Figures released today show that poisonings of birds of prey in Scotland have risen again: a total of 22 poisoning incidents recorded in 2009 resulting in 27 dead birds of prey including 19 buzzards, four red kites and two golden eagles.
The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland (PAW) website has this map showing the 'hotspots' which, unsurprisingly, show a strong correlation with commercial grouse shooting:
So, what now? We can expect to see the predictable responses from the usual suspects. The RSPB will condemn the awful behaviour of the rogue estates. Gamekeepers' and shooting organisations will distance themselves, saying that poisoning is unacceptable. The police and the odd politician will promise to enforce the law vigorously. Whiny spokeslentils from Animal Aid and Advocates for Animals will bang on about how it just proves shooters are evil and should be consigned to the dustbin of history in a civilised society in the 21st century and did you know spent cartridges actually kill 20 dolphins every day and anyway the world will all die of global warming from cow farts if we don't stop eating meat right this minute.
And then it's business as usual, and the killing of birds of prey will go on.
I wonder what would happen if all these organisations could put aside their need to score political points, just temporarily, and put their heads together on actually solving the problem. (Of course, for some of them, solving the problem is the last thing they need; they'd have to find another stick to bang the collecting bucket with. But that's another story.)
Let's ignore the possibility that some of these cases involve sheep farmers dealing with crows and foxes or whatever, and concentrate on grouse moors.
Fact is, the keepers do as they're told, directly or indirectly, by their employers - the estate owner, estate manager and, to a degree, the paying guns who they hope will be digging in their pockets at the end of a good day for a generous tip.
Apocryphal stories abound of beatkeepers sacked on the spot because a harrier flew over the guns, or a drive was spoiled by an eagle. No doubt there is some truth and some exaggeration in these tales. But faced with that attitude from your employer, wouldn't you do what's required? And if that meant you ran the risk of being caught and prosecuted, well, you'd just make sure you weren't caught.
Let's face it, we're talking about gamekeepers doing things on their own ground, which they know like the back of their hand. And don't tell me any old tosh about satellites and CCTV cameras. They're irrelevant in the huge areas of wild country where this sort of thing goes on. A 'bad' keeper would have to be very unlucky, or very careless, or both, to get caught. If they are, the estate can hire another one in a flash, especially in the current climate.
The keepers are the victims in all of this. Imagine the stress. And yet all the focus of the RSPB, the police and the rest is on the keepers. That's like trying to wipe out pickpocketing in Dickens's London by chasing Fagin's boys through the streets. If you do catch one, it might make a good headline in the papers, but you're no closer to your objective.
So how do we catch Fagin, or at least persuade him to go straight? Ah, well, that's the big question. But these are people for whom grouse are £50 notes on wings. Money is the language they understand, and lots of it.
I can see only two routes to making a difference. 1) Pay estates to look after birds of prey, or 2) Convince the owners that if they don't, it'll cost them more than the birds cost them now. Option 2 requires the owners to believe that there's a fair chance of them getting caught, which at the moment they clearly don't.
Is either of these options achievable and politically acceptable? Perhaps not, but what's the alternative - other than finding ourselves still wringing our hands over the latest figures in 10 years' time?