The Zoo Keepers…

Since I retired from the fray in 2007, I have restricted my thoughts on wildlife conservation politics to commenting on a couple of blogging sites and other social media. I have studiously avoided criticising my old employers and fellow colleagues in the RSPB. When I was in the job, things were tough enough fighting off the complaints from disgruntled wildlife criminals, arrogant landowners and their lackeys, police officers and others in the justice system who felt that wildlife crime was at the bottom of their list of priorities – without being pestered by retired colleagues with special knowledge.

I’m pleased to see that at last those at the top are grasping the nettle of bird of prey persecution and openly walking away from a couple of the shooting establishment’s time wasting and distracting “partnerships”. The penny has dropped/the public pressure grew too great and the obvious fact that those we are up against are not interested in any compromise, over their criminally underpinned traditional “sports”, has finally got through to the decision makers. To the extent that they have realised you cant negotiate with such people, who are past masters at obfuscating and procrastinating in order to stay exactly where they have always been – the power over what lives and dies, thrives or fails in our countryside….more of that below!

This blog however, is a break with my line re non-interference [if anyone reads it!] as I am almost certainly going against not only an RSPB policy but also that of the scottish government’s nature advisors. I may be expressing views that will go against those of some of my old friends in the Raptor Study Groups – but I will not be surprised if there are substantial numbers of those folk who agree with me.

My first and greatest love in wild birds is the Golden Eagle..since I met my first one close-up in 1982 to the present day, thats also been my personal “red line”. My old colleagues will remember that I never forget a killed eagle – I would pull out all the stops to get their deaths properly recorded, investigated and if at all possible, to see justice done. The recording and investigating part I achieved, justice was very seldom achieved.

When I heard of the suspicious death of “Fred”, the satellite tagged chick from the only successful Borders nest site in recent times – that old feeling kicked in. I knew this nest site, it was located/discovered by a local bird ringer. When he told me about it and I visited the site it was one of the best days of my career. It was such a big deal that I didn’t even tell my RSPB bosses, for some years…and for many years it produced young, sometimes twins. Until in 2007 one of the pair was found poisoned near its nest – the subsequent very public investigation produced the usual angry denials locally – but since then [after a replacement bird quickly appeared] all has been well between the estate and conservationists. So the suspicious death of Fred will have been particularly hard felt in some unexpected quarters.

The shooting industry, true to form, have not accepted the “suspicious death” tag and are particulary aggrieved that it is being attached to the grouse shooting industry. What a surprise. They may have got away with that kind of denial back in the early 1980s [when I first started building on the recording and investigating work started by my predecessor, Pete Ellis] but the hundreds of reports of raptor killing, coupled with court cases and government led studies, since that time – mean that such denials are now heading towards the ludicrous. What has triggered this blog, is a statement from within the shooting industry, that this may damage the rapport built up over the imminent release of translocated golden eagle chicks into South Scotland. My thoughts on this “reintroduction/reinforcement” of golden eagles have been simmering away, since I first heard of it becoming a serious proposal….but the death of Fred was the last straw.

 

I live in “South Scotland”, I have done all my life. I was the RSPB’s Species Protection Officer in the 1980s, which meant I was the holder of much of that organisation’s information on rare birds, such as golden eagles for the whole country. I had taken part in the 1982 national survey on golden eagles, in Perthshire and Argyll…and on the Western Isles follow up work in 1983…I helped organise the next survey in 1991..I had my own “patch” of about 20 home ranges in Central Scotland, which I monitored right up until 2007. Before we had full time staff out there, I did some eagle monitoring on the Uists and Lewis and Harris for several years. I kept up with academic literature on any recent studies of the species. So..I know the bird and I know its ecology, over a wide variety of habitats from the hebridean islands down to holes in the vast conifer plantations of Dumfries and Galloway. This is a bird which can survive in most places, if it’s left alone.

Which brings me onto my other, better known “hat” within conservation – as an investigator of wildlife crime. I was RSPB Scotland’s Senior Investigation Officer for around 20 years. I know how people kill eagles and why. I studied that, first hand, close-up. I helped the police and Procurators’ Fiscal prepare cases against suspected eagle killers. I talked to suspects while their homes, worksheds and land was being searched for evidence…but most importantly, because this is where the real proof lies, I spoke to informants within the “shooting community”. I should say at this point that the “suspects” were almost universally estate gamekeepers. [to be fair there was the odd shepherd/farmer in the early years, but wildlife crime in that area dropped off drastically after the first high fines and publicity]. These informants ranged from disgruntled or ex, wives and girlfriends, to sacked gamekeepers, retired gamekeepers, fellow estate workers, tenant farmers neighbours and shooting tenants and clients. Now, Im not naive, I knew that amongst that list there were people who held grudges and would exaggerate, there were those who would be boasting in order to try and shock…the ones who were most believable though, were the ex gamekeepers. They would tell me in calm voices about how many dozen raptors they had killed or seen killed in a season, how it was done, why it was done – usually along the lines of “everyone did it, you would have looked strange or suspicious to fellow keepers if you held back”….At first I couldn’t believe what I was being told – tales of 20 eagles killed in a year on eastern Highland estates, 5 here, 5 there….almost always juvenile or immature birds [easily distinguished by their white feathers]…but then I was starting to match up the “holes” in the known successful breeding population, which we were getting better at monitoring. The terms “sink” and “black hole” for eagles were starting to be used.

But..to get back to the present and golden eagle chicks about to be released in South Scotland, as part of a joint RSPB/SNH/FC and local landowner’s scheme. A line from the press release on the project states..”The 2014 report published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) found that Southern Scotland could potentially support up to 16 eagle pairs. Presently, there are no more than 2 to 4 pairs, with limited nesting success”…I have no problem with that conclusion. My main question is “why arent they there already?”…..Since I started full-time work on Species Protection in 1984, Ive been aware of the mixed fortunes involving perhaps, a half dozen separate areas across South Scotland where golden eagles have attempted to nest…a few still do..sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Just as important, I have been aware of many reports of young birds appearing in areas with no recent records of eagles..and then disappearing..It has been obvious for decades that young eagles have moved south and east from the productive areas in the west and north, into South Scotland and indeed as far down as Northumbria. What has happened to these potential breeders? Did they all simply return to their natal areas?…or?…“They shoot every eagle that tries to overwinter on these moors, they hunt them down until they get them, they call them “turkeys”” – [a newly retired grouse moor keeper talking to a birdwatcher and a police officer, SE Scotland 2002; from my book “Wildlife Crime” published by Whittles Press].that’s why they aren’t here already! Those “overwintering birds” will include the tiny numbers, put out by the tiny resident population, at present in South Scotland. As the story about the “Fred” site shows, if one adult dies in a safe area of South Scotland [it became safe because of prompt Police action re the poisoned adult] then it will be replaced fairly quickly from our country’s expanding northern populations. ..but then it also shows what happens as soon as you move out of such a safe area.

So….what do we do to get a self-sustaining, larger population of golden eagles in South Scotland? To me the answer has always been obvious, you stop people killing them. You stop people killing them by the application of the Law. Which, as I never tire of saying, has never been properly tried, without fear or favour, in Scotland. While we keep tinkering with this problem, instead of facing it full on, it will never be resolved.What happened to the suggestion of giving SSPCA full powers under the Wildlife and Countryside Act? The one practical solution Ive seen over the past 40 years. The Police are not the answer, not unless there is a radical change in their direction and application of resources, and a complete separation of the units involved with wildlife, from the community who are causing the crimes. Using a long established and experienced [in court work particularly] charity, would free up Police resources for other work too…but no, the usual suspects came out against it, including those directly involved in the shooting community.

So..the solution thought up by the, no doubt frustrated, authorities..is to release more eagles into this compromised landscape with the blessing of the largest landowner [Buccleuch Estates] and the scottish landowners union [sic] the SLE. Call me cynical [I would say “experienced” is more accurate] but having seen gamekeepers ignore the wishes of their own bosses, when it comes to “vermin control” matters, I don’t see Buccleuch or the SLE having much influence over those dyed in the wool raptor killers, who still exist out there. The problem has not gone away, just ask those raptor workers monitoring our dwindling hen harrier populations. No, what is likely to happen here, is that one or two of the larger estates will allow a pair of eagles to nest. This will enable them to show off their conservation credentials and help stop any real prospect of the demise or even control [licences?], of managed grouse moors. Clever move. Meanwhile the harriers, peregrines, ravens and buzzards will continue to “fail” but no one will notice while everyone is looking at the eagle pair.

I didn’t write this in order to undermine a conservation project which will involve some very hard work by some very dedicated decent folks – I wrote it because I care about eagles. I will be delighted to be proved wrong but I have seen or heard very little, regarding the fortunes of or indeed attitudes towards, our large raptors to make me optimistic. The title of this blog is the Zoo Keepers..that is all that we are, if we allow the shooting community to continue to set the parameters over our populations of wild birds in Scotland.

Lewis Story 6

 

The feather 

Ewan was parked close to a bridge over a burn where the old road had been cut off. The new EU funds had lead to a spate of road building, on the island and the new wide highway from Stornoway to Tarbert, had cut the journey time in half. Mind you, even in high summer, half an hour could go by without a single car or lorry. In the evenings after the “rush hour”, when the workers from the airport, offices and shops had all dispersed from the Town, you could hear bird song all around. Fantastic…skylarks, pipits, wagtails, oystercatchers…even the triple “chew, chew, chew” of the rare and elegant greenshank, flying onto nearby pool…and then at dawn and dusk, his favourite…red throated divers croaking and wailing, as they flew from the fishing grounds of Loch Seaforth, up onto their nests on tiny lochans, on the moor.

He turned the long black feather over, again and again, in his hand. Like all the members of that small exclusive band, full-time raptor workers in Scotland, he was heavily “into feathers”. They could tell you so much. A single feather below a roost could not only tell you the species of bird, that had been sitting there but its age, sex or even its state of health past and present. “Fault bars”, faint lines across a feather, could show where a chick in a nest had stayed hungry, when it should have been growing, wear on the end of a tail or wing feather could show when an adult bird, had rubbed against its own nest while incubating eggs and chicks.

He would dearly have loved to show this feather to Mick…Mick the doyen of feather enthusiasts and a legend among fieldworkers. The year before Ewan had invited him to look at a big stick nest he had found in a Border’s wood…after climbing the tree like a monkey [wearing wellies!] and poking around for a good ten minutes, he descended and announced, that the nest had started life as a sparrowhawk nest, been taken over as a squirrel drey but was now being used as a feeding platform, by an itinerant immature female goshawk of the Finnish race. In a world full of posing “wildlife experts”, Mick was the real thing.

But Mick wasn’t here…Ewan was sure he had never seen a bird in Britain, with a feather like this – he wasn’t even sure if he’d seen anything like it in a book. Was it a tail feather?…it was at least 10cms long and 2cms wide…what was really odd was the curve…like a very skinny blackcock tail. No, it was weird…very weird. Anyway, what was it doing in a coastal cave, on the shores of the Minch…in perfect condition? Oh yes…and next to the body of the man he now knew as Lachie Macaskill?

Lewis Story 5

Sunday 19th June 1982, late afternoon

 

It had been a long slog, getting back out of Pairc. Even under the circumstances, it had been very hard to walk past several potential golden eagle nest cliffs. Not every day you find a body, though.

Ewan didn’t feel like hanging about, suddenly this ultimate empty place had become threatening…not that he’d seen anything that suggested the man had died violently…not that he believed in ghosts or lost souls, or any of that religious mumbo-jumbo…it was the lack of any life, the sheer emptiness, that was causing a growing feeling of unease.

Ewan had found dead birds and animals before, like any “raptor worker”, in upland Scotland, he had seen his share of poisoned baits and victims. He knew that you didn’t touch or move their bodies, you kept the “integrity of the crime scene”, as the police wildlife officer had told them on a training course. That was dead birds of prey – a human body was even more important, of course but he had to touch the man’s neck, to make sure he was really as dead as he looked. He would never forget how cold the skin felt.

 

Even though he had left his heavy tent and food, the journey was tough and it was 6 hours later when he stumbled into the yard of the steading. The Big House was as usual, empty, its millionaire Belgian owner, looking after business elsewhere. The shepherd’s collies were the first to spot him and responded with an orgy of delighted barking – sometimes it was days before any stranger visited this road end. This in turn, set off the black labs and Border terriers in the keeper’s house across the yard.

Gordon Stoat appeared from round the back of a landrover, where he had been preparing a couple of cut open rabbits, covering their flesh and entrails in “sugar” – keepers slang for alphachloralose poison – ready for dropping off near the raven roost on the cliff at the end of the sea loch. Shit!!..it’s the bird man…. “I’ll be right with you, Mr Caldwell”. He hastily threw a couple of sacks over the illegal baits and closed the van door.

“What’s happening?…didn’t expect you back for a couple of days yet – did you get lonely down there?”

“No, no…Ive come to get help – I’ve found a body..”

“A body?…not an eagle!?..that won’t be me, they die naturally too, you know..”

[Ewan would laugh about that one later, when he was regaling his mates from the BNT in Edinburgh. .”he thought I’d caught him out poisoning!!”]

“No, no. .its a man’s body…its in a cave towards the south end…east side..big guy…he’s definitely dead, quite recent, I think…”

“Jesus!”….Gordon looked genuinely shocked…”how on earth did you find….?………..whereabouts ….exactly?”

Ewan told PC McLeod about this strange reaction later. .at the time he was too busy thinking about who to call…Coastguard, Police, the Boss at HQ!??

“Ah’ll need to call the polis right away…”

“Aye, ye’d better come in the house then, …….hang on a minute and I’ll get the number…”

Dear God..a BNT official in his house..what he’d always dreaded..well, he won’t be looking in the freezer…but better hide that stuffed peregrine in a cupboard..Jesus, how did he find the body?…bastard, bastard!”. Stoat ran round the house clearing up.

“OK, I’ve found it”….he was lying, he knew the Stornoway police number by heart, he was always calling them out, when he thought Macaskill or his pals, were on the river or out at the stags.

“Hello…, this is Ewan Caldwell, the bird man, I’m phoning from Pairc, Gordon Stoat’s place…I found a man’s body in a cave this morning…Aye, I’m sure, I touched him, he’s cold…he’s dressed like a local; boiler suit and jacket…I think he’s one of the regulars from the Long Island…what do you want us to do?”

Ewan gave the policeman a six -figure grid reference, for the cave and arranged to meet a PC McLeod in Stornoway, as soon as he could drive there – the policeman had mentioned trying to get the use of the Customs cutter and he would need Ewan, to show him the location.

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Lewis Story – 4

Sunday 19th June 1982, morning – Pairc peninsula, Isle of Lewis

It had been a long day already for Ewan. He had been up since 6 o’clock,   when a passing stag had wakened him from a pleasant dream……the close attentions of an adoring female fan, after playing the gig of a lifetime, through a PA that made him sound like John Martyn in 1972…… When he sat up, the stag had rushed off , outraged, with its head up and legs stiff, before disappearing into the rising mist of the valley below.

He knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep and he also knew, that if the mist rose and the day got warmer, the midgies would be on him in minutes – the only things that kept the buggers down were cold and wind. Yesterday had been a good day, no midgies and good clear air, in the stiff breeze. Just the thing for finding soaring off-duty eagles, close to their nests.

All the nests he had found, for the last couple of weeks, had held increasingly large and well-feathered chicks, still relying on their parents for food but with less being brought in, as the adults tried to tempt their young, to make that first, necessary but still terrifying, flight. The nests he had managed to scramble onto, reminded him of two things. Firstly, what a fantastic view there always is from an eagle’s nest, they know how to pick them. Secondly…he must be completely mad – five miles off the road in places and free climbing rocks, covered in a thin layer of woodrush, grass and heather which as often as not, would only take one foothold before starting to slide. Still, it beat sitting in the office!

These nest visits were a quick check, of what food had been brought in – a messy business of sorting through tangles of bones, feathers and guts, strewn around and on top of the big piles of heather twigs. The soft, thick, cosy linings of deer grass which had been so useful in keeping vulnerable eggs warm in April, were now a distant memory, having been trampled and fouled by the feet, food and excrescences of a fast- growing chick or chicks. Sitting on such huge nests, next to an eagle chick the size of a turkey, while its mother glided silently past on 7 foot wings, would be a memory that Ewan would hold forever – the closest to the reality of primeval nature but also to the strange contentment of absolute solitude, that he would ever know.

Yesterday morning, he had made it on to a nest in a large overhanging cave, 150 feet above the sea and had scared himself so much, that he took several photos of the climb, to remind himself, never to do that again. As he sat on his high perch, he noticed a large rusty ship out in the Minch. At this distance, it appeared to be standing still but he could see flashes of white where the waves were pounding its flanks. Irritated as always, by seeing such a potential pollution hazard so close to the seabird colonies of the Shiants, he soon returned to worrying about the truly terrifying descent.

Today, he would continue his coastal odyssey – over 100 square miles of mountain and shore to survey, with the knowledge that this had never been done before. Paradise. Not by eggers, not by ornithologists – how good was that! He had a week’s supplies in the tent which he had brought in on his back, no need to carry water round here and nowhere more than a few hours from his central position. Ideal. What could go wrong? …

He walked the half mile or so to the clifftops, pleased to see that the mist had gone from the coast and that although it was a grey day, the worst he could expect was the odd sharp shower. He had started to get used to this place, where the wind was never far away and sleet showers and biting winds meant gloves on, even at midsummer. He began to head south, scanning the rocks with his *bins above, below and in front every few minutes. The golden eagles around here were astoundingly confiding and in the last few weeks he had seen several individual birds which flew low overhead, with their heads turned down towards him – literally eyeing him up. But he  knew how variable in character they were and it would be just his luck to walk past a nest, where the adults had slipped away quietly, like the ones he had monitored in Perthshire last year – a whole season and hardly any good views – birds which had been selected, by a century and a half of gamekeeper’s persecution.

He saw the cave entrance, when he was still a good mile away – a very large landmark, when you are looking for a single giveaway feather, or splash of white eagle shit, on two-hundred foot cliffs. Unusually, there was a gap in the cliffs at that spot, with a steep heathery slope. He could see a squall blowing up the Minch towards him and realised that the cave would make an ideal spot, for shelter and a sit-down. As he slid down the heather, he could already taste the ginger biscuits and orange he had in his rucksack…….

*[Historical note for younger birdwatchers – “Bins”, the birders slang for binoculars, in the early 1980s, were restricted to a handful of makes and types – compared to the bewildering profusion found in most outlets, by the early 21st century. Those in the know had got hold of the fabled light and handy, 8 by 30 Zeiss Jenoptems – made in what was then East Germany, using pre – Second World War precision tools. Those not in the know, such as a young fieldworker on his first contract, would use 50 times magnification brutes, more suited to being bolted to the bridge of a navy destroyer, than round the neck of a partially fit young eagle worker, struggling up a mountainside – all the while, wearing a sodden Barbour jacket. Such giant optics were described a few years later, in a spoof birdwatching magazine as  – “Donner und Blitzen 70 by 100s”! The common mistake made then, as now, was to associate large magnification with visual acuity – binoculars are one area of life where there really is no substitute for quality – oh yes and size really doesn’t matter! 

Sunday 19th June 1982- Tolsta, north of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

 

PC John Macleod’s day had not started well, what with herself, defying the neighbours by refusing to take in the washing – even after a phone call from the widow Morag Mor Mackenzie, asking if everything was OK??….and then being hit with a face full of summer sleet, which seemed to have been waiting round the corner for his exit, from the bare, white-washed bungalow.

Working on a Sunday was usually a treat, or as good as it got, on that “barren windswept lump of peat” as he liked to describe the island of his forefathers. As even the few families of troublemakers were scared of offending the black-hatted mafia of the “Wee” Free Kirk Elders, nothing ever moved on the Sabbath and a policeman’s lot was not too bad – as long as the duty sergeant didn’t have him on some half-arsed training course or “patrol”. John Macleod – or *“kipper” as all his colleagues called him– was looking forward to an easy day-shift in the main office – a little light paperwork and a surreptitious read of his new model aeroplane catalogue without the public phoning in and annoying him.

As he drove sedately [and of course, always legally – you knew they were all watching, on this day in particular] through the puddled roads of the township, there was nothing to warn him, that this was not just an ordinary wet June Sunday.

*[The nickname “kipper” had been given to him when, in an unwary moment, he had mentioned to two, seemingly friendly, older cops, that he had once worked as a fish filleter – that was 10 years ago, during his first week as a probationer…]

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Lewis Story – 3 Chatuchak…

eclectus and credit cardsSaturday 5th December 1982 – Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand.

 

“How many you wann??”…”ten!?”  that’s gonna cost you!

Roger loved the way they did business out here. Never a problem, as long as you’ve got the cash – the national slogan appeared to be “no problem”, he must have heard that a dozen times in the last few hours, since he got into the air conditioned taxi at Bangkok airport. The traffic though! He was glad he wasn’t travelling like the backpackers, stuffed into those rattly tuk-tuks, weaving dangerously between the lines of trucks and cars, inhaling fumes and god knows what else.

He had been dropped off at the entrance to Chatuchak market, the famous weekend bazaar, where you could buy anything, from fried water scorpions to “genuine” Royal House of Laos silks. The directions he had received from Jim the finch dealer were spot on, without them, he would have wandered for hours; past the dancing salesmen, selling silk scarves and the packed stalls laden with household goods and furniture.

He heard them, well before he saw the rows of cages – thousands of small, brightly coloured birds, cages stacked three and four high, on each side of the narrow passage way. And then, Shangri La!…A stall, with a crudely painted white backdrop with tree stumps [the irony of that passed him by completely!] and seven large birds, chained by their legs to the ground.

Cockatoos!… Dear God…pure white umbrella cockatoos from Halmahera, lesser sulphur- crested cockatoos from Sulawesi – getting harder to find now – and then ….Salmon Crested Cockatoo, the fabled Moluccan!…and finally, the star of the show, a single huge Palm Cockatoo, with its spiky black head crest raising and lowering, above its bright red cheeks. It stared back at Roger, as though daring him to move closer to its scimitar bill, capable of splitting rock- hard nuts in an instant.

“Beware the smiling Thai” – that’s a phrase thai people use against themselves..and in general, it has no more reality than “scotsmen are mean”, “the irish are stupid” or Americans are all warmongers. This particular smiling thai , emerged from the back of the stall and watched Roger closely. He quickly scanned the chubby ferang, with his sharp creased white jacket and trousers, expensive watch and clean leather shoes …and his smile widened. Not just a passing tourist? This one has money and he is staring with greedy eyes, at the two most expensive birds on the stall. Maybe I’m in luck.

“Eh…I was looking at the cockatoos…are they all for sale like?” ..Mr Boonmee looked steadily at him. “You serious buyer?…you pay me straight cash?” “Oh yes, I pay you cash…and I pay for more of these”. Roger pointed at the Palm Cockatoo…lapsing into the international language of short, easy to understand, English phrases.

“OK, we go talk business, you follow me…”

So Roger found himself in a small café, made entirely of bamboo – counter, tables, chairs, walls, ceiling – at the edge of the market. Mr Boonmee was fast becoming his newest best friend.

“Oh I can pay for them alright, you know they are very hard to find now?”

Daw Boonmee, realised that this stranger meant what he said. They had exchanged business cards – even the man who swept his stall for him had a business card, that’s how things are done here – and he was staring at the western script and drawing of a cockatoo on the gold edged card.

“You realise that such a big order may be difficult…it will take a little time?”. .he was squirming inside, this went against all his usual quick-sale instincts… but surely this customer knew the risks, he wouldn’t be coming back looking for his money, when the man at the airport confiscated his parrot and told him it had been against the law, even to advertise an Appendix 1 species for sale? ….Not when he was paying out nearly a million baht!!

Nine hundred thousand baht….£15, 000…£1500 each. Paid for in dollars of course…$3,000 each…Both Roger and Daw were working hard to conceal their excitement. A fortune for both of them…if Daw could get the birds to Bangkok….and if Roger could get them into the EU.

Two bottles of coke later, mobile phone numbers written down …and the deal was made. Roger to collect the birds in Bangkok, in two months time. Fit and healthy. What he did with them after that, was not Mr Boonmee’s business.

 

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