Wednesday 27 January 2010

Sea eagles in the news again

The row over sea eagle poisonings gets fishier and fishier. What's really going on at Glenogil?

Just a week ago, The Scotsman carried this story announcing the news that a radio-tagged sea eagle known as 'Bird 89' had been found poisoned with carbofuran on the Glenogil Estate in Angus - except that the bird had actually been found on 6 August (and even then was described as 'decomposed').

The RSPB jumped at the opportunity to denigrate shooting in general, with Duncan Orr Ewing stating in this press release: "once again it has been found in an area where sporting estates dominate the landscape". [It's been suggested this is unfair, and the statement doesn't implicate shooting in general. I disagree. That sort of statement leaves a clear impression in the public mind that shooting estates generally kill birds of prey. Replace 'sporting estates' with 'sheep farms' or 'golf courses' and the implication would be clear.]

This story appeared on the outdoor website grough appealing to hill walkers for information.

Meanwhile, on shooting forums dark conspiracy theories are being bandied about. Could it be a disgruntled former employee looking to get the estate into trouble? A poacher getting his own back? Farmers? Shepherds? Perhaps even anti-shooting activists looking to blacken the name of shooting? Or simply a case of raptocidal keepers thinking that, way up a glen with only one access road, they can keep getting away with it?

And why did it take more than six months for the eagle's death to be made public? Especially when the finding was perfectly timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season on 12 August, which would have guaranteed huge media coverage. Once again, conspiracy theorists are suggesting funny-handshake connections between estate owners and senior police.

In the latest development, both the RSPB and the estate owner, multi-millionaire businessman John Dodd, have complained publicly about the way the investigation is being handled.

On 23 Jan, Dodd was reported here complaining that he is being 'unfairly targeted' and hinting it might all be a publicity stunt by the bird protection lobby.

Then three days later the RSPB 'launches a stinging attack' on Tayside Police, saying they had failed to investigate the alleged crimes properly. Reading between the lines, it sounds like there's a serious rift between RSPB and the police here - there's a hint of 'stop telling us how to do our job' in the police response.

Both Dodd and the RSPB sound positively outraged. Can they both be right? Or is one of them playing a blinding game of bluff?

I'd be amazed if the full truth ever emerges - but I'm willing to bet it's stranger than fiction.

UPDATE 27/1:
Chatting to people loosely connected with the estate, I'm getting a picture of a showpiece estate that's tightly run, with keepers and staff looked after well and provided with everything they need to do their jobs.
Among the local shooting community, the stories go that the keepers on Glenogil are mostly from northern England, and are all issued with smart new clothing, Benelli shotguns, etc. It seems they don't mix with the locals, and are rarely seen outside the estate.
Dodd himself has a reputation of standing no nonsense (which I suppose goes with the territory of running a successful business at that sort of level). He's also reputed to have little time for wildlife investigators. Legend has it that the local wildlife crime officer came round for a friendly chat and a cup of tea, to be met by a small army of lawyers.
Encouragingly, everyone I've spoken to, without hesitation, has said that a) they don't believe the estate is killing raptors, b) if it was, they wouldn't hesitate to report it.

UPDATE 28/1:
I have spent several hours today talking to, as they say, 'sources close to' some of the major players in this. Although I can't name sources, I can say that the picture is becoming clearer.
On the one hand, those involved in fighting wildlife crime are 100% convinced that there's illegal killing of birds of prey going on. They know where, and by implication they're sure they know who's doing it. Putting together a case that would stand up in court is a different matter. Without that, it would be a brave man who took on Dodd and his lawyers. This could explain the Tayside Police's apparent inaction, which in turn has got the RSPB jumping up and down.
Glenogil has, by all accounts, had a phenomenal grouse season in 2009. We're talking thousands of brace, and at getting on for £150 a brace that's serious money. That success is not down to any single activity, but the result of thorough attention to every detail of grouse moor management.
If you look up Glenogil on Google Maps, and look at the hills in 'satellite view', you'll see acre upon acre of an exemplary patchwork of burnt strips providing excellent grouse habitat (zoom in and you can even see the rows of grouse butts).
Probably the single most important factor at Glenogil has been controlling the ticks that attack grouse directly, and also infect them with louping ill. This has been achieved following techniques devised by the GWCT, an organisation that Dodd has strong links to. These techniques include using sheep as 'wool mops' to mop up ticks, which are then killed by sheep dip. Deer and mountain hare control also play a part.
Also involved in the grouse management at Glenogil is Mark Osborne, who has been linked with a number of estates suspected of wildlife crimes in the past. This has meant, rightly or wrongly, he's
become something of a target for those fighting wildlife crime; his involvement is bound to draw attention to the estate.
Interestingly, I'm also hearing mutterings about grouse being bred and released, something that received wisdom says can't be done. If someone has cracked the problems of how to do it, now that would be a story!

UPDATE 14/2:
I came across the following comment on the Raptor Politics blog (home of the provisional wing of the birdwatching fraternity). Interesting point, don't know if it's true or not:
D. McLeod: This sea eagle did not die in August 2009. It died in March 2009, but the RSPB people could not locate the dead bird until they brought in an expert tracker in August 2009.


Alan Tilmouth said...

Mr Dodd's comments that his 'ten staff' working on the estate 'failed to find the dead Sea Eagle' are interesting I note that he declines to comment on their failure to find the poisoned venison cubes placed on fenceposts which presumably may have been more obvious and in their line of sight. The RSPB statement doesn't 'denigrate shooting in general' it states a fact that these poisoned birds continue to turn up in areas on or close to certain large shooting estates. It is this that continues to bring those that shoot and abide by the law into disrepute. Dark conspiracy theories are just that, theories often deliberately circulated to muddy waters.

James Marchington said...

Hi Alan, good to see you back here.

I'm trying hard to keep an open mind on this. Dodd's comments prove nothing one way or the other - guilty or innocent, he'd take the same line.

There are things about this that don't add up. Cubes of poisoned venison on fenceposts doesn't sound to me like the action of a keeper. And no keeper would be stupid enough to do that on his estate's boundary when he could hide it miles up some secluded glen.

Then we have a 'decomposed' eagle from which a path lab was able to give a 100% guarantee it was poisoned. And precisely where it was found, and by whom? I've seen no evidence personally, only media reports.

All this proves nothing one way or the other, except that there are a lot of unanswered questions.

I'm very encouraged by the universal condemnation of poisoning that I've heard from everyone I've spoken to within shooting, but I'm still not satisfied and intend to dig deeper. If any keeper is poisoning birds of prey, I believe we must root them out - and it seems that shooters and keepers feel the same way.

Alan Tilmouth said...

I agree that it the action would either be stupid or complacent, With regard to the decomposition, having spent a deal of time interviewing someone at the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme recently it is the internal organ tissue that matters, so the 'body' may be decomposed but if the organs still have tissue to sample then a result should be obtained.

James Marchington said...

Yes, that would make sense. I wonder if the person who found the eagle did a proper job of gathering evidence at what is essentially a crime scene - there must be something to be learned from the position of the body, effects of weathering, presence of insect larvae etc, which would help to build up a picture beyond the tissue analysis.

Sooty said...

Hi James,pleased to see everyone more or less condemning killing of Sea Eagle as it puts lots of people under suspicion.Can't see Sea Eagles being much of a problem on that estate in particular with all those Grouse.Watched Sea Eagles on Mull quite a lot and except when they have young seem to eat carrion which probably explains why easy to poison.What a pity for everyone that the culprits havent been caught yet but surely in time they will be if all sides are determined.As always impressed by your stance and it must be very helpful even if you are hurt by some comments not very well thought out.

Dan Holdsworth said...

Reading the last update, all I can say is that the entire case has got to be the dodgiest, most suspicious thing I've ever read. A dead bird that snuffs it in March then lies out on the ground is not going to remain a body for long; even if the local estate's fox control is near-perfect that body would be skeletonised in days, and the remaining soft tissues, feathers etc. eaten by things like dermestid beetles inside a month or two.

By August you'd maybe have a skull and a couple of long-bones plus the breastbone left, and then only if there weren't foxes about. More to the point these bones will have been sitting about on the land surface all that time, NOT under controlled conditions and any old prankster could've spiked them with carbofuran in that time for whatever reason (revenge against the business being one of them).

The only conclusion that any sensible person can come to is that any chance of demonstrating poisoning of a raptor has long since fled since the chain of evidence is far too flimsy to stand up in court. Moreover merely suggesting that the Glenogil Estate might have had something to do with it is foolhardy in the extreme, since were I the owner I might take it into my head that I was being libelled and that the persons doing so ought to have their day in court.