Scotland’s Caper Conundrum

Scotland’s capercaillie are in trouble. While long-term declines in capercaillie have been documented across continental Europe and Fennoscandia, the overall European population may now be increasing. However, Scotland’s capercaillies appear locked in a continuing downward spiral. This Caledonian population has been lost before, becoming extinct in 1785 (due principally to catastrophic habitat loss), but a successful reintroduction from Swedish stock in the 1830s led to a temporary recovery. As recently as 1970, around 20,000 birds are thought to have occupied Scotland’s woods. However, from this high point, Scotland’s capercaillie have been experiencing a steady decline. The first systematic survey in the winters of ’92/’93 and ’93/’94 recorded just 2200 birds. In 2012, this population estimate was revised down to 1285 birds. Today, some estimates suggest the number has halved again.

Globally, capercaillie declines are believed to be being driven by habitat loss and intensifying land use. Modern forestry and the intensification of agriculture have been problematic for these disturbance-sensitive birds, as have changes in livestock grazing pressure and increases in browsing by wild ungulates, although the precise mechanisms driving declines remain poorly understood. Added to these factors, capercaillie appear vulnerable to climate change and increases in generalist predators. In Scotland, deer fences are also associated with adult mortality, while disturbance from human recreational activity compounds these problems by further reducing available habitat. Capers (pronounced “cappers” in Scotland) appear caught in a perfect storm.

Capercaillie Framework from the Cairngorms Capercaiile Project

Often these limiting factors and drivers of decline overlap. Wetter springs, linked to anthropogenic climate change, create shortages of insect food – an important source of protein for young chicks – making them more vulnerable to predation. Thus, while predation may be the proximate cause of much caper mortality, the ultimate cause may be habitat degradation, mesopredator release (increases in medium-sized carnivores freed from suppression by exterminated apex predators) and climate change, all linked to human activity. As few as 500 capers may now survive in Scotland, often in isolated subpopulations reduced to a handful of individuals. The question of what is driving their decline is not only academic. It is now an urgent question of life and death, of survival versus local extinction.

You might imagine that such a grave situation would motivate conservationists to pull together, to act with the urgency and decisiveness needed, but instead the Scottish capers’ predicament has brought to a head a larger debate about how Scotland’s wildlife and wild places should best be conserved. Specifically, it has pitched the interventionist approach of traditional conservation against the preferred hands-off, or at least, minimal interventions preferred by rewilders, with the crux of the question being what to do about the pine marten problem.

Pine martens are a medium-sized mustelid, like a super-sized stoat grown to the size of a house cat. They were historically persecuted by gamekeepers, being completely exterminated in England, except for sporadic, isolated reports, and this history of persecution undoubtedly informs much of the concern elicited now by talk of controlling pine martens once again. By the late 20th century, British pine martens were largely confined to a few remote refugia in the North and West of Scotland. However, in recent years they have benefitted from formal protection, staging a slow but steady comeback. Pine martens have also been reintroduced in some areas, including in Dumfries and Galloway, Wales and South-West England. They can now be found across the Highlands and are gradually pushing south and into the borders. But while this is an undoubted conservation success story, the resurgence of these agile generalist predators has also been identified as a potential problem for capers, raising the question of what to do when one protected species threatens another.

This is not a unique situation, and is a symptom of disturbed ecosystems undergoing recovery. The question though, is what to do about it. There is evidence that pine martens are significant nest predators of capercaillie and so removing pine martens might help capers. Conversely, not removing pine martens might mean missing an opportunity to prevent the capers’ demise. Those in favour of removal point to its success in yielding gains for capercaillie in the Pyrenees. More generally, predator culls are a recognised tool in the conservation tool kit, especially when problematic predators are non-native or pose a threat to small, vulnerable populations. But they are also controversial. Many question the ethics of culling programmes that do not have an exit plan. Others question the true efficacy of such culls. Indeed, in the case of capercaillie, there is some evidence that such culls offer only limited, short-term effects in determining population trends.

Against this contested backdrop, NatureScot recently completed a review of which measures might help halt the decline of Scottish capercaillie, concluding that: “predation is a significant contributor to variation in breeding success. Increases in some nest predators (notably the pine marten) in recent years are likely to be contributing to the decline in capercaillie breeding success and hence population size.” The review stopped short of recommending lethal control of what remains a protected species, but concluded that live trapping and removal of pine martens (for translocation) should at least be considered.

Unsurprisingly, this review has stimulated some pushback. The RSPB published a detailed blog, stating that the review was welcome and that they were in broad agreement with much of it, but questioning what they characterised as an “over-emphasis of the importance of evidence underpinning predation and predator control, and under-emphasis of the impacts of climate change and habitat management.” They argue that much of the evidence cited in the report is old, and were at special pains to point out that at the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve, where no predator control has been conducted in recent years, capercaillie breeding numbers appear to be holding steady, even as they have continued to decline almost everywhere else in Scotland. If predators are the key problem, why then, they argue, are capers continuing to disappear from heavily keepered areas of Deeside and Perthshire, while remaining stable in the forests of Abernethy?

It’s an important question, but perhaps also a trifle disingenuous. Not everywhere is Abernethy, contiguous with the hundreds of square kilometres of wild land that make up Cairngorms Connect. In smaller, more isolated habitat patches which yet support small numbers of capercaiilie, predator culls and pine marten removals may offer a means to protect these most vulnerable birds, at least in the short term, until their fragmented habitat islands can be joined up to more extensive tracts of contiguous woodland. However, where there is no plan or prospect of such a possibility, the justification for such measures appears significantly weaker. As Richard Mason, Abernethy Conservation Manager for RSPB Scotland, has noted:

“Predator control has failed to prevent decline of capercaillie across Scotland. We don’t think the solution is to start killing other predator species, but to restore habitats and rebuild more functional predator populations. The return of pine marten, white-tailed eagles and goshawks to our forests is a great success story and the discussion now should be about how to further restore naturally functioning forest ecology, not to dismantle it again.”

Habitat restoration and the recovery of functional ecosystems undoubtedly offers the best long term solution. But in the here and now, there is one other important consideration. If rewilding advocates are too dogmatic in insisting that pine martens are sacrosanct and cannot be interfered with, they risk doing wider damage to their longer term goals. Critics question why rewilders are happy to cull deer, but not predators, to interfere in some ways but not others. Many consider it irresponsible to allow the capercaillie to go extinct again without exploring all the options. In an apparent rebuke of the RSPB’s position, Patrick Laurie expresses a common perception that:

“Several major stakeholders simply don’t want to face this truth. Instead, they persist with the impossibly naïve cliché that “nature will find a way.”

Many who object to and indeed fear Rewilding express the concern that rewilders want to rewild everywhere. But rewilding is not and never will be appropriate everywhere. Context is vital, both in predicting the likely ecological consequences of rewilding action, and in terms of the communities and situations where rewilding might be considered. Showing some flexibility when it comes to managing pine martens might encourage sceptics to believe that rewilders might be trusted to consider context in the future conflicts imagined in the wake of proposed lynx and beaver releases. Ultimately, in the case of isolated, highly vulnerable caper populations, the risk of a non-interventionist ‘Abernethy approach’ is that it could condemn some capercaillie populations to local extinction. And the legacy of that could tarnish the Scottish rewilding movement forever.

The Spellar Bill – bad for wildlife, bad for people

This Friday, the 14th January, Parliament will be asked to vote on a private members bill, the Spellar Bill, seeking to expedite a blanket ban on trophy hunting imports. I have written about this complex issue before (see here, here and here) but it seems that now is crunch time.

If you do nothing else for conservation this year, do this.

Write to your MP – as I have below – and highlight to them how potentially damaging this bill is. Feel free to copy or adapt the text I have used. Encourage them to read articles like these (The Hill, The Guardian), or point them to this Open Letter which will be published on the IUCN website. The premise that banning trophy hunting imports will be good for wildlife is instinctively appealing but the truth is very different. MPs must be informed about how complex this issue is or they are likely to vote this legislation into law. A better option exists. A ‘smart ban’ could outlaw the bad, reward the good and incentivise reform.

This might require more effort to design than a blanket ban, but it might also actually do some good.

Already, the UK’s example on this is being leveraged to create pressure on other countries and so, while some may feel that the immediate impacts of this ban are unlikely to be catastrophic, the longer term impacts could be.

So please, write to your MP now.

* * *

Dear Mr Wishart,


I am a conservationist living in Kirkmichael with many years experience working on carnivore conservation in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. I am writing to you to draw your attention to a private members bill – the Spellar Bill – which will have its second reading this week, seeking to expedite a ban on trophy hunting imports. See: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-02/0089/210089.pdf


Unfortunately, this legislation – as currently proposed – is fundamentally misguided, however well intentioned, and so I, together with over fifty conservation scientists and development practitioners, have composed an Open Letter outlining the problems with such a poorly designed ban and the unintended consequence it risks – see attached.


The essence of our argument is this:

Trophy hunting may be distasteful to many, and is certainly a far from perfect industry. However, the alternatives available at present are worse. It is not credible to suggest that photographic tourism can replace this industry. Existing bed nights are rarely filled, especially in less popular areas which are more profitably used for hunting. It may not even be desirable (given the much larger carbon footprint of photographic tourism and its other negative effects. E.g. the increased risk of introducing alien species (see Antarctica); the increased use of water (due to higher visitor numbers) and even increased harassment of wildlife leading to increased mortality (e.g. cheetahs raise fewer cubs in the Masai Mara in tourist hotspots). This issue is nothing if not complicated!


Simply put, banning trophy hunting (or in the case of the Spellar Bill, undermining the industry by preventing the import of hunting trophies into the UK) at this time, when we have yet to develop viable alternatives, is likely to either have no effect – since relatively few trophy hunters originate in the UK – or a net negative effect on conservation, reducing the amount of land available to wildlife as hunting areas that can no longer attract clients will be converted to agriculture or ravaged by poachers. Such a transition also risks impoverishing communities that depend on sustainably managed hunting to generate income and offset the real costs of living with dangerous wildlife. Banning trophy hunting, however appealing that may seem, would not represent a win for wildlife or people, and will mean the world supports less wildlife, not more.


We believe the campaign agitating for this ban has been stoked by the reckless dissemination of a large amount of misinformation, including much presented to the APPG on banning trophy hunting, about which we are currently compiling a formal complaint.


To further illustrate our point, a recent study (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/threat-analysis-for-more-effective-lion-conservation/45236AADD7F142BC04FFC22E17AFA4A5#figures) identified the main threats to lions (in this order) as follows:


1. Human-lion conflict (often related to livestock killing). Threat score: 21%

2. Bushmeat poaching (eroding the lion’s prey base). Threat score: 21%

3. Small populations (allee effect). Threat score: 14%

4. Cropland expansion (habitat loss). Threat score: 13%

5. Livestock expansion (driving habitat loss, prey loss due to competition for grazing, and conflict): 11%

6. Trophy Hunting: 6%

7. Resource Extraction (e.g. firewood or charcoal collection drives habitat loss while mining operations often drive increases in poaching). Threat score: 5%

8. Other: (Including threats like cultural and political killings, the wildlife trade, infrastructure projects etc.). Threat score: 8%


You can see that trophy hunting is a relatively minor threat, with the threat – such as it is – linked to poor management and excessive harvesting in some (but by no means all) regions. Where some historical examples of such mismanagement have been documented – and continue to be cited by those opposed to any form of hunting – they have in fact now often been reformed.


However, crucially, trophy hunting is not only a threat but is also often a boon to wildlife with this duality rarely appreciated by those without experience on the ground. It is also the ONLY threat which mitigates all the other threats. Thus, where trophy hunting occurs there is less human-lion conflict, less bushmeat poaching, a larger population of lions (because they have more prey and habitat available than they would otherwise), less cropland and livestock expansion and less resource extraction – precisely because the land is being managed for hunting, protecting thousands of other species from habitat loss at the same time. This is why most conservationists consider trophy hunting to offer a net benefit for conservation.


Indeed, land used for hunting protects more habitat than all the national parks in southern Africa combined.


Banning all trophy imports also unfairly targets those communities managing hunting entirely sustainably as well as those mismanaging their wildlife. A blanket ban therefore provides no incentive for good practice.

Furthermore, this Bill’s exclusive focus on trophy imports looks more than a little hypocritical when the UK continues to permit trophy hunting (for deer, feral goats and even wild boar) within the UK, but will now proscribe against it abroad! What exactly is the difference between hunting a kudu in Namibia versus a red deer in Perthshire?!


We appear to be saying: we know how to manage our wildlife but you foreigners don’t know how to manage yours.


Our record, and the woefully impoverished state of British wildlife versus the rich biodiversity carefully protected in countries like Botswana and Namibia – where hunting has long helped to fund their world-leading and globally recognised conservation records – suggests the exact opposite, making this stance all the more absurd on the international stage. 


Rather than a blanket ban, the government could make a positive difference (and avoid accusations of hypocrisy, virtue signaling, and cultural imperialism) if it were to design a ‘smart ban’ specifically targeting bad practice, and banning imports specifically of those species or from those regions where there is evidence that mismanagement is creating a threat, or even where there is no evidence that it is not. The Spellar Bill therefore cannot be passed in its present form but MUST first be amended.


Frankly, it is irresponsible, unjust, and dangerous to say that this is too difficult, or to proceed otherwise.
You would do an enormous service to conservation if you could highlight these issues to the house when the Bill is read out on the 14th.

Let me know if you would like any more information concerning this issue.

Kind regards,

Dr Hugh Webster

Lies, damn lies, and animal rights activists

So, they finally did it. The UK government has confirmed they intend to enact a law banning the import of hunting trophies. The new legislation will mean that hunting trophies may still be collected in the UK, and even exported, but they may no longer be imported. Environment Minister George Useless Eustice explained, “we are appalled at the thought of hunters bringing back trophies”. But hunters can still collect trophies here George, or ship them abroad if they want? I guess Tory Britain’s increasingly hostile environment and dislike of immigrants now extends even to dead animals. However, if the proposed legislation is supported by parliament and becomes law – as appears likely – the government tell us it will be “protecting some of the world’s most endangered and threatened animals – including the frequently killed ‘Big Five’ (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos).”

In reality, a targeted ban might have achieved some of this. But this ban won’t. At all.

As I write this, the last rhinos are being lost from one of Africa’s greatest wilderness – the Okavango. And rhinos are now also disappearing at an alarming rate from Africa’s oldest National Park. Lions have lost 90% of their habitat and face myriad threats where they survive, including the disappearance of their prey, human encroachment and increasing conflict. The forest elephant is now critically endangered, having declined by 86% in 31 years due to poaching and habitat conversion to agriculture. Trophy hunting isn’t to blame for any of this. But it is what the UK government has chosen to take the blame, confusing – or perhaps deliberately conflating – sustainable use and the illegal wildlife trade.

This might be forgivable if the government was acting in good faith, if they thought that such a ban might somehow protect endangered species. But the government knows their ban will do nothing of the sort. They know this because they held a lengthy consultation on this ban. Numerous highly qualified and exceptionally experienced conservationists from African conservation projects contributed evidence to this consultation – although none were actually invited to present evidence directly to the all party parliamentary group set up to examine the issue. One wonders why not.

These conservation scientists explained to MPs that trophy hunting does not threaten populations of endangered African wildlife and that land set aside for hunting is in fact supporting growth in populations of lions, elephants and giraffes in countries where these animals are still permitted to be hunted. Trophy hunters pay big bucks and those dollars fund a lot of conservation. A hunter might shoot one bull elephant, but the money he pays to do that funds protection of enough land to protect hundreds of elephants. Quid pro quo. Millions of quid actually. Take the hunter and his money away – money that funds anti-poaching patrols and community development – and you inevitably start seeing more poachers, more habitat loss, fewer elephants and a lot less other wildlife. Of course, trophy hunting is imperfect. It has sometimes been poorly regulated, it is linked to corruption in places and it doesn’t always trickle down nearly enough funds to the communities it claims to support. But this ban won’t change any of that.

Is trophy hunting nice? No. Does it protect wildlife and wild habitats? Yes. Are there any alternatives out there right now? No. Or at least, none that equally serve to protect the huge tracts of visually unremarkable bush country that hunters frequent and other tourists shun. How do we know this? Well, Botswana recently tried a hunting ban. Following the ban, most of its old hunting areas were left unoccupied. Botswana’s booming wildlife tourism businesses ignored them because there is no market for visiting these unappealing areas. Sure, they are okay for hunting in. And yes, they are vital wildlife corridors linking more popular protected areas. But nobody wants to pay to go there and take photos. And without any funds (or meat) being generated by regulated hunting, local people understandably begin to view wildlife as more of a problem. After Botswana’s hunting ban, human-elephant conflict was reported more often and poaching increased. If hunting was banned more widely, the consequences for livelihoods and biodiversity conservation would likely be severe.

So, the UK government understands that trophy hunting – unpalatable though it is to most of us and beset as it is with a number of problems – is nonetheless currently supporting the protection of more than half the wild habitat left in sub-Saharan Africa. And they know that it is also popular with the communities in Africa who live alongside that wildlife and who benefit from the hunters’ money. The UK government know these things because more than a hundred prominent conservation scientists and NGOs working on the ground in Africa signed a letter explaining these facts, including the IUCN, Wildlife Conservation Society, Cheetah Conservation Botswana, the Zambian Carnivore Programme, Panthera, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia, the Niassa Carnivore Project in Mozambique, and the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania . And they know this because community leaders from across Africa signed another letter explaining it to them again.

Following independence, our governments restored our rights and integrated wildlife into rural economies.  This enabled the development of socio-economic incentives to live with and sustainably manage our wildlife. Whilst it varies nationally, up to 90% of these economic incentives are provided through sustainable, regulated hunting. This has led, in Southern African countries such as ours, to increasing wildlife populations and habitat, often even beyond formally protected areas, in stark contrast to most Western countries.

We acknowledge that banning wildlife trophy imports into foreign countries is within the right of those governments. We further recognize that regulated hunting may appear a counter-intuitive conservation strategy to many. Yet if your objective is conservation –  not solely the recognition of individual animal rights – import bans are misguided and have important implications for our human rights. We are concerned that hundreds of millions of dollars have been gobbled up in misleading animal rights campaigns without any benefit for the custodians of African wildlife – African people. Banning trophy imports risks significantly reducing the value of our wildlife, reducing incentives to tolerate and manage wildlife as an integral component of our livelihoods. Imposing such disastrous policies on us negates our sound conservation record. Once again, wildlife numbers will plummet and our rights to sustainably manage our natural resources will again be undermined.

Ishmael Chaukura 
CAMPFIRE Inter-ward Chairperson – Mbire District, Zimbabwe

As news of the UK government’s proposed law emerged, Save the Rhino International tweeted:

These points have been made again and again. But the British government isn’t bothered. Perhaps they hoped the proposed ban would be popular enough at home to distract media attention from the latest Covid Christmas party revelations. Certainly, when the Conservatives tweet-announced their ban, responses were divided along clear lines between confused members of the public in favour of a law they imagined might protect endangered species from the illegal wildlife trade and dismayed experts decrying the unintended consequences of a poorly thought out law. But we have been here before. Experts have never fared well under this government. The Tory government likes to claim to be science led, but only when it suits.

This time, it has ignored all the evidence and chosen instead to listen to the lies and misrepresentations of a small cohort of fanatical animal rights activists and celebrity cheerleaders who have the ear of Mr Johnson’s wife. The lies they told are a matter of record, revealing astonishing ignorance or breathtaking mendacity, but it hasn’t mattered. Trophy hunting is about as popular with the UK public as a Christmas Covid lockdown, and this has never been a government interested in the right thing – only the popular thing. They’ve rarely appeared interested in facts – only jingoistic bravado. And with this ban, that now familiar “world-leading” bravado has been on full display.

“This would be one of the toughest bans in the world, and goes beyond our manifesto commitment, meaning we will be leading the way in protecting endangered animals and helping to strengthen and support long-term conservation.”

George Eustice, Environment Secretary

If only that were true.

PS the Govt also claims their ban will somehow protect 7000 of the world’s most threatened species. Here’s Nikolaj Bichel explaining why it can’t and won’t.

Beavers gain temporary reprieve

European beaver (Castor fiber) swimming across Forest Lochan, Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Credit: Scotland the Big Picture

News broke on Thursday that Trees for Life had won their legal case concerning the fate of Scotland’s wild beavers. Beavers became extinct in Scotland as far back as the 16th century but were released into Knapdale as part of a small official trial back in 2009. Meanwhile, another population of beavers – the “free” beavers of Tayside – has grown from accidental or illegal releases at one or more points over the last two decades, with the population exceeding 1000 animals by 2020, spreading up to Glen Isla in the north and Crianlarich in the west. So, beavers have been back for a while, keeping busy as beavers do, but until recently they have kept a relatively low profile, even as their population gradually expanded and the first murmurings of discontent began to be heard from farmers in the Tay catchment, upset that beavers were eroding river banks or flooding prime agricultural land.

Tayside supports some of Scotland’s most fertile farmland and these “free” beavers could hardly have turned up in a more controversial catchment. In recent years, beavers have begun to be killed, shot corpses floating down the Tay and washing up on beaches and riverbanks. Wildlife lovers were horrified. Farmers were unrepentant. But then, following various studies and reports, Scottish Ministers decided that both of these populations of beavers (the few official ones and the growing number of unofficial ones) should be protected, and that all these Scottish beavers should be recognised as a European protected species (“EPS”) with effect from 1st May 2019.

That was not the end of the story however. Despite their official protection, beavers continued to be killed, with the only difference being that now they were being killed under license. Lots of them. In just 8 months in 2019, immediately after receiving ostensible legal protection, 87 beavers were killed under license. In 2020, 115 beavers were killed, again all under license, and again, all on Tayside. Unofficial persecution of an illegal resident had seemingly been replaced with legalised culls of an officially protected species. Plus ca change.

Except that things are changing. As part of a growing pattern in the UK, the environmental sector moved to take the authorities to court to force them to meet what they – and much of the public – feel is their statutory duty to protect our natural environment. In this case, Scottish rewilding charity Trees for Life was the petitioner, with funds raised for the case via a successful crowdfunding appeal. NatureScot (previously Scottish Natural Heritage before their “unpretentious” publicly funded rebrand) were named as the “first respondent” in the case, with NFU Scotland and Scottish Land Estates Ltd (SLE) named as the third and fourth respondents, “to represent the interests of those who hold such licences, the great majority of whom are members of one of the two organisations.”

The battle lines had been drawn and, after months of waiting, victory was declared this week by Trees for Life. However, it didn’t take long before voices on social media began pointing out that the victory was not as clearcut as the Trees for Life press release made out. So, what exactly has been decided? And where does all this legal wrangling leave the beavers?

According to the official court record, Trees for Life sought to claim that “the first respondent (NatureScot) has a de facto policy or practice of granting licences for the lethal control of the population of Eurasian beavers in Scotland without due and proper consideration of the necessity and proportionality of issuing a licence in each individual case. The claim is based on the contents of internal guidance and published policies of the first respondents, and on the content of call logs, emails, and site reports relating to 21 licences.” (My italics)

In other words, Trees for Life alleged that NatureScot have not been exploring all the possible mitigation measures that might have avoided the need for beavers to be killed, as they believe the law requires under the Conservation Regulations 1994 (SI 1994/2716) (“the 1994 Regulations”) as amended by Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc) Regulations 2019 (SSI 2019/64). And there are lots of well established mitigation measures available, from the use of clever “beaver deceivers” to control flooding, to the still unused option of translocation to other sites within Scotland which NatureScot’s own analysis shows supports 120,390 ha of woodland suitable for beaver use.

Specifically – and the details are sadly important – Trees for Life sought to establish that NatureScot:

(a) failed to interpret and apply the 1994 Regulations correctly, and in accordance with the requirements of EU law;

(b) was not entitled to take into account a document entitled Beaver Licence Assessments – Prime Agricultural Land (“the PAL Assessment”);

(c) failed to give reasons for granting licences;

(d) had a blanket policy of granting licences for lethal control where applications related to PAL, and failed to consider the individual circumstances of each application; and

(e) should have reviewed and revoked the licences that it had granted authorising lethal control.

In settling the case, Lady Carmichael judged that “only one of these complaints is well-founded” noting that “the first respondent failed to give reasons for granting licences. It is a requirement of EU law that reasons be given when licences of this sort are granted.” Thus, it appears that point c) has been judged to be the only “well-founded” complaint, although to my layman’s eyes, a simple application of logic suggests this fact also appears to support point a).

Certainly the ruling has allowed both sides to spin their own narratives of success. NatureScot announced:

“We welcome the Court’s decision which, for the most part, vindicates our licensing approach. We have been successful on all points of law except that we should have issued written reasons with each licence to explain why it had been granted. We will be reviewing this carefully over the coming days to ensure the finding of the Court is reflected in our licensing approach.

Of the five complaints under consideration by the Court, four were rejected entirely. The Court found only one complaint to be well founded – not issuing written reasons with licenses – on what amounts to a technical point of law. Most importantly, the criticism of our underlying licensing decisions was entirely rejected by the court.”

Predictably, Trees for Life had a different take, noting the “wide-ranging implications” of the case and stating:

“From here on in there can be no more rubber-stamping of licensed killing of beavers. This is an important victory for accountability and transparency, which will benefit everyone including conservationists and farmers.

Lady Carmichael’s ruling applies to all European protected species in the UK, and so has wide-ranging implications for wildlife.

Now that beavers cannot be killed under license without a full explanation of the reasons, NatureScot needs to rethink its approach to beaver management. Trees for Life says the killing of beavers should only ever be a last resort, and is calling for beavers to be relocated to areas of Scotland where they have been missing for centuries, instead of being shot.”

Despite NatureScot’s posturing, it is apparent that this judgement reflects more than a “technical point of law”. It also appears clear that the battle of Scotland’s beavers is far from settled. Crucially, before granting a licence, the 1994 Regulations stipulate that the appropriate nature conservation body (NatureScot) “must be satisfied that there is no satisfactory alternative, and that the action authorised will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the population of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range.”

However, the court noted that pursuing a policy of translocating protected beavers would itself require a license and, rather confusingly given the 1994 Regulations stated above, appeared to suggest there was no onus on NatureScot to necessarily choose one derogation over another when seeking to mitigate conflict with farmers, and that further, Trees for Life’s complaint was based on “a mistaken interpretation of the 1994 Regulations”. Go figure.

The likely next step will be for NatureScot to seek ways to justify lethal control within its reasoning for granting licenses, setting the scene for a future legal battle as these measures are likely to be challenged unless they include proper consideration of the perfectly viable option of translocations. Whether and when NatureScot decide to finally endorse such translocations, sparing the public purse any further drain fighting the otherwise inevitable judicial reviews and themselves further embarrassment, remains to be seen.

Beavers may have gained a temporary reprieve, but they aren’t out of the woods yet.


Licensing driven grouse shooting – a way it might work

You’ve probably caught wind by now of the golden eagle poisoned earlier this year on the Invercauld Estate. Sadly, this terrible crime is only the latest such incident in this raptor persecution blackspot. See here for a (very) long and deeply depressing list of other incidents recorded in the Cairngorms National Park since the park was established, and then remember that this list only details the cases we know about – what professional investigators assert is only the tip of a much larger iceberg of cryptic criminality.

Remember also that the Cairngorms population of golden eagles and other raptors remains well below its carrying capacity, with many territories remaining unoccupied, despite those birds which do manage to breed producing more fledglings than average. All these young eagles seemingly fly the nest and then just vanish into a black hole. Those wearing satellite tags blink out suddenly. The rest simply disappear. The only clue to their fate remains the predictable location of their disappearances, on and around the infamous grouse shooting estates of the Central and Eastern Grampian mountains.

Apart from the number of these incidents and the variety of birds of prey targeted, the other thing that should strike you is that almost all of these incidents have failed to result in a prosecution. Nationwide, birds are caught in traps, nesting trees are felled, poison baits are recovered, jars of poison are found in estate sheds and videos are captured of men in balaclavas shooting birds out of the sky or battering them to death in cage traps, but it rarely adds up to enough evidence to prosecute an individual.

Collecting enough evidence to convict someone of a crime carried out in secrecy in remote corners of quiet estates remains virtually impossible.

In fact, nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for killing a golden eagle in Scotland – a fact cherished by those who suggest disingenuously that low or declining rates of prosecution suggest in some sense that rates of criminality are low or declining. Rape convictions are also at a record low, but nobody believes these crimes aren’t happening or are going away. The problem is the same – collecting enough proof to secure a conviction. And while in a rape case, it is often the victim’s word against the accused, in wildlife persecution cases we don’t even have that. We just have dead animals and a wall of silence.

Clearly, current laws aren’t working.

What can we do about this? Optimists might argue for ways to educate the criminals, hoping to appeal to their better natures and professed love of wildlife. Such hopeful partnerships have proliferated in recent years. Invercauld Estate is itself a member of the Eastern Cairngorms Moorland Partnership (ECMP), a partnership between six contiguous estates and the park authority whose stated collective aim is to “enhance raptor and other priority species conservation”. So much for partnerships.

But if carrots aren’t working, what about sticks? Politicians have attempted to ramp up the legal pressure on the criminal elements in the shooting industry, including since 2007: the introduction of vicarious liability; a poisons disposal scheme; restrictions on licences for those operating on land where it is suspected that wildlife crime has taken place; and additional resources for Police Scotland to tackle wildlife crime. Last year tougher penalties came into force for those convicted of involvement in animal fighting, causing unnecessary suffering to animals or committing serious crimes against wildlife. But none of this has helped, because (with the exception of restrictions on licenses for which there is a lower evidential bar) the fundamental problem – that these crimes and their perpetrators are almost impossible to detect – remains. In all likelihood, the poisoner responsible for the dead golden eagle found on the Invercauld Estate will similarly escape prosecution.

This then is the backdrop against which the SNP finally lost patience with the grouse shooting industry last year and announced their intention to introduce a licensing scheme. But what might this look like and could it really work? It is not hard to envision how the scheme could help tackle some of the environmentally damaging practices associated with grouse moor management, including damage to peatlands caused by inappropriate burning, but it is harder to imagine how licensing might finally tackle the scourge of raptor persecution. Some have suggested the government should introduce radical new measures, such as unannounced spot checks with specialist detection dogs and the widespread use of covert surveillance equipment by an elite team of specialist investigators, all paid for by hefty licence registration fees. But gamekeepers would surely just hide their poison stashes better and how many surveillance teams would be needed to monitor the whole Grampian range?

The RSPB has laid out some other options available to legislators in seeking to tackle raptor persecution, suggesting law-makers could: address some of the issues around the difficulty of collecting evidence and prosecuting individuals by looking again at the admissibility of video evidence or widening single witness provisions; further tighten and more rigorously pursue vicarious liability provisions; and encourage police to make greater use of powers to withhold firearms licences to individuals working in areas where wildlife crimes are being perpetrated while also linking licences to a “fit and competent” register from which individuals might be barred for life.

Fundamentally however, illegal killing cannot be made more illegal.

All of these measures could and perhaps should be deployed, but they all rely to one extent or another on the detection of these incredibly hard-to-detect crimes. A lot of people think licensing is therefore doomed to fail and are already pushing for government to commit to a total ban should this prove to be the case, but I actually do not think this would be a good thing. Although I am no fan of driven grouse shooting, I believe a ban would do tremendous and perhaps irreparable damage to relations between land managers and conservation organisations, setting back wider hopes relating to rewilding, biodiversity recoveries and coexistence with reintroduced wildlife. Angry and embittered individuals – some put out of a job and even made homeless by any such driven grouse shooting ban – will likely continue to persecute wildlife, adhering to the same old shoot, shovel and shut up mentality. Dead beavers and dead eagles would continue to appear (and disappear), while law-makers would be left with no levers left to pull.

There is also no reason why a responsibly run estate might not be a haven for wildlife.

Some estates, arguably, already are. This is why I think the licensing scheme should take a different approach, shifting the burden of proof onto estates to demonstrate that they are working with nature rather than against it. Let me explain. Raptor persecution is just one example of a wider problem, the issue of human-wildlife conflict. Such conflict occurs worldwide, wherever human interests conflict with the presence of wildlife. Conservationists have spent years seeking ways and means to mitigate such conflict, focusing for a long time on ways to reduce the apparent source of conflict. Where predation impacts on livelihoods, means have been sought to reduce rates of predation with measures such as predator-proof enclosures for livestock, diversionary feeding programmes and compensation schemes for losses. But experience has slowly taught us that the issue is often not solely or even mainly about money. Instead, tolerance of predators represents a cultural threat that many communities find difficult to reconcile with long-established local traditions, social norms and even political identity.

While compensation has proven unsuccessful in promoting tolerance for wildlife again and again, and law enforcement often struggles to identify and convict those illegally persecuting wildlife, an alternative approach has met with greater success. So-called performance payments reward communities for demonstrating that they are coexisting with wildlife, with documented records of successful breeding of target species resulting in cash rewards.

A similar approach might be used to incentivise tolerance of raptors on grouse moors, but instead of cash payments the licensing scheme could operate on a points basis.

Each year an estate would need to apply for a license to sell days of driven shooting, with licenses awarded only when an estate could prove it had met the requirements necessary to add up to a set minimum number of points. For example, points could be awarded if the estate could demonstrate that it hosted nesting pairs of eagles or hen harriers, and/or was recovering (or just protecting) desirable habitats like upland bogs or particular plant communities, while points could be taken away if there was a recorded incident of raptor persecution or the muirburn code was breached. Some allowance would need to be made for the size of estate, with small estates awarded more points for nests than large ones, but I think with a bit of tweaking a system might be devised that rewarded good estates and punished the bad ones. What do you think?