Volume 4 Issue 001: Tagging birds of prey and retrieving dead bodies: in Scotland on the trail of the raptor harassers.
Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 001. Order your copy here.
Romain Pizzi, a veterinarian at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is used to operating on raptors. He estimates that he receives up to 400 injured birds of prey a year, everything from eagles to owls, peregrines to sparrowhawks. But, reflecting on his latest, deceased patient, he says: “People imagine wildlife crime is elephants being poached or orangutans being shot. But we have a huge amount of wildlife crime here.”
Standing outside the charity’s National Wildlife Rescue Centre at Fishcross in central Scotland in a light summer drizzle, Chris Packham is stony-faced as he holds in his hands the evidence of that crime.
“Beautiful… wasn’t it?” the naturalist says pointedly to a TV camera as he gently spreads the wings of a dead hen harrier, the victim of a trap placed illegally in its nest. “This [bird] was ghosting around over a grouse moor, looking spectacular, playing a really important ecological role as a top-of-the-food-chain predator. It’s precious, because they’re rare. And now there’s one less. It was caught in a spring trap that had snapped closed on its leg. And it was struggling for we don’t know how long in the baking sun, dehydrated, in agony. I can’t tell you how angry I am about that,” he says, eyes blazing. “How angry lots of people are about that.”
That anger is what’s brought Packham to Scotland for two days’ field investigation. In partnership with conservationist Dr Ruth Tingay, a member of Raptor Persecution UK, and wildlife/conservation film producer Ruth Peacey, he’s making two short films for his YouTube channel about the persecution of raptors.
Earlier today we were with Packham near the grouse shooting estate in the Scottish Borders where the hen harrier was found. We were with a small camera crew and more angry people: representatives from RSPB Scotland, the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), and animal welfare charity OneKind. Also in attendance was a senior officer from Bedfordshire Police who’s the national lead for the England and Wales Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group.
“Half the people I speak to have no understanding that raptor persecution is a ‘thing’,” Superintendent Nick Lyall told me as we stood on a sodden, midge-clouded roadside a few miles from Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland. “So working with Chris and the others here is an opportunity not to be missed. That’s why I’m making a 10-hour drive to make a 10-minute film clip: because I’m passionate about seeing an end to this crime.”
Trapping the hen harrier in its nest “is a very calculated, targeted and specialist offence”, says the head of the Scottish SPCA Special Investigations Unit (the often undercover nature of his work means we’re concealing his identity). “They have gone out to [kill] this animal, knowing it’s an extremely rare bird. And they have caused not only the death of that bird, but of the eggs, and no doubt the female, too, that’s gone missing.” The guilty party “most certainly” deserves jail time.
By the time the incident is reported in the Scottish press a few days after our visit, Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire (on which the trapped bird was found) has denied any involvement, issuing a statement: “The estate has conducted a full investigation into the circumstances of this incident and is satisfied that no one from the estate was involved in the illegal setting of these traps.” It added that the estate had offered full cooperation with the Police Scotland investigation and provided evidence of someone acting suspiciously on the day in question.
This was not an isolated incident. Two young golden eagles, named Adam and Charlie by researchers, went missing on 18 April on the same Highland Perthshire moor, on the same shooting estate. Packham and the Raptor Persecution Group were able to pinpoint the eagles’ last known whereabouts because of the satellite tags affixed to their backs as chicks as part of a conservation programme.
“The tags are 98 per cent reliable,” says Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland. “So they don’t just fail for no reason. They fail because of human interference.”
“I tag golden eagles to find out how they live,” Dave Anderson, an experienced raptor observer, will later tell me as I cradle a young eagle chick – the size of a small dog – on a rocky hillside. “I don’t tag golden eagles to find out who is killing them.” But that’s the direction in which the data and the science has taken him, Packham and their fellow activists. They believe that employees of grouse shooting estates – for example, gamekeepers – are largely to blame for the death of raptors.
“The vast majority of raptor persecution offences are happening on grouse moors,” says Thomson. “And the motivation is to kill birds that they see as a threat to the numbers of grouse available for shooting in the autumn.” In other words: the more grouse that are killed by raptors, the fewer there are for wealthy tourists to shoot for fun. “You’re killing to kill,” says Robbie Marsland of LACS.
Subsequently the Auchnafree Estate, over whose land the two golden eagles vanished, also denied any involvement. Their spokesperson said: “We were absolutely shocked to learn that these two eagles were missing. They have been around the estate for some time now and we were delighted to have them. No one knows what has happened to these birds.”
Packham is undaunted by the wider challenge. He’s used to pushback from the shooting industry and its supporters, often fighting with them on social media. In April this year other, unknown opponents made their feelings known in a gruesome way at his remote home in the New Forest on the English south coast.
“They’ve been found out and so now their backs are against the wall,” he tells me. “They are committing criminal acts, they are ethically, morally and lawfully wrong, and they are just lashing out. Which is why I get death threats. Which is why people are hanging dead birds on my gate.”
Four weeks later, I’m standing at a secret location on a hillside in the Trossachs in central Scotland with Dave Anderson. About 50 metres above us, Simon Smith is abseiling down a crag towards a ledge. Both men work for the government agency Forestry and Land Scotland, but this is their passionate side-hustle: tagging raptor chicks.
Anderson has been observing golden eagles for 40 years, and has been looking at this particular ledge for half that time: it supports a golden eagle nest. We’re only 75 minutes drive from Glasgow but here is one of the UK’s most magnificent and elusive native animals. He knows that there’s a chick up there, but isn’t sure how old it is.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be between eight and nine weeks,” he says, “because at eight weeks old it’s perfect for putting a satellite tag on. Skeletally it’s as big as its parents, but it won’t have the same bulk – it needs a lot of blood to produce all its feathers.”
That blood will be generated by the fresh meat its parents bring, everything from lizards to otters, deer calves to pine martens. Fully grown, a male golden eagle will have a wingspan of six feet; a female, around seven feet. But they barely flap their wings, gliding high in the sky or, being able to spot a rabbit from a mile away, diving to the ground to catch prey.
“I’ve watched golden eagles come plummeting out of the sky at easily 100 miles per hour,” Anderson says with palpable wonder. “It’s actually really difficult to keep up with them on the binoculars, they’re coming that fast.”
Smith descends towards the nest, carefully picks up the chick, places it in a holdall and lowers it to Anderson. He retrieves and soothes it, placing a leather hood over its head to make it think it’s night-time. It instantly goes into a resting state, not quite sleeping but wholly still. “It’s like taking the batteries out,” Anderson explains with a smile.
He takes a range of biometric measurements and fixes the satellite tag to its back, like a cigarette packet-sized rucksack. Each costs £4,000. Solar-powered, they will constantly feed back data to scientists: the bird’s location, altitude, body temperature.
We hoist the bird back up the crag to Smith, who places it in the nest, next to a bloody, partially-eaten leg of a red deer calf. In the far distance, one of the parent eagles drifts high above the hillside.
“These tags have a two or three per cent failure rate across the globe,” Anderson says, echoing the figures quoted by the Scottish RSPB’s Ian Thomson. “But in Scotland they have a 48 per cent failure rate. And that is because persecution is still prevalent in golden eagles.” Meaning: birds are killed and their tags destroyed, and neither are found. “And of course, we just lost another two birds recently.” With an estimated golden eagle population of around 520 breeding pairs in Scotland – there are none in England – losing two birds in one day is a catastrophic loss.
Through the efforts of Anderson, Packham and equally impassioned agencies and supporters, these birds have the benefit of scientific and legal overwatch. They can’t stop people criminally shooting, trapping or poisoning raptors. But by staying on their tail, following the data and keeping up the pressure, they can put illegal activities in the spotlight.
“Grouse shooting is killing shooting,” Packham had said in Fishcross as he held the dead hen harrier, anger still radiating off him. “Because the blood of this bird is now on the hands of anyone who picks up a gun. And if the shooting industry doesn’t sort this out, then we will sort it out for them.
“Things are going to change.”