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Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 19 July 2019

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It has certainly been a disastrous few weeks for raptors.  Over the course of less than a month there have been reports of a hen harrier being caught and killed in an illegal trap and two golden eagles going missing - all of these occuring in Perthshire.  Then came news of a peregrine falcon being found so badly injured after it had been shot that it had to be put down, this time in Cheshire.  The peregrine not only had a broken wing but shot in its body, morbidly illustrating that efidently there are people out there who nurse a particular hatred of raptors.  Furthermore, they are clearly people who are prepared to flout the law and indeed take the law into their own hands with disastrous consequences.

The disappearing eagles, both fitted with transmitters so that their movements could be tracked, disappeared into thin air on a grouse moor.  The hen harrier was also in a similar location.  Thus the finger of suspicion has once again been pointed in the direction of those who manage moorlands, specifically for the rearing and ultimately the shooting of red grouse.  Much effort goes into the nurturing of grouse in such areas, for once the 'glorious twelfth of August' has been reached, the bags are apparently key to the success of what have evidently become big businesses.

The rise of the sporting estate in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with its over emphasis upon the protection of game birds and animals, not to mention a determination to protect fish, showed a complete disregard for wildlife.  Hence, during that time, ospreys, sea eagles and polecats became extinct as Scottish breeding birds and animals.  I have read the account of the 'naturalist' who shot the last pair of breeding ospreys on Speyside.  It makes grisly reading and it was such activities that hastened the laws brought forward to protect such creatures.

I vividly remember the excitement that was generated back in the 1950s when of their own volition ospreys eventually began at last to return to Scotland and breed.  If ever there was a good news story that was it. And yet would you believe it, the first breeding pair had their eggs stolen!  Rarity is, of course.the key issue to egg collectors and as you will have guessed, with no other ospreys even present in the UK, that clutch of osprey eggs must accordingly have been exceedingly rare and thus extremely valuable.  Despite the illegality of possessing them!  Henceforth, groups of bird-watchers got together and formed watches on nesting sites to try and prevent further incursions, as slowly by surely ospreys began to re-colonise Scotland.  The slow build up of breeding ospreys in Scotland happened initially on Speyside but there was one eyrie here in West Perthshire which had also been robbed.  Thereafter, a number of us organised watches over that lone site.

Sea eagles also became extinct in Britain around the same time in about 1916.  Efforts were made to re-introduce these huge raptors to coastal Scotland many years ago by the late Pat Sandeman and George Waterston.  It seems that this first effort failed because the introduced eagles tangled with fulmars.  Fulmars, when threatened, release a pungent oil-rich fluid from their nostrils and it was thought that the eagles' plumage became badly soiled.  That re-introduction therefore failed.  However. a further re-introduction was launched in the 1970s by the RSPB, which has been successful. However, their return has not been achieved entirely without controversy!  But that's another story!

Meanwhile, another raptor, the hen harrier, once widespread but latterly found only in Orkney as a breeding bird, had begun to make a return to other parts of Scotland and England.  Indeed, when I first settled in this part of Scotland, the local range of hills supported no fewer than seven pairs of hen harriers.  However, as more and more forestry was planted, elimnating the open moorland habitat which is what harriers require, their numbers fell until there were none.  During the winter months, I also used to see hen harriers - they used the nearby mosses as a winter roost - coursing along local hedgerows in their search for small songbirds.  Alas, the pair I used to see on a regular basis came to a grisly end - they were shot!

And of course, hen harrier numbers have been in decline to such an extent that they ae now our rarest birds of prey.  Yet they are a joy to watch as they fly low, typically over heather moorland, ready to pounce on any small bird or mammal they spot.  The male with its grey, almost silver plumage and wings tipped with black and the brown female - the ringtail - are both recognised by the prominent white flash above the tail.  The one recently killed must have suffered agonies caught in the vicious teeth of an illegal trap, a salutary reminder that clearly some people are determined to exterminate them by any means whatsoever.  It is true that harriers will prey on red grouse.  However, predators of this nature do, in some respect, keep the grouse in good health by targeting the weaker, less desirable birds.

Eagles and pergrines hunt over grouse moors and so have also been targeted.  But, then hen harrier is a ground-nesting bird and thus is an easier target for those who wish to see them exterminated from all such moors.  The destruction of nests and the killing of young harriers is, I'm afraid, something that has happened all too frequently, despite the fact that such actions are strictly illegal.  In parts of England, especially in the north where there are grouse moors too, there have been regular reports referring to the destruction of hen harriers and their nests.

Pergrine falcons have over a long period of time, had a chequered history in their relationship with mankind.  Indeed, during the war years, many of them were killed quite legally as part of the war effort. They were eliminated, mainly along England's sount coast, in order to protect carrier pigeons bringing vital messages from the front in Europe.  Then, just as the pressure by the war was removed, they were to suffer further disastrous consequences due to the heavy use in post war days of pesticides such as DDT, which passed naturally through the food chain.

Pigeons, which are one of the peregrine's prime quarries, having eaten treated cereal crops were then caught and consumed by the falcons.  The buck stopped there at the top of the food chain!

Peregrines at that time began to lay infertile eggs, then began to die and were soon again in serious decline.  Thankfully, the consequential threat to human life was realised and such pesticides were banned.  However, it isn't just the managers of grouse moors who eye pergrines with suspicion, pigeon fanciers don't much care for them either!

So far no evidence seems to exist as to who was responsible for the two disappearing eagles but it would seem that someone has a major grudge against such raptors.  It is unlikely that both transmitters failed at the same time. However, the fact remains that the trap set for the hen harrier was clearly set intentionally and the peregrine too was shot just as deliberately.  There can be no doubt at all that someone very definitely wanted to kill those birds.

There are those who perfectly legitimately enjoy shooting and many of them are now up in arms knowing that as more such crimes come to light, the more likelihood there is that more and more legislation will be introduced to restrict their activities.  There has apparently been an increasing volume of letters sent to the shooting press, criticising the perpetrators of these crimes.  Some mud inevitably sticks!  It is surely about time these destroyers of our much-cherished wildlife, were brought to justice for they are as much criminals as any thieves and robbers!


Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods