What lies behind the mounting toll of birds of prey in the Highlands?


By John Finnie

Birds of prey have been killed in great numbers – 22 at the latest count; there’s even been ‘a demonstration in Inverness’ and Police Scotland has mounted a large scale operation. What’s it all about?

Whilst it may surprise urban eyes, there’s very little ‘wilderness’ in the Highlands and Islands. Few places are untouched by the hand of man. After the Battle of Culloden the Lairds drove their loyal kin folk off the land and replaced them by sheep and sporting estates.

Until relatively recent times, many of those estates employed large numbers of staff. Where I grew up in Lochaber the estate had a dairy herd, many tens of thousands of sheep. It was an enormous tract of land which required cattlemen, shepherds, joiners, mechanics, lorry drivers, gillies, stalkers and gamekeepers.

As now, the game-keepers’ efforts were directed to rearing pheasants. Hatching pheasant eggs and feeding and nurturing the chicks until such times as the Laird’s heavily-tweeded ‘guests’, ‘came up’ to shoot the unfortunate birds.

Nature note: Crows, rats, weasels and stoats like eggs. Wild cats, pine martins and foxes like chicks and adult birds. Birds of prey; eagles, buzzards, hawks, falcons and harriers like eggs, chicks and adult birds. Men like to shoot and kill ‘ground game.’

Now the pheasants’ natural predators pose a threat to the ultimate number of adult birds which may survive to be shot and, by default, a threat to the livelihood of the game-keeper. As in the factory, country-side employees with poor ‘production’ levels will not be tolerated. Those predators must be killed – no exceptions! And killed they were. By vicious gin traps, set indiscriminately about the area – bad news for domestic cats and dogs – and, by snares set with little care and checked for wounded trapped creatures with even less care.

Estates have changed a lot since I was a boy and hopefully those cruel ‘game-keeping’ practices are a thing of the past. Estates no longer employ large numbers preferring the flexible worker able to tend livestock, do fencing and service the sporting side of the business.

What has certainly changed is concerted efforts to reintroduce persecuted species such as the red kite and the sea-eagle.

Now sea-eagles ‘take the occasional lamb’ and in the process incur the wrath of farmer and crofter alike. Recently, an Islay crofter, unimpressed by the scientists commending the sea eagle’s return, suggested the eagles took lambs ‘because no one taught them how to fish!’ I’m not sure that is the case, however, it does illustrate the tensions that understandably exist, the loss of one lamb to a crofter with a handful of sheep is significant.

Fishing is another lucrative source of income for estates which can charge hundreds of pounds a day. I know a senior legal figure who, only when I enquired, told me of the death of his young dog which always accompanied him fishing. The loss of the dog was ‘accepted’ as being the result of it eating poisoned ‘bait’ left by a river side. When I asked what he’d done about it I was told zero. He’d no wish to ’cause any bother’ to the estate where he got ‘good fishing’. I think laying down poisonous bait is a reckless act which should be punished severely.

Estate employees, like most rural workers, are not well paid. They do often have a ‘tied’ house and may receive other perks like use of a vehicle and access to firewood. Lose your job and you lose your home too!

I am aware of the pressure gamekeepers feel to ‘have a good season’ i.e. lots of birds for the ‘guests’ to shoot. Does this explain what would drive someone to act in such an irresponsible manner?

Now, I have no idea who is responsible for the recent spate of raptor deaths in Ross-shire. In recent years most raptor deaths were associated with upland grouse moors. Grouse cannot be hand-reared from eggs like pheasants so the employee pressures are arguably greater. I do know that the many red kites, with their distinctive fanned tail, are missed by local communities familiar with their graceful hovering.

I have seen suggestions that the Scottish Government should licence shooting estates. Clearly, that’s one option although my preference would be greater community or public ownership. It’s been said that land-ownership in the Highlands is ‘unfinished business’ and I agree. The days of the Highlands and Islands being the sporting playground for the UK and other nation’s elites must end.

Rural poverty and a shortage of housing make many jobs, and perhaps the intolerable terms and conditions attached, attractive and both require decisive government actions to sort.

The irresponsible individual or individuals responsible for these cowardly poisonings must be brought to court because environmental and social justice go hand in hand.

Courtesy of
The Scottish Socialist Voice