Food for thought: bird of prey friendly game and meat produce

As a responsible Scottish foodie, I want to highlight an issue that I feel should be close to all our hearts when considering the wheres and hows on our selection of Scottish meat, particularly game meat.

I feel that this post is particularly pertinent ahead of the Easter long weekend, when many of us will be raiding Scotland’s larder with our families and friends.

Dead Birds of Prey

Those of you not residing in Scotland may be unaware of the increasing numbers of endangered birds of prey/raptors being found dead on certain of our countryside estates and farms.

Sadly, the majority of these dead birds (including golden eagles, red kites, peregrines, buzzards, owls and hen harriers) have been poisoned or shot, with many more falling victim to baited traps.

Worse still, nests have been found trashed with their precious unhatched eggs having been deliberately crushed.

Many more of our endangered birds of prey are also said to be missing: either unaccounted for altogether (if tagged for tracking) or suddenly moving en masse from locations that they are known to inhabit.

This has been widely reported in the Scottish media recently, with protesters even taking to the streets in support of ending this senseless persecution of our endangered birds.

A mystery

When I first heard about this situation, I was pretty shocked and extremely intrigued as to why these deaths and disappearances are still occurring so frequently in 2014.

Before looking into this further, I had assumed that there was some sort of rare bird of prey smuggling racket;

Or, some nutter getting his kicks from knowingly torturing a strong powerful creature;

Or even accidental poisoning by legitimate agricultural fertiliser.

Being the Nancy Drew that I am, I got in touch with RSPB Scotland to try and find out more, and they duly sent me a very informative and somewhat shocking report setting out evidence that they collated in 2011 on why our birds of prey are being snuffed out.

To read this report, titled: The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland 2011, please click here

A shocking truth

The facts in this report show that the majority of successful prosecutions of unlawful raptor killings (to 2011) were attributed to gamekeeping staff on estates where the land management and shooting of game birds such as grouse, pigeons and pheasants takes place.

Only yesterday, however, a Ross-shire farmer was helping police with their enquiries after twenty birds of prey (fourteen red kites and six buzzards, including one sixteen year old bird) were found dead/poisoned within a two mile square radius on his livestock farm.

It is not clear what “helping with enquiries” means as at the time of writing this (i.e no arrests have been made), but the farmer has explained to the press that it is nothing to do with him. He explained that birds of prey are of no threat to his livelihood given that all they swoop to eat from his fields is lamb afterbirth. He has also called for an action group to be set up by farmers, landowners, the police and the RSPB in order to investigate and put a stop to these killings.

Location, location

RSPB Director, Stuart Housden, specifically points to parts of the central and eastern Highlands and southern uplands as being locations where,

“Intolerance shown towards protected predators remains deeply ingrained, with no regard to either the law or the conservation status of the targeted species”

Without overwhelming evidence against individuals, the RSPB can obviously only point towards historic convictions for unlawful killing together with locations where carcasses are continuing to be found, or where birds are missing, to allow us to draw inferences about the cultures and practices being shown by gamekeepers and land managers towards birds of prey on certain shooting and farming estates in Scotland.

The RSPB explains that the main difficulty in bringing prosecutions for this offence is the logistics involved; that is to say, the remote locations of many of the areas that birds of prey inhabit, makes it easy for perpetrators to conceal evidence of their wrong doing.

Predator control

It is alleged that some (but not all) estates become involved in this form of predator control in order to preserve, manage and enhance their commercial game bird stocks, which the birds of prey are otherwise partial to eating. Other prosecutions have been linked to pigeon fanciers and farmers of livestock.

Occupations and Interests of those prosecuted

As mentioned above, the 2011 RSPB Scotland report sets out the occupations and interest statistics of those prosecuted for killing birds of prey in Scotland between 2003 and 2011 (inclusive) as follows:

Gamekeepers: 87%
Pest Controller: 3%
Farmer: 3%
Pigeon racers: 7%

Whilst the 2011 report is the most recently prepared report into the illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland, it obviously doesn’t take into account the last few years, and specifically 2014, where at the time of writing this post, poisoned raptors are already into double figures.

Rumours

It’s worth mentioning that whilst researching this post, there were rumours circulating on certain conservation forums which suggested that many of the areas in which dead raptors are being found are areas currently subject to planning permission applications for windfarm developments.

Such planning applications would obviously be subject to environmental impact assessments before permission to develop is granted, which is where the rumours come in about who might be responsible for the killings.

There have been no official statements issued on this by the RSPB (or otherwise) and so it is not known if this is a line of police enquiry. Consequently, this rumour should be taken with a pinch of salt unless or until the authorities reveal otherwise.

Reaction

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, has made a statement on the latest raptor killings:

“Our staff have been inundated with calls from concerned members of the public voicing their personal anger and frustration about this appalling incident and calling for firm action by the authorities against the perpetrators. Many have said they would like to contribute financially to the reward already on offer, and this Justgiving webpage will allow those who wish to do so. We urge anyone with information to contact Police Scotland as soon as possible.”

The Justgiving webpage can be found here.

In the interests of balance

In response to calls for a system to be introduced where commercial gaming/farming licences would only be issued subject to estates being proven as “raptor friendly,” the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said:

“Perpetual over-regulation against responsible estates will simply put people off from investing in Scotland’s Countryside, gamekeepers will be taken off the moors and the species that help sustain golden eagles, such as red grouse and hares, will gradually disappear in tandem with the lack of management. The SGA consistently advocate that legal solutions are the only way to deal with problems where there are conflicts and has been quick to deal with proven cases of persecution, if it’s own members are involved, however, it does not feel that introducing a catch-all licensing system, which will ultimately damage the species it is trying to protect, is a sensible or workable solution.”

It seems that the Scottish Government are content with the current legislation in place to regulate this situation, and have indicated that they would only be prepared to tighten measures if such a response would be proportionate.

With cases on the increase, an opportunity to test the effectiveness of the incumbent statutes seems inevitable.

Our roles

I guess some would argue that shooting and abattoir practices are unethical full stop, but as a meat eater myself, it has really shocked me that there could be an added layer of cruelty sitting between the end foodie and that gourmet wood pigeon salad or pheasant on the plate.

What can you do to help

Game meat is not for everyone, I understand that. If you do partake in its supply, consumption or even on recreational shoots, you can help as follows:

Restaurants: please please do some independent online research to check that your meat suppliers have neither been prosecuted for poisoning nor been linked to any bird of prey carcasses or smashed eggs.

Foodies: please ask your server or butcher if their game and other meat is “bird of prey” friendly.

If shooting is your thing, check out the reputation of the estate before you go on a shoot.

It should also be noted that this is not an issue restricted just to Scotland and it is hoped that an up to date database of prosecutions can be published to aid consumer choices very soon.

This is such an important issue, and we should not see endangered species disappear altogether in order to sustain the commercial game bird industry. The various bodies should work together in order to find a proportionate response to living with our predators in an ethical manner.

Do you have a view on this? All views welcome.

All photos were sourced from my online research.

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