The Scottish Raptor Study Group has recently lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for a licensing system to be introduced for gamebird hunting in Scotland. We, at RSPB Scotland, fully support it and we’d like you to support it too. Read our blog to find out why we think it’s the right move and you can find the petition by clicking here.
Scotland is home to some of the world’s most impressive and inspiring birds of prey, from the powerful golden eagle to the majestic hen harrier. We take a lot of pride in these raptors as a nation and people travel great distances to the rugged, rolling landscapes of Scotland just to see them. Golden eagles, red kites and sea eagles have managed to capture the hearts of many just by appearing on our television screens to give us a glimpse into their intriguing and often perilous lives. And that’s to say nothing of actually managing to catch sight of one of these magnificent birds in real life. Sadly though, these opportunities might not always exist.
Birds of prey have suffered greatly in the UK from several centuries of illegal killing by humans, with some populations dwindling perilously close to the brink of local extinction and others being pushed right over. Between 1994 and 2014, at least 779 birds of prey were illegally killed in Scotland. This shocking figure includes 104 red kites, 37 golden eagles and 10 sea eagles which were poisoned, shot or caught in traps. Over 80% of these crimes occurred in areas where gamebird management was the main land use.
The RSPB has documented the scale of the issue over more than 20 years as part of our vigorous and enduring campaign to stamp out wildlife crime. Our Investigations Team has provided expert assistance to the police, to gather the evidence needed to bring perpetrators to court. We have also campaigned for effective deterrents to be brought in to prevent similar crimes in future.
Working in this way has brought RSPB Scotland, our partners and supporters several notable successes over the years with improvements to some raptor populations. For example, buzzards are now rightly common again, and white-tailed eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to parts of their former range. But, perhaps more importantly, the conservation problem of the illegal killing of birds of prey has come to the wider public attention. And the public have responded. You have supported our calls for tougher action by our politicians and public authorities in huge numbers. For that we are very thankful, and as a result in Scotland, we now have some of the best wildlife protection legislation in Europe.
However, these laws can be difficult to enforce, particularly in remote areas where witnesses to crimes are rare, and perpetrators can easily dispose of the evidence. This means the chances of these criminals being caught are pretty low, and it’s the birds that suffer. Some species are still faring badly in Scotland; hen harriers are perhaps the best example. This is a species which often finds itself in conflict with grouse moor managers, who are required to produce large numbers of red grouse for hunters to shoot. Hen harriers are known to occasionally take red grouse as food, meaning they are rarely tolerated on ”driven” grouse moors because they are seen as a threat to profitable stock. As a result, harriers have become absent from large parts of their former, and most suitable, habitat range in the eastern and central Highlands and Southern Uplands. Similarly, a significant weight of scientific evidence is illustrating that wildlife crime in areas associated with intensive gamebird shooting management is having a negative impact on our golden eagles, red kites and peregrines.
It has also become increasingly clear that some grouse moor management and pheasant release practices have become more intensive, with detrimental consequences. We know, for example, that more burning is taking place on deep peatland areas, which are important in acting as carbon stores to mitigate the impacts of climate change. There are costs to the public here as well, from treating polluted public water supplies arising from the burning of peatlands in water catchment areas. Deer and mountain hares are being culled ostensibly to prevent grouse diseases, there has been an “industrialisation” of our upland bogs and heaths with the development of more hill tracks, and even the UK endemic subspecies of the willow grouse, the red grouse, is being medicated with veterinary drugs to improve its survival in advance of hunting.
Since its advent in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has taken a keen and welcome interest in wildlife crime. Our first First Minister, Donald Dewar, described crimes against birds of prey as “a national disgrace”. Because of this, we have seen improvements to wildlife protection laws, including the introduction of “vicarious liability”, which places the responsibility firmly in the court of landowners, if they fail to demonstrate that systems are in place to prevent their employees from illegally killing raptors. Whilst we believe this measure may have helped in some places, it is clear that there are still a substantial number of sporting managers in Scotland who continue to disregard laws protecting birds of prey.
In Scotland and the UK, we have a largely voluntary system of gamebird hunting, administered by landowners, in contrast to practice in most other European countries where state authorities take a more active role in overseeing and monitoring gamebird and other hunting activities. Self-regulation by the gamebird shooting industry in the UK and Scotland has had a significant period of time to get its house in order. But it has patently failed and the killing of our protected raptors continues.
For these reasons, the RSPB strongly believes that a step change in the law, to regulate gamebird shooting, is urgently required. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is currently undertaking a review on behalf of the Scottish Government to look at how gamebird hunting is administered in other European countries and this will be published in the autumn. Deer management systems in Scotland are moving firmly in the direction of recognising the public as well as the private interest, and we can see no reason why systems for the management of gamebirds should be any different. We have long-advocated a system of public licensing of gamebird hunting, with appropriate sanctions that would allow licences to be removed if any laws protecting our birds of prey are violated.
It’s important to point out that those who actually manage their land legally and sustainably have nothing to fear from this type of regulation. It would only penalise those who break the law. The removal of a right to hunt gamebirds would also act as a serious and meaningful deterrent to prevent wildlife crime from happening in the first place.
The Scottish Raptor Study Group has recently lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for a licensing system to be brought in for gamebird hunting in Scotland and we, at RSPB Scotland, fully support it. We believe introducing this type of system in Scotland can only be regarded as a positive move. It will only punish land managers who break the law as judged by the courts and will also act as a powerful deterrent to potential wildlife criminals in future. We would ask and encourage you to sign this petition too. Let the Scottish Government know this is an issue you care about and would like to see positive action on. You can find the petition and show your support by clicking here.
It is also worth noting that while Scottish Government petitions can be signed by anyone, only Scottish signatures will be taken into consideration.
Red squirrels are Scotland’s native squirrel species, instantly recognisable by their distinctive ear tufts, rust coloured fur and bushy tails. The tail is particularly important as it’s used for balance, communication and as a cosy blanket.
In Scotland there are around 120,000 red squirrels in the wild and RSPB Scotland is part of a project, called Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS), to protect these mammals and enhance the habitats they live in. SSRS is led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Here are five fascinating facts we thought you’d enjoy about red squirrels.
Red squirrels don’t hibernate
Many people think that red squirrels do hunker down and hibernate when the cold weather starts setting in but really, they are just far less active in winter. This is because they are using a lot of energy just to stay warm. Red squirrels do store and bury food over winter though, to make sure they can sustain themselves until nuts, seeds and berries become more plentiful again in the spring time.
Red squirrels like to keep their options open
This is much more innocent than it might sound at first. Red squirrels keep more than one nest (known as a drey) on the go at any one time. They’re not hiding secret squirrel families though. The reason they do it is for more of a backup in case the first nest they've made gets stolen by another creature or is blown away in bad weather. Having more than one home base also makes it more difficult for predators to locate them.
They like the finer things in food
Red squirrels are quite clever and can even tell if a nut is rotten without opening it. They do this by weighing a potentially tasty morsel in their paws and shaking it; if the nut rattles this tells the squirrel that the kernel inside is likely to be small and shrivelled, so is not really worth eating.
Reds have learned to ‘be more dog’
By this we mean they use their tufty ears to express how they’re feeling, from happy or sad to nervous. It’s a bit like dogs use their heads, ears and of course tails to do!
They have double-jointed ankles
Squirrels are extremely well adapted to their woodland habitat in Scotland. They’re nimble, agile and can jump more than 2m. Reds can even travel headfirst down a tree at a pretty impressive pace, because of their double-jointed ankles. This adaptation allows them to turn their feet around and dig their claws into the tree bark, no matter what direction they’re travelling in.
How a bioblitz can help save nature
Amber Jenkins, RSPB Scotland’s Community Green Space Officer in Edinburgh, gives us the run down on the recent Edinburgh bioblitz and why events like this are so important for connecting people to nature.
I think a lot of us are probably guilty of taking wildlife for granted when we are young - I certainly was. Despite growing up in rural Wales I didn't appreciate seeing a buzzard most mornings on my way to school, hearing the distinctive call of cuckoos come spring or even noticing the swallows lining up on the electricity wire above the barn as they gathered in readiness to make that long migratory journey each year. But I think that, on reflection, most people will probably be able to recall similar distant memories.
What strikes me most now is not the abundance of nature that was in my childhood, but the fact that I can no longer see or hear as much wildlife in the present day. I don't go back to Wales as often as I’d like but when I do I’ve noticed the call of cuckoos is missing in the early mornings, and that I now feel lucky to see curlews, which I used to regularly spot. With this in mind I often wonder how it seems to other generations – to current parents and grandparents and whether they notice this absence, too. My grandma talked all the time of the many house sparrows, and all the birds of prey she used to see, of how they'd get fed up of the cuckoos calling when she was a young girl because it was such a common sound.
While we can look back and think of what wildlife we miss it’s really important that we consider the wildlife that current generations don’t get to experience and what they and future generations are going to miss out on if further declines continue. This ongoing change in what constitutes ‘normal’ is called the shifting baseline syndrome; it is a concept formulated by Daniel Pauley in 1995. It is ultimately the continuous lowering of standards of nature and seen as the ‘drift away from true natural conditions, and as a consequence, a change in perception of ecological change varying from generation to generation’. If it sounds startling that’s because it is and we need to act now before the gap gets wider. We need to get the next generation thinking about the nature on their doorstep, the experiences they aren’t having while they stay inside playing with technology, and what they will miss due to the changes in our natural environment from human impact and climate change.
So what are we doing about this?
On the last Saturday of June the Giving Nature a Home team from Glasgow and Edinburgh ran a Bioblitz in Duddingston, Edinburgh. Now you may be thinking, what on earth is a bioblitz? The idea of a bioblitz is to collect loads of information about the wildlife living in one area over a set period of time. These activities work best if there are lots of people involved, trying to find and log lots of different species - the more wildlife uncovered the better. Why run a bioblitz?
There are so many reasons and many of them stem from getting people to tune into the shifting baseline theory, and ultimately to help counter ‘nature deficit disorder’ – that manifest absence that disconnects people from their natural surroundings. RSPB Scotland wants to connect people and children back to nature, allowing them to see how easy it is to enjoy, and the benefits that result from doing so. Our main objectives are firstly to engage people with their natural environment to appreciate what they have on their doorstep; secondly, we want to help people realise what has been lost; and thirdly, we want to assist people in learning about how they can get it back and give nature a home in their community.
The bioblitz began at 6am with an early morning bird walk, when most of the city was still asleep. The day was a hive of activity with lots of people turning up for the 10am morning walks and signing up for the other activities taking place during the day. These included mini beast hunts, pond dipping and making homes for nature, worm charming and mini beast bike rides in the afternoon. The day rounded up at 11.30pm with a bat and moth walk.
It was fantastic to see so many people of all ages and backgrounds get involved. My favorite part of the day was a young boy of around eight years old spending the whole day immersed in all of the activities and then encouraging his mum to bring him back for the bat walk later so he could see some moths.
It’s through fun and engaging events such as these that people can be encouraged to re-engage and close the gaps that distance children from nature. Over 350 species were uncovered on the day (with more still coming in from independent reporters), with around 200 adults and children attending walks and getting stuck in. Birds from chaffinches to herons to blackcaps were heard and seen throughout the day; 34 different types of molluscs were found along with all the different types of mini beasts you’d expect to discover - from woodlouse to centipedes and beetles. Twenty-three different organizations took part in the bioblitz, including RSPB Scotland, Holy Rood High School, the Sheep Heid Inn, Duddingston Field Group, Dr. Neils Garden, Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh Biodiversity Partnership, Historic Scotland and The Scottish Wildlife Trust as well as independent surveyors. We’ve also partnered with TWIC (The Wildlife Information Centre) who will collate all of the data gathered and disseminate it to other organisations to use for such things as habitat and land management.
We will, of course, be running more of the same, so do look out for other public engagement and citizen science events similar to this run RSPB Scotland’s Giving Nature a Home team in Edinburgh and Glasgow, providing people with the opportunity to engage with nature on their doorstep.
Wouldn’t it be great if just one of the children or young people that came along to such an event was inspired to do something of their own will to help give nature a home, and prevent the further decline of our wonderful wildlife species?