Disappearing eagles

Even under the influence of testosterone suppressing medication, the disappearance of two satellite tagged eagles within a few hours of each other at the same location snaps my twig, and briefly I get the urge to hurt somebody or damage stuff. Thankfully I am aware of this, but there is evidently something quite visceral, yet cold and calculating about the reactions I observe in myself. Apart from the sheer rage associated with cruelty and killing animals for fun, there is more a general fury penetrating deep into the bit of me that identifies as Scottish. Even without the natural motivation of hormones, I want to act now, decisively, to bring an end to this wickedness, see the perpetrators punished severely.

I know the land where these birds disappeared very well. I grew up not far away from here and visited often for walks and family picnics. At school, I took part in yearly orienteering expeditions held on the area. In recent years I have driven through en route to the Perthshire Munros, and it is a favourite place to bring visitors from foreign parts, on the off chance there might be eagles. It is a most beautiful area where I have often seen eagles, but it harbours a particular kind of evil. The most pernicious reason why it is shite being Scottish.

My tales of mountains adventures are peppered with polemic against the forces that perpetuate dominant systems of land management, and I am not shy about expressing my opinions about how things should and could be otherwise. In my idealistic youth I genuinely believed that one day it would be possible to bring about a revolution against these systems of land management, and to repopulate the glens with people and trees. As I grew older I learned that the power of vested interests is extremely powerful, so I turned my ideas into fantasy as the backdrop for a (not quite finished) novel. More recently though, with the turmoil and radical sentiment unleashed by Brexit, it has become possible to talk of these things again; with the “disappearance” of these eagles, the issues are now in the public domain for all to peruse.

The following text is quoted verbatim from an article in this morning’s paper. It expresses in only 650 words exactly what I have concluded during the last five years passing through Scottish sporting estates on my way to the summits. It is written by Max Wiszniewski, the campaign manager for Revive, a coalition of like-minded organisations working for reform of Scotland’s grouse moors – Friends of the Earth Scotland, Common Weal, League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, OneKind and Raptor Persecution UK.

THE killing of Scotland’s rare birds of prey has long been associated with intensively managed grouse shooting estates. In recent years almost a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles have disappeared without a trace on or next to driven grouse moors.

We’ve just heard the sad news that two more golden eagles have gone missing on the same morning, on the same grouse moor. This follows several other cases in recent weeks and months of missing hen harriers, an even rarer raptor species, but this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The full extent of bird of prey (or raptor) persecution is hard to determine as wildlife crime in general is thought to be drastically under-recorded. Not all raptors are satellite tagged and the huge land coverage of Scotland’s grouse moors (between 12-18% of our landmass) makes discovering criminal activity very difficult.

Successful prosecutions are even harder to obtain.

The huge pressure to maintain unnaturally high densities of red grouse for sport shooting has created a circle of destruction in which almost anything goes, as long as it increases the number of grouse.

The suspicious disappearance of our iconic birds of prey suggests a widespread culture of illegality but it’s not just the illegal activities that are shocking.

Thousands of legal snares and traps litter Scotland’s countryside to kill hundreds of thousands of animals like foxes, stoats, weasels and crows – while 26,000 of our iconic mountain hares are mass “culled” every year – so that more grouse can be shot for fun.

Beyond the animal cruelty the land is scarred by unregulated hill tracks and patchwork muirburn which is unsightly and damages the environment.

Mass outdoor medication, where high-strength pharmaceutical drugs are dispensed into trays of grit, make the landscape even more artificial in favour of red grouse and actually spread disease in some species, while lead shot from shotguns is sprayed across the landscape.

Intensively managed grouse moors are barren landscapes with so many toxic by-products that they are anything but natural. They are not how Scotland is supposed to look.

You might (or might not) presume that for the cost of our wildlife and environment that the economic benefits for Scotland might be a tempting argument for maintaining this unsustainable industry.

The reality is, according to a report this year for the Scottish Government, for all the land they use up, grouse moors contribute less than 0.05% to Scotland’s economy (GVA).

A recent report from the think tank Common Weal found that the jobs per hectare are tiny compared to alternative land uses.

So what should be done?

The Scottish Government has commissioned a review on grouse moor management, due imminently, which is looking at a number of issues including the licencing of grouse moors, as they are currently very under-regulated.

Strict licensing of grouse moors, including the threat of licence withdrawal, may mean that an estate would, for example, lose its licence if golden eagles are illegally killed – a bare minimum and common-sense suggestion most would agree with.

However, unless we tackle the industry’s circle of destruction – which burns our land, damages the environment, mass medicates grouse, kills hundreds of thousands of competing animals, that scars the landscape and sprays tons of lead shot onto the moors, all so that grouse can be shot in higher numbers – we might be in danger of fighting the (illegal) symptoms on a case to case basis and not the root cause.

To ignore that grouse moors need significant reform is to pretend that this industry is in any way sustainable and we’ll need government action which takes on all the toxic by-products. When the Revive coalition is successful in our calls for radical reform our birds of prey won’t be the only winners.

It will benefit Scotland’s people, our wildlife and our environment.

I am afraid that I am not able to provide balance here, in the sense that I am simply incapable of engaging with responses to the (alleged) murder of these eagles emanating from defenders of driven grouse shooting. I read as far as the second sentence of one moronic missive from an organisation of gamekeepers. But as soon as it claimed there was no evidence of crime being committed, it became necessary for me to stop reading and calm down. No evidence! No evidence?!

Somebody should teach these idiots some basic statistics and probability. The issue can be stated simply. It is a matter of logic not opinion. The probability that the disappearance of two satellite tagged golden eagles within such close proximity in space and time is a chance event, that this is something that happens under normal circumstances, is so small that it is not even worth thinking about. This means that there is a very high probability indeed that the disappearance of these birds was a deliberate act, which under the law of this country is illegal. Add this to the fact that such disappearances are not uncommon in these parts, that this is one of a number of so called wildlife crime hotspots, and there is compelling evidence that crime is being committed. Anybody who believes otherwise is quite simply not allowing reason to influence their thinking.

Of course there is no actual physical evidence of anything. No corpses, no smashed up transponders, nothing. Nothing to connect any particular person with any particular crime. Nothing for the cops to take to the fiscal, nothing upon which the fiscal could build a case, nothing for the courts to examine. It is all a scurrilous plot by the usual townies who have no idea of the ways of the country, undermining a respectable business that provides … blah blah blah. Well of course there is no evidence. The people who make raptors disappear are not so stupid that they are going to leave any trace of their crimes. They know very well that the perfidious empiricism of the law, its rules of evidence and intimate connections with establishment interests, will protect whoever does any disappearing.

If there is no evidence of this kind, then we should certainly find ways of providing it. If enough people were continuously to exercise their right to roam in this area armed with cameras and recording equipment, then the probability that those responsible for disappearing raptors are caught in the act will be increased. It would also encourage landowners to think carefully about the future; they really should be looking at the writing on the wall now, for the dominant system of land management in Scotland is demonstrably medieval, ecologically unsustainable and not as profitable as it might be.

The most significant factoid in the above quoted article is that there are potentially many, more profitable ways of managing the land than for grouse shooting. Which would seem to suggest that there is actually no good reason to carry on like this, that some kind of repopulation is no longer utterly implausible, not only the subject of romantic fantasy, but something that might happen. All it would take would be an enlightened landowner, a suitable location and a few million in government subsidy. As I said to Martyn the last time we climbed a mountain, I would happily project manage such a thing. Scotland has a venerable tradition of new communities and experimental economies, from New Lanark to the present. It would be perfectly plausible to start something high in a glen. I can think of many potential locations.

But of course nothing is going to change, though a number of intriguing questions do arise. Given that driven grouse moors are not as profitable as other potential uses of the land, and given that this is a predominately capitalist society in which the pursuit of profit is the basic motivating force, why is there such vociferous and imbecilic reaction, such a need to defend these things with such ignorance and stupidity? Why are these people so desperate to maintain this denuded, denatured topography, while claiming this to be responsible husbandry, sensible economy and dutiful custodianship of the land? It must surely be more than historical inertia holding them back.

Are these perhaps the same powers, which have been so desperately trying during these interesting times to hold together the UK against its internal divisions, its pompous anachronism and the inexorable tide of history? The same forces that will at all costs conspire to hold together the precious union of this country with our neighbours to the south? Is this kind of reaction the extent of their capacity for reasoning? Can we see therefore in these circumstances a glimpse of actual strategies towards Scottish autonomy?

In the meantime, I would urge as many people as possible to get out there in this fine summer weather, to exercise fully their right to roam over this country; in particular to investigate the upper reaches of the rivers Braan and Almond and the moorland between them, and to visit the many viewpoints on the high pass from Glen Quaich to Kenmore. The Perthshire glens are very beautiful at this time of year. Apparently there are still eagles there too.

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Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

2 thoughts on “Disappearing eagles”

  1. This is a fantastic article, which cuts through the desperate propaganda that organisations like the SGA regurgitate year after year. Ban driven grouse shooting.

    Liked by 1 person

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