Author: Jeff Knott

Blog Post: Calluna has disappeared!

I’m very sad to have to report that one of the hen harrier’s satellite tagged as part of the LIFE project this year, has already disappeared. “Calluna”, a female harrier, was tagged this summer at a nest on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate, near Braemar. We were monitoring her transmitter’s data which showed that she fledged from the nest in July. She left the area in early August, and gradually headed east over the Deeside moors. However, while the tag data showed it to be working perfectly, transmissions abruptly ended on 12 th August, with no further data transmitted. Calluna’s last recorded position was on a grouse moor a few miles north of Ballater, in the Cairngorms National Park. For regular followers of our hen harriers, this will be a depressingly familiar story. I’m sure some will focus on the date transmissions ended – the 12 th August, the traditional start of the grouse shooting season. Bluntly, the date isn’t really the point. The disappearance of one of our hen harriers is a major loss whenever it occurs. While we will likely never know for certain what happened to Calluna, it fits a pattern of disappearances where perfectly functioning tags suddenly stop transmitting and are never recovered. She joins the growing list of satellite-tagged birds of prey that have disappeared, in highly suspicious circumstances, almost exclusively in areas intensively managed for grouse shooting. The transmitters we use are incredibly reliable and the sudden halt in data being received from it, with no hint of a malfunction, is very concerning. I started working on hen harriers for the RSPB 10 years ago next month. One of the first documents I helped produce discusses how terrible it was that there were only 14 successful hen harrier nests in the whole of England that year. This year there were three. It’s appalling to me now that those historic 14 successful nests in one year would be treated like a breeding bonanza today! But despite that lack of progress and the continued disappearance of hen harriers like Calluna, I remain optimistic. More people know more about the plight of these amazing birds than ever before. In Scotland the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment has commissioned an independent group to look at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. And there are still lots of other young hen harriers out there with satellite tags on, thanks to the LIFE project. The team has fitted a significant number this year, with the very welcome help from landowners, including the National Trust for Scotland, who value these magnificent birds breeding on their property. You will be able to follow the trials and tribulations of some of those birds very soon. Check back here for more news. These tags help us not only better understand and protect hen harrier, but also bring new voices into the fight to save them. Hopefully no more of our hen harriers go the way of Calluna. If anyone has any information about the disappearance of Calluna we urge them to contact Police Scotland as quickly as possible.

Blog Post: The ordinary 12th

Today is the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – the ‘Glorious 12 th ’ to some; the Inglorious 12 th to others. To be honest, it’s just another day to me – I’ve never been grouse shooting and I doubt I ever will. It’s a Friday so I guess that’s good. I suppose for me it’s just the ordinary 12 th . If someone brings cake in it might stretch to the pretty decent 12 th . But behind that slightly flippant introduction is a serious question – does grouse shooting matter and perhaps most pertinently of all, does it have a future? In 100 years’ time, will there still be a Glorious 12 th , or will it be looked back on as an odd quirky footnote in the history of our countryside? I’m sure we’ll hear lots of perspectives on that today from all angles, but from my perspective the only answer to the question “should grouse shooting have a future?” is a clear… definitely, maybe . Driven grouse shooting can’t have a future unless it shows it is capable of evolving to tackle the problems it faces. These issues clearly start with the illegal killing of birds of prey , which must end. It is absurd this is still going on – we shouldn’t have to remind people to obey the law! But the problems also extend further, from the inappropriate burning on peatlands to drainage and the creation of damaging tracks . In addition, emerging issues such as mountain hare culling and medication of the grouse , are only now coming to the fore. Some moorland management is certainly good for some species, such as curlew and golden plover, but that can’t come at the price of the other environmental damage it causes. One way of tackling these issues would be a rigorous licensing system, such as those found in many European and North American countries, which recognises and builds on existing good practice. Self-regulation has clearly failed, so tougher steps must be taken. The UK has been unusual in having no statutory form of shoot licensing and given the intensity of management on some shooting estates and its environmental impacts, this seems, to put it mildly, a bit odd. We all need a modern scheme, with licensing of shoots and powers to remove the opportunity to shoot gamebirds where wildlife crimes have taken place. Loss of shooting rights is widely available as a sanction and deterrent to law breaking in other countries, so why not here? Licensing is not about tarring everybody with the same brush – law-abiding estates have nothing to fear. Those that have clean licenses could be celebrated for doing a good job. The details of a licensing scheme would need to be worked out through a public debate. But there could be a sliding scale of penalties, ranging from the most severe penalties (loss of the right to shoot) for the worst offences (eg illegal killing) through to lower penalties (fines, suspended loss of licence?) for offences such as burning on deep peat or creating damaging tracks (although arguably these are just as ecologically damaging and potentially more difficult to reverse). There could be a points based system, as on driving licences. We think it is vital that licensing requirements are compulsory, as voluntary approaches have patently failed, and that licences apply at the shoot level. Licensing could have value anywhere intensive management for shooting is causing environmental problems. This would mean a focus on the intensive driven grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, but the same approach could be used to drive up standards in other areas too. Clearly monitoring and enforcement would be required to check estates were abiding by the rules and laws set out in any licence. This might sound bureaucratic or expensive, but it is delivered perfectly straight forwardly in other areas and I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t be replicated here. A good option for administration and enforcement would be via the statutory nature conservation agencies, who could have the necessary access powers and support for enforcement from the police forces. This combination seems to work well in other examples, like the fishing rod licensing system, which is enforced by the Environment Agency working in partnership with the police and other organisations. A modern online system for licence administration and reporting could help save costs. A nominal fee could cover costs of administration. Again, similar to the EA rod licensing system, licence fees could potentially be a significant source of funding for conservation work. With high levels of compliance achieved as a result of effective enforcement, the rod licensing system raises over £20m a year to support fisheries . The shooting community too have a lot to gain from a robust licensing system. Such a system could improve public confidence in the industry, providing a means to demonstrate the sustainability of shooting sports, driving up standards, and giving us an opportunity to celebrate the best shoots where nature thrives on the land. There are no doubt a lot of other details to be worked out. For example, would estates automatically get licences and then have them taken away if they break the rules, or would they have to prove they’d reached certain criteria before being allowed a licence? What I’ve suggested here is in no way a formal RSPB submission on how a licensing system would work. It is merely a few thoughts and suggestions for how it could work. As ever, the details would need to be worked out through a long overdue public debate and consultation with all stakeholders. This is clearly something the public care about, as can be seen in Scotland where the debate is well underway. While it is appalling that yet another golden eagle has disappeared , the words of the Scottish Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, clearly show that she is serious about tackling the problem. Her statement is pretty clear – “the Scottish government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary. It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running”. This is good news – progress is being made. Hopefully we can deliver similar progress in England too. The challenge is clear and it’s a great opportunity for clear leadership. That leadership doesn’t just have to come from politicians though. It can and should come from the law-abiding and forward-looking elements of the shooting industry itself. Licensing has huge potential as a tool for driving up standards across the shooting community. Shooters, as well as our wildlife will benefit. Driven grouse shooting is not an inherent right. It is something a small minority of people enjoy, yet affects the management of large swathes of our uplands. It doesn’t seem unreasonable in that context to expect that minority to abide by some basic rules of not damaging the environment in exchange for being allowed to practice their hobby. Will there be a ‘Glorious’ 12 th in 100 years time? Only if grouse moor management reforms, that’s for sure. The status quo is not an option. The RSPB is not anti-shooting. But we are anti-wildlife crime. We are anti-illegal killing. We are anti-damaging land management practices. The ball is firmly in the driven grouse shooting industry’s court to show it is capable of addressing its problems. Licensing is the best option for it to do this. There are plenty of people out there calling for a ban on driven shooting. If the industry embraces licensing as the way to counter these calls and show it can evolve, then there could be many Glorious 12ths to come. If responses to the very real issues it faces continue to be characterised by spin and denial, then the 12 August could become just another summer’s day. But at least there will always be cake!