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. 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, 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.