What justice for our raptors?

Male northern harrier dropping prey to a nest

This post began as three separate blogs, which I have been working on for nearly three weeks now. Eventually, as time went by, I saw a considerable amount of overlap between them, and decide that it made more sense to combine them all. So here goes.

Three weeks ago I had school leave-out (that’s the Glenalmond term for a two-day weekend). Dad and I, along with Dad’s friend Robin Prichard, decided we wanted a getaway on the West coast, but felt like a break from Arisaig.  We found accommodation in a bay with easy access to the Southern Hebrides, and went out to Mull in Dad’s boat the following day.

Mull is best known for its white-tailed eagles, and we had no trouble finding them, spotting seven within an hour. However, when we reached Loch Spelve, we were drawn to another raptor: a pair of hen harriers, gliding effortlessly over the shoreline. Beautiful and awe-inspiring.


Image result for loch spelve
Loch Spelve, courtesy of Geograph.org.uk. It was much sunnier when we were there.

Unfortunately, seeing these hen harriers reminded me of an uncomfortable truth, one which regular readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with, and which Robin was quick to remind me of that day. I’m talking, of course, of persecution.


Earlier that same week, a case involving a hen harrier being shot on Carbach estate in 2013. Don’t take my word for it: there’s video footage of a hen harrier being shot at, and a man with a gun walking past the camera, then returning a few seconds later with a  bag mysteriously slung over his shoulder. But that week, four years after the incident occurred, the case was inexplicably dropped.


Less than a week later, news came out about a hen harrier who had been found dead on Leadhills Estate. This is the 49th wildlife crime incident that has occurred at the estate in 14 years, and still the owner, Lord Hopetoun, chairs the Scottish Moorland Group.

I could be mistaken. For all I know the bird could have had a firecracker stayed in its tail; or it could be the ghost of a long dead gamekeeper; or perhaps shooting estates have space-time distortion fields that cause hen harriers to fall out of the sky…no, that bird was definitely shot.

But the worse thing about this event is that it was the third event of its type in a week. Later that week, another video showed a keeper on Brewlands Estate setting illegal pole traps, only for that case to be inexplicably dropped. And before this, a prosecution case on Newlands Estate, where a keeper threw stone and stamped a buzzard to death, was dropped. No proper explanation given was given for any of them, and they were dropped from public view with scarcely a murmur. If they had been cases of elephants shot for their horns in Africa, do you think they would have been silently dropped like this?

But very cloud has a silver lining. Because soon after these appalling events, Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee met to discuss the possibility of introducing a licensing scheme for game shooting. I have spoken in favour of this before: it is standard practice in most European countries for hunters to be issued licenses, which can be revoked in the event of persecution. And the majority of MSPs present appeared to share my views: the option of exploring a licensing system was favoured by six of the ten committee members. The RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have since spoken up for this too.

So, what can we gain from this? Well, on the minus side, raptor persecution is, unfortunately, still rife within many high-brow shooting estates. On the plus side, conservation organisations are beginning to not only speak out about it, but provide effective solutions to halt it. We’re definitely making progress.



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