Saturday, 26 January 2019

BLOG: WHY THE SGA WILL NOT STOP CALLING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY FOR SATELLITE TAGS



Angus eagle with tag visible below the neck.
Reactions to Friday's media story make it apparent that those presently in ownership of satellite tags aim to resist calls for them to be deployed in a more transparent and accountable way and to have them monitored independently.
It can perhaps be understood why such transparency may be resisted. Tag ownership provides those deploying it with publicity and political leverage, without the requirement of a standard of evidence normally expected for accusations of criminality.
For avoidance of doubt the SGA will never refrain from calling for greater accountability over the use of sat tags and independent monitoring of what they show.
Satellite tags can, when used in a collaborative manner and with appropriate data sharing/ownership arrangements, offer useful conservation benefits and insights. The SGA is not advocating stopping using them.
However, as an organisation, the SGA believes they are now being deployed for a very different reason. The organisation also believes that the statistical significance of tag failures, re-appearances of tagged birds, the number of birds and tags that are not recovered even when no criminality is suspected (a quarter of the 'suspicious tags' in SNH's satellite tagged eagle report were recorded away from grouse moors yet these tags were never found) makes the case robust for independent analysis of what they are telling us.
There is a need for evidence, not interpretations of evidence, particularly when countryside matters can be divisive with often conflicting interests. It is also concerning that SNH holds no data from the many tags currently in operation.
The SGA will not stop calling for accountability and transparency, therefore, because it believes it is right and reasonable to do so.
The SGA made it clear that, if greater transparency means a greater ability and likelihood of bringing criminal cases to court, then that openness should be in the interests of all seeking to tackle wildlife crime.
Authorities must decide, going forward, whether they regard this to be of value.

Below is testimony of a gamekeeper from one of the estates questioned over the loss of transmission from the tag of the Hen Harrier reported as missing in Angus, as referenced in the original SGA story on Friday 25th January. Until recent communication, local estates have had the burden of criminal suspicion hanging over them.

"When the story came out, the Police came to the estate and said what had happened with the tag stopping. I offered to get a team to help with the search. We were told that wouldn't be necessary. I was then told we would hear what was happening, probably by the end of the week. That didn't happen. I called the Police 7 or 8 times afterwards to see what the latest was but never got an answer or a call back.
"It was only when the Police came back to ask about something else that I got a chance to ask about the missing Hen Harrier. I was told 'oh, that pinged back up again and re-appeared'.
The understanding was that the bird had been spotted in North Perthshire.

When the gamekeeper in question asked why no one had told him this before and why something had not been put in the paper to clarify that point, he was told that it was not the role of the Police to do so.

Update: Attempts by a blog (with the sole aim of banning grouse shooting) to undermine the veracity of the SGA's stance on satellite tags fail to address the simple, key issue of accountability and transparency which would clear up the many issues regarding tags.

This morning, Police Scotland acknowledged in communications with a freelance journalist that the reasons for the loss of submission from the tag fitted to the Hen Harrier in question remains unexplained; the classification for this stemming from an acknowledgement within Police Scotland that there can be a number of reasons why tags lose transmission.






Friday, 25 January 2019

SGA CALLS FOR SATELLITE TAG ACCOUNTABILITY

An eagle in Angus photographed with a tag dangling below its head.  Pics by Mike Groves.

Angus eagle with dislodged tag, clearly visible.

Scotland’s gamekeepers are calling for accountability regarding satellite tags fitted to wildlife.
The call comes after The Scottish Gamekeepers Association learned that a tagged Hen Harrier, reported as disappearing ‘suspiciously’ in Angus last May, was re-sighted in Perthshire afterwards, according to investigators *.
Anti-grouse moor campaigners who owned the tag’s data publicly blamed the grouse industry, urging Scottish Government to license the sector.
However, no media statements were issued to correct the accusations, leaving local estate employees living with the burden of criminal suspicion.
The SGA has also learned of a sea eagle currently flying around Grampian with a tag dangling from its body, potentially endangering its welfare.
The female sea eagle, pegged with yellow wing markings and the letter ‘E’, has been spotted by concerned land managers.
In recent times, four golden eagles have also been independently photographed in the Angus glens with displaced tags; one clearly hanging from a bird’s neck.
Another eagle was observed in Perthshire last week with the bird’s feathers completely obscuring the tag; something manufacturers acknowledge will distort readings.
Gamekeepers believe tags are now being deployed by campaigners as political weapons, aware there is no independent scrutiny.
Whilst the SGA is not advocating a ban, they believe Scottish Government must act to make fitting and monitoring of the devices accountable.
An FOI to Scottish Natural Heritage by SGA revealed that the heritage body currently holds no information from satellite tags in Scotland, despite hundreds being operational.
Similarly, tag reliability cannot be independently verified as there is no duty for tag owners to disclose information regarding malfunction.
“At the moment, satellite tags are like the wild west,” said SGA Chairman Alex Hogg. “Anyone with funding can buy one, have it fitted to a protected bird, and retain its data. They can then release interpretations to the media, if the tag stops. We saw this with the choreographed ‘Fred the Eagle’ case near Edinburgh, which remains unexplained despite a concerted attempt to finger a grouse moor.
“Although tag fitters are approved, we have seen basic ‘granny knots’ used to fit tags and we have just heard of two tagged Harriers in Perthshire being killed by foxes within three days, with only one tag and body recovered. A tagged adult Harrier lost on National Trust ground this year was never found, neither was its tag, and a predated youngster was only discovered by chance. These are stories the public never hear and it is a shame they have to come out behind a veil of secrecy.
“Despite claims these devices are almost infallible, failure rates and unexplained loss are high and there have been numerous examples of lost birds turning up alive or birds re-appearing miles or days from last tag signals.
“If this information was held independently, all this could be scrutinised transparently by experts and the relevant authorities could act accordingly.”
Late last year the SGA commissioned a legal opinion of SNH’s report into the fates of satellite tagged golden eagles, a paper which sparked the present review of grouse shooting.
The opinion, authored by QC Ronald Clancy, made a strong case for independent scrutiny of tags as the report relied entirely on manufacturer data for its conclusions.
“The present tagging system gives rise to accusation but no prosecutions. 
“If tags are to be used to identify crime then the information must be held independently so it may lead to court action.
“If independent data monitoring makes things more difficult for people committing wildlife crime, that surely is in everyone’s interest,” added SGA Chairman Alex Hogg.

*The SGA learned of the re-sighting of the bird in Perthshire through one of the estates questioned following the original accusation. The estate were later told by those investigating the case that the bird had subsequently been re-sighted in Perthshire. The SGA, rightly, has no investigative function but the organisation has no substantive reason to doubt the estate, or the information forwarded by those involved in investigating the case.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

SGA WILL CHALLENGE FOX HUNTING PROPOSALS

The results of one evening of fox predation at a woodland edge.
Earlier today (9th Jan) Scottish Government announced proposals to alter fox hunting legislation in Scotland.
Of principal interest to SGA members who rely on foot packs as the only effective and humane way to control foxes in dense forestry blocks, Scottish Government appear to have departed from Lord Bonomy's views in their commissioned Review (see below) and have stated that they will limit the number of hounds which can be used to flush foxes to 2.
Minister Mairi Gougeon said that a licensing scheme was being considered which could permit more hounds to be used for legitimate pest control.
The SGA is to seek discussions with other countryside groups who require packs of trained dogs for legitimate fox control in order to ensure a robust challenge to any proposals which might limit the ability for foot packs to operate effectively in Scotland, something which will have serious consequences for threatened wildlife and valuable farm stock.
SGA Chairman Alex Hogg said:"We will be seeking talks with farmers tomorrow. If any proposed licensing system makes it onerous for fox control with pack operations in dense woodland, vital foot packs for legitimate pest control will just give up.
"Scotland has one of the highest fox densities in Europe. We say, on one hand, we want to save the Curlew, then do this. Maybe this shows where priorities lie. It is another nail for important rural industries and rare ground-nesting wildlife that Scotland has a global responsibility to protect."Reducing the ability to control foxes in forestry will be a disaster for wildlife and farm stock. Two hounds will simply not work. It’s a totally ineffective tool. We are already seeing Forestry Commission denying people access to woods for legitimate fox control because it has become too political. This will pave the way for a complete lock-down and is poorly thought through."I think there is a growing awakening amongst rural workers that they are becoming political bargaining chips and I think we can expect a very strong reaction to this."

Lord Bonomy stated in his Review of fox hunting legislation, commissioned by Scottish Government, that using two dogs could 'seriously compromise effective pest control'.