Two new incidents in which birds of prey are alleged to have been illegally killed on a sporting estate in southern Scotland are under investigation by the police.
A short-eared owl was shot in front of an eight-year old boy in July and a satellite-tagged hen harrier disappeared “in suspicious circumstances” in May. Both incidents are said to have occurred on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire run by trusts involving Lord Hopetoun.
Wildlife investigators said that for decades there had been a “relentless campaign of persecution” on grouse moors in the area and current attempts to stop the “criminals” responsible are failing. They have demanded immediate government regulation of the grouse shooting industry.
Leadhills Estate said it was “premature” to conclude that crimes had been committed – but if they had, it would condemn them “unreservedly”. There had been no commercial grouse shooting on the estate “in recent years”, it pointed out.
The estate stressed it had long been concerned about vandalism and theft, claiming it had been targeted by “certain individuals pursuing an agenda against grouse shooting”.
The grouse shooting season opens on 12 August, branded as the “glorious twelfth”. Sporting estates have often been accused of illegally killing birds of prey to prevent them eating grouse and leaving fewer to be shot.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), wildlife crime has often occurred in and around the Leadhills area. It cited almost 80 incidents in which birds of prey have been allegedly persecuted since 2000.
These included the poisoning of 16 buzzards, a red kite and a peregrine, and the shooting of five owls, three harriers and a golden eagle. There have only been two successful prosecutions, one in 2009 and one in 2004, both of Leadhills Estate gamekeepers.
Since May 2018 licence restrictions on the killing of other birds on the estate have been imposed by the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). This was done, it said, “on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds”.
Leadhills Estate consists of 19,500 acres of farmland, woodland and moorland in the Lowther hills by the M74. The estate says it is owned by the Leadhills and Glengeith trusts, and Lord Hopetoun, who also helps run Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, is one of the trustees.
Hopetoun was a director of the landowning organisation Scottish Land and Estates, from May 2009 to May 2015. He is also described online as being a chairman of the organisation’s Scottish Moorland Group, though this is now understood to be defunct.
Leadhills has been let to a series of different sporting tenants and management companies over the years. They are believed to have been required to take responsibility for the grouse shooting.
The latest incident at Leadhills happened just after 8.40 pm on 2 July 2020. A local resident, Anjo Abelaira, out with his eight-year old son, Fingal, witnessed a man, dressed in camouflage, shoot a short-eared owl.
The man collected the owl’s body, and drove off across the moorland on a quad bike. Abelaira took a blurry photo of his departure and called the police, who attended.
He also wrote that evening to the environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham. “Are we really doing enough to stop wildlife crime in Leadhills?” he asked her.
“The defiance, the confidence of that armed criminal, knowing that he can commit a crime right in front of a member of the public with very unlikely consequences for him – and not really substantial repercussions for the employer/landowner as we have seen so far – suggests we are not.”
Abelaira added: “I am typing this email in bed, with my eight year old son, Fingal, sleeping by my side. He was shaken by this sad ordeal and did not want to sleep alone tonight.
“The felonious loss of yet another protected, majestic bird is regretful – the memory that this young, outdoor loving boy will carry for the rest of his life of an armed man illegally shooting down an innocent animal.”
The second incident was the unexplained disappearance of a satellite-tagged hen harrier called Silver, nesting on Leadhills estate. According to the RSPB, Silver’s tag ceased operating on 27 May 2020 and a follow-up search by police found her nest empty but couldn’t locate her body.
The police told The Ferret that both incidents were under investigation. “I can confirm that police enquiries are continuing,” said a spokesperson for Police Scotland.
RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson, said: “The short-eared owl is the latest victim of a relentless campaign of persecution of protected wildlife on the grouse moors in this part of South Lanarkshire, stretching back over many years.
“In May this year, a satellite-tagged hen harrier, nesting in the area, suddenly disappeared in suspicious circumstances, while last year saw the trapping of a male hen harrier on its nest a few miles away, among other incidents.”
Thomson listed multiple cases of poisoning with banned pesticides, illegal use of traps, shooting and nest destruction over the last 20 years. “Victims have included buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, peregrines and a golden eagle,” he said.
“Incidents have been witnessed, clear evidence has been uncovered but it seems to be business as usual for the criminals in this area, who act as if they are beyond the reach of the law.”
Thomson argued that SNH’s licence restrictions had failed to deter wildlife criminals. “Current laws are failing to reduce crimes against our birds of prey, and only immediate statutory regulation of the grouse shooting industry is going to have any impact,” he argued.
The South Strathclyde Raptor Study Group, which monitors birds of prey, warned that their persecution in the Leadhills area had been prevalent, and it was continuing “unabated”. The failure to prosecute anyone for numerous incidents over the years was a “damning indictment” of the Scottish Government, the judiciary and Police Scotland, it claimed.
The group described Leadhills Estate’s suggestions that “bird of prey activists” might be to blame as “ridiculous” and “pathetically incredible”.
A group spokesperson added: “It is difficult to understand why this serious incident was not followed up immediately and why the investigation appears to be treated so lightly.”
Leadhills Estate said it had not been aware of the latest allegations until very recently and had sought further clarification to establish the facts. “It is premature to say that crime has been committed and we would condemn it unreservedly if that were the case,” an estate spokesperson told The Ferret.
“There has been no commercial grouse shooting on the estate in recent years and only eight days, very limited, shooting in eight years. The moor is managed on a care and maintenance basis only and there is no reason whatsoever for any persecution of birds in these or any other circumstances.”
The spokesperson added: “Gamekeepers are trained to the highest level and know their responsibilities under the law and the standards we expect of them. We have said many times before that we are deeply concerned about incidents of vandalism, theft and other activity on the estate which we have reported to the police.
“The estate seems a particular target by certain individuals pursuing an agenda against grouse shooting. The estate will continue to do everything it can prevent and detect any criminal activity in the area.”
Bird of prey persecution condemned
The rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, highlighted Scottish Government action to protect birds and prey and combat wildlife crime. “I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, any crime carried out against our wildlife, including the persecution of raptors,” she said.
“The Animals and Wildlife Act, which I took through parliament and has just become law, increases the maximum penalties for the worst types of animal cruelty and wildlife crime, including the illegal killing of birds of prey, to five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.”
Ministers are currently considering recommendations from the independent grouse moor management group, chaired by professor Alan Werrity. They said that the option of licensing grouse shooting will need to be considered and, if required, implemented earlier than the five years recommended by the group.
Scottish Natural Heritage confirmed that general licences to control birds on the Leadhills estate had been restricted for three years because of reported wildlife crime. The estate had been given an individual licence to shoot crows during lambing.
An SNH spokesperson said: “If the police confirms additional offences in this period, we will explore extending the current three-year restriction. Raptor persecution doesn’t just damage Scotland’s nature: it also affects tourism, which in turn impacts on the economy.
“Most wildlife crime takes place in remote places, and it can be difficult to identify a suspect. We are committed to working with Police Scotland and other members of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland to tackle this challenging issue.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/angelyto.