence showing dramatic declines in mountain hare numbers, SNH commissioned a research project conducted by the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust (GWCT) to come up with an agreed method of counting mountain hares.
In January, I attended a meeting at the SNH centre at Battleby to review the results of this work. The work is reported in SNH report No.CR 1022. The results show that they are remarkably difficult to count! Daytime counting appears to be riddled with errors, as, at this time, mountain hares tend to be inactive and lie low. Flushing them appears to be a very variable process and repeating a transect a day later can give totally different results. Adam Watson had success using dogs, but this approach wasn't tested due to perceived resistance from the estates. In any case, it would undoubtedly be rather dependent on the skill of the dog handler. The recommendations were to go for dung counting or night time counting, using lamps or thermal imaging cameras. After some useful discussion, it was agreed that a pilot study should be carried out using gamekeepers on "volunteer" estates, conducting night time counting with lamps or thermal imaging cameras. In parallel, the GWCT will carry out another presence/absence survey as was last done in 2006. There was discussion on how members of the public might be involved, but this got swept aside due to the unreliability of daytime counting.
Although, the results weren't as conclusive as we all would have liked, the meeting was useful, shedding a lot of light on the different perspectives of the sustainable management of mountain hares.
Personally, I felt that involving members of the public was brushed aside too glibly. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) can derive useful data from "citizen science". Why can't we do the same for mountain hares? It would be very powerful to turn observations of "I see fewer hares than I used to" into "I'm counting fewer hares along a given transect than I used to". Secondly, I have deep misgivings about the credibility of data determined by gamekeepers. If we can't trust them to look after protected birds of prey, how can we trust them to give us accurate data on mountain hare numbers? The efforts of the honest majority are totally undermined by the rogue few.
The RSPB arranged a meeting on 19th Feb with other environmental non governmental organisations (eNGOs) to discuss the campaign to introduce licensing of driven grouse shooting. The campaign was begun because of the duplicity of the shooting lobby, who claim to want work in partnership to stop raptor persecution and then do absolutely nothing to change their gamekeepers' behaviour. It's a classic case of talking a good job while doing the complete opposite.
Licensing would introduce a regulatory regime more akin to the rest of Europe, where hunting goes on but with information supplied to the regulatory agency, i.e. in our case, SNH, which can be used to manage a sustainable take. In Scotland, SNH basically doesn't know what is happening on the grouse moors. Licensing would require that basic information is supplied to SNH and also mean that the burden of proof would shift from the current test under criminal law to a test under civil law, making it easier to prosecute rogue gamekeepers and take action against their managers. We are not asking for a ban, nor do we want to make things harder for the "honest" estates.
It's not just persecution of raptors. The same estates build illegal hill tracks, trashing the landscape, because the modern "Gun" is too unfit to walk up to the butts. They cull mountain hares typically without understanding the effect on the overall population. Muirburn is conducted indiscriminately - remember the very damaging fires in Torridon a few years ago? - remember recent flooding events exacerbated by faster run-off from fire-hardened peat?
Discussion centered on producing a good set of evidence for the review group to consider and how to counter some of SLE's more extravagant claims. SLE has already started to push rural employment and money spent in the local rural economy. These are extremely important points but need to be probed a bit. For example, most grouse moors receive considerable government subsidy. Could the same money generate increased benefits in the rural economy if spent differently? Would a more natural environment encourage more tourism? We need to address these issues as part of our evidence. Then, later in the year, we will be asking people to contact their MSPs.
As a parting comment, an example of the rapid "intensivisation" ongoing in the driven grouse shooting industry is how, in the last few years, the benchmark of a good autumn grouse population (for shooting) has grown from 60 birds/km2 to 250 birds/km2 and now some estates are talking of 400 birds/km2. This is no longer traditional land management; it is industrial scale activity to enable slaughter for the enjoyment of the privileged few.
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