Red Kites are a magnificent sight around Conon Bridge near Dingwall. Or rather they were. It’s unusual now to spot one of these birds, flying I mean not crumpled up in a wood, despite the area being chosen for breeding them as part of the reintroduction programme of the late eighties. The recent crop of some 20 raptors found deliberately poisoned in the vicinity has turned attention to the owners of gaming estates and the gamekeepers employed on them. Only a few short months ago David Hendry, a former chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, complained that Buzzards were ‘out of control’ and should be culled to protect other wildlife. What’s concerning gamies and their employers is the decline in the numbers of grouse bagged by punters paying for a day’s sport.
Definition of sport with a tweed cap
Google sport and Scotland and you’ll bring up sporting estates. Scotland has lots of them. We’re not talking sport as in running, jumping or swimming but more of a gentle stroll over a heather muir pausing occasionally to take pot shots at birds released through a handy range of means for ease of killing; driven, semi-driven and walked up. No point in frustrating the paying punter or influential house guest.
If you are something in the City with buckshee cash in your back pocket to the value of £7m+ you might consider buying a piece of Scotland. You’d expect something pretty fancy for that outlay and that’s just what you would get.
Estates (of houses) in England are equivalent to schemes in Scotland. Here an estate is something altogether different
Newtonmore is a pretty attractive area as the description in Country Life makes out in a piece selling the virtues of an opportunity to buy A Superb Highland Estate: stunning and accessible location within an hour of an international airport. There’s a 7-bedroom castle included – albeit a touch on the modern side but the pièce de résistance is surely its
“renowned deer forest and grouse moor. Excellent low ground pheasant shooting and duck flighting. Exciting wild goat shooting. Salmon fishing rights on the River Spey and the River Calder and wild brown trout in the hill lochs.”
Have I missed out any living breathing creature that’s not, well fair game for annihilation while whiling away a pleasant afternoon outdoors? – our rude natives possibly might have been available for a chase at one time but hey, we’re in the 21st century now so there are laws against native abuse. There are laws to protect birds of prey as well but …
Sporting estates -for the hunting of game – a concept synonymous with Scotland. The term game = a sport or activity engaged in for amusement.
Game therefore is a wild animal that can be eaten but is first chased and harried by a human using a powerful instrument against which the animal has little to no chance of escape.
I might not be so hostile to taking wild animals for food if the person tracking down the creature relied on matching their wit and initiative with that of the beast. Of course that would give the animal too much of an advantage. Sporting estates like to make it very easy for punters in tweeds to feel that thrill of success in having overcome a ‘wild animal’ or tweety birdy bred for the purpose and so tailor the exercise according to the punter hunter’s experience. It’s not that these blood lusting types are looking to bag something for the pot – that is incidental. After all there is Waitrose for that. No, game is well, what it says on the hide or tail, a bit of fun albeit involving death inflicted by a person armed to the teeth against a creature that is not.
Hunting as sport
Making money from hiring out sporting rights became popular in the 19th century. Why in Scotland this anachronism still exists is something more people are questioning.
It is as if Scotland occupies parallel universes: a nation with highly sought-after engineering skills from our oil and gas industries and a throwback tradition straight out of Brigadoon down to the hairy tweed knickerbockers and daft hats.
Restrictions over who could take wild animals from the land changed over centuries. It was once established that you had the right to kill game when you owned a ploughgate of land in heritage – the amount of land able to be tilled by one plough. The owner of such a piece of land could give permission for others to hunt on it, if suitably licensed. Where land was leased to a tenant, the owner could permit other people to hunt on it as long as the tenant was compensated for damage to crops or stock. The tenant could kill rabbits on the land he worked but not game.
In the 1830s poaching of game such as muirfowl, ptarmigan, heath-fowl, partridge and pheasant was liable to a fine of £5 for every bird taken, killed or found in person’s possession etc. That is equivalent to around £3,500 today. The fine had to be paid within 10 days on penalty of two months imprisonment for each £5 fine. In other words courts/lairds had no sympathy with any hungry person hoping to feed his family with a stewed partridge, not when there was sport to be indulged in.
Unlawful possession of hares, partridges, pheasants, muirfowl, ptarmigans, heathfowl, snipes, quails merited a fine of 20 shillings (£2) – over £1,000 today for the first offence – 40 shillings for every other- so someone caught with a bagful of birds was liable to being fined an enormous amount. Failure to pay fines called for imprisonment of 6 weeks for a first charge and three months for each subsequent charge.
Night poaching of hares, pheasants, partridges, muir game, black game or bustards was punishable by 3 months hard labour with release only on a promise not to repeat the offence within a year. If poaching was resumed within that time the person was jailed for 6 months hard labour – and with each subsequent offence the term of imprisonment would be doubled with transportation overseas for seven years for repeated offences.
Anyone found carrying an offensive weapon for hunting faced seven years imprisonment with hard labour or 14 years transportation.
The thrill of the kill- the more exotic the greater the joy
The Prince shoots an owl at the fourth attempt
Aberdeen Journal Wednesday 15 September 1847
“Prince Albert had then bagged seven and a-half brace of grouse, a hare and an owl. Minerva’s bird was caught napping. The first shot missed, but the owl slept on; the second shot, also, was thrown away, but the sleepy-headed bird wakened, and gazed round with a stupid, bewildered look. The Prince was equally unlucky with the third shot, and the poor bird, fancying the repeated noises were only harmless pops, dropped its head and dozed on. At the fourth shot the bird fell from its perch.
His Royal Highness and the gentlemen who were with him, on meeting her Majesty and Lady Jocelyn, at once gave up their sport, and mounting their ponies, returned over the hill to the lake, where the royal barge was in waiting, with the crew at their cars.”
Supported by the law any individual could blast birds to smithereens to their heart’s content, the rarer or more magnificent the species the greater the thrill of destroying it, just because one could.
In 1802 two ‘gentlemen’ were happily engaged on a shooting spree around Moffat when a ‘large beautiful young eagle sprang from one of the rocks.’ One of the men ‘happened to have a ball in one of his barrels’- he was slaughtering deer at the time – and grasped the opportunity to fire at the eagle, killing it. Fair chuffed he was. I expect that man lived off the tale of his thrilling encounter with the king of the skies for many a year.
A Glossy Ibis shot at Banchory raised a mention in the Aberdeen Journal in November 1842 as it was the first recorded shooting dead of a Glossy Ibis in Scotland and coincidentally the first recorded sighting of a Glossy Ibis in Scotland. The unfortunate bird had flown onto the Loch of Leys near Banchory where a nasty piece of work in the guise of the Rev. Anderson of Banchory was loitering gun in hand ready to take pot shots at any bird straying into his sights.
Sound familiar? The first white-tailed eagle to fledge in Scotland in 200 years flew from Fife to the Glenbuchat Estate in Strathdon earlier this year at which point some bastard stopped it dead.
It is the habit of young Eagles when fledged to be sent away from the nest to a hunting ground of their own and the reason they aren’t found in flocks. Young eagle chicks are fed on freshly killed food while mature birds mainly exist on carrion so feed when they can and fast when there’s nothing lying around. The assumption by some gamekeepers and farmers is that birds of prey are eating significant numbers of their young stock. This is not true but do dinosaurs have ears?
The case of the Banchory Glossy Ibis was set in context by the newspaper report along the lines of – unusual visiting bird spotted, remarked upon then summarily executed. Around the same time it was noted that Ospreys were particular favourites with sportsmen with several shot on the Don and Ythan rivers and a Honey Buzzard was taken out near Braemar. Peregrine Falcons nesting in the cliffs at Cove by Aberdeen, Dotterels at Strathdon and Towie, Little Terns at Belhelvie sands and a flock of Velvet Ducks were all regarded as fair game.
The magnificence and unusual nature of such birds did not escape the Aberdeen Journal writer who was at pains to stress how more such birds ought to be killed, treasures he described them, which might then be displayed in museums so that others might ‘foster a taste for such pursuits among the inhabitants of our city,‘ and so doubtless encourage them to travel into the country where they too might shoot several rare birds out of the sky. Hurrah I say.
In April 1914 Seton Gordon’s book on The Mountain Birds of Scotland was published. Gordon knew his birds. He wrote about the Erne or White-tailed Eagle that lived in the cliffs along the west coast of Scotland and how until the middle of the 19th century every headland of Skye could boast a pair of these ‘fine birds’ nesting.
He commented on the terrible harrying of Eagles by egg collectors and ‘the keeper’s gun’ which helped wipe out or endangered so many species along with nests raided and eggs smashed. Early last century £2 exchanged hands for anyone handing over an Eagle’s egg.
By 1912 Eagles were scarce in Perthshire. When in early December of that year a huge Eagle, estimated at 4-5 feet long and showing a lot of white was spotted ‘an organised effort’ was made to ‘effect its capture.’
By 1925 there were warnings over the danger of extinction of the Golden Eagle – destined to go the same way as the White-tailed and Osprey already wiped out in Scotland.
Aside from egg collectors and the rifle, trapping was also a cause of dramatic losses of their number. Whether through intent or not many magnificent birds were caught in traps usually set for foxes. Eagles being relatively strong were sometimes reported flying off with a trap attached. The outcome was predictable. Traps would become entangled in tree branches and the bird would starve to death.
A White-tailed or Sea Eagle was spotted in the island of Yell in Shetland in March 1937 but it was an unusual sight.
In 1933 landowners and farmers were encouraged to recognise that lamb losses were the exception rather than the rule for raptors. An eyrie under observation noted the food being fed to the Eaglet – Eagles normally lay one or two eggs a season – consisted of mountain hares, a few grouse, a water rat.
The Scottish Society for the Protection of Wild Birds was so concerned about Eagle numbers that in 1947 it offered £10 reward to the owners of land for every Golden Eagle that left the eyrie safely at the end of the breeding season. It also tried to encourage gamekeepers to help re-establish White-tailed Eagles, Ospreys, Kites, Honey Buzzards and other species.
The following year, a very young Adam Watson, the naturalist still on the go in these parts, talked about how egg hunters of mountain species had been successfully tackled through the £10 reward offered for each occupied eyrie.
‘No longer is the Eagle regarded as a menace,’ he said. ‘Gamekeepers have no longer biased opinions about the destruction wrought by these birds. They have been brought to appreciate that the Eagle does not do much harm at all.’
Maybe ayes and maybe nos.
Eagles are reputed to live well over one hundred years – when given the chance. In 1872 a ‘fine specimen of the Golden Eagle’ was captured at Castle Grant, Grantown-on-Spey. It was kept in captivity and died in 1907. 30 years is considered a long time for such a large bird in captivity but I expect it felt like a hundred years to that unfortunate Eagle.
Eagles of course are not game. Precisely what is meant by game cropped up in a court case involving Lady Forbes-Leith of Fyvie Castle in which a farmer was charged with trespass and poaching on her land after being caught shooting rabbits. He claimed his crops were being destroyed by them and as rabbits were not described as game under the Agricultural Holdings Acts he was at liberty to control them. You can imagine on whose side the court’s judgement fell.
Game Laws have been criticised for making property of wild animals. These laws differed in Scotland and England, emerging from different systems of law in each of the separate nations. In England all game was assumed to belong to the monarch and only those granted forest rights were permitted to kill wild animals or birds with hounds and hawks. In Scotland game laws were not tied to the crown but to acts of law; natural rights, as embodied in Roman law. The old Forest Law of Scotland referred only to royal forests but outwith these wild animals could be hunted for food or pelt, with seasonal restrictions. Throughout the early modern period birds of prey were persecuted in Scotland; their nests and eggs destroyed to preserve wild mammals in the forests and muirs. In England, by contrast, the destruction of a hawk’s egg could result in imprisonment for a year and a day, irrespective of who the culprit was.
Trespass – an offence under Roman law was, until the 15th century, in Scotland the only offence in pursuit of wild animals, except in the case of deer.
Over time Game Laws evolved from protection of food supplies to quite the opposite, with wild animals designated as sport rather than food – the principle of property having been applied to them. During the reign of James III game was regarded as property – game then being mainly deer and rabbits or connings as they were known in Scotland (think Coney Island), birds and fish – all could only be taken by licence of the owners of the land on which they roamed, over which they flew and through which they swam. Mind you irrespective of law what happened on a laird’s land, as now in some cases, came down to what could be got away with.
Such was the persecution of some species of birds and wild animals that laws were introduced in an effort to protect them. Under James VI anyone shooting with bow or firearm without the king’s licence, except on official duty, risked the loss of all the offender’s goods – half of which went to the informer, in addition to his usual payment.
We should remember that it is only very recently poor people in this country ate much meat. The average diet, except for the wealthy, was composed of vegetables and grains with occasional meat or fish. But desperate hungry people are potentially dangerous and from the time of James IV the Scottish parliament ordered every landowner to erect a doocot (then dowcat) to provide stocks of pigeons (non-Scots note a doo is a pigeon). Doos were therefore offered some kind of protection and the result was a large increase in their numbers with the inevitable impact on farm crops therefore causing different food shortages and so doocots went out of favour.
Scotland’s roe deer population was severely reduced when James VI ordered that the animal be taken south into England to repopulate the forests there after it had been virtually hunted to extinction. One of his final acts in Scotland was the Game Laws which introduced the ploughgate qualification for killing rights. At the same time the sale of game was prohibited – with a penalty of £100 imposed on both buyer and seller for its contravention. Thereafter game laws grew similar between the two countries, Scotland’s falling in line with England’s.
The old Scottish name for Red Kite is Geld. The late 19th century saw the last breeding Kites before the 1980s programme to reintroduce the species to Scotland.
Red Kites are mainly scavengers, meaning they live off dead animals. They also eat live earthworms, small mammals, amphibians and other birds. They were, and possibly still are, in some quarters regarded as vermin. Their persecution was widespread and still is as witnessed in the killing fields of Conon Bridge and Muir of Ord.
For many of us they became a common sight, magnificently soaring high above Conon Bridge but no more. They’ve been missed from the skies there and the recent shocking discovery of so many deliberately killed Kites exposes that dark underbelly of ignorant mischief associated with some who like to hold themselves up as conservators of the countryside. They are not of course. They are despicable criminals and the law should treat them as such.
In 2012, according to the Scottish raptor study group, only 52 pairs of Kites laid eggs in the Black Isle compared with around 1000 breeding pairs in the south of England from almost equivalent numbers of birds released into these areas.
‘Between 1999 – 2006, an estimated 166 red kites from the Black Isle population were illegally poisoned’.
Clearly what’s been happening with Red Kites and other raptors is not game hunting as the birds are not being killed for sport and certainly not for food but from a misconceived belief they pose a threat to young farm animals, lambs, or birds specially bred on sporting estates destined to be blasted out of the skies for fun.
The Sport of Game is vital to the Scottish Economy
Defenders of this loathsome activity justify it in terms of its tradition but mainly its benefit to the economy. To that end various figures are bandied about which frankly I don’t swallow.
Sporting estates are run by wealthy business types who rarely stay in them year-round but fly in for ‘the season.’ And while headlines warn that the threat of Scotland becoming independent (shouldn’t that be re-introducing independence?) is making businesses prepare to pack up and leave in a veritable flood of biblical proportions it seems nothing will put off canny and loaded potential buyers wanting an acreage or thousands thereof of shooting and fishing rights here.
‘Every self-respecting billionaire should own their own country estate – it’s the ultimate prestige purchase’ according to a piece in The Telegraph in 2011.
While everyone else is scrabbling down the back of the sofa for the last of the loose change in these economically straightened times it’s good to know our billionaires are still shelling out to own large tracts of our country. Grouse moors are particularly attractive or so I’ve read and they often sell privately in deals arranged between friends and acquaintances.
A Fraser of Allander Report on game estates in Scotland in 2010 found they created 705 jobs amounting to £9.7 million in wages and contributed £15.6m to the Scottish economy.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland – if ever there was an organisation named ironically it is surely that one – claims for every 1 direct job in grouse shooting a further 12 jobs are supported realising £15 million in wages and a contribution of £23.3million to the country’s GDP. A case of think of a number , then another number and multiply the two. The Allander Report concluded that for every 1 job on an estate an additional 0.5 of a job was created elsewhere. Which one do you believe?
Permanent employees on estates in 2009 were recorded as 260 , averaging under 3 per estate. A large estate might have twice as many employees. Not high numbers you’ll agree.
Fraser of Allander Institute – An Economic Study of Grouse Moors 2010
The sporting estate lobby likes inflate the figures it bandies around as their contribution to the economy and the national press are usually happy to repeat them without challenge.
So how does the economic importance of gaming estates figure in the Scottish economy?
Gaming Estates £15.6 million and providing 705 jobs
The Scotch whisky industry contributes £4 billion – that’s billion not million – gross value to the economy with £1.1 billion invested locally annually, supporting 35 000 Scottish jobs, with £10 billion exports.
Scotland’s oil and gas industry contributes £22 billion to the Scottish economy and £300 billion in tax receipts 2012/13.
Tourism in Scotland brings in £1.9 billion.
Food and drink £5.4 billion.
Exaggerated claims by sporting estates of their contribution to Scotland’s economy cannot disguise it is negligible and trails a whole raft of other industries besides those listed above.
Mismanagement and criminality
There are far too many incidents of mismanagement and downright criminality occurring on sporting estates. Again and again we are told gamekeepers are not to blame for illegal poisonings and the like. What we do know for sure is whenever someone is convicted of wildlife crime the slap on the wrist they receive from the courts is no deterrent.
Snaring, poisoning, shooting of protected species is an offence to the whole of Scotland. These things don’t happen by accident. A few years back I spotted a trap hidden in a dyke in a relatively lonely spot near Balmoral. I filled up the space with stones. No doubt whoever set the trap would have gone straight back to uncover it.
If you think this is all a fuss over nothing with only a very few offences occurring take a moment to check out the list of estates where alleged wildlife incidents have been reported.
Who owns Scotland?
Run your eyes over a list of some individuals, families, investment companies who own the land under our feet
Unknown Malaysian 1,600,000 acres
Mohammed bin Raschid al Maktoum 270,000 acres
The Duke of Buccleuch with 270,000 acres valued at around £800m to £1bn.
Kjeld Kirk-Christiansen 260,000 acres
Joseph and Lisbet Koerner 175,000 acres
Stanton Avery 135,000 acres
Alcan, Rio Tinto – an Australian company – global leader in the aluminium industry 135, 000 acres
Blair Charitable Trust ie land of the Duke of Atholl 130, 000 acres
Mohammed al Fayed 130,000 acres
Captain Alwyn Farquharson 125.000 acres
Urs Schwarzenburg 125,000 acres
Count Knuth 120,000 acres
Duke of Westminster 120,000 acres
Earl of Seafield 105,000 acres
Mahdi Mohammed al Tajir 105,000 acres
Professor Ian Macneil 100,000 acres
Edmund Vestey 100,000 acres
Lucan Ardenberg 100,000 acres
Eric Delwart 92,000 acres
Sir Donald Cameron 90,000 acres
Countess of Sutherland 90,000 acres
Paul van Vissengen 87,000 acres
Robin Fleming 80,000 acres
Hon Charles Pearson 77,000 acres
Lord Margadale 73,000 acres
The Land Reform Act of 2003
A veritable wailing wall of protests from landed interests and their supporters greeted this legislation. Their warnings were stark:
A red tide is about to sweep Scotland
The socialist hordes are at the gatehouse
The masses are crawling forth from their urban slums and massing on the hillsides
Socialist-style collectivisation of the land
Och if only.
What the Act did was established the right of access to land and provide some rights for crofters and communities to buy the land on which they lived and worked. It is this latter provision that has those who own great chunks of our glens and their obsequious defenders frothing at the mouth. But Lord Folderol has nothing much to worry about. Post-2003 is not so very different from pre-2003.
It does beg the question whose land it is, or rather whose land it should be. Why is it that a few people own so much of it yet so many others live on it, work on it yet don’t own it? Down to luck? ‘My ancestors fought for this land,’ is an oft-repeated remark from a concerned laird to which the obvious reply is, well how about you and me fighting for it now? And I suspect his ancestors were helped by a few other men who weren’t rewarded with the odd thousand acres of glen.
Sometimes a man who owned a stable full of fine steeds didn’t even have to leave his bed to accumulate property far less lug a great sword around. Sometimes it just fell into his lap. I’m sure all estate office have their original deeds proving their right to the land safely stored – oh don’t tell me, they didn’t require these with squatters’ rights.
We don’t have land collectivisation to benefit communities but we do have land accumulation which benefits individuals or investment companies, to our shame. According to Buccleuch Estates, collectivism of the land ‘is not representative of the body-politic of Scotland.’
I think you might find it is.
The SNP have said it plans to double the amount of land under community ownership by 2020. At present some 432 people own half the land in Scotland. I think they have a job on their hands. Scotland needs a fundamental shake up of land holding in the 21st century. Paradoxically criticism of any meaningful alteration to the system of land ownership is labelled as starry-eyed romanticism .
If any side is pushing the romance of Scotland it is surely those clinging determinedly to their heathery acres against the tide of opinion from Scots with their feet planted firmly in the here and now.
As for the argument that protected species and habitats are best protected by these large sporting estates, surely the evidence points the other way? As in previous centuries irrespective of the law, estate owners and their lackeys will do whatever they want or think they can get away with.
Red Kites, Eagles and Buzzards flying over Scotland are part of our heritage. I marvel at the Kites and Buzzards I see soaring over my house and have no wish to kill them. But then I don’t hold the title deeds to a vast estate where wild animals are regarded as a marketing product and raptors a threat (however misconceived) to its income. What if a few (or many) illegally shot or poisoned Kites, Eagles and Buzzards – and any other creature that happens upon the poison bait have to be sacrificed? People will forget and life will carry on as normal – Game Laws, Land Reform Acts won’t fundamentally impact on the division and purpose of our land. Toothless courts will not deter these people.
We, the hoi polloi, are constantly being reminded by the gaming estates mafia that land ownership is in fact often a ‘burden and a liability’ so let us , sir or madam, relieve you of that burden.