From early in my life I have been a licensed game dealer and so I have got to know the game industry from the inside. Game keepers have always, to my experience, been extremely proud of their job, their land and their connections to the natural world. They tend to look down at city dwellers with not exactly contempt but certainly a lack of empathy. Over the last few months we have seen a concerted attack both by the RSPB and SNH over the issue of poisoning of raptors on grouse moors. Grouse shooting is again big business and keepers jobs are on the line. If a group of hen harriers clear a grouse moor it will become un-economic to operate and the keepers will loose their jobs. Under these circumstances there are some keepers that will be put under pressure to reduce the predation of the grouse and to a tight time schedule. With a family to feed it may be seen by some as the only option is to resort to poisoning to reduce the raptor population.
Where I have an issue with RSPB and SNH is the scale that they allege is taking place. The majority of keepers and factors that I know, as well as estate owners, are extremely protective of their birds of prey. Clients out on the hill get great pleasure from seeing them. You may not get a shot at your deer but if you have sat and watched a Golden Eagle soaring above you it has made the day. Do not think that I am an apologist for poisoning or trapping. I abhor it and love to see the kites, buzzards, hen harriers and an occasional eagle on my hills. What I do question is the one stop shop of blame adopted at the moment.
I had on my desk the other day the map that was printed in the paper showing areas where raptors have declined and at the same time a SNH map of proposed and built wind farm sites in Scotland. Laying one over the other there was an obvious correlation in the two. We have two separate issues here. One is the Environmental Statements produced as part of the Scoping report required of all wind farms and the second is the actual attrition of the turbines once operating. Dealing with Environmental Statements first, we have seen a raft of different reports written by consultants that are very different to the experience of local people. Sigrid Rausin has records of Golden Eagles on the Coignafearn Estate in the Mondhliaths and her ecologist has seen Eagles many times on the Dumnaglass estate, but the Environmental Statement for that site was dismissive. The Energy Consents Unit in Glasgow chose to believe the Consultant who had visited the site on a very few occasions in preference to the local knowledge. Radio tagging of a young Eagle, Cullen, has proved that the report was flawed. Essentially the Race for Wind means that the needs of complying with the Climate Change Act over-rides all other issues. The Consultants are paid by the Developers and the whole exercise is to gain approval. Are the Consultants disingenuous or are they mislead.
At another wind farm site to the North of Inverness, we are aware of a great deal of shooting that took place the day before the Ecological Consultant came to do his surveys. At one time it was so bad that the police were called. The owners put it down to a clay shoot. Not at that ferocity. I am making no suggestion that they were killing birds to reduce numbers but it may have been a form of displacement. Surprisingly (?) the report says that there are few birds in the area.
On another Moray estate that is planning a large wind farm, there have been several instances of poisoning. Those land owners most likely to encourage large wind farms tend to be absentee landlords. They may also be the ones operating large grouse moors. Now we should consider the paradox. If a keeper is caught poisoning birds of prey, he will be sacked. This regardless of whose orders he may have been obeying. His chances of employment will be limited as his presence will attract the attentions of RSPB and the police. There is little profit in it for him. A wind farm is worth millions to the land owner and hundreds of millions to the developer. Most developers are from Germany, Spain and Italy. None of these countries have a particularly good track record in wild life preservation. Raptors and endangered species have stopped developments in their tracks. It is easier to remove the problem, either by eradication or displacement. At Druim Ba it has been suggested that a Slavovian Grebe can be persuaded to move to a new nesting site using an undisclosed and untried methodology. Perhaps they are planning to provide the new nest with wide screen TV and Bill Oddie tapes. Experience has sadly shown us that the Glasgow based Energy Consents will probably accept that without question. My research suggests that the Slavovian Grebe may return to a nest site from which it has been displaced over a time span of four years.
Now we must look at attrition from established wind farms. At Fairburn we are aware of a kite that was killed. Unfortunately for the operators it was electronically tagged. Wind farms are not required to notify authorities of bird deaths and have never been prosecuted. This despite the 2004 Act that could well decide that the construction of a wind turbine that was likely to kill birds was contrary to that law. We have detailed records of Altamont Pass in the United States where 570 to 850 raptors are killed each year, Klickitat’s where 49 raptors will killed in its first year of operation, at Navarra in Spain with 432 raptors` and Smola in Norway, 4 white tailed eagles with 30 unaccounted for, that concludes that attrition of raptors is a serious issue.
Dr. Mark Avery, Conservation Officer for the RSPB stated that this “may only be the tip of the Iceberg”. The problem is to an extent that wind turbines and raptors enjoy the same conditions. Wind rising on the side of a hill creating ideal soaring conditions. Also ideal for wind turbines. It might be conjectured that deaths of bats and small birds produce a feeding table below that turbines and with blade tips travelling at 200mph and the vortices that they create which tend to tumble birds you have a recipe for disaster. Graham Martin of Birmingham University states that raptors eyes are designed to look down to see their prey. They are not designed to see turbine blades straight ahead. So we have a situation that Environmental Statements often term birds deaths as at an acceptable level(?) and thereafter deny any birds are killed; unless they are radio tagged; or anecdotal evidence that suggests that since a wind farm has started to operated there are less raptors around.
Consultants write long statements about mitigation. Unfortunately, Raptors don’t read. In my present position, we regularly had between four and six raptors soaring above our hill. Since Fairburn was built this has declined to the occasional one. Poisoning, displacement or attrition? It should be noted that SNH has approved the Glenaffric/Strathconon protected area for Golden Eagles. At the same time Corriemollie wind farm has been approved, Lochuilhart and now possible extention are to be built and a whole raft of wind farms around Loch Ness from Druim Ba(proposed) Balnmacaan(proposed), Dumnaglass(approved) Stronlairg(proposed), Glenmoriston(built).
From tracking records of the Eagle Cullen, it is fairly obvious that these birds do not keep to protected areas and the attrition will only increase. Acceptable kill rates of three or four a year at each wind farm is actually totally unacceptable with the limited population of raptors in the Highlands. These Turbines will surely knock them out of the sky at a rate far higher than they will breed. In other parts of the world they are not called Bird Blenders for nothing.
Is the attrition far higher than admitted by wind farm operators. No one really knows but as they continue to expand across Scotland at an alarming rate it would not be to the developers to admit higher mortality.
The two cartoons from the US make their own conclusions. Certainly it is a fact that wind turbines kill birds. At a Primary School in Southwell, Portland, things have got so bad that it has been turned off. The Headteacher, Stuart Mcleod, stated “ We were told by the manufacturer to expect maybe one fatality a year but it killed 14 in six months so we took advice and made the decision to turn it off”. Again we may have anecdotal evidence but no factual proof. No one from the operators is going to put their jobs in jeopardy. So I might suggest that a more open debate is allowed. RSPB have toes in both camps, selling green electricity and supporting government targets. SNH is likewise caught between its Climate Change credentials and protecting the land. I am afraid that all too often both organisations side with the Renewable Industry and the Government Targets and forget what their prime roles are.