There are days when you really have to wonder about the farming press. Pages have recently been devoted in Scottish farmer, to events wreaked upon the world by birds of prey. In Scotland, thanks to conservation programmes, red kites are making a comeback, a few years behind England and Wales it has been said. But evidently the 150 or so pairs of Scottish red kites are causing havoc in contrast to the 1000+ pairs in England – see here. Some of the complaints do seem to be overlooking the impact of farming itself on wildlife, because the declines in Lapwings and other species in Galloway pre-date by some measure the return of the kite. Two or three cuts of sileage per season plus rolling and drainage of wet areas doesn’t leave much space for ground nesting birds like lapwing or redshank which are fast declining in the lowlands as a result.
We have also heard quite a bit about the return of the white-tailed-eagles, an effort Scotland can be very proud of.
photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Many farmers, crofters and sporting estates have helped this effort over the past 30 odd years. The people of Norway have gifted us the young birds which were reared and released, and now form the core of our 60+ nesting pairs. Harald Misund a retired Norwegian airforce officer devoted much of his life to helping this re-introduction. The RSPB gave him its highest award – a simple medal as a tribute to his work. I remember him on the stage at the Aros centre on Skye celebrating the 25th year of the partnership to bring back the white-tailed eagles. He recounted how he watched the mosquito fighter bombers skimming the waves near his home when he was a young boy, as they tried to disable the Tirpitz. Years later when the request to help with the white-tailed-eagles came he said it was for him his great opportunity to thank those RAF airman who flew from Scottish bases to take the fight to occupied Norway. I still choke up with emotion when I think of it - and you could hear a pin drop in the hall that night.
Some, but lets be clear nowhere near all, farmers and crofters view the white-tailed eagle with great suspicion and they do sometimes take viable lambs. But not on the scale reported. Independent studies into the lamb loses claimed have found a very different story, with drowning, hypothermia and in some cases poor husbandry responsible for the majority of lamb deaths, as shown here. More recently the death of a lamb in Perthshire got considerable media coverage, and a white-tailed-eagle was blamed in the Dundee Courier here and reported as the suspicious party in the Scottish Farmer. That lamb was given a post-mortem. The vet’s findings – which sadly were not reported - revealed a quite different story to the conjecture and supposition of the lamb being killed by the eagle that was wrongly written up as fact. Indeed, the Scottish Agricultural College’s laboratory report by the Veterinary Centre Manager read: “There was no bruising or haemorrhage evident anywhere on the carcase. Although predation was extensive, there was no evidence that the lamb had died due to traumatic injuries such as might have been inflicted by a large predatory bird. Given the climatic conditions on 03.04.2012 death due to hypothermia and subsequent opportunistic predation seem the most likely explanation in this case”. Of course, these birds attract valuable tourism to areas like Mull and Galloway, and some farmers benefit from this directly, but not all. So I accept that cannot be the only answer.
But lets not get carried away – The RSPB does not deny that on occasions a viable lamb is lost and this is a loss for the farmer. There is a SNH scheme in place that offers proportionate payments to farmers in eagle areas, to help with managing any issues. But the scale of mortality that can be attributed to eagles is dwarfed by losses to severe weather, the cussed ability of sheep to find novel ways of expiring and poor nutrition on the hard hills, and in some areas foxes are an ever present danger. But a bit of well researched evidence doesn’t stop the hyperbole in Scottish Farmer! And as for White-tailed-eagles decimating sea fish stocks as some correspondents claim, I won’t get drawn!
I think we should look and learn from other countries who have large eagle populations. In Norway losses of viable livestock are tiny, despite far larger white-tailed, and golden eagle numbers. How do they do it? Can we emulate this? Perhaps a study tour could be organised to find out.
On 11th May, serial egg collector Matthew Gonshaw pled guilty to charges of taking 20 eggs of Manx shearwater, willow warbler and meadow pipit at Inverness Sherriff Court. Many of the clutches of eggs he has taken over the years were from nests in Scotland, and Sherriff Margaret Neilson decided to make an example of him. This is not the first time Matthew Gonshaw has appeared in court. He has five previous convictions for egg-collecting offences, and has served four previous prison terms as a result. His most recent period of imprisonment was imposed just last December, as a result of police finding some 700 eggs in his possession. These included osprey and golden eagle eggs taken in Scotland, as well as those from a host of other rare species. So he is pretty dedicated to his kleptomania. This time, Mr Gonshaw was sentenced to six months, and received an ASBO banning him from visiting Scotland during the nesting season for the rest of his days.
Egg collecting is the easiest of wildlife crimes for courts to understand. The perpetrators effectively ‘steal’ the eggs of protected species, and they go equipped to do so often travelling large distances in the process, There is no doubt this Victorian era ‘crime’ can have a serious impact once species are rare, restricted in range or they are slow breeders that don’t relay once a clutch is taken. And the number of eggs taken can be considerable -see here. Accordingly the courts take a pretty dim view of this practice and the sentences reflect this.
Rather perversely the courts don’t seem to take quite such a robust view of those people charged with illegally killing protected species such as hen harriers, red kites, golden eagles or peregrines. Indeed quite often charges are dropped or not pursued and lesser charges involving the possession of illegal poisons pursued instead. For example a charge against shooting manager Dean Barr of the Skibo Estate in Sutherland, for the possession of enough of the banned pesticide Carbofuran to kill every bird of prey in Scotland several times over, resulted in a £3,300 fine. Nobody was charged with the deaths of two golden eagles and a sparrowhawk poisoned with the same pesticide, or the laying out of a poisoned bait found on the same estate.
This is not unique. A quick look at the fines levied by the Courts shows that egg collectors are regularly dealt with far more robustly than people who trap, poison or otherwise destroy adult birds – particularly birds of prey.
This despite the fact that such activity is far more damaging at a population level than egg collecting – serious though that is. The theft of a clutch of eggs destroys a pair’s nesting attempt for one spring, but the killing of an eagle removes it’s breeding potential for maybe ten or fifteen years.
Look at these cases:
a) Perth Sheriff Court – 24th March 2010: gamekeeper pled guilty to shooting a buzzard and possession of Carbofuran & Chloralose – fined £400 for killing the buzzard and admonished for possession of banned poisons.
b) Lanark Sheriff Court – 5th January 2012: gamekeeper pled guilty to killing four buzzards by poisoning – sentenced to 100 hours community service (this was his second conviction for wildlife offences in two years)
c) Forfar Sheriff Court – 3rd April 2012 – gamekeeper pled guilty to illegally trapping a tawny owl and illegal use of a crow trap – admonished.
All reputable land managers condemn such activity unreservedly. But it continues to stain the reputation of the sporting community.
The people who poison and trap raptors often have heavy duty legal teams to plead their mitigation and defence – in contrast to the egg collectors, but I don’t think that explains the trend. Rather courts are often faced with people who live locally who stress their ‘stocks’ are suffering or livestock decimated. With limited evidence for either.But this is wrong headed. It is a serious crime. So when might a custodial sentence be used to crack down on a kite, eagle or peregrine killer?
The World Fisheries Congress has been in Edinburgh these past few days. This is the first time the meeting has been held in Europe, so a feather in the cap for Scotland. This four yearly meeting of scientists, fisheries organisations, Government officials and related professions was passionately addressed by HRH The Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Rothesay as he is titled in Scotland, urging delegates to manage fisheries more sustainably.
The sustainable management of our seas and fish stocks was high on the agenda, and there is much to worry about as 70% of the globes fish stocks are over fished or on the way to being so. RSPB Scotland was delighted to co-host a reception with the Scottish Government for some of the delegates at the great hall of Edinburgh Castle-a truly impressive venue. The evening was kicked off in sparkling style by none other than First Minister the Rt Hon.Alex Salmond MSP who welcomed delegates to Scotland’s capital and he too stressed the need to protect marine wildlife, as well as the livelihoods of fishermen. He was well briefed about the plight of seabirds too. He was a hard act to follow to the lectern, but I survived the ordeal and hopefully did some good for the cause of marine conservation during my 5 minutes of fame.
Seabirds are a particularly special group of species around the UK. Our rich seas and rocky coasts and islands support some 60% of all the seabirds nesting in the EU. I have visited many of these seabird ‘cities’ on Shetland, Orkney and the St Kilda group and elsewhere. I never cease to marvel at the sight, smell and noise of the colonies. These days most of the nesting colonies are safe, protected by law and many are nature reserves such as the RSPB Scotland reserve at Fowlsheugh or the Mull of Galloway. But all is not well with our seabirds. Those species which depend on sandeels in particular appear to be in trouble. Sandeels are small oil rich fish that ‘swarm’ in shallow sea areas, and they attract huge numbers of seabirds and marine mammals. Auks like puffins and razorbills rely on them to feed their young. Arctic terns and kittiwakes feed on virtually nothing else during the summer months and so the fate of these birds is linked to the humble sandeel.
Photo: Chris Gomersall (RSPB-images.com)
The sandeels in turn feed on zooplankton, particularly tiny animals called copepods. However, as sea surface temperatures increase, the fatty, more nutritious cold water copepods that were once the mainstay of the sandeel diet are being replaced by less nutritious warm water species. This means that the sandeels themselves are less nutritious for the birds. On top of that, the overall amount of zooplankton has declined by a staggering 70% in the north-east Atlantic since the 1960s. This appears to be having serious effects further up the marine food chain. Kittiwakes have been among the hardest hit – experiencing declines of 30% in the last decade. This is also affecting Arctic skuas, who chase terns and kittiwakes to steal their food and so the skuas are declining too. Their numbers have more than halved since the mid 1980s.
I remember walking across the North Hill on Papa Westray – an RSPB reserve run with the island community on this lovely Orkney Island. There were tens of thousands of Arctic terns, dozens of pairs of Arctic skuas and fluffy youngsters everywhere. Today we are pleased if a 100 young terns fledge whereas then the young terns once numbered in thousands.
We are pressing the Scottish Government, UK Government and the EU to put sustainability at the heart of fisheries policy, and to take a precautionary approach when setting stock quotas. We are working with fishermen to find ways to reduce the impact of their gears on the sea bed and our seas. We desperately need to protect not only the colonies where our sea birds breed, but also those special ‘hot spots’ where they go to feed, to ensure there are enough small fish to satisfy them. In short we want the Governments of the UK to deliver the comprehensive network of Marine Protected Areas they promised at the World summit in Johannesburg in 2002 – they said they would do it by 2012!
I spend a lot of my time talking to farmers, landowners and crofters – and sometimes rather more time in rooms with their officials and representatives than seems healthy!
The days when the first question was ‘what are you here for’ is long gone. It has been one of my aims as Scottish Director to make the RSPB a credible rural voice. Of course RSPB Scotland is a farmer, indeed quite a big farmer. Much of our land has to be farmed in order for it to be good for birds and other wildlife. In some places we work with graziers to do this. Or alternatively we farm ourselves-in hand. Our cattle on Islay, for example, at our Loch Gruinart reserve are a case in point. Eoin Brown our stock manager is an Ileach through and through, and his skills mean we have thousands of geese in winter and hundreds of pairs of lapwings breeding in summer. He also provides high quality calves, with buyers coming from across Scotland and England for the sale. It’s a great place where extensive farming makes a lasting contribution.
I have a vision for agriculture in Scotland. I want a vibrant, competitive and confident industry that produces high quality food, but which also plays a key role in protecting and enhancing our valued wildlife and landscapes – for their intrinsic and economic value.
Is all rosy? No of course its not. I still see farmers draining and re-seeding the last wet patches which lapwings or other birds need. I also see farmers forced to clear scrub so as not to lose their single farm payment (an EU subsidy) – and many RSPB members have complained to me about this happening too. At the other extreme the loss of cattle from some areas means the flowers, insects and birds don’t have the right type of tussocky ground to thrive in.
The number of Committee meetings to discuss farming looks likely to increase as Scotland begins to work up its ideas for the reform of the CAP – this is the huge policy that governs agriculture from the Mediterranean almost to the Arctic circle in Sweden and Finland. Farmers want the freedom to farm and to sustain their ‘entitlements’ as CAP subsidies are called. I want to keep money in rural Scotland too, and I certainly want farmers who protect and enhance the Environment to be rewarded for doing so.
I am worried about our producers on the Islands and in the hills and high glens, because they often farm in ways which do look after wildlife very well. But they get the least subsidy and support of all. It doesn’t feel right. They are not always well represented in the Committee rooms either. The intensive arable and grassland farms do much better, even though they have advantages of scale and being close to markets. And this is where a lot of our wildlife is declining of course (see UK birds report here).
I will be challenging the Scottish Government to commit more funds to schemes which reward farmers for caring for wildlife and the countryside. Scotland currently underperforms some of this for historical reasons, but its been Ministers choices too!
Tell Richard Lochhead your views here: Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also want better regulations, that challenge farmers to think more about their role as stewards of wildlife – and encourage them to do better. This is called cross compliance –and basically is a set of rules to follow if you want public subsidy. Our wader initiative, which is entirely voluntary, in partnership with the NFUS and SAC amongst others, aims to address declines in breeding lapwing, curlew, and redshank on farms and crofts. It could do with more willing participants for starters (See here) given the loss these species are suffering in many parts of Scotland. I challenge farmers to show they care in a tangible way by doing something practical to help.
Agriculture, food and the Environment are all inextricably linked. Scotland has all in abundance – but we must invest in the Environment if our children are going to see and hear skylarks singing or curlews with their evocative bubbling call in our farmed countryside. What do you think?
Photos: Andy Hay